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  • The Eyeline of OrestesExploring the Dramaturgy of Civic Space in the Greek Theatre
  • Samuel T. Shanks (bio)

Writing about Greek theatre is notoriously hazardous. Solid physical evidence is scarce, and we only have a handful of plays to represent the entire period. Nevertheless, the Greeks continue to be of critical importance to twenty-first-century theatre academics and practitioners. Greek theatre is featured prominently in nearly every “Introduction to Theatre” and theatre history course, and adaptations and revival productions appear consistently in our production seasons. Therefore, despite the challenges of working in this corner of the field, we must continue to reengage this small but disproportionally important body of evidence to see if our ever-evolving array of critical tools can bring new insights to our understanding of the period.

Naturally, this requires us to operate more theoretically than we would if we were working in a more recent period. Our analyses, which rest upon these more abstractly derived theories, will subsequently be shakier and more subject to later revision. Yet such theoretical contributions may nevertheless provide useful insights into how these enduring classics may have operated in their own time, and how modern adaptations and revivals might best bring them to life in ours.

In this brief article I examine a number of important moments from The Oresteia with a particular eye toward what I describe as the play’s “dramaturgy of space.” My analysis of this spatial dramaturgy is informed by prior scholarship that has helped us to understand the sociological position of the Greek theatre structure as a civic space within Greek society, rather than simply a site of entertainment.

Undergirding my discussion of The Oresteia’s dramaturgy of space is an ongoing analysis of the physical layout of the classical Theatre of Dionysus at Athens, the trilogy’s original performance venue. Noteworthy studies [End Page 41] of the use of space in the Greek theatre have preceded this one, and my work is built in part upon the accomplishments of these prior scholars. Oliver Taplin’s 1977 book The Stagecraft of Aeschylus was groundbreaking in its exhaustive analysis of the spatial implications built into the play-texts themselves; Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning, by David Wiles, takes a sophisticated and highly nuanced approach to analyzing the civic and religious dynamics of Greek tragedies.1 My analysis of The Oresteia operates somewhere between these two studies, maintaining much of the pragmatic flavor of Taplin’s study while being heavily informed by more recent generations of scholars, like Wiles, whose attention to the cultural context from which the plays arose has proved so valuable.

Further informing my own analysis are recent insights into human perception emerging from neuroscience research, which are increasingly being utilized by scholars in the humanities in much the same way that research from psychology informed the psychoanalytical approaches to criticism in the mid- to late twentieth century. Often loosely categorized under the umbrellas of cognitive studies or cognitive science, this research emerges from a remarkably diverse array of scientific disciplines. The value in bringing the emerging perspectives of cognitive studies to bear on an analysis of ancient theatrical productions comes from our understanding of the universality of many of the mechanisms of human perception across cultures and eras. Social customs and religious attitudes have changed dramatically in the nearly 2,500 years since the first production of The Oresteia, but the anatomy of the human eye, and the neurological structure that connects it to the mind, has not. We may have to continually hedge our statements regarding the precise layout of the classical Theatre of Dionysus at Athens, but we can discuss with great confidence the perceptual mechanisms that allowed the spectators to imaginatively transform the scenery into the palace of the House of Atreus.

Although the kind of cultural contextualization that has become such a familiar part of our scholarship over the past few decades implicitly increases our focus on the spectatorial versus the textual aspects of theatre, an analysis rooted in cognitive studies will tend to focus on spectatorship in a far more literal way. Thus my analysis of spatial dramaturgy will necessarily include more than just the...


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