Ancient Greek Drama; Mass Psychotherapy?

Had the Ancient Greek Drama been a method of ‘mass psychotherapy‘? Quite convincingly, this appears to be the case. This post brings to your knowledge relevant supportive information and links.


Euripides’ Herakles is the play Peter Meineck and Aquila Theatre chose to adapt to
American contemporary war reality. In Euripidean tragedy Herakles, the mythic hero,
returns home after the completion of his last labor. He descended the Underworld and
brought the guard dog Cerberus to light. During his absence at Thebes a civil war was
raging and Lycus came to the throne. Herakles’ family was condemned to death.
Herakles, against all odds, came back to Thebes to protect his family and restore the
order. But Iris and Lyssa, under Hera’s command, drove Herakles mad and made him kill
his family. When he got his senses back, his father Amphitryon explained everything and
only after his committed friend Theseus offered help and hospitality Herakles left the
city. Amphitryon was assigned to bury the dead.

The performance is part of “Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives”, a national program of the
National Endowment for the Humanities, which has been led since 2010 by the Aquila
Theatre and includes several events. Ancient Greek texts are stage read and followed by
open discussions. The aim of the program is to engage modern audiences to a dialogue
with the classical texts about issues which the American society deals with. The combat
trauma Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have experienced -a part of war consequence –
stand at the proscenium of America’s contemporary reality. Families, friends and the
communities around the U.S.A. have been facing difficulties in helping veterans
rehabilitate. Soldiers are diagnosed with PTSD symptoms such as social withdrawal,
isolation and suicidality, depression, insomnia or fragmented sleep, hyperactivity,
alcohol and drug abuse, rage, acts of violence etc. What is vital for combat veterans is to
feel welcome and to be encouraged to tell their stories, to speak their truth, to
communalize their trauma.

Ancient Greek drama becomes the medium that facilitates the communication between
the traumatized and their environment. Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam:
Combat trauma and the undoing of characteri provides theoretical frame for the project.
The author argues that primary purpose of ancient Greek theater was to reintegrate
warriors into a democratic society. Ancient Greek Drama is a form of storytelling and
healing. The same applies for Aquila Theatre and the adaptation of Herakles. The project
intends to make American audiences “war literate”, to inform people about war and its
consequences and to heal “The painful paradox […] that fighting for one’s country can
render one unfit to be its citizen (Shay 1994: xx). “Herakles may be an extreme mythic
example but we must all live with the consequences of sending young men and women
away to fight, whether or not we agree with the reasons for the wars or the politicians
who sent them. Herakles is an ancient message from a society traumatized by years of
brutal war. In this respect the Greeks still have much to teach us”. In our case the
reception of Ancient Greek drama becomes a political interpretation of a wounded
modern society and acts as a means of social intervention.

It is worth mentioning the way veteran voices and physical presence were implemented
to the performance. Instead of using the Chorus, Peter Meineck drew questions of each
choral ode, addressed them to World War 2, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and
filmed their answers/testimonies. The screening replaced the Chorus. Although videos
were quite extent and at times to the detriment of the performance rhythm, the
communication of the ancient message to a modern audience became explicit. It was
striking obvious that older veterans had deeply processed their war experience;
therefore they could narrate and also come to conclusions in articulate thought and
speech. On the contrary the younger one, although a University graduate, failed to
communicate a well-structured sentence, typical of a man who has not come to terms
with his traumatic past. Theseus part was assigned to a Vietnam veteran, Brian Delate,
whose testimony was also filmed and integrated to the performance.


Masks especially made for the performance were used. Peter Meineck has been
researching on this topic. In his paper “Neuroscience and the tragic mask” he proves
that the tragic mask operates only if its expression is ambiguous because it “challenges
normal human neural responses and produce a higher cognitive experience” (Meineck
2010, 1.2). The study of the Pronomos vase led him to conclude that tragic masks do not
have fixed characteristics. On the contrary, ambiguity is what activates the mirror
neurons. The angle from which one sees the mask, its manipulation by a skilled actor along with the foveal and peripheral vision of the spectator engages his/her gaze urging
him/her to “make emotional and situational judgments” (Meineck 2010, 6.7).

