To "Crossing the Stages" Home Page

Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater

Alan Hughes
Department of Theatre
University of Victoria

Towards a Stylistic Analysis of Comic Acting in the Greek Cities of Southern Italy and Sicily in the Fourth Century B.C.

In collaboration with J. R. Green, I am conducting an analysis of visual evidence for acting style in Greek comedy in the 4th century. This is part of a wider-ranging study, which will ultimately cover all known styles of theatre in the fifth and fourth centuries. For example, I have already made an exploratory study of satyr play. A companion study of the stages these actors used is at press (Theatre Research International); costumes, masks, musicians etc. will be added later, and the whole will, I hope, appear as a book someday.

Our premise is that, since acting is in part a visual art, visual evidence is of primary importance. Indeed, there is very little evidence of any other kind: a few scattered anecdotes, the didaskalia, and the texts of Attic drama. Visual evidence for comic acting, however, is mostly related to Magna Graecia in the fourth century. It principally consists of terracotta figurines, and red-figured vases of Sicilian, Apulian, Campanian, Paestan and Lucanian provenance.

Until recently, it was believed that the vases related to a theatrical form known as phlyakes, but it now seems clear that most of them depict Attic comedy, and probably, some local variations. Greek art tends to be realist: thus, we can be reasonably confident that the vase painters strove to represent acting as it really was, and that their work is reliable evidence. In any case, it is the best evidence we have.

I am now working on a systematic study of all known vases (about 250) showing comic actors at work. Gesture and attitude are correlated with character in an attempt to identify an "alphabet" of physical expression typical of each character type. Attitude, I think, begins with the feet, and that is where I have begun my analysis. It is already becoming apparent that the most grotesque figures (old men, old women, slaves) adopt a flat-footed stance.

Attitudes and gestures are compared to those of "serious" figures in non-theatrical vase-painting of the period. This reveals occasional instances of parody, either of heroic art or tragedy, but it also seems to indicate that some character types were "straight" figures. Others were grotesques, whose physical aesthetics (mask, costume, attitude and gesture) seem to be deliberate travesties of the canons of beauty and grace employed by painters of serious scenes and heroic figures.

The most useful vases show scenes in progress, and it is hoped that some of these can be "read" with sufficient accuracy to permit the interpretion of the meaning of gestures: an example is Klytmestra holding up both hands in a gesture of dismay in a vase parodying Telephos. From a study of all such vases, we can build up a partial vocabulary of gestures. This will be done with all due caution: we must not assume that a gesture which is familiar to us meant the same thing to a fourth-century Greek.

In my proposed paper, I intend to present some preliminary conclusions about the meaning of gestures, the interpretation of attitudes, and the aesthetics of different character types. In the process, I shall comment on the apparent lack of masks on some of the character types, and the apparent presence of unmasked women in some scenes.

To top of this page
To "Crossing the Stages" Home Page

These pages were designed by John Porter.
Last Modified: Monday, 08-May-2006 16:10:34 CST
Please send queries and comments to