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III. Actors and Acting in Ancient Greece
Thus, Euripides’ Orestes ends with what has to be one of most breath-taking scenes in all of Greek theatre, employing every resource the Theatre of Dionysus in the Classical Age had to offer—certainly, it is hard to imagine a tragedian of this era calling for much else—still, hard as it may be to believe, Euripides has more up his sleeve than this tragedic traffic-jam. To understand what that is, one must take into account the full dynamics of Greek performance. What modern audiences overlook, though ancient audiences would not have, is that there is one speaking character, or set of characters, on each level of the stage, from top to bottom: Apollo (mechane), Orestes (roof of the skene), Menelaus (stage) and the chorus (orchestra).
This demonstrates another important facet of the classical Greek theatre. Besides the chorus, only three actors performed all the speaking roles in tragedies produced at the Dionysia, although the authorities who oversaw these celebrations of Dionysus allowed on stage any number of mute actors. These non-speaking parts were probably played by young actors-in-training whose voices were not as yet fully matured and could not project well enough to be heard throughout the enormous arenas encompassed by classical theatres.
But all known tragedies include more than three speaking characters, which means actors must have taken more than one role in a play. While on the modern stage multiple-role-playing may sometimes entail difficulties—audiences today who sit relatively close to the stage will naturally expect a high level of realism which may be all but impossible for the actor playing more than one role to effect—the same was not true in ancient Greece. Role-changing was perfectly practicable on the Athenian stage, not only because the majority of the viewers sat some distance from the stage but, more important, because the actors wore masks and costumes facilitating their ability to play different parts. That is to say, within the scope of a single tragedy, an actor might portray as many as five different characters, sometimes very different ones, with relative ease since altering his façade through a change of mask and costume was a traditional element in Greek theatre.
Indeed, extant dramas prove that the ancient Greek actor was expected to be able to impersonate the full range of humanity, from young girls to old men, by adapting his voice and mannerisms, much as is still done in various types of Asian theatre. And, as in some performance genres found there, men played all parts, male and female . As a result, the art of ancient acting centered around a performer’s flexibility carrried out with the help of the masks and costumes which hid his own face and form from the audience’s view.
Furthermore, it is clear that three actors portrayed all the roles in any classical drama, a tendency today called the “three-actor rule.” That this was, in fact, a restriction scrupulously enforced at the Dionysia is also certain, and not just because later historical sources like Aristotle allude to it, but because the surviving dramas of this period show this rule in action. In other words, the plays constitute “primary” evidence that three actors at most performed all the speaking roles in classical tragedy and satyr plays, for the simple reason that all such drama—even the surviving fragments!—require no more than three speaking characters on stage at once.
In addition, two other features of classical drama make it clear that there were only three actors playing all the roles. First, no extant tragedy staged before the end of the Peloponnesian War requires actors to share a part. That is, ancient Greek playwrights disposed the action in their dramas such that the characters assigned to any particular actor never converse on stage. That is, if one actor plays both Electra and Menelaus, those particular characters never meet and speak together in front of the audience. Second, the Greek tragedians invariably give actors a certain period of time off stage (usually the interval covered by about fifty lines of dialogue) to make mask and costume changes. That comfort margin, so to speak, along with the other aspects of Greek tragedy mentioned above seal the case for the “three-actor rule.”
Less clear is why there were only three actors. Presumably, having performers play more than one role was a traditional component of the Greek theatre, perhaps from the very inception of Greek drama when there was but one actor and a chorus. Thus, ancient audiences, no doubt, expected a certain amount of multiple-role-playing in a drama. But the reason the evolution in the number of actors stopped at three is a question for which there will probably never be a fully satisfactory answer, nor must there be only one reason for this rule. One credible explanation which almost assuredly had some force in the creation and maintenance of this restriction involves the religious element in ancient theatre, whose conservatism surely resisted change on all fronts including adding more and more actors to the stage. Equally compelling is, no doubt, the jealousy of premier performers in competition with one another for a prestigious honor at the Dionysia during the later half of the Classical Age. This must also have encouraged holding the numbers of speaking performers down. Envy among rival actors is one of the few reliable constants in the world of entertainment.
