Also Seen: Medea is as relevant today as it was in Ancient Greece

At a site called The Conversation, in medias res:

[...] Indeed, Medea’s situation bears a chilling resemblance to current research on maternal filicide. She’s been abandoned by her husband in a foreign land where she has no support network. Isolation, low social status, and stress have been cited as crucial factors in maternal infanticide both in humans and in primates. Medea’s motivation is a desire to punish her husband, a major category used by researchers investigating the background to such crimes. One research article even suggests that mothers are more likely to kill male children if their motivation is vengeance: Medea’s is, and her victims are both sons.

Not only are Medea’s actions psychologically realistic, but so is the way that other characters respond to them in the play. A research study from 2006 examined more than 250 news reports on maternal infanticide in the US to see how journalists present these cases. It concludes that women tend to be presented in over-simplistic terms, either as being driven to insanity due to caring so much, or as fundamentally heartless. At the start of the play, Medea screams hysterically off-stage. At the same time, her nurse describes her as incapable of controlling her emotions due to deep grief. [...]

Reconstructing European Climate from Ancient Drama?

This is one of those things that might raise an eyebrow. Here’s the summary in PhysOrg:

The open air plays of the ancient Greeks may offer us a valuable insight into the Mediterranean climate of the time, reports new research in Weather. Using historical observations from artwork and plays, scientists identified ‘halcyon days’, of theatre friendly weather in mid-winter.

“We explored the weather conditions which enabled the Athenians of the classical era to watch theatre performances in open theatres during the midwinter weather conditions,” said Christina Chronopoulou, from the National and Kapodestrian University of Athens. “We aimed to do so by gathering and interpreting information from the classical plays of Greek drama from 5th and 4th centuries B.C.”

Ancient Athenians would enjoy the open theatre of Dionysus in the southern foothills of the Acropolis and when possible they would have watched drama in the middle of winter between 15 January and 15 February.

From Second World War bombing raids, to medieval Arabic writings historians and climatologists continue to turn to surprising sources to help piece together the climate of our ancestors. In this case the team turned to the writings of 43 plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes and several were found to contain references about the weather. Greece enjoys long, hot, dry summers, yet in contrast the rare theatre friendly ‘halcyon days’ of clear, sunny weather during winter appeared to be especially noteworthy.

“The comedies of Aristophanes, often invoke the presence of the halcyon days,” concluded said Dr. Chronopoulou. “Combining the fact that dramatic contests were held in mid-winter without any indication of postponement, and references from the dramas about the clear weather and mild winters, we can assume that those particular days of almost every January were summery in the fifth and maybe in the fourth centuries BC.”

So I read all that and say to myself, “Shirley (don’t call me Shirley) they can’t be suggesting that just because a drama is put on in a winter and a character mentions the weather, that is an indication of the weather at the time?” Meanwhile, despite the dead link at PhysOrg, it is interesting that there is an “enhanced” html version of the article available online:

Ancient Greek drama as an eyewitness of a specific meteorological phenomenon: indication of stability of the Halcyon days - (Weather – Wiley Online Library)

… check this out; inter alia on halcyon days:

The Halcyon days, a phenomenon also observed nowadays, has its origins in an ancient myth. According to one version, the goddess Halcyon, daughter of Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, insults Zeus and Hera. So, the father of gods transformed her into a bird and condemned her to lay her eggs only in the mid-winter. Consequently, the little birds were hardly able to survive. Crying and praying endlessly, Halcyon managed to make Zeus feel pity for her and so he decided to give her 14 days of good and calm weather in mid-January in order to lay her eggs in security. The Halcyon days were named after this Greek myth, and in Aristotle’s Histories about animals (p. 5.8; 350 BC) he writes The halcyon breeds at the season of the winter solstice. Accordingly, when this season is marked with calm weather, the name of “halcyon days” is given to the seven days preceding and to as many following the solstice (Wentworth Tompson, 2007).

So it’s a couple of weeks in January that are nice (in Ontario we refer to this as the “January Thaw” and we didn’t get it this year) … then we get the data sources:

The data sources are the classical dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, classical theatre of fifth and fourth centuries BC, which provide us with earlier information about historical weather than the geographers of the third century BC, and they act as ‘eyewitness’ accounts.

In those 43 plays – 7 by Aeschylus, 7 by Sophocles, 18 by Euripides and 11 by Aristophanes (Lesky, 1988) – we notice seven references with information about the weather in Athens from 458 BC until 401 BC, providing direct and indirect indications related to clear weather and the beneficial Halcyon days in mid-winter. The chronological order of the dramas studied is as follows: Aeschylus in Agamemnon 458 BC, Euripides in Medea 431 BC, Aristophanes in Acharnians 425 BC, Aristophanes in Birds 414 BC, Aristophanes in Frogs 405 BC, Sophocles in Oedipus in Colonus 401 BC. In the following we present fragments of Greek drama not in chronological order, but according to the volume of information provided.

