Classics and Religious Studies


Date of this Version



Published in Helios 32:1 (2005), pp. 55-79. Copyright (c) 2005 Texas Tech University Press.


While the evidence for theatrical practice in the ancient world is admittedly spotty, we are fortunate to have anecdotal evidence concerning two different performances of Sophocles' Electra, both from the fourth century B.C.E., by two of the most famous tragic actors in ancient Greece, Theodorus and Polus, who apparently played Electra. The evidence suggests that their performances may have differed widely; it is even conceivable that the role was something of a yardstick for measuring great actors of the day (a la Hamlet). I will argue that these two "star" actors gave radically different interpretations of the character of Electra, partly due to an approach to performance affected by gender. The idea of interpreting a character is usually assumed to be foreign to ancient Greek theatrical practice, certainly in the fifth century B.C.E., yet I think the evidence leaves us with the conclusion that by the fourth century, "stars" were indeed interpreting characters, and possibly even bringing theories of acting to bear on their interpretations. This paper is thus an experiment in reconstructing the history of dramatic performance in the ancient world. Although the evidence is debatable and more questions will inevitably be raised than answers answered, my aim here is to broaden discussion of performance issues in ancient drama generally and in Greek tragedy in particular.

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