Beyond Just Text: The Teiresias as in the Original Performance of Antigone

While trying to identify ways in which Sophocles attempted to develop a climax in his tragedies, Friedrich Hölderlin proves the speeches of Teiresias to be the pinnacle in both Antigone and Oedipus rex. Through the complexity and most certainly the acting of that role, Teiresias embodies the catharsis in Sophocles’ plays according to Hölderlin. Beside those, two other scenes with Teiresias involvement have been written in my timeframe by Euripides, who also uses the character in the Bacchae and The Phoenician Women. Teiresias is often referred to as the blind seer, able to find truth where others only see riddles. It seemed only natural to ask myself how this key character could have been performed to serve his purpose in Antigone and ancient Greek Theatre in general, which led to my research question for this essay. I am going to attempt giving general advice to actors wishing to deepen their understanding and performing of the role. I will start by explaining the nature and history of Teiresias from myths and tragedies, as most evidence about how his role was composed can be found there; followed by requirements for the actor and an authentic approach to the role.

Picture 1: Teiresias, guide and Oedipus, about 330 BC

1. The role Teiresias and his purpose – What the actor must know

    1.1 Myth

It is thought that in his lost epos Melampodia, Hesiod tells about the source of Teiresias’ wisdom2:

“Hesiod tells that he [Teiresias] transformed from male to female after watching and wounding two mating snakes in the mountain-range of Kyllene. When he later saw these snakes at another occasion, he became man. Therefore Hera and Zeus, arguing which gender experiences greater lust and zest, asked for him to solve the riddle. He answered that of the nineteen parts of mating, males enjoy nine, but the females ten. Thus Hera, loosing her bet, took away his sight, but Zeus, having mercy, gave him the ability to foretell. […] Long life was also given.”

The same tale is told by many other greek and roman literates with slight differences, such as whether Teiresias wounds or kills the snakes3. Apart from the Melampodia, there are also completely different versions of the narrative, for example of Perekydes or Callimachus, who tell that Teiresias saw the goddess Athene naked, became blind immediately and only later acquired the ability to foretell4; or Sostratos, as to whom there were a whole of 7 metamorphoses5. What is common in all, is that Teiresias commits some sort of violation of norms, is then punished and later the punishment somehow compensated.

The word mythos always implies something spoken. So it comes that although there are written forms of the story of Teiresias, the Greeks did not have a sacred text like Koran or Bible where a fixed version of the story can be found. Mythos was therefore always adapted and modified to serve an author’s purpose, which makes it very difficult to find originality, as to whether the Melampodia or another text is right. Jacques Derrida, french philosopher and literary critic, however justifiably suggests we should reject that originality as creative ideal, as certain acting or a myth is bound to its context and the audience’s knowledge of the topic6. Someone just had to say “Teiresias!” in the ancient world and everyone had a myth in his head. Therefore I choose Hesiod’s tale as it is reasonable to assume that it best reflected the audience’s known background at the time the four plays were first performed.

    1.2 From myth to tragedy

After the Compensation of punishment in the Melampodia, Teiresias has some attributes an actor is to know: He has a unique perspective onto the world for he has been both genders and is able to read the signs of nature (Ant. 970-994) and according to Homer will live long and stay sane in the afterlife (Od. 10.493-495). By so uncovering truths and secrets of the gods he embodies dichotomies an actor has to keep in mind while approaching Teiresias:

divine vs human female vs male life vs death

Especially the first is well visible in Sophocles’ and Euripides’ plays: In all four Teiresias is confronted with a secular force (human irrationality and emotions) while being the gods interpreter (omniscience) (Ant. 1065-1071). However, it appears he is not able to stop horror from happening in any of the plays. Another common occurrence is the structure of the scenes, which tells a lot about Teiresias as person: The main reason for his appearance is a difficult situation the city is in. This suggests a general good will towards all, as he even gives council to the evil Thebeners from an Athenian perspective, where the plays were written. He is very respected among the kings and people and there is no question whether he speaks truth (OR 297-299 or Ant. 993 and 995). Nevertheless the kings do not react fine to Teiresias’ mostly disturbing and horrible prophecies. There often an argument evolves in which king and Teiresias present their different values, leading to catharsis, purification or purging. Aristotle described the regaining of consciousness after trance as such process and uses the same definition for catharsis in theatre7. Teiresias’ purpose on stage therefore must be to remind the Greek of religious values, but also to link the Olympus back to daily life.


