Figure of an actor

A statuette modelled in terracotta of an actor with a grotesque mask. He wears only a linen garment which covers his belly and arms while leaving his legs and genitals uncovered. His is looking fixedly downward. His features are exaggerated: he has a wide forehead, large eyes, chubby cheeks, a long, thick beard and a large, gaping mouth.

During the late 5th and following century, different types of terracotta examples appeared in various regions of Greece, representing theatrical characters such as the seated or the standing slave, the old man or woman, the nurse with her baby, Heracles, the young veiled woman, etc. These characters were standardized and belonged to different comedies of the ancient repertoire: the large group of Attic statuettes, now housed in New York, that constitutes one of the most important and rare direct connections with the Middle Comedy, certainly belongs to this series.

The culture of the theatre flourished in Ancient Greece between 550 and 220 BC. It would seem that Greek theatre began in circular spaces in the open air, normally taking advantage of slopes in the terrain or the side of a mountain and so making the construction of terraces of seating relatively easy. Later, Roman culture absorbed this cultural element and introduced it into their cities. Through the use of semi-circular-arches the construction of theatres could be carried out in the centre of a community: there was no need to use mountain sides.

The popularization and great attraction of theatre led to the creation of a series of artistic objects based on this theme. Common among these are the masks in terracotta and stone carved as decorative elements, and various sculptures on a small scale of actors, as in this case, were also common. Even the rites and scenes from theatre were represented in mosaics and frescos.

Masks had certain practical uses: their distinct features made characters recognisable at a distance; they made it easier for the three actors used in plays to play more than one part each; they enabled the all-male casts to play both men and women and some experts claim that the masks helped amplify the voice so that it could be heard at the back of the large open-air theatres. However, the most significant role of the mask was that of transformation: an ordinary man could go beyond his real identity and become a mythological hero or a lusty satyr, a foolish old man or a beautiful young woman, a god or a slave. In this disguise he could say and do things that could not be said and done in everyday life, and could present to the audience events, actions and ideas that were horrifying or ridiculous, inspiring or fantastic.

Throughout the Greek world, performances of plays were usually connected with worship of the god Dionysos. It is the idea of transformation that lies at the root of this association. Although Dionysos is often thought of simply as the god of wine, it is the transformational power of wine that most characterises him. Dionysos was fundamentally the god of changeability: grapes become wine, sober becomes drunk, human becomes animal, order becomes chaos.


- BIEBER M. The History of the Greek and Roman Theater. Princeton. 1961.
- HART, M. L. The Art of Ancient Greek Theater. The J. Paul Guetty Museum. Los Angeles. 2010.

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