Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy: From Ancient Festival to Modern Experimentation

Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy: From Ancient Festival to Modern Experimentation

5.0 1
by David Wiles

View All Available Formats & Editions

Why did Greek actors in the age of Sophocles always wear masks? David Wiles provides the first book-length study of this question. He surveys the evidence of vases and other monuments, arguing that they portray masks as part of a process of transformation, and that masks were never seen in the fifth century as autonomous objects. Wiles goes on to examine experiments


Why did Greek actors in the age of Sophocles always wear masks? David Wiles provides the first book-length study of this question. He surveys the evidence of vases and other monuments, arguing that they portray masks as part of a process of transformation, and that masks were never seen in the fifth century as autonomous objects. Wiles goes on to examine experiments with the mask in twentieth-century theatre, tracing a tension between the use of masks for possession and for alienation, and he identifies a preference among modern classical scholars for alienation. Wiles declines to distinguish the political aims of Greek tragedy from its religious aims, and concludes that an understanding of the mask allows us to see how Greek acting was simultaneously text-centred and body-centred. This book challenges orthodox views about how theatre relates to ritual, and provides insight into the creative work of the actor.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
'This is one of the most important books on Greek drama to appear in the last twenty years.' Journal of Hellenic Studies

Product Details

Cambridge University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
7.40(w) x 9.60(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy
Cambridge University Press
9780521865227 - Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy - From Ancient Festival to Modern Experimentation - by david wiles

1     Introduction

I have no choice but to employ the word ‘mask’ in the title of this book, yet that word already carries embedded within it an unsatisfactory interpretation of my subject. In English, to ‘mask’ something is to hide the reality. Yet when fifth-century Greeks spoke of masks, they had only the word prosōpon, the regular term for ‘face’. This in turn is derived from the preposition pros (‘before’) joined to ops, a noun related to words for seeing and the eye. ‘Before the gaze . . .’ yet the gaze in question might equally belong to me the seer or you the seen. Slippage from seer to seen was easy in a classical world where I am coincides with who I am seen to be.1 Later Greeks coined the word prosōpeion to separate false faces from real ones, but no such distinction was made in the age of Sophocles, when donning a face was no negative act of concealment but a positive act of becoming.2 Roman terminology is a step less remote from ours. The Latin term for a theatre mask, persona, was not the same as vultus, ‘face’, and it gave birth to handy modern terms like‘personality’, the front that we present to the world.3 This brief journey through semantics reveals something of how other people once saw the world. If my overt topic, ‘mask and performance in Greek tragedy’, were redefined as ‘fore-gaze and mimesis in goat-song at the Dionysia’, we would enter a less secure cognitive domain, but might have more chance of intuiting what it is to inhabit another culture.

   Greek theatre masks were made of light perishable materials, and have not survived. Yet even if, by good fortune, a set of masks were available to us, housed in a glass case in the British Museum, we should still be a long way from understanding how different those masks looked on the body of a mobile actor, trained in an unfamiliar tradition. We would still be at a loss to know why ancient Greeks chose to place such apparently constraining objects over their heads. When tragedies are staged today at Epidaurus, there is no call to wear masks under the powerful stage lights. Masks would seem an aesthetic intrusion, either archaeological pedantry, or the pretension of an avant-garde director. Why then did the Greeks find it necessary to wear ‘masks’? The best way of answering will be to turn the question around: why is it necessary for us not to wear masks in our theatre?

   This book stands at the nexus of four major debates. The first concerns the disputed ownership of ‘Greek tragedy’, a piece of academic turf which classical philologists (often reinvigorated by ‘Critical Theory’) and theatre historians (often set in their ways) jostle to claim for their own. Though it is self-evident that each contingent benefits from the other’s help, there is a point of principle at stake: is a Greek tragedy essentially a text that happens to have been performed, or are the words a mere component in a historical, participatory, acoustico-visual event, such that a reading of the text which marginalises performance distorts its historicity? My own allegiance will be obvious. I have attempted in this book to recover some sense of the lost festive event, so the text can be more readily imagined in its performative context.