2. What an actor requires to act Teiresias

    2.1 Appearance

Because of his long life, Teiresias is always pictured as an old man with white hair and beard. (see Picture 1, left person) As already said he is blind, which can be illustrated by a blindfold. He is accompanied by a young boy to guide him (OR 444 or Ant. 988-990), in The Phoenician Women it is his family (Phon. 769). In order to create strong contrasts to the dark wood and stone surroundings, long and colourful costumes in form of robes where used, underlining the ceremonial character of theatre. As character of the social middle class, Teiresias would have worn a himation. With only left arm free, those garments made big and forceful movements quite difficult, which may partly be responsible for the greek affection for talking rather than fighting, and the actors to emphasize speech. It also requires an enormous body tension from the actor. Masks were worn upon the face, with a wide opening for the mouth. The colouration of the masks advanced over time as the space changed and shadow made colour more visible to the spectators. It also allowed seeing the mask’s features more clear. For the time of the four Teiresias plays, however, an actor needed a plain mask made of fixed rags, which covers most of the head.

    2.2 Space

The Theatre of Dionysos in Athens is the place an actor must look at to find accurate information about where Teiresias was performed. Plays like The Bacchae were written for the Dionysia, a feast for the god Dionysos, held every year in Athens. It is imperative that a similar place for acting Teiresias is chosen as only this form of space has the needed attributes: The Athenian theatre has most of all been a place for community. It is assumed that theatre evolved from assemblies and that there were no entrance fees. Anyone, regardless of origin or gender could listen. The theatre looked like a semicircle descending towards the stage. The question whether there was a stage is controversial, but it is safe to assume that at my timeframe performance took place only in the middle of the semicircle, in front of the plain landscapes. Eventually props would have been made of wood, so were the seats for the audience.

Picture 2: The Theatre of Dionysos today

The remains suggest 15 – 20 000 spectators. This is another important criterion for a peccable space: The hugh auditorium only made frontal speech possible and required an immense vocal capacity. “The scale […] makes it more akin to pop concerts or sporting events than any modern form of theatre.” says David Wiles, Professor for Theatre at the University of London8. Indeed, space had a profound impact on the patterns of the chorus on the ground and the simplistic movements of the actors. Those movements almost followed Commedia dell’ Arte rules as in the Lazzi, or forbidding the actor to turn away from the audience. For this reason Greek tragedy often seems too long and motionless in today’s theatres. The right place must compensate for that.

3. An actors possible approach to ..

    3.1 .. the mask

On the ancient greek vase of Pronomos, actors can be seen studying their mask as preparation for performance. It could be argued that the mask was one of the keys to greek theatre and its understanding brings many favours to the actor. Although they had many features, masks at that time generally looked plain and neutral. While white hair indicated age or dark skin colour male, there were no suggestions about what the role feels or thinks. In this absence of expression the masks can almost remind of the neutral mask of Jacque Lecoq. It would then “become like a vehicle, drawing the whole body into space, into specific movements that reveal the character”9. Though the approach to the greek mask is very similar to Lecoq’s, greek masks however were not neutral in a modern sense. They were as they naively and every time new underwent the performance, but they also implied a character behind them; one that can feel, react and decide – unlike the neutral mask. The reason for the Pronomos vase actors to study their masks is to completely let go of themselves and become the mask’s character. At the time the perception of self was different than today’s and the idea of suspending oneself not as problematic as Brecht or Stanislavski see it: They would have feared to actor to parish under the mask, but the greek actor went into a “panic-free emptiness”, as Thanos Vovolis, greek mask maker, argues, which was designed to “reveal, not conceal”10.

As well as for preparation, the mask served several purposes for the actor during the performance: As the mask covered the whole head one could be tempted to think the audience was not supposed to see the actor. This is a fallacy; in fact the mask was first made to accomplish the opposite. Very clear and exaggerated features made it easier for the far away audience in the last row – approximately 70 metres from stage – to focus on the face and better listen. What seems rather distancing and alienating in today’s productions brought intimacy to the greek theatre. Furthermore the mask functioned as what Stanislavski would have called the fourth wall. Because the actor could not always see the audience he was less tempted to play for them rather than being his role. I conclude that in order to approach the mask effectively, an actor is to be courageous enough to completely let go of his environment, bringing the Teiresias mask to life through the whole body, not hiding behind the mask.

    3.2 .. prepare voice

In order to train his voice, the orator Demosthenes, spoke with stones in his mouth or while running11. These methods were necessary in order to fill the hugh space. Generally any voice training should help, though the scale of the auditorium should not be underestimated. The mask becomes of importance also for the voice here. Because it covers the whole head, it can function as resonance body, producing a much more filling speaking. However, the opening for the mouth is not to be used as megaphone, but as point where to concentrate the volume, as Vovolis urges, who also studied the acoustic effects of different mask types. The voice is supposed to become clearer, more resonant, powerful and understandable10.

