FEATURES: Crossing the Ancient Stage


Eva Stehle
University of Maryland
E-mail: es39@umail.umd.edu

I will comment on the two papers on Greek tragedy. Professor Freis invites us to investigate other performance traditions for ideas about Greek performance. This is a very valuable stimulus, for it increases our awareness of dramatic possibilities different from our realist tradition. Both her paper and that of Professor Mary deForest also offer interesting suggestions about Greek tragedy. Yet neither paper really addresses itself to performance of Greek tragedy. As comparison with Professor Bleisch's paper on Plautine comedy shows, neither Fries nor deForest asks about the relation of actor to character on the Greek stage, that is, about the body that the Greek audience saw and heard. I will therefore try to expand their presentations to include the actors' bodies.

At the end of her paper Professor Freis suggests comparisons with Greek drama, the most striking of which is her analogy between Drapaudi and Clytemnestra, who are both soaked by the blood of the transgressor. At this point, as she shows by her reference to the 'archetype' that Clytemnestra and Drapaudi represent, Freis is thinking in Jungian terms of universal figures generated in the mind, that is, the appeal of the character to the imagination of the audience. The actor has dropped out. Let us therefore review her discussion of actor and character in Kathakali to see what it suggests about the body of actor and character in Greek tragedy.

In Kathakali the performer presents an intensely trained body. Years of discipline and exercise in muscle-control and breathing precede performance. The actor's body is therefore not defined primarily by its gender, but by its ability to channel spiritual energy. Furthermore, Kathakali dancers do not speak or sing, and the make-up and costuming hide physical gender markers. As a result, the idealized vigorous male and delicate female characters are almost totally separate from the actors' identities, constructed from top to bottom by conventions of dress and dance. It seems significant to me that either men or women can dance Kathakali, for that shows that the roles do not depend on the gender of the actors. And yet, Professor Freis remarks that female performers are discouraged from performing demonic female roles because the roles are too sexual. Guardians of morality fear a collapse between the body of the female actor and her character, so that the actor becomes what her character is. I will come back to this.

The Elizabethan stage, by way of contrast, used physical differences among male actors to distinguish genders. Women's roles in Shakespeare's day were played by boys, whose high voices and whose lack of facial hair and bulk differentiated them from the mature male actors playing the male roles. How did the audience perceive these boys? According to Shakespeare scholars, comments preserved from the time indicate that in the tragedies (where cross-cross-dressing and textual allusions are generally not found), the boys were perceived as women. Thus, as in Kathakali, differences created among members of one sex were read as differences between the sexes. Age differences or costuming differences successfully stand in for differences in gender.

In an essay on Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Juliet Dusinberre studies the limit case in this system. It is difficult to imagine the sensuous, competitive, powerful Cleopatra played by a boy. At the end of Antony and Cleopatra the character Cleopatra actually forces the boy actor to admit the problem. Cleopatra refuses to go as a prisoner to Rome, where she would be forced to watch plays in which

shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' th' posture of a whore.

The boy actor's inadequacy is in conveying greatness, it seems, not in projecting sexual power. Yet, when women began to play the role of Cleopatra, their performance, according to Dusinberre, was typically assessed according to their sexuality. To quote Dusinberre: 'Obliged to carry such a wealth of suggestiveness, the male body of the boy actor ... becomes ... insignificant ... . The boy provides a medium for these immensely varied and resonant images of gender' (52). 'A woman acting Cleopatra can never be simply a medium, as the boy in Shakespeare's theatre arguably was. She is always a representative of her society's views on sensuality, and these views color her own interpretation of the part and the reactions of the audience' (47). The sexuality of the actress became an issue, and the actress was collapsed together with her character. Thus one critic, Kenneth Tynan, remarked about Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave, 'There is only one role in Antony and Cleopatra that English actresses are naturally equipped to play. This is Octavia, Caesar's docile sister. ... The great sluts of world drama, from Clytemnestra to Anna Christie, have always puzzled our girls.' In the same review he urged Redgrave to 'let up a little on the lust.' Cleopatra played by a woman stimulates both desire to see and discomfort with 'real' intense female sexuality played out on stage.

