No one fully understands the nature of ancient Greek theatre. The barriers that stand between the scholars of the Twentieth Century and the truth of the theatrical practices of 5th and 4th centuries B.C. Athens are: 2,500 years of divergent cultures, incomplete collections of plays, vases, figurines, and theatre spaces, and a lack of the proper tools with which the evidence can be examined. Yet, hypotheses can be formulated, conclusions drawn, and understanding strengthened by undertaking a thorough and painstaking analysis of all the available data. A limited understanding of the Greek theatre is the ultimate promise of this continuing research. However, seeking this restricted perspective is clearly the only choice for those who have discovered the provocative remains of a great lost theatre.
Deciding what can be learned from ancient vases is a difficult problem for experts and novices alike. Questions pertaining to theatre further complicate matters with the added condition that the vase must be depicting a scene that is theatrical in nature. Green asserts that the ancient artists "were not at work to provide visual aids for textbooks and lectures. We can, with care, use them in that way as aids to a modern imagination" (Green 1995, p.13). Green's statement brings to light the importance of cautious research into this area of history, especially keeping in mind the context in which the vases were made and used. Certainly, vases exist which are, as Green explains it, "inescapably" linked to the theatre. A sample of these well-understood vases is examined below.
Historians often agree on the subject matter of certain Greek vases because of one or more distinguishing qualities like the presence of masks, staging, inscriptions of the names of characters, and elaborate costuming. A neck-amphora by the Ixion Painter (c.350 B.C., Kiel, private collection) "represents an actor with the satyr mask he has been wearing drawn up on top of his head" (Trendall 1989, p. 161). An Apulian bell-krater by the Tarporley Painter (400-380 B.C., Sydney 47.05) depicts "three chorusmen for a satyr play" (Trendall 1971 p. 29). Two of the men hold their masks while the third begins to dance near a tambourine, the instrument further supporting the theatrical nature of the vase. All authors cited agree that the presence of masks is theatrical.
Assertions are easily made in the presence of staging, inscriptions, and elaborate costumes. One Apulian bell-krater (380-370 B.C., London B.M. F. 151) depicts a phlyax play and represents a wooden stage and masks of comic actors. An inscription describes the main character as "Cheiron." The fourth vase to be considered is equally uncontested in its theatrical nature. A Paestan bell-krater, signed by Python, (c. 425 B.C., London F. 149) illustrates Euripides' Alkmene with the conventions of elaborate dress and foot-wear and the names of each major character inscribed above his head. Even the most cautious historian is swayed to believe that this vase is theatrical. Although the reliability of most of the Greek vases as sources of theatre history is debatable, as is the reliability of the historians reporting on those vases.
Eight vases examined in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are discussed here with respect to what can be understood from the primary source and the accompanying commentaries. Looking at the actual vases offers a far more vivid perspective than any high quality photograph can capture. The detail of the rich costumes is often lost, evidence of sometimes-fraudulent restorations is made clear, and the elements accentuated with color are given their due attention by the observer. The vases themselves, after all, are the true sources of all subsequent discussion.
An Attic red-figured bell-krater by Lykaon Painter (440 B.C., Boston 00.346), according to Trendall 1971 p.62, is a scene in Aeschylus' Toxotides. On it, Actaion is being attacked by dogs. The presence of Zeus and Lyssa is evidence relating the vase to the play. The other data used for this linkage are the tragic costuming, Aktaion's special horn mask, and the inscriptions over the actors, including one that identifies the main figure as Euaion, the son of Aeschylus. The reverse side shows two women and a youth conversing, but neither the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston nor Trendall addresses this half of the vase. Less dramatic visually, the reverse side may still depict an important dialogue in the play or perhaps audience members reacting to the performance. Notably, Trendall claims that this vase is a depiction of a scene in performance, not merely a representation of the story.