The use of mask dictates the movement, the location on stage, the speech (voice and
spoken word), and the music. It favors frontal acting and demands an amplified way of
acting so as to communicate effectively the emotion and the mythos. Meineck believes –
and this was strongly underpinned during the workshop – that when wearing the mask,
one can only speak the truth of the emotions. When an actor uses the mask, he/she is
‘forced’ by it to tell the truth with his body. For example, anger in words and facial
expressions looks milder to the audience that anger bodily enacted. The mask frees the
actor from cerebral activity, urges him/her to use the ‘raw material’ of his/her body so
as to make the truth of the characters and the text visible. The director in order to follow
what the mask dictated used physical theatre techniques to enhance corporeality and
build up enactment.

(Source: “Combat veterans, the tragic mask and neuroscience “, by Natasha Merkouri)


The image of the tragic mask with its fixed expression, empty eye sockets, monochromatic complexion, and exaggerated downturned mouth sits next to its comic counterpart as the very emblem of live theatre, as the inter-twined masks of “Comedy” and “Tragedy.” However, in the theatre world masks are one of the most misunderstood aspects of ancient drama, and in the realm of classical studies the impact of the mask on the text and the presentation of ancient plays has been vastly underestimated. Greek tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays were all performed in masks, and as far as we know neither the actors nor the chorus ever performed barefaced.

However no actual theatre mask dating from the fifth century bce —the period of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and much of Aristophanes—has survived, and there is a dearth of evidence, both literary and material, for Athenian masks from this time and what little we do have is found in non theatrical art forms such as vase painting and sculpture, and a very few scant references to masks in texts of the period. Most modern popular notions of Greek masks with their stony faces, gaping eyes, “mega-phone” mouths, and elongated headdresses come from the Hellenistic or Roman theatre, and are often seen on architectural representations of masks, sculptural home adornments, or votive offerings rather than anything that was actually worn on stage. This paper’s primary purpose is to examine how the tragic mask operated in performance from the perspective of the spectator, and its relationship to the surrounding environment. Only the available iconographic evidence from the fifth century has been applied to this study, with the proposal that the Pronomos vase of around 400bce provides our best evidence for creating a reconstruction of the fifth-century tragic mask.

The methodology will be to take advantage of some of the new research coming from the field of neuroscience, in particular, studies concerning the operation of neurons in cognitive function and its relationship to imitation, empathy, spatial awareness, face recognition, and vision. If facial recognition, reciprocal eye contact, and mental connectivity to the movements of others are some of the most important ways in which humans communicate emotional states among themselves, then what happens when the face is denied by the mask, the eyes hidden, and movement choreographed and heightened? Does the mask challenge normal human neural responses and produce a higher cognitive experience, more dependent on comprehending movement and processing language, and did the fixed and unmoving surface of the mask stimulate a profoundly personal, empathic visual experience that deepened the emotional response and accentuated the visceral experience of watching the drama? Ultimately I will be propose that the tragic mask mediated an bimodal ocular experience that oscillated between foveal (focused) and peripheral vision, and in the eyes of the spectators seemed to possess the ability to change emotions, and that these qualities of the mask were fundamental to the performance of tragedy and the development of narrative drama.


The mask in the visual field The Greek mask was no mere stage property, nor a throwback to an earlier form of “ritual drama” populated by priests, a kind of onstage religious anachronism; rather, it was the focal point of the entire visual experience of watching theatre. The mask’s function in performance dictated the presentation of every element of ancient drama, including speech, movement, narrative, costume, and emotion. But why wear a mask? There may be several interconnected reasons: there was certainly a preexisting tradition, in ritual forms and carnival traditions, of assuming another persona by wearing a mask.

