The sound boxes of Aeschylus

THE BROADER PICTURE

After nearly 2,500 years, the secret of the masks used in ancient Greek drama has been rediscovered. They were not worn just for appearance - as the familiar icon of paired smiley and weepy masks seems to suggest - but were voice-activated sound-boxes whose resonance triggered a state of ecstasy in both actor and audience.

The dramatic effects of the mask were stumbled upon by Thanos Vovolis, a 38-year-old Greek social anthropology graduate who studied costume and mask design at Stockholm's Dramatiska Institutet before taking it up professionally. Vovolis makes exquisitely modelled reproductions of ancient masks from papier mache, and teaches people how to use them. In 1989, however, he felt that he had reached a stalemate in his design of masks: "I was on the point of giving it up. Everything I had discovered about them seemed to hide the truth still further."

Then he saw the Greek actress Mirka Yemendzakis in a performance of Aeschylus's The Persians in Stockholm. She had revived the 150 almost forgotten ritual cries used in ancient Greek drama - usually crassly translated as alases, alacks and woe-woes - whose physiological effect on actors and audience does not seem to have been grasped by literary scholars. The Persians contains about 100 cries - evoi, evan, evai, alali, io, ia, iache, papapape, papapapapape and many more. He watched Yemendzakis giving voice exercises to an actress wearing a mask he had made with traditional pronounced forehead. "Suddenly, the actress felt a powerful resonance in the cavity between the mask and her forehead. She was a little stunned, but enlivened." For Vovolis it was a moment of truth.

The Greeks of the 5th century BC left no written instructions about their science of sound, which Vovolis believes was central to the rituals of the Orphic and Eleusian Mysteries and the cult of Dionysos - which gave rise to Greek drama. The techniques of voice-production would have been taught by priests in secret. But he cites Vitruvius, author in the 1st century BC of the only surviving classical treatise on architecture, who hinted tantalisingly that the auditorium of an amphitheatre could be designed as a resonant cavity producing consonance - that is, overtones. "Consonance," Vitruvius wrote, "is the process whereby due to suitably placed reflecting walls, the voice is supported and strengthened when two identical soundwaves, arriving at the same point at the same time, combine to produce the sum of its effects." He also mentioned ceramic sound reflectors built into the semi-circular rows of seats.

Vovolis surmises that during the ancient Greek plays, especially at the climax of catharsis, when tragic dilemma trips the mind of the audience into a state of transcendence, "the actors' speech would have become more powerful and clear and the entire auditorium would have vibrated with life." In ancient Greek the words theos (god), theatron (theatre) and therapia (therapy) share a common root that can mean, variously, soul, air, breath, pulse or life.

With Mirka Yemendzakis, Vovolis (shown, right, surrounded by some of his creations) now holds 10-day seminars on how to make his masks work. These begin with 15-20 people uttering moans and wails. Mouths gape and eyeballs disappear under eyelids. It takes several days for the chorus to achieve what he calls "a common breath". Then the masks are put on and the harmonisation continues. It sounds like a cross between "overtone" chanting and the throaty reverberations of pundits reciting the ancient Sama-Veda of India. Vovolis explains: "It's a physical experience of catharsis. You feel that your whole body has been cleansed and purified."

It usually takes half an hour or so for an actor to become attuned to a mask, says Vovolis. "First, they have a feeling of death, then find they can breathe. I instruct them not to try to do anything or even think very much, but just to realise that there, behind the mask, is liberation." The same mask can have different physiological effects upon different people, but some effects have become familiar. For example, the site of voice production seems to settle in the pelvic region. There have now been five stage productions of both Greek tragedies and modern plays using Vovolis's masks. "Even the critics remarked on the impact of the sound," he says proudly.

Further information: Foundation for Hellenic Culture, 60 Brook Street, London W1 (0171 499 9826) or Thanos Vovolis, Dora D'Istria 20, 10676 Athens (00 30 1 721 3839)

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen