History of Western Theatre: Greeks to Elizabethans/Acting

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In tragedy, Thespis introduced a single actor that interacted with the chorus, Aeschylus added a second actor, and Sophocles a third. Satyric drama followed the same rules tragedy did, so it was also limited to three actors. In comedy, Cratinus established the rule of having only three actors in a comedy, although, there could be more non-speaking supernumeraries. Playwrights themselves appeared as characters in their play, at first alone, and then with a professional actor. By the early fifth century however, this practice was not so popular.

Social Standing

The members of the Chorus were not considered actors, and neither were the people that played mute characters, or the characters with only a few lines to say. Only those who played parts that had a significant amount of dialogue were considered actors. Actors started out as unimportant followers to the playwrights. There was no demand for full-time performers. Being an actor was a part-time job. By the mid fifth-century, their names were recorded in competitions along with the playwrights, and by the fourth century, the actors were considered more important than the playwrights. Some playwrights even wrote scenes into their plays simply to show off the actor's ability.

Playwrights originally chose their own actors, and they would often use the same ones repeatedly. As the actor's status rose, the state began choosing the actors. They would then be given to the playwrights based on a lot. By doing this no writer had an unfair advantage. The other two actors were then selected jointly by the playwright and the lead. Actors were paid by the state, and if an actor was assigned to the Athenian festival and did not show up, he was fined by the state.

Only leading actors would compete for the prize which could be given for a performance in a non-winning play.

Acting Style

The voice was exercised and trained as much as an opera singer could today. Some actors had high vocal standards and achieved excellence, while other just yelled and ranted. Because actors were normally in masks, movement was simplified and broadened almost to the point of becoming symbolic. While there were two different acting styles for comedy and tragedy, the audience was able to pick out when an actor was not doing well with either.

In Comedy, voice technique was closer to general conversation. Movement and common place actions were exaggerated to the point of of the extreme and ridiculous, moving to the style of burlesque.

In Tragedy, voice technique needed to be “sonorous”, with a “loud and ringing intonation.” Articulation, rhythm and meter were also important. The movement style was more set and dignified. The style moved more towards idealization.

The acting was stylized and used masks and movements to tell the story rather than realism. Mask provided unique challenges to Greek actors in many ways. Resonance was an issue as the mask would obstruct the actor's use of his voice, creating internal resonance inside the mask, face, and head. Projection was a problem fixed by the koilon, which had naturally good acoustics, while the internal resonation was harnessed by actors to propel themselves into a more grandiose style of acting.

Due to the larger than life nature of Greek masks actors used a vocabulary of gesture, or cheironomia. Also translated into "Shadow Boxing" and "Pantomimic Movement," this process of using a set of particular gestures was employed to make the actors' bodies look proportional to their masks and also to bring out the emotions that were inherent within them. For example, lowering one's mask slightly could be considered a sign of contemplation while raising it could signal pride or a challenge.

Along with this physical vocabulary came Schemata, or "physical stances," that helped promote the mask to imitate the thoughts and feelings conveyed in it's facial expression.

"Silent Masks" were an interesting convention in acting technique. There is evidence in Greek tragedies of masked characters that are silent for extended periods of time or for certain scenes. This helped punctuate important moments that the playwright wanted to accentuate and also was a way in which death was portrayed. If a character was killed, the mask would often be put on a false dummy, freeing up the actor to play more roles.

Actors were judged above all by the beauty of vocal tone and the adaptation of speaking to mood and character. Therefore, acting style concentrated mostly on the voice with three types of delivery: speech, recitative, and song. Lines were recited more declamatory than realistic. There was no change in voice for difference in age or sex. It was more important to portray emotional tone.

Actor’s Guild

The Actor's Guild was created to protect theatre artists, and to raise their social status. The members were called Artists of Dionysus. Poets, actors, chorus-singers, trainers, and musicians belonged to guild. It is thought that the Guild may have originated with Sophocles’ literary club, though the two may not be connected. The group was definitely fully formed by the time of Aristotle. Because members participated in religious festivals, they received certain privileges, such as the ability to travel through “foreign and hostile states” to get to festivals and they were sometimes exempted from naval and military service (though not always).Later on, both of these privileges were made official by the Amphictyonic Council, also adding that the artists could not be arrested unless they owed a debt to a person or to the state. Another similar group is the Athenian Guild of Artists of Dionysus. They had a sacred enclosure and altar at Eleusis, where libations were offered to Demeter and Kore at time of Eleusinian mysteries.