Perhaps most importantly, when viewed in an open-air space, the mask was an effective way of instantly establishing a sense of theatricality. The wearer of the mask is immediately separated from the spectators, and as the vase paintings show, just the simple act of donning a mask indicates that a performance is about to take place. Lastly, in an open-air space that allowed the external environment to inform the aesthetic experience of watching drama, the mask provides a visual focus for emotional communication, and is able to stimulate a deeply personal response from the spectators. The mask demands to be watched.


Peripheral and Foveal vision As any theatre director or performer knows, an open-air performance is a very different experience from watching a show presented within an interior space. There are distractions that constantly compete with what is being presented “on stage,” whether the other spectators or the views available beyond the performance area. Open-air spaces tend to lack the kind of focus offered by a modern proscenium or thrust stage, where the spectator’s peripheral vision is severely limited by darkening the auditorium and framing the performance space with a proscenium arch. When we watch most modern plays, the actors are clearly within our central or “foveal” vision. This is named after the part of the retina at the center and back of its curve where the photoreceptor cells are densest. Foveal vision is used for focusing on detail and scrutinizing objects, while peripheral vision orders the entire spatial view, allows us to look at large objects, and helps to direct our narrower foveal vision.

Modern theatre directors and designers work hard to earn and keep both our visual focus and our mental attention not on the peripheral distractions of fellow spectators and the surrounding environment, but on the action they have placed before us on stage. This was certainly not the case in the fifth-century theatre, where the particular environment of the performance space—on the southeast slope of the Acropolis with its panoramic views of the city, countryside, and sea; and within the religious, civic, and cultural heart of Attica—meant that dramatists became highly skilled in manipulating the interplay between peripheral and foveal vision, offering a multilayered visual experience.

Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have demonstrated how the human face or its representation elicits a very strong (if not the strongest) visual response. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the face and our mindscan quickly process its features, recognize thousands of distinct faces, and create very fast cultural, gendered, ethnic,and social determinations.

The theatre inhabited this expansive space without the benefit of artificial directional lighting or complex sets, and the masked actor needed to earn the focus of the open-air spectator. The mask does this by drawing the spectator’s eye to the actor operating within the ancient theatre’s vast visual field. Speech, song, gesture, and dance support this ocular process, in that they are all subservient to the mask: speech must be frontally directed, with a focus on articulation and precision, and movement must be expertly coordinated with what is being sung or spoken. As the mask amplifies the spectator’s visual response to the entire body, everything must be perfectly coordinated to communicate effectively.


Plasticity, dimension and contrast The tragic mask seems to have been constructed with rounded features, and operated within a performance space that was back- and toplit by the sun, as the theatron of the Theatre of Dionysos faced south. This would have cast gentle shadows on the features of the mask, which were built with dimensionality in mind. Although the features were not exaggerated, forehead, eye sockets, eyebrows, cheeks, and lips were pronounced, and as we will see below, from experiments carried out with Japanese Noh masks it appears that these were intended to assist the mask in seeming to change emotions. Furthermore, it is important to note that the neurons at the center of the visual process respond primarily to higher-resolution (fine) images, while those responsible for processing “the bigger picture” respond to images at a much lower (blurred) resolution (what is seen in one’s peripheral vision appears blurred until foveal vision is engaged to focus on the area).

This is the difference between low- and high-spatial frequency neural processing, and when the two are combined, it can have the effect of tricking the eye so that facial features seem to change.

Experiments conducted by Yarbus that recorded the saccades (tiny flickers) of the eye as it scanned scenes have shown how people concentrate their vision most heavily on human figures first, and then scan to objects that appear in high contrast.

His findings showed that people look intently at facial expressions, searching for emotional markers, and when they survey an entire scene they will always alight on a human figure even when the surrounding environment dwarfs it.

Another way in which the Greek mask focuses foveal vision is through visual contrast.