… after a section on Athenian festivals, there is a bit about the Lenaia which is interesting:

Lenaia seemed to be the second most popular celebration after the City Dionysian festival. Famous plays, especially the following comedies by Aristophanes, won the first or second prize in the dramatic contests in Lenaia: Acharnians (425 BC) won first prize, Knights (425 BC) first prize, Wasps (422 BC) second prize and Frogs (405 BC) first prize, but there is no information about Lysistrata (411 BC) winning a prize.

Lenaia seemed to be the second most popular celebration after the City Dionysian festival. Famous plays, especially the following comedies by Aristophanes, won the first or second prize in the dramatic contests in Lenaia: Acharnians (425 BC) won first prize, Knights (425 BC) first prize, Wasps (422 BC) second prize and Frogs (405 BC) first prize, but there is no information about Lysistrata (411 BC) winning a prize. [...]

It’s here that we enter a dangerous circularity. It’s warm enough to put on a drama during Gamelion (when the Lenaia were held). Any ‘weather talk’ in the plays that suggest it was warm is evidence that it is. So here’s the conclusion:

The comedies of Aristophanes, especially those presented in Lenaia, often invoke the presence of the Halcyon days. Combining the fact that dramatic contests were held in mid-winter without any indication of postponement, and references from the dramas about the clear weather and mild winters in Attica, we can assume that those particular days of almost every January were summery in the fifth and maybe in the fourth centuries BC. Information is also drawn from the paintings on vessels showing that the clothes worn in Lenaia and in the wedding ceremonies were not designed for rainy weather. All these references concern indications for the fifth century BC. We found no weather indications in the fourth century BC dramas, but dramatic contests continued to take place during that century, because Aristotle’s references to Lenaia were in the fourth century BC.

So far so good, even if the assumption there might be taking it a bit far (Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious. But it continues:

In addition it should be mentioned that the classical period, which the indications of meteorological weather stability concern, coincides with a time of significant cultural and philosophical development.

Whaaaaa? And the price of tea in China was?

In case you missed the link above:

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Classics Confidential: Nancy Rabinowitz on Greek Tragedy

A couple of interviews with Dr Rabinowitz … here’s the intro to the lengthy blurb for the first:

On the occasion of the Classical Reception Studies Network graduate workshop that they co-organised at the Institute of Classical Studies CC’s Anastasia Bakogianni talks to Nancy Rabinowitz, Professor of Comparative Literature at Hamilton College. They discuss their shared interest in the theme of war and the portrayal of women in Greek tragedy, theme of their workshop. [...]

… and the intro to the second:

In the second interview with Professor Nancy Rabinowitz CC’s Anastasia Bakogianni asks her about her work teaching Greek tragedy in American prisons. The starting point for her was the desire to diversify the appeal of Greek tragedy by engaging with modern revivals of Greek tragedy and by taking these ancient dramas beyond the classroom. [...]

Classics Confidential:Prodromos Tsinikoris on Telemachos …

This just in:

An interview with actor and director Prodromos Tsinikoris, about his recent production ‘Telemachos: Should I Stay or Should I Go?’

“Two young Greek artists, Anestis Azas and Prodromos Tsinikoris, and a distinguished German dramatist, Jens Hillje, take Greek immigrants in Germany since the nineteen sixties as their ‘living material’ in the unique spectacle they bring to the OCC stage.
The older generation of immigrants, the Gastarbeiter, and Greeks fleeing the current economic crisis meet in an on-stage production/documentary. The protagonists in this ‘theatre of the real’ are not actors but the Greeks of Germany themselves—old and young, university professors and manual labourers, casino owners and waiters. Each one a modern-day Ulysses, they tell their stories to the audience, either live on stage or in recorded audio-visual material. Alongside them, the young actor/director Prodromos Tsinikoris, who was born in Germany but lives in Greece, completes this contemporary rhapsody as another Telemachos, personifying his generation’s homeland dilemma: “Should I stay or should I go?”. Homer’s Odyssey, the monumental epic of wandering and homecoming, becomes the connecting thread running through this theatrical documentary.”

Classics Confidential: Anastasia Bakogianni on Electra Ancient and Modern

I think I missed this one:

This week’s Classics Confidential vodcast features Dr Anastasia Bakogianni of The Open University talking about her work on the reception of Electra in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Anastasia explains in her recent book ‘Electra Ancient and Modern: Aspects of the Reception of the Tragic Heroine':
“Electra is a unique, complex, and fascinating Greek tragic heroine, who became a source of inspiration for countless playwrights, artists, musicians and film makers. The daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra she famously supported her brother’s quest to avenge their father’s murder even at the cost of matricide. Her passion for justice and her desire for vengeance have echoed down the centuries to the modern era. Enshrined as the mourner of Greek tragedy par excellence Electra has enjoyed a long and rich reception history.”
Our interview touches on Electra’s different treatments by the ancient tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides), and aspects of her subsequent reception by later visual artists, including film directors. We also hear about how Electra’s adoption by twentieth-century psychoanalysts have influenced recent versions of her story – which continues to thrill and captivate modern audiences.

Classics Confidential: Andrew Simpson on his Operatic Oresteia

This week, our Classics Confidential vodcast features Dr. Anastasia Bakogianni (OU) talking to Professor Andrew Earle Simpson (Benjamin T. Rome School of Music of The Catholic University of Washington, DC) about his operatic reception of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. You can listen to extracts from this three-part opera on the website, which also contains additional links to photographs, video footage and reviews of the performances, and much more.