   The second debate concerns the actor within Greek tragedy. The recurrent question of whether actors are in constant conscious control of their craft, or whether they are, in the best cases, somehow possessed by their part, seems particularly pressing in respect of Greek tragedy with its potent mix of formalism and emotionality, of political speech-making and divine intervention. The conclusions which I once reached about New Comedy are not the same as those to which I come in respect of fifth-century tragedy.4 I am in broad agreement with Ismene Lada-Richards when she places fifth-century tragedy in the cultural sphere of Dionysos and argues that ‘to retain one’s cognitive hold over reality, is in the eyes of the god a grave insult, entailing the human being’s disaster and delusion . . . More precisely, within the Dionysiac dramatic area, it is the mask, an inherently Dionysiac property, which guarantees for the performer the possibility of becoming “other”, of acquiring a different identity.’5 For the modern actor approaching Greek tragedy, enigmatic asides about acting culled from Aristophanes or treatises on oratory are of little practical assistance, but the simple fact of the mask is overwhelming. To wear a mask changes everything: one’s voice, one’s movement, one’s awareness of self and other. For the practitioner, to understand the mask is to have an entry point into the historical practice of Greek acting.

   The third issue concerns the relationship of theatre to ritual. This is a matter of heated debate within Classics, whilst Theatre Studies has found its own definitions challenged by an American discipline called Performance Studies, which extends the notion of ‘theatre’ to multiple areas of social interaction. Anthropologists have so often associated the mask with secret societies, power enforcement, encounters with gods, and engagement with death, that we might sensibly expect it to belong to the domain of ritual. In Greek vase painting, the mask is clearly an attribute of Dionysos, like fawnskins and fennel rods, and if tragedy is indeed something to do with Dionysos, then the mask must be at the centre of that something.6 If, however, one takes the festival of Dionysos to be merely the residual frame for a new aesthetic activity generated by the new democratic system, then masking has to be explained in purely artistic and practical terms. So far as we can tell, the mask was invented to serve tragedy and was not the product of evolution from a primitive ritual source.7 Attention to this creative leap, however, offers no answer to my inversionary question: why should the mask in theatre today seem such an alien object? The modern dichotomy between theatre (or art) and ritual requires further attention to semantics, for there are no classical Greek terms equivalent to ritual, art, or our institution of theatre. The Greeks conceptualised the world on the basis of different categories, which we must struggle to make sense of.

   The fourth area of debate concerns the way faces are bound up with personal identity. For Cicero, the orator’s performance ‘is wholly a matter of the soul, and the face is an image of the soul, while the eyes reflect it’.8 It is but a small step from here to the formulation of the American psychologist Paul Ekman: ‘Emotions are shown primarily in the face, not in the body. The body instead shows how people are coping with emotion.’9 One finds a different ideology at work in Lévi-Strauss, for whom ‘the face of man is in opposition to the body of man: as the state of society is in opposition to the state of nature’.10 The mask in this structuralist view provides escape from the socially constructed domain of facial expression, not a barrier to viewing authentic feelings. There are thus competing ways today of understanding face and self. When we turn to the sculpture of classical Greece, eyes are always powerful, enhanced in bronzes by the insertion of precious stones, but there is no evidence for a strong binary opposition between face and body. The Parthenon frieze, lowered to eye-height in the British Museum to provide the sort of intimate encounter we like, often leaves viewers troubled by the emotional coldness of these figures, despite their bodily perfection. When we scan these Athenian faces, it is hard to escape our own cultural hunger for a world composed of individuals. These males who exist only as part of a collective, who inhabit an uncertain limbo between human and divine worlds, and who have no existence over and beyond their harmonious bodies, collide with our modern need to place individuals in front of our eyes.

   I have focused this book on tragedy, for comedy would require a separate volume.1011 Fifth-century Athens was a place of cultural ferment where tragedians were responsible for some unique performance events that have left their trace in the form of canonical scripts. Though this book may be seen as a sequel to my Masks of Menander, my methodology will be entirely different. There, my analysis of New Comedy masks relied on huge numbers of artefacts, and contemporary physiognomic treatises, material which lent itself to a semiotic and cognitive approach. In the fifth century, philosophical writings are more fragmentary, and philosophical thought had not percolated into the common-sense of ordinary Athenians, though all were aware of its presence. The iconographic evidence, mainly in the form of vase painting rather than terracotta replicas, is more enigmatic, but implies that masks, far from making distinctions which a semiotician can interpret, served to obliterate distinctions. Masks are never found as isolated objects, but only as functions of relationships. Whilst materialist philosophy provided a secure basis for explicating Greek New Comedy, in Greek tragedy the gods are a defining presence, and cannot be set aside. A more phenomenological approach is required. We have to ask how people felt when they watched or wore such masks? We need to explore the relationship between masking and a sense of the divine.

