The Remains of Ancient Action

Understanding affect and empathy in Greek drama

Authored by: Peter Meineck

The Routledge Companion to Theatre, Performance, and Cognitive Science

Print publication date:  September  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138048898
eBook ISBN: 9781315169927
Adobe ISBN:


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In this chapter, I will explore the application of cognitive theory to ancient drama and how this approach can help us understand more about how these plays functioned in antiquity. In doing so I also hope to dispel a few theatrical myths that still surround Greek drama, and inform the way in which these ancient plays are interpreted by modern practitioners. The focus of most studies on ancient Greek drama has tended to be either textual – that is the recovery, interpretation and translation of what has come down to us via the manuscript tradition, or, to a lesser extent, material – the archaeological remains of the performance spaces and the iconographic evidence found on ancient vase paintings and relief sculpture. My work involves using this evidence alongside cognitive theory to try and gain a better understanding of Greek drama from an experiential perspective. My basic question is: what was the live experience of watching a play in Athens in the fifth century bce like? How did the extra-textual elements of the performance (movement, music, masks, props, environment, surprise, non-linguistic verbalisations, etc.) contribute to the entire theatrical event? The small amount of evidence we do possess for the reception of these plays in antiquity all allude to how the experience was a highly emotional one, and how drama could ‘move the soul’ (Plato, Minos 231a, Isocrates, Evagoras 2.49 and 2.10, and Aristotle, Poetics 1450b.16–21). Therefore, an approach that applies research from the affective sciences, cognitive theory and social psychology can be useful in better understanding how Greek theatre functioned in antiquity. Here I will briefly explore three areas based on my recent research on cognitive approaches to the experiential elements of ancient drama: environment, masks, and movement (Meineck, 2017).

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