Greek Theatre and Neuroscience

A very interesting article in New Scientist (although somewhat oddly illustrated with a scene from a Japanese drama):

Over 2000 years may have elapsed since masked Greek tragedies had their heyday on stage in Athens, but some of the most modern neuroscience may be able to give classicists a better understanding of how the ancients watched and thought about those plays that today exist only on paper.

Peter Meineck leads a double life, as a classicist at New York University and a theatre director and founder of the Aquila Theatre in New York. His interest and involvement in live theatre led him to wonder if he could somehow find a window into the minds of the ancient Greeks who watched plays like Antigone and the Oresteia unfold live on stage rather than the page.

Although the text of a play is undoubtedly important, Meineck says, classicists tend to rely too heavily on the words as first and last authority. At a talk at Stanford University in California last week, Meineck discussed his radical shift away from the text of ancient plays towards understanding the importance of masks and movements by teaming his theatrical knowledge with cognitive neuroscience.

Meineck spent a year studying principles of cognitive science and was immediately attracted to the theory of embodied cognition – the idea that the way we think is mediated by how we physically experience and move in the world – since it aligned so perfectly with his own experience as a theatre director. One of his actors could be reciting perfect Shakespeare, he says, but it would be his body that made the words believable. “I’m trying to get someone’s body to feel truthfully what is coming out of their mouth,” he explains.

The principles of embodied cognition were all the more important in Greek plays, says Meineck, because the actors were masked. Meineck studied the design of the Theatre of Dionysus, embedded in the southern slope of the Acropolis in Athens. From the theatre is an exceptionally beautiful view of the sky and city. The draw of the horizon in the periphery of the audience’s visual field diverted attention from the performance. The actors needed some kind of tool to draw the audience’s attention. Enter the mask.

At first glance, the theatre mask makes almost no sense in the context of ancient theatre. Evidence from eye-tracking studies shows how readily we search for eyes and a mouth in just about any context, from the head of a human to shadows in a piece of toast. Faces are the most important tools we have in communicating emotion. Intuitively, “wearing a mask is the worst thing you can do in that art form”, Meineck says.

But looking closer at the masks, Meineck started to piece together what made them so powerful. A static mask can readily communicate only the six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise. But an ambiguous mask, which is what was used in most performances of tragedy, can be shockingly versatile – and more engaging for the audience.

Meineck donned a mask to demonstrate the point. After strapping the ambiguous female mask to his face with his back turned to the audience, he slowly turned around to reveal a neutral but vaguely offputting expression. Audience members shouted out emotions for him to act out. “Fear!” was the first suggestion, and Meineck shrank back, cowering and waving his arms in terror. Almost magically, the face did indeed seem to transform into a terrified expression. At “Surprise!” Meineck jumped up in the air and shook his head. The transformations were equally striking for “joy”, “sadness” and “satisfaction”, though Meineck was understandably stumped by the final suggestion, “repentance”.

The magic of the mask lies in how it transmutes depending on the angle and context in which we see it. Tilting a mask up and down can change its expression from enraged to content, while a human face is far more consistent from all angles. Because there is no face to tell you explicitly the emotion the character is feeling, your brain takes cues from movement and assigns the face an expression that makes sense. “Your cognitive system is seeing and suggesting the mask moving,” Meineck says.

The mask is a hypnotic call to theatre precisely because each audience member helps to create the emotional drama unfolding on stage. “I believe the mask is far more expressive than the human face,” Meineck says. Rather than being told what to see by an actor’s face, the audience plays a role in creating the emotion, projecting onto the mask what should be there rather than what is explicitly present, similar to the way the brain works to find meaning in abstract art.

The shape of the mask’s features may also provide clues into how the ancient Athenians thought about the world, says Meineck. Comparing Greek masks to east Asian ones from the same period, the Greek masks have enormous eyes and mouths with fairly petite noses. The Asian masks are the opposite, sporting a substantial schnozz. Meineck immediately saw the parallels in modern eye-tracking experiments, such as those where subjects look at paintings of fish in an aquarium. People from western cultures were able to accurately describe the individual fish in the foreground after looking at the image, while Asians were superior at describing the context of the entire scene. The prominent noses on Asian masks indicated to Meineck a culture that looks at the centre of an image and takes in the entire field, while Greek masks are closer to modern western culture, focusing on individual details instead of the larger context. The differently shaped masks could be a hint that Greeks had a more individually focused mindset on the world, as opposed to the collaborative cultural perspective commonly associated with Asian cultures.

Though there is a danger that modern investigations into ancient theatre might project conclusions onto the plays in the same way that Athenian theatregoers may have overlaid emotions on ambiguous masks, Meineck’s approach raises interesting questions. What else can we learn about the psychology of the past by teaming up current cognitive science research with expert knowledge of history and the arts?

I’ve always wondered whether the actors ‘played to’ the guys in the front row or the guys in the ‘cheap seats’ … surely the masks would have different effects for different places in the theatre?