This article was originally published in The Attic Theatre. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898. pp. 249-259.
BEFORE proceeding to give an account of the actors in the ancient Greek drama, there are one or two points which ought to be made clear, in order to avoid possible misconceptions. In the first place the actors and the chorus were entirely distinct from one another. The chorus was chosen and paid by the choregus, and performed in the orchestra. The actors were hired by the state, and their proper place was upon the stage. The term "hypokrites," or "actor," was never applied to the members of the chorus. It was not even applied to all the performers upon the stage, but only to such of them as took a prominent part in the dialogue. The various mute characters, such as the soldiers and attendants, and also the subordinate characters who had only a few words to say, were not dignified with the title of "actor." In the second place it should be remembered that the Greek actors invariably wore masks, and were consequently able to appear in several parts in the course of the same performance. When, therefore, it is said that in the early history of Greek tragedy only a single actor was employed in each play, this does not imply that the number of characters was limited to one. All it implies is that only one character could appear at a time. The number of actors in a Greek play never exceeded three, even in the latest period. But the effect of this regulation upon the capacities of the Greek drama was less cramping and restrictive than might have been supposed. There was no limitation to the number of mute and subordinate characters which might be introduced at any time upon the stage. There was no restriction upon the number of more prominent characters, provided they were not brought upon the stage simultaneously. The only limitation was this -- that not more than three of the more prominent characters could take part in the dialogue in the course of the same scene.
The principal function of the actors was to carry on the dialogue and work out the action of the play. The principal function of the chorus was to sing the odes which filled up the pauses in the action. Of course very frequently the chorus took part in the dialogue; but, speaking in general terms, the dialogue was the business of the actors. Such was the condition of things during the best period of the Attic drama. But in former times the case had been very different. At first the whole performance was a choral one, and consisted simply of the songs and hymns chanted at the festivals of Dionysus. There were no actors and there was no dialogue. The history of the early development of the drama is in other words the history of the gradual introduction of actors and dialogue into the choral entertainment, and the gradual increase in the importance of the dialogue, until eventually it overshadowed the choral part altogether. The first step in the process by which a lyrical performance was converted into a dramatic one was as follows. The custom arose of filling up the intervals between the different portions of the choral songs with recitations by the leader of the chorus, and dialogues between him and the other members. For this purpose the leader of the chorus used to mount upon a small table. The subject of the recitations and the dialogues would be the same as the subject of the ode, and would in most cases refer to the adventures of the god Dionysus. In these interludes by the leader of the chorus lay the germ of the drama. The performance as a whole was still essentially lyrical, but the practice of inserting dialogue had been established. In the case of tragedy the next step forward was taken by Thespis. He introduced a single actor, who took the part which had previously been taken by the leader of the chorus, and filled up the pauses in the choral odes either with monologues or with dialogues between himself and the leader. Not much is known about the drama of Thespis except that it was essentially lyrical. But as he is said to have employed masks, it is clear that the single actor might appear in different characters in successive scenes, and in this way some approach might be made to a dramatic representation of a story. The decisive innovation was due to Aeschylus. He introduced a second actor, and effected a total change in the character of the performance. Henceforward the intervals between the choral odes were filled with dialogues between the two actors upon the stage, instead of dialogues between the single actor and the leader of the chorus. At the same time Aeschylus cut down the length of the choral odes, and made the dialogue the essential and prominent feature of the performance. The result was a radical change in the nature of tragedy: it became a dramatic instead of a lyrical form of art. During the greater part of his career Aeschylus was contented with two actors. Three at least out of his seven extant plays are written for performance by two actors only. This limitation upon the number of performers necessitated great simplicity in the construction of the play, since it was impossible for more than two personages to take part in the dialogue at the same time. Hence the earlier plays of Aeschylus, though essentially dramatic in comparison with anything which preceded them, are simple in plot and lyrical in tone when compared with the tragedies of his successors. The different scenes rather serve to unfold a series of pictures than to develop a complicated plot. Descriptive speeches take the place of animated dialogue. Sophocles added greatly to the capacities of the drama by introducing a third actor. He was thus enabled to give much greater variety and spirit to the dialogue. In his hands for the first time tragedy became essentially dramatic, and the lyrical element was thrust still further into the background. The innovation of Sophocles was adopted by Aeschylus in his later years, and the Orestean trilogy -- the last and most elaborate of his works -- requires three actors. Under Sophocles tragedy received its full development. The number of actors in tragedy was henceforward limited to three.