Is it possible that actresses in strong female roles, rather than actors, may distract from the performance by arousing the audience's anxiety over whether the actress is the same as her character? In two different theater traditions, Kathakali and Elizabethan tragedy, we catch a glimpse of similar situation: the male body playing a female role is made to disappear, either beneath costume and the alterity of an extreme discipline, or by its lack of adult male physical characteristics. Yet the male actor is very much there, for he is needed to detach the female character from an actual woman in order to keep the drama safely fictional for its audience. What about Greek tragedy?

The male actor in Greek tragedy would seem to approximate to the Kathakali actor. Greek actors were covered by long-sleeved, ankle-length dress, and the masks were full-head masks. The acting was stylized, we are told, and gestures had to be bold and simple because in large theaters, at least, much of the audience was at a distance. But the male actor was not completely disguised in Greek drama, for his voice was heard. Voice in Greek theater is another one of those things about which we are poorly informed. How much did actors work on developing range of voice? Did actors with higher-pitched voices get female roles? Overall, it must have been evident that male voices were issuing from female characters -- and loud male voices, for however good the acoustics of a Greek theater, the actors had to make themselves heard over the rustling and whispering and coughing and farting of thousands of people. Thinking about those voices leads me to suggest a hypothesis, namely that Greek playwrights created female characters with male voices in mind. The strong, decisive, argumentative, vividly-reacting women typical of Greek tragedy fit the voices that will play them. (I am not essentializing here but assuming that there were culturally-coded differences in the pitch and timbre at which men and women typically spoke.) Yet, while strong female characters give scope to the male actors to project their voices, at the same time, the voices assure the audience that it need not worry about the 'reality' of the female characters. They are safely embodied by men. This suggests, further, that in Greek tragedy the presence of the male playing a female role was less thoroughly disguised than in Kathakali or Elizabethan theater. The evidence was always present that there was no real Clytemnestra under the stage Clytemnestra. Why then were there still such violent reactions to the portrayal of female sexuality on the Greek stage? Did the audience hate Euripides' seductive women even though they were played by men, or was the problem the position into which the male actor was put, soliciting another man's sexual approach?

These are fascinating questions. But I must turn now to the chorus. Professor deForest accepts John Winkler's suggestion that ephebes participated in tragedy by singing and dancing the role of the chorus -- a suggestion only, you should remember, since the evidence is very thin. The chorus then mirrors the young men of the audience. If the ephebes were playing a chorus of women, as often in tragedy, they would be garbed and masked as women, while their voices and possibly their dance would signal their male identity. DeForest thinks that the ephebes in the audience would perceive this chorus sometimes as women and sometimes as ephebes. Its noble sentiments would appear to be ephebic, while its fearful ones would be 'female'. Its idealism, opposition to authority, and attendant naivete would be male, while its marginality and use of deceit were identified as female. The ephebes in the audience would simultaneously learn more about their ephebic qualities and reject the female characteristics.

But in visual and aural presentation the chorus was not sometimes one thing and sometimes another. It was always both. Its double identity must have affected different tragedies differently, so we would have to study each tragedy separately. Thus in Prometheus Bound the chorus grows into a commitment, an appropriate illustration for ephebes. But we have to think not only about the deceit of Prometheus but also about the tyranny of Zeus in that play. Thus we could argue that in its female aspect (in Greek terms) the chorus proves that tyranny cannot coerce even the weak reliably, while its ephebic side shows that young men will rise to oppose oppression. In Hippolytus the chorus perhaps preserves a reminder of Phaedra's nobility after she has left the stage, while developing sympathy for Hippolytus. The chorus may mediate between the two halves of the play by its double identity. Thus I would be more inclined than deForest to see, with Froma Zeitlin, an incorporation of the female into the city, a broadening and blurring of categories in the ephebes' performance as women.

Eva Stehle
University of Maryland
E-mail: es39@umail.umd.edu

(Eva Stehle teaches classics at the University of Maryland; her book, Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece, was published last year by Princeton University Press.)