Famous Actors

Aeschylus was associated with Cleander and Mynniscus, and Sophocles was associated with Cleidemides and Mynniscus. Callipides was considered arrogant, and Mynniscus considered his work to be of less dignity, and overly realistic. Nicostratus was well known for his delivery of long narrative speeches of messengers. A saying came about “To do a thing like Nicostratus”, meaning to do something right.

In the time of Demosthenes, there was Polus of Aegina, who taught elocution to Demosthenes, and at the age of seventy acted in eight tragedies in four days. Theodorus had a natural tone of delivery, and wouldn’t let subordinate actors appear before him on stage. He also thought that tragedy was much more difficult than comedy. Aristodemus and Neoptolemus were part of court of Phillip, and helped bring about peace of Philocrates. Thessalus and Athenodorus were famous rivals. Comic and Tragic acting were completely separated, and no actors attempted to do both. The comic actor Hermon's favorite joke was to knock heads of fellow actors with a stick. Parmenon was lauded for his skill in imitating grunt of a hog.

Contests between Actors

Originally, actors were not recognized, just poets and choregi, but later on best actor was rewarded as well as best poet. In the City Dionysia, about 446 B.C., the first official competition between tragic actors was held. In the fifth and fourth centuries, nothing is said about competitions between comedic actors in City Dionysia, it seems to have become a regular event in second century, though no one seems to know about the period in between. At Lenea, contests go as far back as 420 B.C. for tragic actors, comic actors as far as 289 B.C. for sure, maybe even further back.

The contests were limited to principal actors and protagonists, since they carried the play. They played not only the main role, but often several others. The other actors weren’t considered. Not only were contests for actors happening at the performance of new comedies and tragedies (alongside contests for poets and choregi), there were also contests for actors alone, where old plays were performed. In one form, each actor performed a different play, and the play was judged solely on the skill of the actor. These took place in Rural Dionysia, in townships of Attica, but not at the Athenian Festivals. In another form, each actor performed the same play, and most likely each actor performed only portions of the play. This kind of competition was most likely used by the state to choose which actor would perform the old play that went on before the new plays at festivals.

Selection of the Actors

Actors were not really needed until Aeschylus. They were at first chosen by the poets, and some actors became permanently associated with certain poets. The change in the selection process probably occurred in the mid-fifth century, when acting contests first started, and actors were officially recognized in festivals. Three protagonists were selected by the archon. The method of selection is unclear, though it was probably a small contest. Subordinate actors were not chosen by state, though the protagonist could provide his own deuteragonist and tritagonist. The protagonists were assigned to poets by lot. The three poets competing would draw to ascertain order of choice, then each would choose his actor. Each protagonist would act in all three tragedies of the poet he’s given to. Whichever actor won was able to compete in the next years festival without having to be chosen by the archon. By the middle of the fourth century, all actors were divided equally among the poets (since success of play depended on talent of actor, not so much on the poet). Each poet would have all three actors act in one of his three plays, so each actor would have acted under each poet.

Comedy seems to have been run the same way, though each poet only submitted one play, so the last change was not needed. Sometimes an actor would act in two plays, though not often.


Adaptations of Classic Tragedy plays by actors were encouraged by government. When it was found that actors were tampering with the text, the orator Lycurgus tried to put a stop to it by passing a law that stated that actors must perform the text as written. He also had public copies made of the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides that were deposited in the state archives.

(need to cite The Attic Theatre)

More Acting Stuffs[edit | edit source]

Acting as an etotic[check spelling] artform was developing in Athens alongside other more traditional artforms such as painting, sculpture, art in its entirety, etc. The physical representations of Greek Actors were directly influenced by the likenesses taken from Greek art. A modern example of this would be contemporary actors developing their character traits from photographs, other live performances, or film. The Greeks drew from what they were exposed to, as said before, sculptures, figures from ceramic art, paintings. The artistic fundamentals of shape, form, the line defined the actor and his/her body in the three-dimensional sense of the stage. This was the only available media a Greek actor could utilize. Likewise, fine artists took inspiration from technical stage design. Some of the creative inventions that became of Greek theatre became useful to further motivate fellow artists. (need to cite Pollitt-Greek Sense of Theatre)

Walton, J. M. (1984). The Greek sense of theatre: Tragedy reviewed. London: Methuen.

Haigh, Arthur Elam, and Sir Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge. The Attic theatre. The Clarendon press, 1907. Print.