Mirror neurons and the mask It has been shown that newborns are particularly sensitive to faces, and respond to properly-ordered faces over faces that have had their features rearranged or have parts removed. Studies conducted with newborns are also relevant here because it has been observed that an infant will mirror the facial expressions of its caregiver. As the child has never seen its own face and therefore has no visual sense of how manipulating certain facial muscles produces a smile or a frown, it has been recently posited that this is an innate ability, and may be connected to the function of what have been termed “mirror neurons” in the brain. These mirror neurons may form connections between the visual and motor cortexes, allowing humans to quickly learn behavior through both observation and kinesthetic understanding. The theory of “mirror neurons” and their role in creating empathic responses between the viewer and the viewed was first advanced in the neuroscience community by a research team at the University of Parma, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti in the early 1990s.

Before the advancement of the theory of mirror neurons, most scientists held the opinion that humans used logic to interpret and process the actions of others whereas mirror neurons may create cognition via a form of empathic response.

Research on mirror neurons has shown how the emotions projected by the face are processed by the viewer and result in an empathetic response that can involve the neural processing of similar actions and even a mirroring effect in the viewer’s own facial expressions. How might a mask operate within such a visual and cognitive field? Its features are fixed, and the intricate muscles and soft tissue that make the face such a vivid emotional canvas are absent from the hard, unchanging surface of the mask.

In many respects, the painted mask is just the suggestion of a face, and only through its expert manipulation by a skilled performer in conjunction with movement, music, and text does it come to vivid emotional life. And yet the human brain is conditioned to detect faces and observe macro-expressions from the scantest information. In this sense, the mask is analogous to a facial caricature, and research into the facial recognition of caricatures has shown how sometimes less is more when it comes to placing a face or being drawn to watch one.

Expressive ambiguity in faces leads to increased spectator engagement, as our visual processing systems workto complete the picture and make emotional and situational judgments. The schematic painted surface of the Greek tragic mask provided just such an ambiguous façade.


Symporeia: Mirror neurons and motion Rizzolatti’s pioneering work on mirror neurons led to him to divide them into two broad categories: somatosensory neurons that respond to actual touch and somatosensory-and-visual (or bimodal) neurons that are triggered only by a visual stimulus occurring in the vicinity of the tactile receptive field. Rizzolatti concluded that mirror neurons work empathetically, in that humans are able to learn quite complex movement actions just by observing the motions performed by another. To Rizzolatti, this formed the basis of how humans process others’ emotions and are able to understand their individual predicaments and situations.

What the neuroscience community is finding is that our cognitive abilities to imitate, learn, speak, understand, and empathize are linked to embodiment—our minds and our bodies are connected in experiential cognition and we process the emotion of others through a system of “action representation.” Thus, “we ground our empathic resonance in the experience of our acting body and the emotions associated with specific movements.” It follows that what I term “symporeia” or “collective movement” has a particular role to play in human cognition and emotional intelligence, beyond its usual role of creating social cohesion and reinforcing group identity. In neural terms, movement is the essential interpersonal communicator of emotion and empathy. Further, the role of mirror neurons in cognition has also been linked to proprioception, which is the sense of the relative position of different parts of the body in relation to one another, or in other words, the orientation of one’s limbs in space. Proprioception is what allows us to walk without looking at our feet.

These connections between facial recognition, emotional empathy, moving in space, and kinesthetic communication have a direct relevance to understanding how the mask may have functioned in the Greek theatre, within a masked, symporeutic environment where proprioception was an essential element of the performance. Masked actors had no peripheral vision and could not see their arms and feet, or even each other, for most of the time. Therefore, a heightened sense of proprioception and an acute spatial awareness was essential, and elicited a direct physical response from the spectators, further enhancing their emotional connection to the play they were watching.

The use of the mask may subconsciously favor the body in the eyes of the spectator, thus enhancing emotional empathy and even visceral participation in the action being presented. Studies have shown that the muscles of audience members are stimulated when watching dance performances, where they experience a kinesthetic sensation known as motor simulation, and that the neural activity in the onlookers increases significantly when the dance performed is known to them. This was demonstrated in
2005 by a teamled by Patrick Haggard.