The satyric drama was intimately connected with tragedy, and the number of actors was apparently the same. Thus the Cyclops of Euripides, the only extant satyric play, requires three actors. In the Naples vase-painting, which represents the performers in a satyric play, three actors are depicted. It is true that the Alcestis of Euripides, which was performed in place of the usual satyric drama, only requires two actors. But the number in this case was probably due to the choice of the poet, and not to any official regulation. In regard to comedy, very little is known as to the steps by which it was developed. The source of comedy lay in the phallic songs performed at the festivals of Dionysus. The dramatic element originated in the interludes by the leader of the chorus. The process of development must have been much the same as in tragedy; but the names of the persons who introduced actors and dialogue into comedy were forgotten even in Aristotle's time. The only piece of information upon the subject is to the effect that Cratinus was the first to limit the number of actors to three, and that before his time there was no regulation as to the number of persons introduced upon the stage. After the time of Cratinus there were no further innovations, and the number of actors in comedy was permanently fixed at three.
This number was never exceeded either in comedy or in tragedy. All the extant Greek plays could be performed by three actors. It is sometimes said that the Oedipus Coloneus of Sophocles requires four actors; but this is not the case. Although there are several occasions on which Ismene appears upon the stage simultaneously with three other personages, still on each of these occasions she does not say a word, but is merely a mute figure. It is evident therefore that during this portion of the play her part was taken by a "super," while at the beginning and end of the play, where she had speeches to make, the part was acted by the tritagonist. It might at first sight appear that the comedies of Aristophanes require more than three actors; but investigations have shown that there is not one of his plays which could not be performed by this number, assisted by a supply of "supers."
The smallness in the number of the actors necessarily limited the capacities of the Greek drama. It made it impossible for life to be represented upon the stage with the realism of a modern play. Mute personages -- such as officers, soldiers, and servants -- might be introduced in any number; but the characters taking part in the dialogue could never at any one time exceed three. The realistic effect produced by a promiscuous conversation between a large group of persons was impossible upon the Greek stage. Sometimes a certain awkwardness was caused by this limitation in the number of performers. In the extant Greek dramas occasions are not infrequent where a fourth actor might have been a great advantage. For instance, there is the exciting scene at the end of the Orestes of Euripides. Orestes is seen upon the roof of the palace threatening to kill Hermione, and Pylades is standing beside him. Menelaus from below makes a piteous appeal to Pylades, but Pylades says not a single word in reply, but leaves Orestes to answer for him. His silence is very unnatural, and is only to be accounted for by the fact that there was no actor to spare, and therefore the poet could not put any words in his mouth. Two of the actors were already employed in playing the parts of Orestes and Menelaus, and the third was required for Apollo, who comes on the scene immediately afterwards. Consequently the part of Pylades had to be taken by a mute personage. Then again there is the scene at the end of the Electra of Euripides. Orestes has heard his fate, and as he leaves the stage he bids farewell to Pylades, and urges him to marry his sister Electra. Pylades maintains a stolid silence, and the Dioscuri reply on his behalf. Here again his silence is due to the necessities of the case. The three actors with whom the poet was supplied were all employed, and Pylades was merely a dumb figure. Similar instances of awkward and almost ludicrous silence on the part of certain characters will occur to all readers of the Greek drama. But they are not so numerous as might have been expected, and it is astonishing to find how successfully the Greek drama, keeping within its own peculiar limits, was able to accomplish its ends with three actors only.
There were several advantages in the smallness of the number. In the first place the dialogue gained in clearness and simplicity, owing to the fewness of the persons taking part in it. This simplicity was especially well suited to the severe and statuesque character of Greek tragedy, in which the rapid movement of a dialogue between a large number of persons would have been altogether inappropriate. In the extant Greek tragedies even the three actors permitted by custom are used with considerable reserve. They are never allowed to join promiscuously in the dialogue for any length of time. Whenever three characters are upon the stage, it will be found that in most cases one of them stands by in silence, while the other two carry on the dialogue. The two change from time to time, but it is only on rare occasions and for brief periods that all three converse promiscuously together. It appears, therefore, that the Greek tragic writers, so far from feeling the restriction upon the number of actors as an impediment, did not even employ the number allowed by custom with as much freedom as they might have done. There was another obvious advantage in the restriction. As only three actors were needed, it was easy to ensure that they should all be performers of first-rate excellence. In modern times the large number of actors required constitutes a great difficulty. It is rare to see the subordinate characters in a play of Shakespeare even tolerably performed. The effect of the piece is spoiled by the feebleness of the princes, dukes, lords, and ladies who crowd the stage. In the Greek drama, owing to the limitation upon the number of performers, this difficulty was avoided, and a high standard of excellence maintained throughout the play. It was all the more necessary, among the Greeks, to take some precaution of this kind, since the size of the theatre demanded unusual powers in the actor. In a modern theatre an actor, however poor, can at any rate usually be heard. But in the vast open-air theatre at Athens it required a man with an exceptionally clear and powerful voice to make himself audible to the vast multitude of spectators. It cannot have been an easy task to find actors who combined histrionic talent with voices of sufficient power, and if a large number had been required, there would have been great difficulty in meeting the demand. This consideration doubtless helped to ensure the continued observance of the rule as to the number of the actors.
