The City Dionysia
Drama arose out of feasts held in honor of the Greek god Dionysus. By the eighth century B.C., the Greeks had developed elaborate rituals in his honor, which included poetry recitations and a ceremony called the dithyramb. Over time, the dithyramb, which was a special form of verse about Dionysus that was accompanied by song and dance, became the highlight of the festival, and it developed to include tales of other gods and heroes. Beginning about 535 B.C., Athens began to hold annual festivals known as City Dionysia. This festival included a dramatic competition of dithyramb and rhapsodia—Homeric recitation contests. The poet Thespis was the first winner of this contest. His play included dithyramb and rhapsodia, but he expanded these traditional presentations to include a chorus as well. Thespis thus developed a new art form that later became known as theatrical plays.
The performance began with a procession made up of the playwrights, wealthy citizens who funded the festival, choruses, actors, and important public officials. This parade wended its way through the streets of Athens on the first day of the competition. The procession entered the theater, and then the public sacrifice of a bull to Dionysus took place. The competition opened with the dithyrambic contests, and the three tragedies were performed in the ensuing days, each followed by a satyr play. Magistrates responsible for theatrical productions during the City Dionysia were given the responsibility of producing comedies about 487 B.C., though volunteers probably produced them there for some years before that. The comedies were presented at night, after the tragedies. A panel of ten judges selected the top winners.
The City Dionysia remained an integral part of Athens’ culture throughout the city’s Golden Age. Taking place at the end of March, it was a major holiday attraction. Greeks from other city-states were welcome to attend the competition or enter plays in it.
The Age of Pericles
Democracy was born in Athens in the late sixth century...
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As set out by Aristotle in his Poetics in 350 B.C., tragedy generally follows a set sequence of events. First, the hamartia takes place. This is the tragic error committed by the hero, and it usually is committed unwittingly. Oedipus’ act of killing Laius and marrying Jocasta is the hamartia in Oedipus the King. The unexpected turn of events that brings this error to light is known as the peripeteia, and the hero’s recognition of this error is the anagnorisis. According to Aristotle, the peripeteia and the anagnorisis are most effective when occurring at the same time. They often come about when the true identity of one of the characters becomes known. This is the case for Oedipus, whose discovery of who his real father is causes him to recognize that his wife is his mother, thereby leading to the reversal of his situation from happiness to misery. Lastly comes the catharsis, the release of the emotions of fear and pity that the tragedy has aroused in the audience.
Old Comedy also had a distinct structure. The first part is the introduction or prologue, in which the plot is explained and developed. The play proper begins with the parados, which is the entry of the chorus. This is followed by the agon, or contest, which is a ritualized debate between two main characters, a character and the chorus, or two halves of the chorus; and the parabasis, in which the chorus speaks to the audience about the political and social events of the day and also criticizes Athens’ well-known citizens. Following a series of farcical scenes, the play concludes with a banquet or wedding. While Old Comedy followed a formal design, it had little conventional plot, instead presenting a series of episodes, which, when taken together, illustrated a serious political or social issue. New Comedy, however, articulated the plot much more clearly and featured characters who devised intrigues and tricks to achieve certain goals.
The Greek chorus played a crucial role in Greek plays. Members of the chorus—twelve to fifteen actors—remained on stage throughout the entire play and periodically recited poetic songs in unison. Overall, the chorus observed and interpreted the actions of the play, reacted to characters and events, and even probed the characters with questions and gave advice. However, the chorus took on additional responsibilities in the hands of different playwrights. In some plays, the chorus helped move the plot along. In other plays, it introduced major themes. “The chorus complements, illustrates, universalizes, or dramatically justifies the course of events,” writes Michael Grant in Myths of the Greeks and Romans, “it comments...
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Other Forms of Tragedy
Aside from the tragedy of the ancient Greeks, great tragedy has been created only in three other periods and places: England, from 1558 to 1625; seventeenth-century France; and Europe and America from the mid-nineteenth century to the midtwentieth century. Like Greek theater, Elizabethan drama arose out of religious ceremonies. Gorboduc, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, the first formal tragedy in English, was performed in 1561, but Christopher Marlowe, who wrote in the late 1500s, was the first tragedian worthy of the Greek tradition. Shakespeare produced his five greatest tragedies in the first years of the 1600s. However, tragedy as a drama form began to decline after Shakespeare. During the 1600s, however, dramatists in France were also attempting to bring back the ancient form of Greek tragedy. Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine represent the best of the French neoclassical period. These playwrights closely followed the Greek models and Aristotelian unities and drew characters and situations from ancient Greece. Modern tragedy began with Norway’s Henrik Ibsen, Sweden’s August Strindberg, and Russia’s Anton Chekhov. In America, however, few plays presented the full dimensions of tragedy. Some critics have called Eugene O’Neill the first American to write tragedy for the American theater; he sought to accomplish the creation of true tragedy because he believed that the meaning of life—and its hope—lay in...