    3.3 .. prepare mind and body

As said before, the greek perception of the ‘self’ was utterly different than ours. The modern divide between body and soul as well as reason and emotion has its origins in Plato’s Republic. At the time of Teiresias’ scenes however, this theory was not yet of significance to theatre and the actor must not use this image of person. A more holistic, pre-socratic view onto what complements a person was the general consensus. The body was focused, but not ruled by a single I. In four basic centres, Aeschylus associates physical action to internal conditions:12

phrên – the thought, reason and logic of a person; equitable and judicious, but easily overtaken by other parts. êpar – the deep, slow emotions. kardia – an old form of the modern ‘heart’ representing many ‘daily’ emotions like joy or disappointment. thumos – the temperament; erratic, quick and powerful emotions emerge form here.

This system makes it impossible for the actor to find motives or objectives as Stanislavski would propose. Medea has no choice, but is determined to kill her children, as different parts of her personality take over. David Wiles proposes:

“The instinct of the modern actor is to transmit the pain of a unique individual called Medea through the face. The masked Greek actor used the body to demonstrate a set of impulses, so the ‘I’ which articulates an intention does not represent the true Medea any more than the thumos governing the characters actions.”13

An actor therefore should not chase a self, but try to figure out from the text he is to perform, which parts of Teiresias personality are dominant. (Ant. 1025-1032) The quotation implies a Teiresias rather led by phrên and êpar,leading to a soft voice and smooth movements. However, in the perception of what exactly a character was made of and how he embodies the dichotomies listed in 1.2 lies the creative potential of the ancient greek actor. The Greek theatre therefore becomes very organic and democratic. Theatre was neither planned through as a static ritual it is often seen as, nor was it a chaotic feast of exotic lingerie. Both, Dionysos (wildness) and Apollo (structure) are the guardians of theatre tradition in Greece and so the actor is equipped with both, an organised repertoire of inner forces, from which he can draw a creative energy to produce movements associated with the those different parts. How exactly the body functioned is not known today. However, with evidence from costume and features of Teiresias it is safe to assume that not much big movements were involved in his acting and that his main focus lay on speech.

4. Summary

Because of a lack of evidence, an actor will never be able to notify he achieved an authentic representation of how Teiresias was performed. Especially intonation and intensity of movements remain ungraspable from the hints we find in the classical texts and diaries. Yet, it remains a noble intent and most certainly helps gain a better understanding of greek society, culture and values, thus their philosophy. As Derrida suggested, it does not make much sense to perform a greek tragedy to an audience which does not have the intertextual knowledge to understand the bottom line, having different backgrounds and values. But, already Euripides and Sophocles wrote their plays for people out of consensus, so also a modern spectator might experience catharsis while watching Teiresias’ speeches. It therefore remains justifiable to continue an analysis of how Teiresias would have been performed in the time between 442 and 406 BC.

Quoted or adapted secondary literature 1)   Friedrich Hölderlin: ‘Anmerkungen zu Oedipus’ included in ‘Sämtliche Werke Band 6: Sophokles’ Frankfurt a.M.  1988, page 251 2)   ‘Apollodorus – the libary’, London 1921, included in ’Fragmenta Hesiodae’, Oxford 1967, pages 133-138 3)   See for example Ovid: ‘Metamorphoses’ 3.316-338 or Homer: ‘Odyssey’ 10.494 4)   E. Howald: ‘Die Dichtungen des Kallimachos’ Zurich, 1955, pages 145-149 5)   Edition G. Stallbaum: ‘Eustathi Commentari in Odysseam’, Leipzig 1826, reproduced Hildesheim 1960, pages concerning 10.492 6)   See Christopher Norris: ‘Deconstruction: theory and practice’, London 1986, page 32 7)   Aristotle: ‘Politics’ line 1341b, translation T. A. Sinclair, Harmondsworth 1962, page 314 8)   David Wiles: ‘Greek Theatre Performance’, New York 2000, page 109 9)   Jacque Lecoq: ‘Le corpes poétique’ New York 2001, pages 48-9 and 63-6 10) Thanos Vovolis: ‘Form and function of the tragic mask’, unpublished lecture, London April 1966 11) Plutarch: ‘Life of Demosthenes’ 7.11 12) William G. Thalmann: ‘Aeschylus physiology of the emotions’, American Journal of Philology 107 1986, pages 489-511 13) David Wiles: ‘Greek Theatre Performance’, New York 2000, page 155 Pictures 1) M. Schmidt, included in ‘Praestant Interna’ Tübingen 1982, Picture 53-1 2) [accessed the 09.08.2008] 3) [accessed the 09.08.2008] Bibliography Lecoq, Jacque: ‘Le corpes poétique’, Routledge, New York 2001 Ley, Graham: ‘A short introduction to the ancient greek theatre’, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1991 Ugolini, Gherardo: ‘Untersuchungen zur Figur des Sehers Teiresias’ from the ‘Classica Monacensia’ Gunter Narr Verlag Tübingen, Tübingen1995 Sophocles: ‘Antigone’ (originally 442 BC), translation J. J. C. Donner, Hamburger Leseheft Verlag, Husum/Nordsee 2006 Sophocles: ‘Oedipus Rex’ (originally 429 BC) translation K. Steinmann, Reclam, Stuttgart 2008 Stanislavski, Constantin: ‘An actor prepares’ New York Theatre Arts, New York 1936 Wiles, David: ‘Greek Theatre Performance’, Cambridge University Press, New York 2000

