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Hercules' birthday suit: performing heroic nudity between Athens and Amsterdam

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones

Cardiff University, Wales

The Pronomos Vase (c. 400 BCE) is the single most important piece of pictorial evidence for theatre to have survived from ancient Greece. It depicts an entire theatrical chorus and cast along with the celebrated musician Pronomos, in the presence of their patron god, Dionysos. One actor is costumed as Hercules, replete with club and lion skin; he wears high boots and the elaborate long sleeved patterned tunic typical of stage costume. On his torso he wears what has been identified as an armoured cuirass.

The presence of costume is, however, problematic for a character so notorious for his rejection of the hallmarks of 'civilisation’, such as clothing. This raises a question: how was the naked Hercules performed on the Athenian stage? If, as has been argued, nudity was a form of costume in Athens, then how did costume reflect nudity?

The answer might be hinted at in Constance Hoffman's imaginative costumes for De Nederlandse Opera’s 2009 production of Ercole Amante by Cavalli. Composed to celebrate the marriage of Louis XIV of France to the Spanish Infanta in 1662, this surreal production by David Alden, is a triumph of commedia buffa, resplendent with decorative and symbolic elements, and complemented especially by Hoffman's exceptional designs. Her treatment of the nakedness of Hercules is skilfully and ingeniously reimagined. Her postmodern design mixes extravagant period dress with equally extravagant modern costume, Baroque machinery with modern effects. Hercules totes giant six-packs of plastic muscle, looking a child’s action hero toy but with an overt – adult – sexuality. Hoffman’s design affords us clues into how the Athenian theatre might have created a naked hero too.

The paper is made possible to the generous support of Constance Hoffman herself, who provided access to designs, notes, and photographs. 

Session/Panel Title

Re-evaluating Herakles-Hercules in the Twenty-first Century

Session/Paper Number

21.3

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