Greek vs. Roman Theatre

Topics: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Tragedy Pages: 9 (3170 words) Published: February 5, 2011
Historic playwrights such as Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Seneca were described as prolific philosophers and geniuses of their times. These men actively participated in the politics surrounding them, and were respected and revered in their society. Each had their own individual style and portrayed their personalities through each of their noted works. Nevertheless, as with a majority of playwrights throughout history, most fodder for their plays have been adaptations of previous plays written by their predecessors or based off mythological events. Unfortunately, this had lead to many speculative accusations and criticisms, as is the case with Senecan tragedies versus their Greek counterparts. Senecan and Greek interpretations of the plays Oedipus, Agamemnon, and Medea bear similar themes, being the inescapability of fate and dikê, and the lack of clarity between right and wrong. Nevertheless, they differ culturally, politically, and philosophically due to the differences in society as well as the eras in which the writing of these plays took place.

Culturally, Greek and Roman theatre vary in a multitude of ways. Firstly, a major difference is the role of actor within their cultures. The introduction of the actor sparked the creation of tragedy, because of the ability to have back-and-forth discussions. Within Greek culture, to be an actor was a most honourable position as they were considered as icons because “the good actor, who rises to the challenge of providing a good and consistent performance, can be a model for how to live” (Easterling 382). In contrast, within Roman culture, the actors’ conditions were mean and contemptible (Theatrehistory).

A secondary difference is the amount of actors used by Seneca and his Greek counterparts. Seneca stressed the importance of consistency of character stating, “It is a great thing to play the role of one man” (Easterling 382), suggesting that he seems to disapprove of those who play multiple parts. This is a reason as to why Seneca changed the number of speaking parts in plays to encompass four speaking roles. Agamemnon, for example, has four speaking parts during its final scene involving Aegisthus, Electra, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra (lines 981-1012). Oedipus similarly requires four actors at once for the second act involving Oedipus, Creon, Tiresias, and Manto (lines 201- 402) (Boyle 83).

Another cultural difference is in regards to the importance of the masks worn by either the Greeks or Romans during the theatrical performances. The Greek mask was important because it allowed actors to play multiple roles and with the help of the onkos or high headdress, it portrayed the characters, as they ought to be or as better than they are (Wiles 68). The rule of the mask is never in question with Sophocles or Aeschylus as its function was to represent a neutral face. Hence, eliminating all the peculiarities that distinguish each character from another as author John Jones stated, “The audience could have had a few simple, conventional signs determining rank and age and sex” (Wiles 68). This neutral mask allowed the audience to judge Oedipus and Agamemnon by his actions and not solely on his appearance. It also forced the actor to externalize emotions by using his whole body (Wiles 69). Nevertheless, the conventions of tragic masks do come under pressure by the tragedies of Euripides. Classics professor Froma Zeitlin states that Euripides’ “repertory of tragedy and epic provides, as it were, a closet of masks for the actors to raid at will, characters in search of identity, a part to play,” which is a main theme in Euripides’ Medea (Wiles 69).

In contrast, the cultural context of Roman mask was very different from the Greeks, who believed masked performances were a great source of pride. For a Roman, it was unthinkable that dancing in masks was a source of pride during public celebrations. The use of masks centered on the ideologies of the Roman culture and its...
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