Critique of sources 

Lecoq, Jacque: ‘Le corpes poétique’, Routledge, New York 2001, first published 1997

Jacque Lecoq is a French theatre practitioner, who fixed his work between improvisation and movement technique in this book. His intentions for writing it was to pass on his ideas. Although he did not conduct written studies of Greek theatre, and also has not made reference to it in the book apart from the Greek chorus, his concept of the neutral mask has great potential in helping to understand Greek masks as well. It is impossible to tell, how compatible his actor training technique is with the traditional Greek one, but as the outcomes show similarities, Lecoq became of importance for this essay and was of help for me in explaining the philosophical approach to the mask of Teiresias.

Ley, Graham: ‘A short introduction to the ancient Greek theatre’, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1991

Graham Ley is professor for Theatre Arts a t the University of Exeter. In his book, he tried to give a literally short introduction of 122 pages A5 into the subject matter for the layman in the postmodern society. Because of this inexperienced intended audience, Ley uses everyday language and misleading analogies with little reference to primary data, which made his work to be of little relevance for this essay. Although his points are valid and properly referenced, his main focus lies on the relation between society and theatre during Greek times, thus was not very useful to explore a specific aspect of this theatre tradition.

Ugolini, Gherardo: ‘Untersuchungen zur Figur des Sehers Teiresias’ from the ‘Classica Monacensia’ Gunter Narr Verlag Tübingen, Tübingen1995

Gherardo Ugolini is philologer and therefore concerned with the myths, stories and truths lying behind a certain narrative. His work was a PhD about Teiresias, which meant that his book gave great inside and depth into that role and that he wrote this work for the purpose of intense academic studies of the character, presuming knowledge about Greek society, Latin and traditional Greek. Having had interest in these areas before, Ugolini offered most knowledge required for 1.1 and others of my essay, for example a translation of Hesiod’s myth of Teiresias

Stanislavski, Constantin: ‘An actor prepares’ New York Theatre Arts, New York 1936

Constantin Stanislavski was a Russian realist theatre practitioner of the 19th and 20th century. His intentions for writing this work where to express the main ideas and concepts of realistic theatre from an actors point of view, in an easily comprehensible way. Although he did not write on Greek theatre specifically, his idea help explain some of the concepts used in Greek actor training. Since pre-platonic philosophy and theatre encourages the actor to parish in favour of his role, I believe that at least parts of his system must be of use for an Greek theatre actor. Stanislavski rejected the idea of completely forgetting yourself in your part, but essentially this is what his system has the potential to accomplish, as well.  For this reason, Stanislavski had a minor, but significant influence on this essay, particularly exploring the preparation of the mind of a Greek theatre actor.

Wiles, David: ‘Greek Theatre Performance’, Cambridge University Press, New York 2000 Professor David Wiles teaches Theatre and is an expert on the subject matter. The intended audience of his book mainly  consists of laymen and students, who wish to gain a deep understanding of the topic. It explores Greek theatre as a tradition from the viewpoints of different aspects of production involved at the time. Its main focus though lies on actors rather than writers and the gathering as a ceremony, which distinguishes this book form many others written on this topic. Therefore Wiles’ book has been my main resource for research as it insightfully reflects on the theatre practice, costumes, social conventions, ontological aspects as well as the little that is known about actor preparation during the 4th century BC. The Pronomos vase (400 BC) and Oedipus vase (330 BC) Both vases come from the Classical period of Greek history, with the Oedipus vase closing on the Hellenistic age. They were created roughly in the time period of Antigone (442 BC). They are thus one of the few primary resources available apart from the plays themselves. Although the Pronomos vase shows satyr, not tragic actors, the approach to the mask visible in the vase helps gravely in understanding the preparation process of the actor. So are the actual acting and costumes on the Oedipus vase. For this reason both vases have greatly helped my in my research. RI Teiresias (pdf)


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