Nature of Acting in Classical Greek Theatre

 Acting in classical theatre was highly stylized. Speeches were rendered in a declamatory manner. This was essentially because theatre was an open door affair, and the audience was quite large in number. The nature of the performance environment placed considerable task on the voice. According to Oscar G. Brockett, the Greeks “judged actors above all by the beauty of vocal tone and ability to adapt to manner of speaking to mood and character”. Since voice projection was in high demand, adequate voice training and exercises were taken seriously. Acting departed from realism, and tended towards exaggeration because of the problem of visibility. There were too many people in the audience. Hence many realistic movements, gestures and mannerism might not reach them. Even the body and height of actors were enhanced by padding and wearing of high-heeled shoes and artificial hair do. Anthropologists and theater historians trace the origins of theater to myth and ritual found in dances and mimed performances by masked dancers during fertility rites and other ceremonies that marked important passages in life. Early societies acted out patterns of life, death, and rebirth associated with the welfare of village tribes. Imitation, costumes, masks, makeup, gesture, dance, music, and pantomime were some of the theatrical elements found in early rituals. At some unrecorded time, these ceremonies and rituals became formalized in dramatic festivals and spread west from Greece and east from India.

In addition to the actor and the audience in a space, other elements of theater include a written or improvised text, costumes, scenery, lights, sound, and properties (props). Most theatrical performances require the collaborative efforts of many creative people working toward a common goal: the production. Masks and costumes played fundamental roles in classical Greek theatre. The masks were not designed for purposes of achieving realism; rather they were employed to achieve symbolic effect. Though masks might carry nuances of emotion, they were conventionalized in use. Tragic masks were horrifying while comic masks exaggerated the attributes of the characters they represent. Masks for the chorus represented animals and birds. Apart from the conventionalized use of masks, they were equally designed to help enhance the height of actors in order to make them visible to the audience, as well as to enable actors change roles and also to play female roles, since actresses were not permitted on Greek stage. Costumes worn by actors were modified contemporary Athenian dresses. Tragic actors wore beautiful garments which represented the aristocratic tendency of tragedy. However, in bitter situations, tragic characters wore torn dresses. We observed this from the statements of actors in some of the plays of Sophocles and Euripides. According to Oscar Brockett: In addition to the tunic (chiton) both actors and chorus might wear a short cloak (chlamys or a long one (himation). The identity of both actors and chorus might-be established in part by symbolic properties: the king by his scepter, the warrior by his spear, the suppliant by his branch, the herald by his wreath, and so on.

Apart from the masks and the costumes, tragic actors also wore high heeled thick booths called kothornoi and an exaggerated hair known asonkus. The purpose of these was to enhance the actors’ height for easy visibility.

Comic actors wore the dresses of the lowborn and these costumes were made funny by having them ill-fitted, too short and very tight. The essence was to emphasize comic nudity, as Brockett would say. Sexual attributes were equally emphasized through costumes. For example, male characters, excluding the chorus wore phalluses to emphasize the fertility aim of the dionysiac festival.

The chorus played significant roles in the classical Greek theatre. It was made of Athenian men who stood on the stage commenting on incidents and characters, as well as dancing and singing in between episodes. Originally, the chorus was said to be fifty in number, but with the introduction of several characters, the number appeared to have been reduced to twelve. In fact, as time went by, the position of the chorus appeared to be crippled. They in fact, were non-existent in some plays of Euripides.

In spite of the fate of the chorus in the 4th Century B.C., it played dominant roles in the Greek theatre of the 5th Century B.C. The chorus performed the following functions: In some plays, it supplied ethical and social background. It played this role in Oedipus The King by Sophocles, and in The Oresteian Triology by Aeschylus.
Sometimes the chorus played the role of characters in plays, giving advice, expressing opinion etc.
·       The chorus helped to create mood
·       It equally helped to create rhythm and pause to enable the audience to reflect on what has been presented.
·       The chorus equally served as idea spectators, reacting to the play in the manner the audience would have reacted
·       The chorus equally coloured performances with songs and dances.
·       This helped to heighten dramatic effect.
·       The Greeks had great interest in dance, and would not tolerate any shoddy performance of it. Consequently, choruses were assigned to playwrights 11 months before the actual performance. Training of the chorus was quite protracted and arduous.

Many conventions marked the practice of theatre in the classical Greek period. These conventions are as follows:
·       Because of the sacred nature of the festival of Dionysus, women were never allowed to mount the Greek stage.
·       As a result of the foregoing, roles written for women were played by young men, who disguised themselves by wearing masks and feminine dresses.
·       Violent actions, such as killing, stabbing, and death, all took place backstage. Victims of such violence were revealed on stage to the spectators by means of a device called ekkyklema.
·       Subject matters of plays were drawn from history and popular myths.
·       As a result of this, plays had late point of attack. This means that plots of plays began not from the beginning of the story that informed plays, but always from the crisis point.
·       Only three actors were permitted on stage to perform at once.
·       All actors, including the chorus wore masks.

Theatre going during the classical Greek period was a matter of civic obligation. Since City Dionysia was the greatest Athenian festival, public holidays were declared for the six days the festival lasted. As a result of this, every healthy Athenian citizen, man, woman, girl, boy or slave was expected to attend the theatre. According to Luis Vargas,  a theatergoer in those days would be prepared to spend the whole day in the theatre. If he were wise, he would bring some food and wine with him, and join the hurrying crowd of fellow Athenians and visitors at dawn, anxious to secure the best seat possible. The above statement implies that the Athenian theatergoer regarded theatre going with much enthusiasm, as there were no cinema halls, nor Magazines or videos to compete for attention. They expressed their feeling about performances and actors overtly and spontaneously. They catcalled and booed bad actors, as well as applauded wonderful performers. Due to the fact that they held their gods in high esteem, they attacked playwrights such as Euripides who attempted to present their gods in bad light. The dramatists were looked upon as ministers of religion during the classical Greek times. They played significant role in moulding the “national mind and character”. Because of this sacred role played by thetheatre, the city-state catered for the financial requirements of play productions. Playwrights who wanted their plays to be produced were required to apply to the state magistrate known as the archon for approval and for the assignment of the chorus and the chorogus who would bear the financial responsibility of training and maintaining the chorus. The chorogoi were wealthy men who acted as financial benefactors to productions. According to Vargas, “they are the classical equivalent of ‘Angels’ who back plays today on Broadway or Shaftesbury”. Generous choragi lavished their money on the chorus. This enabled them to earn more respect among the people. The state paid the actors and the winning playwrights out of the public funds. Dramatic contests were very keen and highly competitive. Judge selected by the state awarded prizes. In the competition, each playwright was required to submit four plays, three tragic plays and one satyr.

Ardhendu De


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