Greek Theater Question

Here’s a question I don’t have an answer to:

How did actors express emotion on stage in ancient Greek theater?

This came up in part because I was reading Oedipus Rex1 and I realized I really don’t know anything at all about Greek prosody. I know absolutely nothing about the non-natural features of speech that were probably used on stage. I’d been thinking about this a while ago too because I read something about how Molière had to train the “country-style” acting out of his troupe and teach them his own style, and I wasn’t sure if that meant a sort of aesthetics of presentation or an approach to the actor’s art. My guess is the former, but that’s not a well-informed guess.2

When I started looking into this briefly, I found a lot of theater sources, but those seem like they’re mostly about the context in which the plays were put on, and the masks, and the stage, and the plots, and so on. I did find at least one book that appears to specifically address the ephemeral performance aspects of theater. So I’ll probably start with that and see what sources are suggested there. The path probably ends with Aristotle but who knows, maybe I’ll be surprised.

Non-natural emotional schemes of expression3 have always really interested me. Commedia, in particular. I even took a commedia class despite my epic shyness because I am convinced that embodied knowledge through practice is the only way to comprehend certain topics.4 But I don’t even really know how to phrase this as a good search question. Like, I think what I have is a primarily linguistic question in this case, and I’m not sure this path is the right one, so I’m looking at a more general prosody book too.

It’s sort of the same problem as reconstructing fencing techniques from manuals. It’s not always clear, even if you have a lot of instructions, what the hell the instructions actually mean. When you’re messing around with swords, you can at least determine if what you’re doing is effective or logical, because it’s a physical process with a physical goal.5 But human expression has no logic except within its own system.6 Like, the encoding of emotion in noh theater is basically impossible for an outsider to understand at first glance. I also imagine it would be impossible to reconstruct from written sources.

Hopefully I’ll come back with an answer. But not anytime soon, because my book came out yesterday and my brain is not working. P.S. yay book!

  1. By reading I mean putting on a one woman show for the benefit of my cat, like a weirdo.
  2. Gosh, if only one of my parents had a PhD in theater. Then I’d have someone to ask.
  3. I still don’t know the right words to explain this concept.
  4. I’ve always been really suspicious of the line drawn between knowing and doing. Is performance or creation a kind of knowledge, or a type of act?
  5. Killing people. That’s the goal.
  6. This is…mostly…true. There’s some argument that there are universal human expressions, which is kind of a logic. And there are emergent logics of grammar, but of prosodic features? Not sure about that.