B. Voices on Stage: Dialogue and Trialogue
Whatever the reason, the three-actor rule is visible at work in the tragedies of all three playwrights, even the earliest, Aeschylus. Although he rarely has all three speaking actors on stage at once, he does so often enough—in his later tragedies, at least—that it seems likely he regularly had three actors at his disposal, or two if he himself is counted as one of the performers himself . It is interesting to note, then, that his characters never engage in a trialogue—that is, all three actors conversing in a scene—even when there are three speaking actors on stage. So, for instance, during the confrontation between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the actors portraying these two characters speak to each other. Though another actor is on stage dressed as Cassandra (Agamemnon’s Trojan concubine and prisoner-of-war), that actor says not a word during this scene. Rather, he remains on stage silent for a long time and only finally speaks two scenes later. Thus, in the scene where Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have their dialogue, Aeschylus does, in fact, put three speaking actors together on stage, even if they do not all join in the same conversation and engage in a trialogue.
Why doesn’t Aeschylus have all three actors speak together in that or any scene? Close examination of the nature of Attic theatre and the ramifications of its conventions pertaining to performance provides several good reasons for this. First and foremost, it is important to remember drama was a new art form in Aeschylus’ day. It had most likely grown from a one-man show with a chorus as back-up—in the earliest recorded stages of tragedy, there is no mention of actors, only a playwright and a chorus, which supports the supposition that playwrights originally performed all the speaking character parts—to a two-performer and then a three-performer arena. From our perspective, this transition seems simple but in the day a play with so many actors on stage at the same time must have looked like a three-ring circus, especially to an audience accustomed to having only one “voice” present all the characters in a story, the way Homer and all epic poets did.
As a result, a conservative approach to dialogue is visible in Aeschylus’ plays where, any time two characters have a dialogue, the situation is always carefully managed. For instance, the action leading up to a dialogue in an Aeschylean drama tends to proceed in the following manner: each of the speaking characters is brought in separately, they deliver discrete monologues (often punctuated by choral interjections), and only after some time do they at last exchange words back and forth. This cautious approach, as the playwright makes sure that the audience has heard both the actors’ voices and understands the two characters’ distinct points of view, confirms that in the early Classical Age the audience required some preparation before a conversation could take place on stage.
Historically, this makes sense as well. If we can believe Aristotle who claims the second actor was the invention of Aeschylus, dialogue of this sort did not exist until the 490’s BCE at the earliest. Seen that way, playwrights in the earliest phases of Greek drama would have resembled the epic poets who dominated public performance in the Pre-Classical Age, except that these playwright-bards had a chorus behind them and dressed to fit the roles they were impersonating instead of merely narrating what happened or was said. Epic poets, after all, could not have performed dialogue the way it was done in tragedy since only one of them performed at a time. Nor could playwrights in the earliest phase of tragedy, until the day Aeschylus introduced the second performer and the first actor-to-actor dialogue.
Yet to have the capability of doing something in the theatre is one thing and to carry it off on stage is another. The audience must be able to follow what transpires on the stage and enjoy it, or what is the point? The glaring realism of a stage dialogue surely appeared quite startling to Aeschylus’ audience, accustomed as they were to a solo poet supplying all the individual characters’ voices in a performance. To have a pair of men doing this would have looked to an ancient audience like there were two epic poets performing at once, a wonderful notion but also a situation fraught with the possibility of confusing audience members about what exactly was unfolding before their eyes. That explains why Aeschylus is invariably circumspect in approaching dialogue. He must be careful not to lose his audience in the course of the performance, for instance, by having two characters walk on stage speaking in rapid exchange, something which would almost certainly have over-taxed his audience’s ability to follow what was being said on stage and by whom.