Trendall asserts that a Faliscan kalyx-krater by the Nazzano Painter (c.375 B.C., Boston 1970.487) is probably "derived from a stage production" of Euripides' Telephos (Trendall 1971, p.104). The vase lacks inscriptions, but the ornate costuming, including decorated boots and drapery seem to indicate tragic conventions. Again, however, no mention is made by the museum or Trendall on the contents of the reverse side which, in this case, is a scene with satyrs and Dionysus. The presence of satyrs and the god may indicate a theatrical scene or merely the visitation of Dionysus. The possibility is never examined by Trendall. Also, the museum highlights the "side A" with a special spot-light, sending the back-side into darkness and leaving the complete story left untold.
An even more abstract specimen is conveniently categorized by Trendall as having a theatrical nature (Trendall 1971, p.66). The Attic red-figured pyxis-lid by Aison (450-425 B.C., Boston 04.18) is a small lid possibly showing Odysseus coming out of a bush. One of the five women in the piece is wearing an ornate costume, and Trendall states that she must be the leader of the chorus, but besides the costuming of this individual little suggests a theatre scene at all. The reliance on the costume evidence is put into question because the lower half of all the figures was lost and restored by a contemporary scholar. Here, Trendall's argument is weakly supported. Another vase with vague theatrical elements is pinned to something more concrete by Trendall (Trendall 1971 p.63). The Attic red-figured pelike (450-440 B.C., Boston 63.2663) shows an ornately costumed individual being tied to a pole by a black servant. Trendall points out that the vase may "well represent memories of the same production" of Sophocles' Andromeda. Not appreciably clear is the manner in which Trendall reaches this conclusion. To be sure, the figure is likely to be Andromeda, but there is no way of suggesting that the image was inspired by an actual production.
Boardman describes a scene with three satyrs as perhaps being theatrical. The neck-amphora by the Charmides Painter (c.470 B.C., Boston 76.46) shows the satyrs in a small procession in what "might be a skit" (Boardman 1975, p.195). The possibility that the satyrs may be a part of the activities of Dionysus is not considered, and the back of the vase is also ignored by Boardman. Fairly consistently Boardman describes both sides of the vases in his Athenian Red Figure Vases: the Archaic Period, but here, with the unusual depiction of a fourth satyr with his back to the viewer, only half of the vase is discussed. Also lost in Boardman's photograph is the radiance of the old satyr's white hair. The museum briefly describes the reverse side, but only "side A" is open to the public.
Interestingly, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston takes a more liberal position than that of Trendall on an Attic black-figured skyphos of the Heron Group (500-490 B.C., Boston 20.18). The museum claims that the men riding dolphins and ostriches are members of a chorus, while the only evidence of a theatrical scene is the flute player on both sides of the vase. Trendall, who freely assigns theatrical importance to many vague vases, sees that pinning the vase to theatre is only a possibility (Trendall 1971, p.22). He does mention the chance that the image is one of a chorus and an early comic actor, however. The black-figured vase is the most unusual in this analysis and is understandably difficult to link to the Greek theatre.
Again in this instance, Boardman ignores the reverse side of a cup by the Telephos Painter (470-460 B.C., Boston 95.30) and asserts that the satyrs and the maenads of the first side may be theatrical, but he gives no definitive response. Here, a look at the reverse side of the vase would reveal Dionysus, and yet the only evidence Boardman uses to imply a theatrical subject matter is the "flying drapery" of the maenads (Boardman 1975, p.196). He ignores also the presence of a flute player, a detail Trendall would not have missed.
The last vase of this discussion is a kalyx-krater by the Dokimasia Painter (460 B.C., Boston 63.1246). The vase depicts the deaths of Agamemnon and of Aegisthus with Clytemnestra present in both. Upon an examination of this piece the observer notices that the costumes are not quite as elaborate as some other depictions of Greek tragedy, and the characters lack the decorated boots that are often worn by tragic actors. Nevertheless, these observations are put aside because the subject matter of this particular vase is made quite clear. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston neatly describes the large specimen as being "scenes from the Orestea." A dilemma presents itself with this description.
