Fast Scratch on a Greek Actor

When he stepped out into the glare of the morning, the drift of the mask over his head tilted ever so slightly and he found himself wondering just exactly how he was going to interact with the others on stage. The smell within the mask was like a barn – that earthy, healthy smell of horse and cattle and hay, but held in close – a feel of warmth like an itch in the nostrils, a sense of air a little too tight. 

His mother had been one of the women behind the skene who had dug clay from out of the banks of the river and formed up the shape of this mask that fit more like a helmet with a face, frozen in a snarl. It had been painted in vicious colors of red and flesh-tones and black hair streaked with silver. He was playing one of the angrier gods. 

The stage held fast, didn’t give way, and the machine was positioned overhead for him to descend in another mask and playing another god much later in the play. 

What would he give to start the play in reverse? To begin by having the god, instead of descending to set all things right in the world of the story being performed, stepping into the machine, the stage littered with corpses and cracked masks, and being carried out of the world of the story right at the beginning? What child then must come forth from out of the fronds of the leafy bushes potted and positioned on the corners of the stage? What story would follow after god has left it all, wiping hands on robes, claiming no responsibility for what has happened or feeling any expectation to clean up afterwards? A children’s play, it would have to be then, wouldn’t it? The wailing cries of the animal sacrificed, the goat song, the tragedoia, already fading as a young boy wandered the stage and considered the bodies of people recognized and now gone.  He considered children to be hopeful creations – or did anyway, once upon a time, but perhaps he’d overheard the whispers of the disciples of Diogenes at the gates of the temples and stopped one time too many to consider what coarse truths they uttered. 

He righted the mask with a simple jerk of the head – it was considered poor form to take hold with your hand and set it right once you were onstage – given while he was calling out the cries of his lines, the lilt and fury of the god’s emotion given the added pump of a sudden jerk of his head towards the protagonist, the fool who claimed that he deserved to be treated better by the fates. 

“There is nothing you deserve,” he proclaimed, and the words sang in the stable-smell of his mask/helmet, filled the tight space within him and reverberated against the carved hillside. 

There were nights some seasons when he would come out to the stage, to the amphitheater, with a netted bag full of masks, and practice his tonality against the stones of the hill, all alone, frightening the birds from the bushes and twisted olive trees, occasionally jerking awake a surprised fox who darted like a quick shadow over the knoll behind and away. Sometimes he would express his own words, his own thoughts, rather than rehearsing the words of his playwright. One night, the stars considering him with cold acclaim, he sang out his rage against the gods for his unhappiness, his loneliness, and he did it without a mask, the air cool against his cheeks, like the way the skin cools after being suddenly slapped by an angry lover, and the effect was as terrifying as being naked on a mountaintop, his ever-hurt heart too revealed – and then too empty afterwards. He couldn’t say what was more terrifying: the ringing agony of his heart shouted out against the hillside; or, the answering silence that followed. 

Shadows cut across his vision. At first he thought it was the tilt of the helmet, but then he realized someone had thrown something. 

That happened at times – the audience would let their frustration be known by throwing fruit and fish gone bad; one of the last jobs was to take a bucket or three of water out on to the stage and clean it of that sort of shit. He didn’t mind. He’d sometimes do something similar himself, packing up and bagging refuse and then going to plays that were also entered in the festival. He wasn’t one to instigate – that was poor form – but if he felt the displeasure of the audience (growing based on any number of things: a line the character Heracles said that suggested a little too much clueless stupidity; the voice of a particular actor who was tonally wrong to play Apollo; a reaction to a sudden rainfall by one of the players, perhaps wincing at a thunderclap or just bringing up his shoulders against the drops) he had no problem escalating things with a few clever shouts. 

But this wasn’t such a moment. Or, if it was, the audience had serious issues with the content of the work. There was another darting shadow of a thrown object, but this one clattered and he could see that it was actually a thrown spear. The other actors, he could see, were already exiting, going back behind the walls of the skene, moving with measured but sudden step. 

Rather than follow, he turned with sudden abruptness, his sorrow and his loneliness perhaps giving him a wash of courage unexpected, and his words rang out with power. 

“Give it to me!” he cried, and the crowd which had begun, like the actors, to push to the exits with a clamor of terror, went silent, and, although they continued to stream from the theater, they turned to see who had called out such a thing. 

Another spear clattered near him and an arrow whizzed by – he could feel its sudden instectile tug at his robe. 

“Give me this moment in blood and shouts!” he called. Did the crowd still at these words? Did they all stop even attempting to escape to see what this fool was doing on stage? 

“Give me this fear, this hatred, this sacrilege! Give me this loss, this break, this doom! What do I care? What can I care when nobody else does? The words spit mean nothing without the wailing scream of the goat on the altar. What animal cry could matter without the foolishness that precedes it!” 

Now he knew it was all silent and it was like he was back in the late-night hours and his words echoed like into a well, dropped and forgotten. 

“Kill me here, if that’s what you need to do!” he shouted. “You are the foolishness, the sins that demand blood and loss so finish me now and let's stain the floor with the blood of a fool!” 


“I can’t know any better than this. My heart has been taught by my mother’s blood and my father’s tongue to be forever frightened and so I am. The trick is to move beyond it. The god does not descend from the machine until the sacrifice is made.” 

He spread wide his arms and his voice was thunder against the hill. “Bring forth the god to right these wrongs by sacrificing this old goat here and now!” 


And then there was a rush, like water over the head, like being plunged into a river, an explosion of fury and purpose that seemed to emanate from the very core of his pain, an exhultation, a final wailing cry of an artist onstage experiencing a lasting burst of transubstantiation.

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