   My intellectual stance in this book is broadly anthropological. In a recent survey of the discipline, Wendy James takes her title The Ceremonial Animal from Wittgenstein. Her thesis is that: ‘Ritual, symbol, and ceremony are not simply present or absent in the things we do; they are built in to human action . . . because all human action relates in some way to arenas of culturally specified significance . . .’12 If we start from the premise that the human being is essentially a ‘ceremonial animal’, then distinctions between different sorts of ceremony become more nuanced. In Theatre Studies, the logic of such a position was established by Richard Schechner, under the influence of Victor Turner. Even though Schechner’s ritualised and participatory Dionysus since 69 remained firmly within the domain of artistic expression,13 his ‘theatre anthropology’ has established the intellectual grounds for loosening the distinction between ‘theatre’ and ‘performance’. In an essay of 1966, for example, dismissing the notion that Greek theatre descended from a primal ritual, he argued that ritual, theatre, play, games, sports, dance and music are parallel performance activities that should not be placed on any developmental ladder.14 Two other anthropological studies have helped to inform my approach. In The Anthropology of Art, Robert Layton examines Eskimo shaman masks and demonstrates how ongoing creative innovation and aesthetic pleasure are central to the practice of controlling spirits.15 This helps us understand how Greek theatre may meaningfully have functioned as an offering to Dionysos, with a convergence of ritual and aesthetic concerns. In Art and Agency, Alfred Gell argued provocatively that the anthropologist should not think in terms of discrete art objects and ways of seeing them. The aim should be to investigate a network of relationships within which artefacts themselves acquire agency. The mask lends itself to analysis in Gell’s terms, not a thing sitting on the face to be viewed, but endowed with agency, an ‘index’ pointing always at a reality elsewhere.16

   There are two major strands to my methodology. In the first instance, I shall take a fresh approach to the main primary source, vase painting. I shall not view representations of masks as more or less imperfect renderings of a ‘real’ artefact, but will concentrate on the function of the vase as a whole, asking why painters chose to portray masking. I shall argue that the vase image communicates not a fixed state or a moment in time but a process of transition, and I shall look at the mask not as an object manipulated by humans but as an agent engaged in a set of transactions. French research on the Greek gaze, drawing inspiration from the intellectual tradition of Lacan and Sartre, provides an important stimulus for this re-examination. Vase imagery tells us much about Greek ways of seeing, for masks are visible as appurtenances in the sanctuary of Dionysos, but vanish from tragic scenes where we may imagine them to have been worn. Since we never glimpse tragic actors concealed by masks, we may draw appropriate inferences about how Greeks viewed enactments in their festivals. Masks, furthermore, are conspicuous in Dionysian iconography but absent from discourse. The silence of our written sources relates to the lack of a distinguishing name for the mask-object, this thing that can never be dissociated from the effect of its gaze, and from its condition of being subject as well as object. Images and words had different emphases in the classical world: the spoken and written logos, when separated from music, related to logic, and logical ways of organising the polis, whilst vision lent itself to more visionary or metaphysical areas of human experience.

   My second methodological ploy is to draw on the evidence of twentieth-century practice. The history of reception is a burgeoning area in Classical Studies, on account of a professional crisis concerning the relevance of Antiquity to the modern world, and of an epistemological crisis concerning the difficulty of writing any positivist, fact-based history of the ancient world. The Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Theatre in Oxford, and The Reception of Classical Texts and Images Project at the Open University have given a particular impetus in the UK to research into modern performances of Greek drama.17 Studies of how the ancient world has been received can be conservative, tracing an unbroken line to the present in order to justify the timeless value of the past, or they can be radical, stressing the otherness of the past, and the socially constructed nature of all interpretations. It is the cultural otherness of the Greek world that I shall stress in this book, whilst not undervaluing the remarkable properties of texts and artefacts capable of engendering such diverse perceptions. I shall look at realisations of the Greek mask in modern theatre with equal attention to the functions of actor, writer and spectator, and the variety of work that I document will serve to relativise my own twenty-first-century viewpoint. Whilst I cannot finally escape from a historically and geographically conditioned way of seeing the world, I can at least open up a menu of choices.