The original Greek word for an actor was "hypokrites." Etymologically the word seems to have meant "one who answers." According to the old grammarians the origin of the term was due to the fact that in the early drama, when the chorus played the principal part, the main function of the actor was to "reply to the chorus." This derivation of the word is very likely the correct one. In the times before Aeschylus, when there was only one actor, all the dialogue was necessarily carried on between the actor and the chorus. It is therefore not improbable that the duty of replying to the questions and remarks of the chorus may have been regarded as the salient feature in the performance of the actor, and have given rise to his name. In the course of the fourth century the old Attic word for an actor went out of use, and a new one was substituted. Henceforward actors were generally called "artists," or "artists of Dionysus."
As far as tragedy is concerned, the art of acting may be said to have commenced in the time of Thespis. But actors did not come into existence as a separate class until many years afterwards. Before the period of Aeschylus, when only a single actor was required, his part was taken by the poet. It is expressly said that Thespis was "himself acting, according to ancient custom," at the performance which excited the disapproval of Solon. But when a second actor was introduced by Aeschylus, then the actor's profession became of necessity distinct from that of the poet. For some time afterwards the poets continued to act occasionally in their own tragedies, side by side with the professional actors. But the practice went gradually out of fashion in the course of the earlier part of the fifth century. Aeschylus appears, from the statement in his Life, to have abandoned the stage even before the introduction of the second actor. Sophocles was prevented from appearing as an actor by the weakness of his voice. It is true that he sometimes performed in public. In the Thamyris he played the harp, and in the Nausicaa he delighted the spectators by his skill with the ball. But it is not likely that on either of these occasions he took a regular actor's part. He probably appeared upon the scene merely as a mute character, in order to show his skill with the harp and the ball. After the time of Sophocles there are no further instances of tragic poets performing in their own plays. As to the early history of comic acting very little is known. Cratinus is mentioned as one of the old poets who were called "dancers," and it is therefore probable that he acted in his own comedies. Crates is said to have begun his career as an actor of Cratinus. But after his time there is no certain instance of a comic poet appearing upon the stage. The professional actor was universally employed. The statement that Aristophanes acted the part of Cleon in the Knights is due to a misconception on the part of the scholiast.
It appears then that it was in the beginning of the fifth century that the profession of the actor came into existence as a distince occupation. It grew very rapidly in importance. At first the actors who took part in the competitions were regarded as mere subordinates, and had no share in the honours and rewards. But towards the middle of the century a change was made, and prizes began to be instituted for the best actors, as well as for the best poets. The names of the actors began to be recorded in the official lists of victors, side by side with those of the poets and choregi. In the fourth century the actors sprang into still greater prominence. The art of acting tended to outshine the art of dramatic writing. An age of great actors succeeded to an age of great poets. The same phenomenon is not uncommon in the theatrical history of other nations. In England, for instance, a period of dramatic productiveness was followed by a period of sterility and insignificance, and from the time of Garrick downwards the names of the great actors, who have made themselves famous by interpreting the masterpieces of Shakespeare, are more conspicuous than the names of dramatic authors. In Athens the fourth century was the period when acting was brought to the greatest perfection. To such an extent had the importance of the actor's profession increased, that in Aristotle's time a play depended more for its success upon the skill of the actor than upon the genius of the poet. The effect upon dramatic writing was most pernicious. The poets began to write their plays with a view to exhibiting the capacities of the actors. Scenes which had no connection with the plot were introduced for the sole purpose of enabling an actor to make display of his talents. Sophocles is said by one of the old grammarians to have been guilty of the same sort of practice. But if there is any truth in the statement, the evil effects are not very apparent in the extant tragedies. The charge might be brought with more plausibility against the monodies of Euripides, which are often feeble from a literary point of view, but would enable an actor with a fine voice to make a great impression. However it was not until the fourth century that the influence of the actors became so universal as to inflict distinct injury upon the art of dramatic writing.
The selection of the necessary number of actors for each dramatic performance was, except in very early times, undertaken by the state. During the early part of the fifth century the poets chose their own actors. Certain poets and certain actors were permanently associated together. But as the actors increased in importance, they were placed on the same footing as the poets and choregi, and were appointed by the state. They were then distributed among the poets by lots. In the course of the fourth century the use of the lot was discontinued in the case of tragedy, and a new arrangement was adopted, which was rendered possible by the fact that each tragic poet exhibited several tragedies at the same time. Under the new system each tragedy was performed by a different actor, and in this way all the competing poets enjoyed in turn the services of all the actors. In comedy, as each poet exhibited only a single play, the old system of distribution by lot was retained. If an actor was engaged for one of the great Athenian festivals, and failed to put in an appearance, he was fined by the state. On one occasion Athenodorus, the great tragic actor, was hired to perform at the City Dionysia. But he failed to keep his engagement, as he preferred to be present and perform at the festivities held by Alexander the Great in Phoenicia, after his return from Egypt. A heavy fine was inflicted upon him in consequence, but the fine was paid by Alexander.
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