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?

Colosseum Restoration Coming Soon?

I have definitely been remiss in covering all the assorted goings-on with proposed restoration of the Colosseum by the Tod shoe folks and bits falling off and the whole thing sloping, so in anticipation of better coverage from me on this sort of thing, here’s a brief item on where we’re at in terms of the restoration:

Restoration of Rome’s 2,000-year-old Colosseum will to begin on time, said shoe magnate and project underwriter Diego Della Valle.

Della Valle, president and chief executive officer of the Italian leather goods company Tod’s, said at the IHT Luxury Conference in Rome Friday preparations are “running smoothly and (restoration) will begin soon.”

Repairs to the iconic amphitheater will begin in December, the Italian ANSA news agency reported.

“Tod’s will take care of the Colosseum. I hope other entrepreneurs will follow suit and fix up other Italian monuments,” Della Valle said.

A 50-year-old man climbed to the top of the structure Friday and threatened to jump if he did not receive help for his heroin addiction. The man, whose name was not reported, told police and firefighters who were trying to coax him down he wanted to be sent “to a recovery community,” the news agency said.

The report did not indicate whether the attempt to talk the man down was successful.

Alexander and his wife, Helen of Troy

This is definitely in the FWIW category, but there is some wheat among the chaff … from the Tribune (Pakistan):

There is, in rural Mandi Bahauddin district, a few kilometres from Phalia town, a village marked as Helan in the Atlas of Pakistan. The ‘a’ is pronounced as in ‘father’ and the ending is nasal as it would be in French. The village is known for a tomb dating to the reign of Akbar the Great. In May 2000, I paused there, met a local ‘historian’ and learned that the word was a mispronunciation of Helen!

Now, it was well known that Helen of Troy, said the man, was the wife of Alexander the Macedonian. When she died, Alexander ordered this tomb. Inside, sits an ornate sandstone sarcophagus radiant with flowing curvilinear forms and calligraphy that tells us that the tomb is the last resting place of some Ali Beg. But that did not matter to my new friend.

Later, in nearby Mong, the village that takes its name from the Scythian King Maues (1st century BCE), known as Moga in Punjabi, I got another educational boost. Seeing that I was on the trail of Alexander, a rather contrary sort of middle-aged man took me under his wing. He spoke of the Macedonian’s victory over Raja Paurava (Greek: Porus) with admirable pride and how folks named their sons after the Macedonian. I asked if folks ever named a son after Paurava, he being one of our own. Pat came an angry, “Kyon? O koi Musalman cee?” Islam being nearly a millennium in the future, Raja Paurava was certainly no Muslim. But then neither was Alexander. On another similar occasion, my interlocutor burst out with an incredulous half-question, half-statement, “Alexander was Hindu?”

Interestingly, even semi-educated persons in Pakistan cannot imagine a religion like the Greeks had, with a large pantheon of mostly fun-loving gods. They are caught in a mental box with four names — Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and a very distant and vague Judaism. No other religion appears on their radar.

This man in Mong was smarter, however. He countered with the statement that Alexander was mentioned in the Holy Quran. The king we so desperately want to turn into Alexander is the Quranic Zulqarnain whose name means ‘Two-Horned’. He travelled across the great expanse of the world, ruled over a vast kingdom and was responsible for locking away the dreaded nation of Gog and Magog behind a rubble wall steeped in molten lead. This king, we read, travelled to the rising and setting places of the sun. That is, his sway extended across much of the known world of his time.

But scripture does not reveal anything beyond this short reference. Now, there were two famous world-conquering kings in history who wore horns on their helmets. Cyrus the Great (ruled BCE 549-529) of Persia and, 200 years later, Alexander of Macedonia. Indeed, the latter’s depiction on coinage with diadem and ram’s horns is very well known.

Now, both were great conquerors, therefore, either could be Zulqarnain. But mark: Cyrus established a kingdom only marginally smaller than Alexander’s.

This kingdom lasted 200 years until Alexander unravelled it and became master of it. Alexander’s kingdom was larger. His governors presided on the affairs of men from Thrace (Bulgaria) through the Scythian steppes on the northern shores of the Black Sea, to the banks of the Jaxartes (Syr) River (in Uzbekistan) and across the entire Persian Empire, Afghanistan, Punjab and Sindh to Babylon. But it was a short-lived empire, lasting just over a decade until Alexander’s death in 322 BCE.

So, really, which king was it that scripture refers to as the ‘Two-Horned’? If greatness were a measure in terms of longevity of kingdom, I would vote Cyrus. However, Alexander who did indeed embody traits that could arguably be termed ‘great’ left behind a kingdom that did not last beyond his own lifetime.

But we, in Pakistan, embrace him. We stretch the words of scripture to make Zulqarnain fit into Alexander’s shoes. We do this only because he, an outsider, defeated a king of Punjab who, unfortunately, was a Hindu. We disregard the fact that Raja Paurava (of whose greatness of character I have written earlier in this column) was a Hindu because he predated Islam.

CFP: Public and Private in the Roman House and Society Conference

seen on the Classicists list:

Call for Papers: Public and Private in the Roman House and Society Conference

April 18-20, 2013, University of Helsinki, Finland

Abstract deadline: December 15, 2012

E-mail: romanhouse2013 AT

Ancient Roman houses were designed to suit both the private life of
its occupants and the demands of public life. As a result, the
division between public and private spaces inside the domus was a
complicated topic even for the Romans themselves. Previous scholarship
has tended to treat the domus in terms of a rigid division between
public and private, with the same division acting as a gender marker
for (male) political activities and (female) domestic activities
respectively. This strict division within the household now seems
outdated. The aim of this conference, then, is to take a fresh look at
notions of public and private within the domus by exploring the public
and private spheres of the Roman house from the first century BCE to
the third century CE. The "Public and Private in the Roman House and
Society" is an ongoing project organizing its second major event,
building on the success of a workshop at NYU this October. Keynote
speakers include Filippo Coarelli, Margareta Steinby and Paul Zanker.

We therefore invite papers that explore the complex relationship
between public and private in Roman society from a variety of
perspectives – historical, archaeological, philological, architectural
and anthropological – in order to further the understanding of the
domus as a place for social, cultural, political and administrative
Potential themes include but are not limited to:
– The house and the city: Political and administrative spaces
– The Roman house as legal, political, religious, social and cultural arena
– Newest theories and methods in the study of privacy/public in the Roman House
– Public and private in material culture and artefact studies
– The provincial house: Local and Roman building traditions and usages
– Changes and Continuities of the Roman house in Late Antiquity
– Gender in the house

The conference is organized by the project Public and Private in the
Roman House (http://, which seeks to contribute to
the ongoing debate on privacy in the ancient world as well as the
issues of how the limits between public and private spaces were drawn.
In an attempt to gain new perspectives on these questions, the project
seeks to utilize comparative anthropological theories concerning the
conceptualization of the public/private interface.

Please submit your abstract (300 words) as a [word/pdf] file to Juhana
Heikonen at romanhouse2013 AT Please include your name,
academic affiliation and address in your email.

The deadline for submission of abstracts is December 15, 2012