Ancient and modern

The ancient Greek art of theatre criticism

2 July 2022

9:00 AM

2 July 2022

9:00 AM

Last week Lloyd Evans was wondering whether it was about time audiences started booing dramatic productions of which they disapproved. He was right to trace this happy practice back to the ancient Greeks.

In Athens, trilogies of tragedies were put on in competition, and Plato tells us that the audience did not disguise its feelings about its choice of winner, though the judges had the final say (Plato disapproved of those who yielded to the ‘howling of the mob’). In general, disapproval of any aspect of a play was expressed by hissing and booing, and heels being kicked against the seats.

Uncouth behaviour was also not uncommon. We hear of those who hissed while others applauded, those who applauded while others remained silent, those who belched during quiet passages (‘to draw attention to themselves’), and those who slept through the performances – and were left to sleep on after the theatre was cleared.

That said, audience disapproval, on which many of our sources comment, is in fact a mark of the seriousness with which Greeks took these performances. For example, the precision and accuracy of the actor’s voice, emerging from behind a mask, were vitally important in an open air theatre of maybe 20,000 people, but technical mistakes in that area were ruthlessly mocked.

Audiences also responded to sentiments that seemed especially praiseworthy or morally offensive. One actor was met with a torrent of hissing for extolling money. Uproar ensued when one play began ‘Zeus, whoever he is: I know him only by report’; the playwright changed it to ‘Zeus, as men truly say of him’. When Socrates heard the lines ‘There is nothing so dreadful to relate, no suffering, no heaven-sent disaster whose burden mortal man will not have to bear’, he commented: ‘You can say that again.’

Interestingly, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus – the king who killed his father and married his mother, used by Aristotle as his ‘perfect’ example of the tragic genre – did not win: perhaps its accompanying plays in the trilogy were not up to scratch. Presumably actors (as ever) blamed the playwright…

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