   It is axiomatic in Theatre Studies that theory and practice should converge, and a further strand in my methodology has been practice-based research.18 I have worked on masks with students over many years,19 and have also undertaken two focused projects sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, which I shall discuss in Chapter 7. The value of such research does not lie in clinching what must have been done in antiquity, for it would be absurd to claim that that masks two and a half millennia ago meant the same and had the same effect as masks today. The point is rather to demonstrate what potentially can be done with a mask, and what masks can do to us. Moreover, even the most determined cultural relativist must accede to certain biological universals. For purposes of studying the mask, scientific experimentation could embrace the effects of sensory deprivation upon those who wear masks, the physics of producing sound within a shell formed like a second skull, and the brain-structure which ‘wires’ us to respond in special ways to faces.

   This book builds on much earlier scholarship. Archaeologists have provided the bedrock by locating, classifying, dating and photographing artefacts. The tireless work of T. B. L.Webster and Richard Green in collating mask images, in association with the Institute of Classical Studies in London, has been of particular assistance, as has Arthur Pickard-Cambridge’s handbook on the festivals of Dionysos, rewritten by John Gould and David Lewis.20 If Webster’s catalogue of Monuments Illustrating Tragedy and Satyr Play remains unrevised since 1967, this may in part be due to the inherent difficulties of the early material.21 While most comic images present overt signs of their theatricality, the relationship between theatricality and images of heroes or satyrs is more elusive. Many data have been gathered, and the major need in the twenty-first century is for a higher level of theorisation. By ‘theory’ I refer not to a specific body of postmodern thought, but merely to sustained reflection about why mask research matters, and what the implications are of categorising masks in one way rather than another way.22 Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux has done valuable work on Dionysian masks in a theoretically self-conscious manner, as has David Napier but their focus has been on ritual as distinct from theatre.23

   Within Theatre Studies an overarching theoretical study of the mask remains to be written. Publications fall into three main categories: generalist books where the text is a support to photographs, manuals setting out the method of a particular practitioner, and specialised historical studies. I recommend to students Efrat Tseëlon’s brief ‘Reflections on mask and carnival’ as the most useful overview of the subject I have encountered because it draws alike on Theatre Studies and on the social sciences, unconfined by the parameters of what we now classify as ‘theatre’.24 Standard introductions to Greek theatre contain many sensible observations about masking in Greek tragedy. Oliver Taplin in Greek Tragedy in Action related masks to a theatre of outward action,25 and Rush Rehm has explained well the importance of the audience’s imagination in projecting expression onto the mask.26 While Taplin tends to privilege the dramaturgical function and Rehm the directorial, Michael Walton does more to place acting at the centre of the ancient theatrical experience, seeing the masked face as a positive asset in the creation of a physical acting style.27 Writing in the 1970s before Peter Hall had demonstrated the potential of masked tragedy, Taplin suggested that the emotional singing of the chorus ‘compensates’ for the ‘immobility’ of the mask when Theseus absorbs Phaedra’s suicide note, but as a practitioner, Walton was already clear that: ‘Far from being a hindrance to the presentation of emotion, the mask concentrates feeling and focuses the attention of the audience’.28 In The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy Pat Easterling confronts the paradox that on the one hand masks, ‘fixed and unchangeable, are a visible reminder to the audience of the fictive nature of the dramatic events’, while on the other hand ‘the mask in performance may create the illusion of facial movement and fluidity of expression’, and she relates this complexity of the mask phenomenon to the cult of Dionysos.29 In the recent Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, however, Greg McCart leaves any such cultic context aside, and draws on his own practice to redefine the gestural nature of Greek acting.30

   The gap between ancient and modern understandings of the mask is best treated in two studies not available in English. Siegfried Melchinger in 1974 concluded that the classical mask effected useful distinctions of age, gender and class, while at the same time it essentialised the face in the manner of sculptors like Phidias or Polygnotos, whereas in the modern era masks usually result in monotonous clowning. When reality belongs to the actor’s face, he argued, Brechtian alienation becomes the only viable aesthetic option.31 Patricia Vasseur-Legangneux in 2004 examined the utopian impulses behind revivals of Greek tragedy. Most modern masked productions, she maintains, either constitute a celebration of the ancient world, thereby aestheticising the mask, or use the mask to establish a radical break with conventional readings, resulting in obscurity. Successful use of the mask today, as in the work of Ariane Mnouchkine or Benno Besson, involves deliberate play with theatricality. This, she suggests, is not so far removed from the practice of the ancient world, which created a gap between the audience and the mythic world of the play through creating masked bodies devoid of any interiority.32