The neural “mirror system” integrates movements seen with movements known, and “the human brain understands actions by motor simulation.”

The spectators watching tragedy could all be classified as “expert dancers,” whether they were Athenians or Hellenic visitors. Dance was an enormous part of Greek cultural identity, not to mention the equally symporeutic activities of hoplite drill, rowing a trireme, riding in a cavalry formation, or being part of a procession. Of the Athenians, it might be safely said that almost everyone in attendance was, from an early age, highly familiar with dance as a cultural participatory activity.


Gaze direction Work at St. Andrews University on neural responses to the face found that about sixty per cent of the cells responsive to face perception were also sensitive to the gaze direction, and that subjects with damage to the area of the brain responsible for face recognition also suffered from an impaired ability to follow gaze direction.

Futhermore, it has been observed that people with autism also have severe difficulties in reciprocating gaze and making eye contact, and it has been posited that perceiving another’s gaze direction is vital to interpersonal communication.

The gaze direction of the Greek mask may have been an important factor in establishing reciprocal gaze between spectator and performer, one in which emotional states could be easily communicated and the viewers’ mirror neuron responses would have created feelings of empathy with the masked fictional character presented before them.


Emotional Masks We have already briefly explored how the neural system of the brain responds to the visual stimuli offered by the face, and works to provide information not visually apparent. The mask certainly exploits these responses, but it does not operate in isolation. In order to communicate emotion effectively, it needs a narrative context.

Taken together, a close examination of the iconographic evidence from the fifth century, the application of cognitive studies and recent neuroscientific research and the results of performance-based experiments, should lay to rest the notion that the Greek tragic mask displayed a fixed, neutral, idealized, or unchanging expression. In fact, the mask allowed the tragic dramatist a far greater control over the presentation of the emotional content of his work, by closely coordinating masked movement with music, song, and spoken word and then allowing the ambiguity of the mask to provoke a highly personal response in the mind of each individual spectator. Their neural processing mechanisms would have been stimulated by the context of what was presented, and then fired to create a deeply personal emotional image. In this way, the visual ambiguity of the mask greatly enhanced the presentation of tragedy. Thus, the tragic mask was far more powerful than the real face of an actor, as it constantly changed, reflecting the emotional realities of each person sitting before its compelling gaze.

The mask created the focus that guided the spectators between the foveal and the peripheral, provided the visual means to denote a performance, and most importantly produced the intimacy necessary to facilitate individual emotional responses. What is also being proposed here is an appeal to scholars and practitioners to recognize, when considering ancient drama, the importance of the mask and that the texts we have were created with the mask in mind. It was not an after thought to the creative process of playmaking, merely a disguise, an accoutrement, or just another piece of costume—the mask was actually the focus of the entire visual and emotional experience of ancient drama. In fact, it may not be too bold a statement to say that without the mask we might never have seen the development of narrative drama or the birth of tragedy.

(Source: “The Neuroscience of the Tragic Mask”, by Peter Meineck)


Abstract How were Greek plays viewed in the fifth century BCE and by deepening our understanding of their visual dimension might we increase our knowledge of the plays themselves? The aim of this study is to set out the importance of the visual (opsis) when considering ancient Greek drama and provide a basis for constructing a form of “visual dramaturgy” that can be effectively applied to the texts. To that end, this work is divided into five sections, which follow a “top-down” analysis of ancient dramatic visuality. The analysis begins with a survey of the prevailing visual culture and Greek attitudes about sight and the eye. Following this is an examination of the roots of drama in the performance of public collective movement forms (what I have called “symporeia”) and their relationships to the environments they moved through, including the development of the fifth century theatre at the Sanctuary of Dionysos Eleuthereus in Athens. The focus then falls on the dramatic mask and it is proposed here that operating in this environment it was the visual focus of Greek drama and the primary conveyer of the emotional content of the plays. Drawing on new research from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience relating to facial processing and recognition, gaze direction, foveal and peripheral vision and neural responses to masks, movement and performance, it is explained how the fixed dramatic mask was an incredibly effective communicator of dramatic emotion capable of eliciting intensely individual responses from its spectators. This study concludes with a case study based on Aeschylus Oresteia and the raising of Phidias’ colossal bronze statue of Athena on the Acropolis and the impact that this may have had on the original reception of the trilogy.

