Cognitive Neuroscience Gets Behind the Mask of Greek Theater

Over 2000 years may have elapsed since masked Greek tragedies had their heyday on stage in Athens, but some of the most modern neuroscience may be able to give classicists a better understanding of how the ancients watched and thought about those plays that today exist only on paper.
Peter Meineck leads a double life, as a classicist at New York University and a theatre director and founder of the Aquila Theatre in New York. His interest and involvement in live theatre led him to wonder if he could somehow find a window into the minds of the ancient Greeks who watched plays like Antigone and the Oresteia unfold live on stage rather than the page.
Although the text of a play is undoubtedly important, Meineck says, classicists tend to rely too heavily on the words as first and last authority. At a talk at Stanford University in California last week, Meineck discussed his radical shift away from the text of ancient plays towards understanding the importance of masks and movements by teaming his theatrical knowledge with cognitive neuroscience.
Meineck spent a year studying principles of cognitive science and was immediately attracted to the theory of embodied cognition - the idea that the way we think is mediated by how we physically experience and move in the world - since it aligned so perfectly with his own experience as a theatre director. One of his actors could be reciting perfect Shakespeare, he says, but it would be his body that made the words believable. “I’m trying to get someone’s body to feel truthfully what is coming out of their mouth,” he explains.
The principles of embodied cognition were all the more important in Greek plays, says Meineck, because the actors were masked.

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