Academic journal article Helios

Gendered Interpretations: Two Fourth-Century B.C.E. Performances of Sophocles' Electra

Academic journal article Helios

Gendered Interpretations: Two Fourth-Century B.C.E. Performances of Sophocles' Electra

Article excerpt

While the evidence for theatrical practice in the ancient world is admittedly spotty, we are fortunate to have anecdotal evidence concerning two different performances of Sophocles' Electra, both from the fourth century B.C.E., by two of the most famous tragic actors in ancient Greece, Theodorus and Polus, who apparently played Electra. The evidence suggests that their performances may have differed widely; it is even conceivable that the role was something of a yardstick for measuring great actors of the day (a la Hamlet). (1) I will argue that these two "star" actors gave radically different interpretations of the character of Electra, partly due to an approach to performance affected by gender. The idea of interpreting a character is usually assumed to be foreign to ancient Greek theatrical practice, certainly in the fifth century B.C.E., yet I think the evidence leaves us with the conclusion that by the fourth century, "stars" were indeed interpreting characters, and possibly even bringing theories of acting to bear on their interpretations. This paper is thus an experiment in reconstructing the history of dramatic performance in the ancient world. Although the evidence is debatable and more questions will inevitably be raised than answers answered, my aim here is to broaden discussion of performance issues in ancient drama generally and in Greek tragedy in particular.

Most scholars of Greek tragedy interested in performance issues remain focused on recovering or reconstructing the conditions of the original (fifth-century) performance. (2) It is no longer an article of dogma in scholarship on Greek tragedy that the fourth century represents a period of "decline," either in the number of new tragedies written and produced, (3) or in the debasement of plot and music which Aristotle implicitly diagnoses in the Poetics. (4) Tragedy in the fourth century, on the other hand, whether new plays or re-performances of "classics" from the fifth-century repertoire, is still relatively understudied. (5) In particular, the (understandable) bias in the scholarly literature towards the original performance of the extant tragedies has skewed our impression of performance culture in antiquity. Yet much of the evidence about ancient dramatic performance comes from late sources and describes subsequent performances. Anecdotes about actors, ranging from the fifth century B.C.E. to the very late Empire, comprise a rich source for our information about performance practices. To overlook them because they sometimes describe subsequent performances of canonical plays is to privilege the script at the expense of the actor; after all, every performance is in some sense "original." (6) It is also to underestimate the impact that "classic" drama had on ancient audiences in periods after the fifth century B.C.E. With judicious use, this neglected body of anecdotal evidence can yield interesting and vital information about ancient performance practices, attitudes towards actors, possibly even theories of acting.

The Anecdote as Source

A number of different kinds of sources exist for ancient conceptions of mimesis and for ancient concerns about performance. The most often consulted are the writings of elite intellectuals from the ancient world: plays themselves, especially the metatheatrical plays; speeches; and philosophical, literary, rhetorical, and technical treatises. (7) While dramatic, philosophical, and rhetorical texts address the question of mimesis and identity in a subtle and sophisticated dialogue that had been carried on by elite writers over centuries, the anecdotal tradition provides invaluable insight into the ways in which large numbers of people, perhaps even society in general, thought about mimesis and its effects. Anecdotes reported by writers about famous actors and poets, anonymous Lives of poets, and other expressions of public opinion can be read as a kind of "popular performance theory."

The rich tradition of theatrical anecdotes from the ancient world has been underutilized in performance studies by classicists, due in large part to the fact that most of the anecdotes are found in late sources and therefore are presumed to be untrustworthy. …

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