The Agamemnon was first performed several years after the creation of the kalyx-krater, so the play did not exist when the vase was painted. Clearly, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has made a serious error. John Boardman confirms this discovery:
The Agamemnon, with the king enveloped in a cloth, recalls Aeschylus' treatment of the story, but on conventional dating the vase is earlier than the production of the Agamemnon (456 B.C.), and we should therefore suppose this version of the story to be the invention of an earlier poet (Boardman 1975, p.137).
The realization that even the most credible authorities must be scrutinized is potentially unsettling for any historian. Even the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston reports faulty information. In this case, the correct information was published over twenty years ago by at least one author, and still the facts have yet to surface at the museum. Perhaps this gross error is the only one of its kind in the Greek vase exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Considering the small sample size of this research, that possibility is highly unlikely.
What is likely is that all sources that deal with Greek vases, especially in the context of theatre history, contain misleading data and should be handled with some discretion. Unfortunately, false and misleading information will always be present in some form in the body of research, and the job of the conscientious researcher becomes more significant in the light of this fact. Ultimately, the reward for questioning the validity of all data is the historical description that is closest to the truth.
Finding the truth of the nature of Greek theatre by examining the vases is probably impossible, but a better history can certainly be developed. In the spirit of this pursuit a researcher must make several important considerations specific to the area of Greek vases. The vases, first of all, were objects of commercial value and the scenes painted on them were made attractive to buyers. Many of the vases dealing with theatrical subjects were unearthed in Southern Italy, Sicily and other Mediterranean lands because the Greeks exported the images that had lost some popularity in Greece itself but were just beginning to be popular in other areas. So much of the extant vases that can be used for research into ancient Greek theatre are not actually from Greece, and the many revivals of the Greek plays may have been represented by foreign artists. And there is no evidence that any painter actually saw a play before painting on a vase. This information should compel cautious searching.
Further problems arise with investigations into the tragedies. Unlike the vases depicting comedies, there is no evidence of tragic actors acting on a vase, rather they are always in realities of the play. This makes linking comedy scenes rather easy and tragic ones more difficult. Of course, not even half of all the Greek plays are illustrated in any manner on pottery. Even by the most generous estimates the "illustrations cover only 40 of the 82 plays of Aeschylus, 37 of the 123 plays of Sophocles, and 48 of the 87 plays of Euripides" (Trendall 1971, p.1).
Another problem associated with this particular body of research lies in the dating of the vases. Until the 5th c. B.C. dating is based upon stylistic changes in the artwork, and the vases and other works are loosely attached to an absolute calendar date. As Cook points out, "absolute dating is precarious" (Cook 1972, p.268). The dating through the 4th c. B.C. and beyond becomes much more accurate with the more complete accounts of the potters and painters of the time. As explained earlier with the vase concerning the death of Agamemnon, the difference of just four years in the dating may lead to completely different sets of data. For a good chronology see Cook 1972, pp. 266-7.
The observations and problems associated with this particular research project will be helpful to future researchers. The scope of this project was limited chiefly by time and by the inexperience of the undergraduate researchers in the field of Greek vases. The first and most resilient obstacle was the seemingly subjective nature of the analyses made by various experts. At many times, the position of the authors could not be disputed for lack of background in the subject area. Seeing the vases personally was the most beneficial aspect of this research. The first problem in this area is finding the vases of interest, and without any assistance from the museum other than the accession number this task becomes one of trial and error. Once the piece is found, of course, the efforts are worthwhile. Evidence of restorations, forgeries, inscriptions, and the fading line details were all available to the viewer, and the value of examining the primary work cannot be under estimated. The colors of these vases are really quite impressive and may serve to highlight important figures in the theatrical scenes. This distinction is lost in the photographs.
As with any body of research there are some important problems to consider, but these issues can be resolved. When they are a newer, more complete body of information is made available to the public, and a fuller understanding of the nature of the Greek theatre is made possible. As Green suggests, perhaps the vases are most valuable to the 20th century as an aid to "modern imagination." Certainly, as long as the authority of the experts is kept in check with new approaches and questions, then the vitality of research into the history of the Greek theatre will continue.
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© 1996 Philip Bolin and Mathew Corthell