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John StarksWomen played roles on Greek and Roman stages

Take just about any Greek Tragedy class and you’ll learn that, in ancient times, men in masks played the female characters; the implication being that women of ancient Greece and Rome just didn’t perform.

“I even hear from Classics colleagues that there were no women performing,” says Binghamton Classical and Near Eastern Studies professor John Starks. “But that just isn’t true.”

The problem is that most people have a very limited definition of performance. “We have this proscenium view of acting,” he says. “But it’s much bigger than that. Female performers tended to work around the edges of what we consider mainstage theater.” And while they were frequently the main event in those big, open theaters, they were also acting, singing and dancing for smaller audiences like military troops and dinner parties.

“Anyone who’s in the acting world knows that’s part of performing,” says Starks, who has a long performing history of his own. He’s staged and performed in Classic comedies throughout his career.

But even when working with a wider definition of performance, finding evidence of female performers is still difficult. Much of what is known about the people of the ancient world comes from paintings or inscriptions carved into stone. But female performers were on a low rung of the social hierarchy, so they usually lacked the wealth, power and stature to be honored in such a lasting way. Much of the hard evidence is indirect or written in graffiti or on papyrus, media that are very fragile and not likely to last centuries.

“The female performers haven’t been covered well because the material on them is very scattered,” Starks says. “There are little literary references here and there. And it’s extremely rare to find an illustration of a woman in performance.”

Because of his theater experience, Starks notices evidence in places others have missed, like church canons and familiar inscriptions.

“Some of these have been known for a very long time, but they’re missed because the editors don’t have performance backgrounds,” he says. “I’m able to bring a performer’s attention to it and pull out the seemingly hidden information.”

Some of that seemingly hidden information provided Starks the foundation for his article, “Pantomime Actresses in Latin Inscriptions,” which was awarded the Women's Classical Caucus Best Article Award for 2008 (presented 2010).

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Last Updated: 11/30/10