© Hellenic Museum Argonauts Club

ANCIENT DRAMA

BACKGROUND: ANCIENT GREEK THEATRE 

Theatre has been a central part of Greek culture since the 6th century BCE. Most Greek cities had an open-air theatre where people would gather to watch plays put on during religious festivals. The earliest plays were tragedies, followed later by comedies. These two types of Greek drama became hugely popular all though the Mediterranean world, and formed the foundation on which all modern theatre is based. 

The ancient theatre was designed to take advantage of natural acoustics which allowed sound to travel up to the top seats without amplification.  The theatre was made up of the main stage (orchestra), two side entrances to the stage (parodos) and scene building (skene). The skene walls would form part of the scenery of the play. In some plays the ancient Greeks used a type of crane which allowed actors posing as gods to float down from above. 

PLAYING THE PART

One of the earliest and best preserved open air ancient Greek theatres is the Theatre of Dionysus (below). It was dedicated to Dionysus, the patron of the arts and god of wine. It could seat 17,000 people.

Men and boys played all the roles in an ancient Greek play as women were not allowed to take part in public events. The actors wore costumes and masks to enable the audience to tell who was whom in the play.

The masks were made from stiffened linen, with holes for the actors eyes and mouth. Actors also wore wigs. They wore thick-soled shoes too, to make them look taller, and padded costumes to make them look fatter, stronger or more womanly. The masks showed the audience what kind of character an actor was playing (sad, angry or funny). Some masks had two sides, so the actor could turn them round to suit the mood for each scene.

ACTIVITY 1 - MAKE YOUR OWN GREEK THEATRE MASK

PAPER MASK

Materials:

  • Construction paper (or paper plate)

  • Scissors

  • Elastic (or wool/string)

  • Things to decorate your mask (textas, paints, pipe cleaners, wool, coloured paper)

Directions:

1. To make your own Greek mask first draw what you would like your mask to look like on a piece of card.

2. Outline the elements of the mask in texta/pencil

3. Mark out the eyes and mouth on the cardboard, and carefully cut these out. 4. Decorate the mask however you like. (we went with simple black and red but you could use curly paper or wool for hair and a beard, or any other decoration you like)

4. Finally punch a hole on both sides of the mask and attach elastic, wool or string so the mask can be worn.

PAPIER MACHE MASK

Materials:

  • Strips of newspaper (2cm wide and 15cm long)

  • Flour

  • Water

  • Balloon

  • Cotton wool balls

  • Masking tape

  • Sandpaper

  • Paint

Directions:

1. Blow up a balloon to use as a form. Be sure it is big enough to cover your face 2. On the balloon, draw where any openings will be (mouth and eyes, for example)

3. Add cotton wool covered with masking tape to the balloon to make the nose, wrinkles, lips, eyebrows and facial expressions.

4. Mix together flour and water to make paste. Start with about two cups of each.

5. Dip a newspaper strip into the paste mixture. Use fingers like a squeegee to wipe off excess. Place the strip on the balloon and smooth out any wrinkles or air bubbles. Repeat in criss-cross pattern, at odd angles and slightly overlapping, until front of balloon and all the sculptural elements are covered. Leave holes where you drew the mouth and eye holes.

6.Let it dry completely. Then add more strips in another layer. Repeat for a third layer. All the layers add strength to the mask.

7. Let the mask dry completely. Sand out any unwanted wrinkles or blemishes. Then, pop the balloon and remove the cotton wool padding.

8. Paint and decorate the mask according to your sketch.

ACTIVITY 2 - ACT IT OUT!

​Read the Argonauts comic book story so that you can get inspired to act out some thrilling scenes!! 

 

You could act out the Argonauts myth with your friends, neighbours or classmates. Imagine you are acting in an Ancient Greek theatre (Ancient Greek plays were held outside). The performers in Ancient Greek dramas usually wore masks to look like the characters they were acting. Try making your own masks, or buy mask templates from a craft store and decorate them with paint and sequins. 

Consider:

  • The event from the Argonauts you want to portray

  • The characters involved and who will play them

  • The actions you want to show

  • The script (words) that the actors will say

 

 Below you will find an example for how to act out an important scene from the Argonauts’ voyage. You could try this one, or come up with your own ideas…

Argonauts Dramatic Performance: The Theft of the Golden Fleece

 

Dramatis personae (characters in the scene):

 

  • Jason

  • Medea

  • The serpent-dragon

  • Three or four Argonauts

 

Script:

 

Excerpt from Argonautica (Book 4): ‘…and they two [Jason and Medea] by the pathway came to the sacred grove, seeking the huge oak tree on which was hung the fleece, like a cloud that blushes red with the fiery beams of the rising sun. But right in front the serpent with his keen sleepless eyes saw them coming, and stretched out his long neck and hissed … and all round the long banks of the river echoed and the boundless grove…’  

 

The scene is set in a wooded grove or garden, where there is a tall tree, on which hangs the Golden Fleece. Under the same tree, the serpent (played by an actor) lies with its eyes open, guarding the precious fleece. 

 

(Enter Jason and Medea.)

 

(When it sees them approaching, the serpent hisses loudly. Jason appears frightened and stands back a little, but Medea walks forward towards the dragon.)

 

Jason: Oh no! The dragon, look - it’s even more terrifying than the legends say…

 

Medea: Don’t be afraid, Jason. I know how to help you, just as I promised. I will lull the guardian serpent to sleep and give you the golden fleece.

 

(Medea starts to sing sweetly. As she sings to the monster, it gradually relaxes, stops hissing and falls asleep.)

 

Excerpt from the book Argonautica: ‘…the serpent, already charmed by her song, was relaxing the long ridge of his giant spine, and lengthening out his myriad coils, like a dark wave, dumb and noiseless, rolling over a sluggish sea…’

 

(To make sure the monster stays asleep, Medea picks some herbs and recites a magical incantation.)

 

Medea: Quick, Jason, the dragon is asleep! Now is your chance - hurry!

 

(Jason hesitates for a moment, then leaps forward and snatches the Golden Fleece down from the tree. The two run away from the grove. They return to the Argo, where the crew are anxiously waiting.)

 

Jason, to the Argonauts: My friends, after all our journeying, the task, the goal of this great voyage has been carried out, thanks to this maiden’s help. I will bring her home to be my wife, and we must all thank and honour her as our saviour. 

 

(The Argonauts cheer loudly, and shout ‘Medea! Medea!’)

 

Jason: And now we hold in our hands the fate of our country. All of Greece depends on us to bring this fleece back to Pelias!