All entries for Friday 22 October 2004

October 22, 2004


Using Roman Wall Paintings (frescos) as 'Evidence' for Traditions of Staging in Greece.
These Roman frescos from Pompei were preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. around 500 years after the plays of Aeschyus, Euripides and Sophocles were first staged in Athens. They depict myths that were the subject of 5th-century Athenian tragedy, and that continued to be represented on the Roman stage, both in revivals of Greek plays, and in later plays written in Latin.

1. Consider the depictions of mythological scenes:

i What are the main similarities and main differences between the way in which the death of Pentheus is depicted in this fresco and in Euripides' Bakkhai? (Use an online text of the Bakkhai if you do not have your copy to hand.)

In some ways the image is similar to the depiction of Pentheus' death in The Bakkhai, as the image shows the character being dismembered by a group of women wearing vine leaves in their hair and carrying the thrysuses of Dionysos. However, in the play Pentheus is murdered by his mother alone and ripped savagely into many pieces, whilst in the above fresco he is being over powered by a number of women.

ii. Compare and contrast the way in which the death of Iphigenia is depicted in this fresco with how it is recounted in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, and/or in Euripdes' play Iphigenia at Aulis.

Aeschylus suggests in his play Agamemnon that Iphigenia was killed as a sacrifice in front of the fleets setting off for Troy and then strung from the masts of one of the ships. The above fresco also shows the princess being taken as a sacrifice, but it does not show the public nature of her death or give any indication of a ship or the beach on which she was meant to have died.

iii. Why do you think the similarities and differences which you have identified may exist?

Playwrights in this period may have tried to create dramatic impact with more horrific accounts of these characeters' deaths. Also, the images on the frescos would have been designed to be aesthetically pleasing, whilst the depictions of death in plays would have been designed to be realistic.

iv. On reviewing your responses to the above questions, how useful do you find these Roman frescos to be as evidence for traditions of tragic performance in 5th-century Athens?

In some ways the frescos are useful, as they depict the myths that tragic plays were based on. However, the images to not give evidence of contemporary tragic performance styles; such as the use of masks and energetic dancing.

2. Examine this mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompei.

i. What different types of masks can you see?
There are five different masks in the picture, one of which is framed with vine leaves to depict the God Dionysos. The other masks appear to depict other tragic characters.

ii. What do you think is going on in this scene?

The characters in the image appear to be performing a tragedy or preparing for a performance.

3. Look at the masks in these frescos depicting actors, and those in the Pronomos Vase.

i. What differences can you discern between the 'tragic' masks depicted in the frescos and the vase?

The tragic masks depicted in the frescos are less life like than those in the vase. The artist responsible for the frescos has emphasized the wooden nature of the masks and the dimensions of the faces are disproportionate; the noses appearing much too large for the rest of the face. However, the masks in the pronomous vase are of a lighter, skin colour and appear to have real hair and eyes etc.

ii. Why might the masks be different?

The frescos would have been designed by roman painters after ancient greek plays had been absorbed into their culture, and as a result, knowledge of the detail used in greek masks would have been lost. Also, as the pronomous vase was designed as a celbration of the theatre for the Dionysos festival one year, the artist responsible would have taken pains to make the representation of the masks as complimentary and life like as possible.

iii. Why do you think the ancient artists (and viewers) might have been so interested in depictions of actors and masks?

Theatre was central to ancient greek culture as it was a way of teaching citizens about contemporary issues as well as an important social event. The masks worn by actors in this period were closely linked with helmets and battle; another preoccupation of ancient greek culture.

4. Consider this painting from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii.

i. Is it similar or different in subject to the vases considered in Q.3 above?

The above painting features theatrical masks like the other frescos we have looked at, but the facial expressions on the masks are much more detailed, exploring the sorts of emotions that contemprary playwrights wished to invoke in their audiences.

ii. What do you think the purpose of such paintings might have been?

Such paintings may have been designed to chronicle and celebrate contemporary theatrical conventions.

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