(Source: “Opsis: the visuality of Greek drama”, by Peter Meineck)


Theater of War: The Philoctetes Project is the brainchild of Bryan Doerries, a young theater director who uses Ajax and Philoctetes to create what he calls “town meetings” aimed at veterans, current service personnel, their families, and support groups.

The structure of the evening was a directed reading of several key scenes from both plays followed by incisive and astute comments from a panel of military officers, veterans, representatives from veteran’s organizations, and classicists. But the most striking aspect of the event occurred at the end, as one by one the audience members stood up and started to relate their own experiences of war to the plays they had just witnessed.

In attendance were veterans from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Gulf War, Vietnam, and Korea. There was a large group from a shelter for homeless veterans in Long Island City, family members of veterans, and even agroup of young ROTC students. As spectators they were both active and vocal, as the events portrayed in the plays onstage resonated with their own experiences. In the discussion that followed many were shocked that drama, any drama, let alone ancient Greek drama, could so aptly reflect their own thoughts and feelings. Their responses were confessional, poignant, and moving. One got the distinct impression that much of what was being shared had never been uttered before and certainly not in public. An important artistic choice was to leave the house lights on during the performances,which allowed actors and audience to connect in a way that is usually impossible in the modern theater. The acts of watching and being watched became essential to the shared experience that unfolded, and were an important factor in facilitating the remarkably free expression that followed.

In his recent book Democracy and Knowledge (Princeton 2008), Joshua Ober notes that the radical democracy of fifth-century Athens created spaces that he describes as “inward-facing circles” for public meetings, legal cases, and performing arts. In such spaces “each spectator can simultaneously observe the event and the reactions of the other spectators as they commonly observe the event”. Knowledge flowed back and forth and information was affected by the responses of those watching. This visual dimension of Athenian culture, particularly in the theater, was a vital element which is often missing in modern performances where we sit passively and receive the director’s conceit or a star actor’s performance, choices we then either accept or reject. Paul Woodruff, in his groundbreaking book The Necessity of Theater (Oxford 2008), calls this “art theater,” a formal, cultivated expression of the art aimed at small audiences.

The Greeks called their theater the “seeing-place”: opsis was not just confined to masks, costumes, and movement but, as Aristotle wrote in a famously contested statement, opsis is “an intrinsic force with the power to transform the soul.”

Veteran’s Administration staff psychiatrist Jonathan Shay made this connection in his 1994 book Achilles in Vietnam and in his equally fascinating 2002 work Odysseus in America. He asserts that Athenian tragic theater was “a theater of combat veterans, by combat veterans, and for combat veterans,” offering what he terms “cultural therapy.” Certainly war and violence and their aftereffects are a prevailing theme in many Athenian plays of the fifth century, but what is it about these works that provokes such a strong response from veterans? One of the most frequent comments heard at the Theater of War event was that veterans were seeking “restoration”: though they had physically returned home, they were spiritually still fighting their wars and dealing with disconcerting feelings such as survivor guilt, isolation, frustration, anger, and despair. They overwhelmingly identified with the loneliness, despondency, and indignant stance of Philoctetes. When Adam Driver read the part of Neoptolemus and spoke the names of the men who had died at Troy to the incredulous Philoctetes (David Strathairn), the air was sucked out of the theater and nobody dared breathe, lest they disturb the palpable sense of personal loss and pain emanating from the audience. Did Athenian drama originally function in this same way and provide a means of restoring citizen-warriors to society by presenting themes that would resonate with the actual experiences of fighting men? Shay certainly thinks so.

