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The Masks of Greek Tragedy as Point of Departure for Modern Performance

  • Chris Vervain and David Wiles

Abstract

In this article, David Wiles and Chris Vervain stake out the ground for a substantial programme of continuing research. Chris Vervain, coming from a background in visual and performance art, is in the first instance a maker of masks. She is also now writing a thesis on the masks of classical tragedy and their possibilities in modern performance, and, in association with the University of Glasgow, working on an AHRB research programme that involves testing the effect of Greek New Comedy masks in performance. David Wiles, Professor of Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, has published books on the masks of Greek New Comedy and on Greek performance space, and lectured on Greek masks. Most recently, his Greek Theatre Performance: an Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2000) included an investigation of the classical mask and insights provided by the work of Lecoq. He is now planning a book on the classical Greek mask. Wiles and Vervain are both committed to the idea that the mask was the determining convention which gave Greek tragedy its identity in the ancient world, and is a valuable point of departure for modern practitioners engaging with the form. They anticipate that their research will in the near future incorporate a symposium and a further report on work-in-progress.

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References

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Notes and References

1. Johnstone, Keith, Impro: Improvisation for the Theatre (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 184 ff.

2. See Wiles, David, The Masks of Menander: Sign and Meaning in Greek and Roman Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Chris Vervain is currently working on an AHRB research project under the aegis of the University of Glasgow. See Williams, Richard and Vervain, Chris, ‘Masks for Menander: Imaging and Imagining Greek Comedy’, Digital Creativity, X, No. 3 (1999), p. 180–2.)

3. A maenad dancer from 460–50 BC is one possible exception: see Pickard-Cambridge, A., Dramatic Festivals of Athens, revised by Gould, John and Lewis, David (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 181–2, fig. 33.

4. The literary sources are late: the entry in Suidas's lexicon on Thespis, and the Scholiast's note on Frogs 406.

5. Aristophanes, Knights, 232; cf. Acharnians, 451

6. Green, J. R., Theatre in Ancient Greek Society (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 45–6, 78–81.

7. Dramatic Festivals of Athens, p. 191.

8. Ibid., p. 190.

9. For example: George Devine; Roddy Maude-Roxby and William Gaskill at RADA; John Blatchley; Peter Hall, Keith Johnstone.

10. Lecoq, Jacques, The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre, trans. Bradby, David (London: Methuen, 2000), p. 36 ff.

11. See, for example, Roiter, Fulvio, Venetian Carnival (Venice: Zerella, 1991).

12. Full-faced character masks feature more in performance than in training.

13. Op. cit., p. 56 ff.

14. John Wright is a co-founder of the Trestle and the Told By An Idiot theatre companies, and was for many years a principal lecturer at Middlesex University.

15. E.g., costumes for Parade (1917), illustrated in Goldberg, Roselee, Performance Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979), p. 78, figs. 62 and 63.

16. Other productions directed by Hall that have involved masks include: The Tempest (Old Vic, 1974); Jean Seberg (Olivier, 1983); Animal Farm (Cottesloe, 1984); and Lysistrata (Old Vic, 1993).

17. We include here not only performances by amateurs (e.g., medieval mystery plays) but also professional companies visiting venues such as prisons (e.g., Geese Theatre Company) and schools. Another form is ‘living-room’ theatre: see ‘Homework’ by Harradine, David in Total Theatre, XI, No. 4 (Winter 1999), p. 116–18.

18. We are indebted to Cyril Ives of Stagestruck Costume Company, Old Spitalfields Market, for this example.

19. Reynolds, Peter, Unmasking Oedipus (London: National Theatre Education, 1996).

20. Quoted in Brown, Georgina, ‘Behind the Ironic Mask’, The Independent, 14 08 1996.

21. Ibid.

22. Hall, Peter, Exposed by the Mask: Form and Language in Drama (London: Oberon Books, 2000), p. 35–6.

23. The production was staged as part of the Stroud Festival on 8 and 9 September 2000, in an adaptation by George Taylor and Michael Chase.

24. These and later citations are from an unpublished interview, which took place in September 2000. Grateful thanks to Jane Belcher for her transcript.

25. For an introduction to Vovolis's work, see Wiles, David, Greek Theatre Performance: an Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 151–3.

26. We are grateful to George Croft for his photographs and video record of the project, and to Ray Lambert for further technical assistance.

27. Steiner, Rudolf, Speech and Drama, trans. Adams, M. (London: Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 1960), p. 29 ff.

28. Rodenburg, Patsy, The Need for Words: Voice and the Text (London: Methuen, 1994), p. 8895.

29. Herbert, Jocelyn, A Theatre Workbook, ed. Courtney, Cathy (London: Art Books International, 1993), p. 123.

30. Rodenburg, Patsy, The Actor Speaks: Voice and the Performer (London: Methuen, 1998), p. 328.

31. Further experimentation by Chris Vervain suggests that an adjustable headband secured to the mask is an alternative solution.

32. Rodenburg, The Actor Speaks, p. 296–7, 306.

33. Speech and Drama, p. 319.

34. We are grateful to the College for allowing us to use the theatre.

35. Brook, Peter, The Shifting Point: Forty Years of Theatrical Exploration (London: Methuen, 1988), p. 130.

36. Particular thanks to Andrew Eglinton, Richard Hendin, and Rebecca Longworth for their detailed accounts of their experiences.

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