Greek Semiotics

Dr. Peter Meineck is the Clinical Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Studies at New York University and the Artistic Director of Aquila Theatre and is well known for his translations of Greek plays, including Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which won the Lewis Galantiere Award for Literary Translation from the American Translators Association.

Dr. Meineck recently delivered a speech here at Trinity on “The Neuroscience of the Tragic Mask”. Scholars of the Greek theater believe that actors and the chorus performed with a mask. He argues that tragic mask used by ancient Greek actors was invented alongside narrative drama. This is the only possible time for its construction as the mask enables narrative drama because of its ambiguity. Constructed with specific feature, a large lower lip, broad flat forehead and expressionless eyebrows, the mask held an ambiguous expression that when rotated accurately depicted the seven basic emotions described by Paul Ekman. This construction is also seen in other cultures’ art of mask making such as the oriental

The obscure expression was the power of the mask. It enabled the audience to create their ideal facial expressions and personality for each character. The actor merely gave the direction and raw emotion that was desired for that scene. It is in many ways much like the contemporary comic book. The cartoon-like masks allows the viewer to connect with the actor and focus more on the dialogue of the play. These results are vital to the dramatic narrative as the scene was created through the descriptions given to the audience and the plot relied entirely on the dialogue. Signifies are the other main prop used in these plays and must be used liberally to construct the desired environment for the actors. Costumes and the body are emphasized as the face is left to be the canopy for the audience’s imagination.

 He also showed that individuals that knew how to perform would have the same brain section fire while watching the performance that would be used if they were the actors. Every Greek man would have participated in a drama at one point in their life and thus experience the play as if they were part of the action. Combined with the participation in the creation of characters by the ambiguous mask, Dr. Meineck claims Greek audience would have experienced Tragedies in a profoundly deeper and more personal way than we experience in our theater.

 For further reading, check out his work here.

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