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Compare and Contrast
500s B.C.: During this century, Athens becomes the dominant power of the Greek city-states and achieves its greatest economic prosperity and cultural flowering. The Golden Age of Greece sees Athens emerge as the center of the arts.
Today: Athens dominates Greek political, cultural, and economic life. About four million people, some 40 percent of the population, live in the city’s metropolitan area. Modern Athens is filled with ruins and reminders of the city’s ancient glory.
500s B.C.: The Greeks believe in a pantheon of twelve gods who live atop Mount Olympus. The gods are seen as powerful beings who do not readily overlook any slights to their honor. Some actions that most offend the gods include a lack of hospitality, lack of proper burial for family members, human arrogance, and murderous violence.
Today: The ancient Greek religion held sway until about the fourth century A.D., when Christianity spread to the region. Today, all but a small minority of Greeks are members of the Church of Greece, or the Greek Orthodox Church. However, Greeks still maintain pride in the myths of the past.
500s B.C.: Around 508 B.C., Cleisthenes overthrows the aristocrats who rule Athens and turns the city into a direct democracy. An assembly called the Council of Five Hundred—chosen from local government units—makes the laws, and a court system in which people are tried by a jury of citizens...
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Topics for Further Study
Read or review the masterpieces of Greek tragedy and Greek comedy. How are these plays alike? How are they different? Which do you think most represents Greek culture in the fifth century B.C.?
Compare and contrast the features of Old Comedy and New Comedy. Which of these forms seems more relevant to modern drama? Explain your answer.
Read Aristotle’s Poetics and apply his analysis of tragedy to a play of your choosing.
Read Plato’s Republic, in which he discusses his ideas about tragedy and its place in society. Out of what philosophical ideas does Plato’s argument arise? How valid is his argument?
Find out more about life in ancient Greece in the fifth century...
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Antigone Sophocles’ Antigone (441 B.C.) depicts the title character’s defiance of the king of Thebes and his edicts. Antigone’s brother has died in his rebellion against the king, Creon, who is also his uncle, and Creon has forbidden proper burial rites to be carried out for him. The play’s clash is between Antigone and Creon, whose differences center on opposing attitudes toward authority; Antigone values the personal sphere and the laws of gods and religions, whereas Creon values authoritarian control and the subordination of personal feeling to the state.
Many critics regard the Bacchae (circa 405 B.C.) as Euripides’ masterpiece. In this play, the god...
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Oedipus Rex, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, came out in 1967. It stars Silvana Mangano and Franco Citti and is in Italian with English subtitles.
Medea, starring Judith Anderson and Colleen Dewhurst and directed by José Quintero, appeared in cinemas in 1959. It is available on Ivy Classics Video (1991).
George Tzavellas’s adaptation of Antigone, starring Irene Papas and Manos Katrakis, came out in 1962.
The opera Oedipus Rex was completed in 1949. It features music by Igor Stravinsky and a libretto by Jean Cocteau. It is available on videodisk.
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What Do I Read Next?
Aristotle’s Poetics is the first critical work focusing on tragedy as an art form. Written about 380 B.C., the Poetics provides an extensive analysis of the genre.
Eugene O’Neill is considered to be one of the few modern American tragedians. His Mourning Becomes Electra (1932), a trilogy, is a reworking of the Oresteia trilogy. It is set in Puritan New England during the Civil War. O’Neill wanted to create a modern psychological tragedy that utilized the mythology and legend of ancient Greece.
Several post–World War II French writers have attempted to revitalize the Greek tragedy through more contemporary plays. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Flies (1943) is based on...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Aristotle, Poetics, translated by S. H. Butcher, Hill and Wang, 1989.
Bieber, Margarete, Excerpt from The History of the Greek and Roman Theater, in Greek Drama, edited by Don Nardo, Greenhaven Press, 2000, pp. 138–46, originally published by Princeton University Press, 1939, 1961, 1989.
Bowra, C. M., Classical Greece, Time-Life Books, 1965, p. 102.
Ehrenberg, Victor, The People of Aristophanes: A Sociology of Old Attic Comedy, Schocken Books, 1962, p. 26.
Grant, Michael, Excerpt from Myths of the Greeks and Romans, in Greek Drama, edited by Don Nardo, Greenhaven Press, 2000, pp. 46–49, originally published by...
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