Another aspect of tragic discourse supports the view that the spectators of early Greek theatre needed help in following any discourse significantly more complex than a simple exchange of speeches. As poetry, the rhythms of dialogue in tragedy were somewhat predictable to the audience, especially if changes of speaker occurred at breaks in the poetic meter, the way, in fact, they regularly do in classical tragedy. That is, typically one character speaks a single full line of meter, and the other says the next and then the first another and so on, in a type of interchange called stichomythy (in Greek, stichomythia, “line-talking”). This clear and predictable pattern of exchanges of dialogue line by line helped the ancient audience understand which character was talking at any given moment, because they knew in advance when one character would stop speaking and the next one would begin.
Stichomythy is also a natural product of the venue in which it played. The size of the theatres in which Greek dramas were presented put most spectators some distance from the action—add to that the fact that the actors were wearing masks so that, even if seated close to the stage, viewers could not see the performers’ lips moving—thus it’s easy to understand the need for such a stylized conversation device as stichomythy. Careful preparation before a dialogue and a predictable exchange of words would have greatly improved the audience’s ability to follow a conversation on stage, especially when presented with masked actors who were playing in an immense arena. Given all that, most spectators would have benefitted greatly from any help determining which character was talking at each particular moment.
And then, to have yet a third speaker enter the conversation would, no doubt, make the situation all but hopelessly hard to follow, certainly for an audience as new to drama as Aeschylus’. It says something for their heirs that only a generation later Sophocles’ audience was apparently able to follow a trialogue. That, however, may have had as much to do with the growing talents of the performers who helped viewers grasp which character was speaking—actors with distinctive voices would have facilitated the process greatly—as with the ancient Greek audience’s increasing sophistication in following theatrical conventions. Moreover, the growing general interest in theatre surely also stimulated both actors and their public to look for ways of getting around these obstacles.
Playwrights, too, may not have entirely deplored the limits imposed on them by this situation. Aeschylus’ plays, for instance, show more than just a mastery of this technical aspect of his medium. Clearly he also had fun in the process of creating drama which used a restricted number of actors—close examination of his plays suggests he may even have liked it!—because in the aforementioned sequence of scenes that include the confrontation between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, it appears that Aeschylus is playing with his audience’s expectations about how many speaking actors are on stage, indeed taunting them with the very possibility of a “third” speaking actor, which was perhaps a novelty in that day.
In particular, he toys with his audience as to whether or not Cassandra will speak. At first, in the Agamemnon-Clytemnestra confrontation, her first appearance on stage, Cassandra does not say a word. Nor does she again in the next scene, when Clytemnestra attempts to speak with her one-on-one. Although Cassandra’s silence is well-motivated by the plot—she is a prophetess and sees what is going to happen, that Clytemnestra is about to kill both her and Agamemnon!—her muteness plays on another level also. What Aeschylus appears to be doing, as Cassandra refuses to speak first in one scene and then again in the next, is baiting the audience into supposing that Cassandra is not being played by a speaking actor but only a mute. After such a prolonged silence and her pointed refusal to converse with Clytemnestra, many of those in Aeschylus’ audience would, no doubt, have arrived at the conclusion she will never speak in this play because the role is not being played by a speaking actor.
But then just as this appears to be the case, Aeschylus has her at long last break into speech—actually song!—followed by an extended and moving scene on stage between her and the chorus. It is tempting to suppose some great actor-singer of the day has been hiding behind the mask and costume of Cassandra so that this character’s long-delayed eruption into song is Aeschylus’ ploy with which to surprise and dazzle the crowd.
This goes some way toward explaining the meaning of the verbless sentence in Aristotle’s Poetics (4) that Sophocles, not Aeschylus, introduced the “third” actor to tragedy. If we assume, as noted above, that in glancing over Aeschylus’ plays Aristotle saw that there were no overt trialogues and from that concluded Aeschylus did not use three actors, then it is easy to surmise he has failed to envision fully the action of Aeschylus’ drama theatrically and has overlooked the presence of temporarily silent “speaking actors,” a very different thing from true “mute actors” who portray characters that never speak on stage.