Original audiences for Ajax and Philoctetes knew the horrors of Greek warfare intimately. Hoplite battles were sudden, violent clashes where men hacked at each other with spears and swords, shoving with their shields, trampling the fallen to death, biting, gouging, and punching until one side buckled and broke and was butchered on the run. A modern audience may be repulsed by the sight of Ajax covered in blood and gore at the beginning of Sophocles’ play, but the original festivalgoers probably felt empathy rather than shock. Any hoplite in the first few ranks who survived the carnage would have been covered from head to foot in the blood of both his enemies and his friends. One can only imagine what kind of reserves of aggression he must have drawn upon to conquer his fear of smashing headlong into the enemy line. It had to have been an incredibly traumatic experience, immersed in mass slaughter, watching friends and possibly family members fall, hearing the cries of the dying and the pandemonium of battle rattling inside the mask-like bronze helmet. In hoplite warfare there was nowhere to go but forward, no peripheral vision, ranks pressed on by the men behind, jammed into a swarming mob of death with little or no control over which lines would finally break.

It was no easier for a rower in the Athenian fleet, as Aeschylus so vividly portrays in the messenger speech in his Persians, which memorialized the Athenian victory over the Persian navy at Salamis in 480. Ship smashed into ship, crushing men to death or impaling them on the shattered, splintered hulls. Those lucky enough not to be crushed or drowned were speared and gutted like tuna staining the sea red. It was first-hand knowledge of these kinds of battle experiences that more than likely led the citizen-assembly to condemn its victorious admirals to death after the naval engagement at Arginusae in 406, when Athenian crewmen were left in the water to die. Fifth-century Greek warfare was bloody, brutal, and horrific, and it is very likely that every single member of the audience of Athenian tragedy knew it firsthand.

To be wounded in battle and then abandoned is a fundamental fear among soldiers; to be wounded, to return home, and then to be abandoned is a reality for many of our contemporary wounded warriors. Some wounds are visible and some are not, but all of the veterans gathered at the Lortel understood the plight of Philoctetes. A warrior is struckdown in the line of duty and his reward is to be secluded from his fellow men, dumped on the uninhabited island of Lemnos, and forced to fend for himself. The vile smell and horrific cries caused by his festering wound become a constant reminder of the realities of war to the men who abandoned him.

Philoctetes’ exile is presented as a type of mental and physical torture, the ultimate solitary confinement.

Greek literature does not shy away from the cruel realities of war: mutilation, rape, torture, and extreme violence. There is no real difference between Homer’s account of Achilles dragging Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy and the news footage of the dead bodies of brave young American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. This image had the power to change American policy, so deeply unsettling was its vivid reality. Achilles’ dragging Hector shows the depravity of a man completely consumed by the rage of war. Likewise, Ajax has been overwhelmed by the violence of combat and has sought solace in codes of honor and respect obliterated by his former allies. This complete dislocation of all the man has known and fought for drives him to take his own life, a moment that was passionately rendered by Bill Camp’s powerful reading of Ajax’s suicide scene.

Without the songs of Demodocus, Odysseus would still be stuck in Scheria, telling lies and in disguise. The readings of Ajax and Philoctetes seemed to have a similar effect that night. The actors’ performances created a spark of compassion and understanding, their expert mimesis offered as a humble act of fellowship between artist and warrior. The simple ritual of a performance in a theater under naked light produced a modern theôria––ashared spiritual witnessing––and one by one the warriors and their families came forward to tell their tales.

(Source: “These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished: Theater of War”, by Peter Meineck)


My work approaches fifth century Athenian drama as a live, affective experience via the application of cognitive and neuroscience research to ancient evidence. I believe these methods can provide a means by which to show that Greek theatre was a physically embodied, highly absorbing and profoundly emotional experience for its audience. The sources that we have from this period referring to the reception of drama indicate that it elicited marked affective responses and that these emotional states were embodied by the physical reactions of the audience.


