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Greek Tragedy: An Overview

Tragedy and the City

Tragedy is particular product of the Athenian democracy. In the late 6th century BCE, the Athenians drove out the family of tyrants who had ruled the city for decades and established the only true democracy in western history. Almost all political offices were chosen by lot, and the assembly of all Athenian citizens voted directly on all important issues. It was during the 5th century that Athens became the most powerful city of Greece. After joining with other Greek cities to repel an invasion by the Persian Empire, the largest empire in the world at the time, Athens became an imperial power herself, conquering other Greek cities; eventually, though, the Athenians stretched their power too far and collapsed. Sparta and her allies conquered Athens in 404, and, although the democracy was restored and continued throughout the 4th century, Athens would never regain the glory she had achieved a century earlier.

5th-century Athens was almost unparalleled in its cultural achievement, from philosophy and science through architecture and the visual arts. Tragedy was the premiere literary genre of this period, and it is fitting that the apex of the democracy should be symbolized by a genre of poetry that involves the entire body politic. Performed at one of the major festivals of the city, the Great Dionysia, each tragedy was part of a contest. Three playwrights would be chosen by a city official, and each playwright would produce three tragedies and a satyr-play (a kind of farce intended to lighten the mood after three tragedies), all four plays being performed in a single day. The audience consisted of about 15,000 citizens, and the festival itself became a pageant of Athenian power and glory.

We know of many playwrights from this century, but the works of only three survived the end of antiquity and the Middle Ages, in which so much of ancient literature was lost. Fortunately, the three poets we have were universally considered to be the best: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. From Sophocles, who won 20 victories (compared to Aeschylus' 13 and Euripides' four) we have the seven plays chosen by ancient critics as his finest: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, and the so-called “Theban plays,” Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. These three plays are not a trilogy per se; they were not written in order or performed together at one festival. In fact, about forty years separates the first play written, Antigone, from the last, Oedipus at Colonus! Each play, therefore, should be considered a separate work, and while Sophocles alludes to his earlier work, he pursued different goals and used different methods for each one.

The Genre of Greek Tragedy

Greek legend attributed to Thespis the invention of acting (hence we call actors “thespians”). Drama was born when, instead of just narrating events, an actor assumed a character and interacted accordingly with the chorus, who were also now seen as persons specific to the drama (hence, in the Antigone, the chorus is made up of the elders of Thebes). Both actor and chorus performed wearing elaborate costumes and masks. According to the philosopher Aristotle, Sophocles' predecessor Aeschylus added the second actor and Sophocles himself the third. With these three actors playing multiple roles (by changing their masks backstage!), a complete story could be acted out, and gradually the role of the chorus diminished. In the plays of Sophocles, the chorus rarely achieves the role of a real character as it so often does, for instance, in the plays of Aeschylus.

The plays followed a fairly strict structure, with a prologue, the entrance of the chorus, and then several episodes separated by choral odes. The dialogue of the plays is written in meter, but was spoken, like the plays of Shakespeare, whereas the choral odes were written in a more complicated meter to which the chorus could sing and dance. The plays also include a kommos, in which the main character(s) lament in song with the chorus. All in all, the form of Greek tragedy occupies a place somewhere between Shakespeare and opera. It is important, all the same, for modern readers to remember that they are getting a small portion of what the original audience received, for they are reading a libretto without the benefit of any music or the often elaborate costumes and scenery.

Conventions of the Genre

The most important convention of the Greek stage was the wearing of masks with attached wigs by all performers. As such, facial expression, which plays so large a role in modern theater, was not a factor. Additionally, the elaborate costumes worn by the actors and chorus members were often the most striking visual element. Staging was usually limited to the painted background behind the stage. Greek tragedies are all set outside, so this background usually depicted the exterior of the main characters' residence—in the Antigone's case, the palace of Thebes. Changes of scene are rare in Greek tragedy, and props are kept to a minimum. The action of the drama takes place over a single day. In addition to the chorus and the three actors, mute characters could also appear on stage as needed. In front of the stage proper, which was not raised from the ground as in modern theaters, was a circular area called the orchestra, in which the chorus performed its dances. These would have musical accompaniment provided by an aulos, a double pipe like a modern oboe.

The Chorus

Since Greek tragedy grew out of the performances of lyric poetry sung by large choruses, it is only natural that the chorus should remain a large part of Greek tragedy. Every play's chorus (usually fourteen men) took on an identity appropriate to the play. For example, in the Antigone, they are old men of Thebes; in Aeschylus' Eumenides, they are the dread goddesses, the Furies.

The word chorus in Greek means “dance,” and the chorus' main function was to sing and dance lyric odes in between dramatic episodes. These odes comment on the action of the preceding episode. An ode (also called a stasimon) usually consists of alternating stanzas, the strophe and antistrophe, which are in the same meter. Since odes are composed in lyric meters (as opposed to chanted iambic trimeters of the dialogue), these stanzas would be very complicated. Additionally, the main character(s) of a play could join the chorus in a kommos, a lyric song sung by both character and chorus at a point of heightened emotion.

The chorus was never on stage at the beginning of a play. Instead, after the play's prologue, the chorus members marched into the orchestra, the circular area beneath the stage where they danced. As they marched in, the chorus chanted a parodos to introduce themselves. The parodos is neither a lyric song or ordinary dialogue, but is metrically between these modes.

The chorus could also act as a character; one chorus member would be designated leader and speak lines of dialogue, interacting with the other characters on stage. They react as their characters should—in the Antigone, the Chorus are concerned with both religious and civic obligations; thus, they can see the good and bad sides to both Antigone's and Creon's arguments. They feel pity for both Antigone and Creon when they suffer, but they are not emotionally involved in the play's outcome the way the individual characters are.