   Within mainstream Classics, the theatre mask sits in a curious limbo, welcomed neither in literary criticism nor in the analysis of Greek religion. Once the Cambridge ritualists had been sent packing in intellectual disgrace because no one accepted any longer their romantic but reductive vision of a Frazerian Ur-ritual from which all drama stemmed, the main post-war source of intellectual nourishment became Marxism, with its claim that art should be understood as a function of society.33 The great question to ask of tragedy now concerned its relation to the polis. But if drama was just a continuation of politics by another means, then the place of masks was unclear. The mask had impinged much more obviously on other big questions asked of tragedy by earlier generations – about the sources of its emotional power, for instance, the construction of psychological archetypes, or the power of the gods. Historians of religion in the meanwhile, once the umbilical link with Frazer’s Ur-ritual had been cut, left theatre aside as a no-go area, artistic rather than religious terrain. Texts could be quarried for information about religion, but tragic performance belonged now to practical people like Arthur Pickard-Cambridge, who could explain how things were done in nuts-and-bolts terms.

   There is a bigger picture here, of course, for in the wake of the Renaissance and Kant the divide between ritual and ‘art’ has entered the common-sense of the modern world, shaping such institutions as the Arts Council, or Faculties of Arts in universities. This apparently natural division underpinned, for example, Vernant’s contention in 1968 that the role of the tragic mask ‘is not a ritual but an aesthetic one’.34 In an extreme statement of the anti-Dionysiac case, Scott Scullion attacks ‘those moderns for whom the mask serves to put a cultic face on dramatic representation’, and is content with ‘the obvious and sufficient reason for wearing masks in drama, namely that they help performers look less like themselves and more like the characters they are representing’.35 Other critics more eager to retain some relationship between theatre and ritual nevertheless use the mask to help define the demarcation line. Rainer Friedrich, for example, argues that connections between Dionysos and theatre should be traced on the plane of narrative; exaggerated claims by ritualists that Dionysos is god of the mask, he remarks, simply add glamour to the god’s modern c.v.36 In an extensive account of the relation between tragedy and religion, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood confines the function of masks to ‘mimesis’: her mimetic mask effects a shift of perspective, distancing what is shown from the ritual enactment in order to privilege the otherness of the past.37 This is the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt by another name.

   All these accounts are premised on a distinction between theatrical mimesis and authentic ritual. Pat Easterling opened the door a crack in 1988, when she concluded a survey of ritual in tragedy with a paragraph on the passage of Eumenides where the chorus blesses the city of Athens, making the critical admission: ‘despite what I have said about the metaphorical status of the ritual elements in tragedy, I do not think we can rule out the possibility that some sequences of words, music and actions could be felt to have exceptional power, something that went beyond the fictional world of the drama and was able to affect the world of the audience for good or ill’.38 An important recent development has been recognition that tragedy often provides the aetiology for a cult. Robert Parker, for example has described tragedy as part of ‘the soil in which Greek hero-cult grows’. He adds that it provided ‘the directest “theology” to which Athenians were ever exposed’, and ‘the Dionysus of, say, Bacchae or Frogs was part of an Athenian’s experience of Dionysus no less than was the Dionysus of the Anthesteria’.39 Despite these insights, he proves unwilling to relinquish the orthodox view that ‘the use of masks in Dionysiac cult is quite unlike the theatrical, and it is not clear that Dionysiac delusion and theatrical illusion are compatible’.40 It seems to me that ‘theatrical illusion’ is a concept we have foisted onto Greek goat-song, aided and abetted by Plato, in order to make it comprehensible in our own terms.

   The most influential post-war account of the tragic mask has been that of John Jones, who related the neutrality of the classical mask to Aristotle’s privileging of plot over character.41

Another authority on Aristotle’s Poetics, Stephen Halliwell, investigated the mask in 1993 in the context of a broad interest in mimesis, and likewise emphasised the aesthetic value of neutrality. He assumed that ‘tragic masks were regarded as entirely theatrical, not religious, in classical Athens’, and part of his aim was ‘to demystify the power of the mask, and to suggest that its function in the classical Greek theatre will not bear the gaze of scrutiny which a modern imagination may too easily incline to give to it’; he criticised in passing my own ‘incautious claims about the Dionysiac nature of Greek theatre masks’.42 My purpose in this book is to make some more considered claims. While mystification is bad academic practice, the experience and representation of mystery cannot be dissevered from the phenomenon of religion.

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

David Wiles is Professor of Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy: From Ancient Festival to Modern Experimentation 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Manirul More than 1 year ago
Lovely...! beautiful.....!.... Just enjoy it.....!