A detail found in an ancient biography of Sophocles may further corroborate the assertion that Aristotle has failed to assess the data correctly. Though replete with spurious assertions, this purported account of the great tragedian’s life includes what seems to be at least one detail validated from other quarters. It suggests that the great tragedian did not act in his own plays because he suffered from microphonia(“small-voicedness”). Other sources, both documentary and artistic, support this general idea. For instance, Aristotle tells us that, when Sophocles acted in his own plays, he played only minor roles such as a lyre player, which makes sense if the playwright lacked a voice powerful enough to perform the great and demanding roles written for the Greek stage. In further support of Aristotle’s assertion, we are also told that a famous painting in antiquity showed Sophocles playing the lyre. With such corroborating evidence there is some basis, then, for believing the biographical record is accurate about his microphonia. If so, it becomes easier to understand why Aristotle might credit Sophocles with introducing a third actor to the Greek stage, since in those days a man with a weak actor’s voice—though it is hard to imagine anyone having a stronger playwright’s voice!—would have to do something to compensate for such a fundamental deficiency.
So, if by “third actor” Aristotle means “third non-playwright performer,” then his words can be seen as technically correct. Indeed Sophocles, because of his microphonia, may have been the first to bring a “third” actor on the stage, but that does not mean he inaugurated the tradition of having three speaking characters on stage at the same time. That, in fact, was Aeschylus’ invention. Seen this way, the dramatic evidence can be brought into line with Aristotle’s statement which is now valid, if needlessly terse and uncharacteristically confusing.
But there’s more to Sophocles’ situation than counting actors. In surrendering the stage entirely to “actors,” i.e. men who performed words which others had written, he became the earliest known “modern” playwright, in the sense that he is the first dramatist we know of who watched his own plays from the theatron. This, in turn, goes some way toward explaining another feature of his drama, his eye for creating complex, multi-layered action on stage where silent or minor characters play important roles. This is surely the product of his being a script-writer who sat with the audience taking in the show like any other ticket-holder. That is, in imagining a play he watched it the way a spectator would, not from inside a mask as Aeschylus and all his predecessors had. So, if not an innovator in the actors’ arena, Sophocles deserves credit for seeing drama from the audience’s vantage point to which the compelling complexity of his stage action attests, where irony and characters in the background often comment on what’s happening front and center, and sometimes even upstage it.
By the middle of the century, actors were installed as a fixture in the Athenian theatre. At some point in the 440’s BCE they started receiving their own awards at the Dionysia, a clear recognition of their growing role in theatre. That this began shortly after Sophocles separated playwriting and acting should come as no surprise. No longer the subordinates of a playwright who hired them so he could have a dialogue partner, actors were becoming their own independent artists, much as they are today, and without the playwright to outshine them on stage their prestige ballooned. Indeed, by the fourth century the best-known names in theatre, stars like Polos and Neoptolemos, belonged not to playwrights but actors.
Around that time, the theatre which has never been without its caste systems evolved a hierarchy of performers. Later—perhaps much later since we do not know the date—separate words were coined referring to the three different actors: protagonist, deuteragonist and tritagonist, meaning respectively “first competitor,” “second competitor” and “third competitor.” In post-classical Greece, these terms came to carry connotations of quality, too. So, for instance, tritagonist could imply “third-rate.” But it is not clear if any of this was true in the Classical Age. Even so, we know that the discrimination among these performers goes back well into the fifth century BCE because, from the very outset of awarding actors a prize at the Dionysia, only the principal actor was granted an award, not his co-performers.
Finally, this attests to something else very important about the evolution of acting in the classical theatre. The fifth-century audience must have been able to distinguish different actors on stage even when those performers were wearing a mask on stage. In order to be able to recognize the work of an individual actor—and only him, not his colleagues!—his public had to have had the ability to follow him through his roles in drama. Furthermore, some classical actors were famous and well-known by name. If audiences could not distinguish them as they played a series of roles on stage, how could they come to respect and admire them? It could not have been by face or figure, the way modern actors are most often recognized, because an ancient actor’s features were not visible on stage. Instead, the voice must have been the actor’s principal tool, an absolute necessity in his artistic arsenal, so it must have been through their distinctive and powerful voices that Greek actors made their mark on the world, more like today’s opera singers than movie stars.
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BY MARKUS DAMEN