Embodied Cognition The textual and physical evidence then indicates that Athenian drama was a multi-modal sensory live event that moved its audience by fully engaging them in an embodied affective experience. A methodology that focuses on affective responses can therefore help us to understand how it functioned and what made it so popular. The experience of live performance is a fully embodied one, therefore I approach Greek drama from the perspective of embodied cognition, the theory that our minds are not confined inside our craniums but embodied, embedded, extended and enacted beyond our skin and distributed into the environment around us.

If we accept then that human cognition is extended out into the environment in a constant sensory feedback loop between brain, body and surroundings, then the environmental aspects of the ancient theatre need to be considered as an important part of the total experience. This includes the spatial dynamics of the performance space and how it cognitively and chemically affected the audience, and the multisensory information of sight, sound, smell, and touch, both real and “mirrored” by the brain’s neural architecture. Greek drama was presented within an environment that promoted altered mental states, through alcohol, movement, rhythm, kinesthetic mirroring, crowd dynamics, emotional contagion, and empathy. Even the expansive view of the sky offered by the open-air theatre, played an important role in altering the neurochemistry of the audience members. Important past studies have considered Greek drama to be a reflection of the political and social concerns of the day, and so it was in large part. But for the audience seated on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis in the fifth century watching the plays, the theatre was primarily an embodied, emotional experience.


Bio-Cultural Emotions An intense embodied experience moves us, and is often manifested physically by an affective state – we feel an emotion. Such feelings can involuntarily cause physical changes – they affect our pulse, the temperature of our skin, our blood pressure and rate of breathing. Sometimes we can feel a situation bodily even when we perceive that the evidence presented to our conscious mind might suggest a different viewpoint.

Embodied cognition is dependent on a sense of presence in the world around us. In the theatre, when we sit together with many of our fellow humans, all focused on the same representation of action, the resulting feelings can be greatly magnified. When we watch drama we may not always feel the same emotional states presented by the actors, but we always take a personal position that can be identified as emotional. Even if we are bored, that boredom will be made manifest in an emotional response, like frustration or even anger, and we reflect those emotions bodily: in the temperature of our skin, in the way we sit or fidget, even in how we breathe.

My current work on ancient drama has applied cognitive and neuroscience research to Six broad subject areas: Masks, Movement, Space, Music, Words and Objects.


Cognitive dissociation – Absorption – Empathy This work suggests that one of the most marked cognitive aspects of ancient drama was mind-body dissociation that led to increased emotionality and feelings of empathy. This ties in with exciting new research from the nascent field of neuroaesthetics on the Default Mode Network, previously associated with self-referential mentation and thought to only be active when the brain is at wakeful rest.

One of the aims of this research is to open the door to the tools provided by embodied cognition and the affective sciences for people interested in both the ancient world and the remarkable invention that was Athenian drama. The act of creating theatre is an interdisciplinary adventure requiring the considerable skills of writers, directors, actors, dancers, musicians, designers, technicians, producers, marketers, accountants, lawyers, and, of course, the most diverse group of all, the audience. Therefore, we need to arm ourselves with a multiplicity of tools to understand how the theatre of the past might have functioned.

In his thought-provoking study of how cognitive theories might be applied to antiquity, Geoffrey Lloyd has written, “There is no single discourse that should have precedence over all others. What we need are different types and levels of analysis allowing indeed that at some points they may be difficult to reconcile as they may relate to different facets of multidimensional phenomena.” The theatre is constructed of multidimensional phenomena and while the application of science cannot hope to unravel the simple mystery of the power of an actor before an audience, it can help us to begin to understand how Athenian drama came to enthrall its audiences, spread throughout the Greek and Roman world, and become one of the most influential art forms the world has ever known.

(Source: “The Affective Sciences and Greek Drama”, by Peter Meineck)


You may want to read the following articles, too:




Last but not least, one can watch a relative lecture by Peter Meineck:

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos


2 thoughts on “Ancient Greek Drama; Mass Psychotherapy?

Add yours

  1. That was amazing, very informative and a very innovative approach! I wonder about roman tragedy and masks… Are there articles about it, do you know?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: