Greek Drama

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Historical Context

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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 B.C., after a long period of dictatorship. To prevent a dictatorship from taking shape once again, the populace developed a set of strong laws. Athenian males, excluding slaves, voted on the city’s political and economic affairs. The city’s assembly made all legislative and electoral decisions.

The defence of the city was managed by ten generals, elected on an annual basis; Pericles was frequently elected as one of these generals and held the post almost every year from 443 to his death in 429. He first came to prominence in 463 and dominated Athenian politics from 447 B.C. until his death in 429. Pericles sought to increase the Athenian empire and bolster the city’s power throughout Greece. His ambitions led Athens into the Peloponnesian War.

The rise of democracy plays prominent roles in the tragedies. The Oresteia, for example, reflects the transformation of Athens from the code of tribal vengeance to the rule of communal, or state, law. According to some critics, Creon, the king-tyrant of Thebes in Antigone, was modeled at least in part on Pericles and was intended to serve as a warning to Pericles and the Athenian people about the dangers of dictatorship and putting too much power in the hands of one person.

The Peloponnesian War
By the mid-fifth century B.C., Athens had built an empire that included many of the Greek citystates. However, it did not rule its empire as democratically as it did its own city-state. Other Greek cities within the Athenian Empire grew discontented and began to turn to Sparta, Athens’ long-standing rival, for protection. In 431 B.C., Sparta...

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and its allies declared war on Athens, a war which came to involve most of the city-states. The war lasted for an entire generation, bringing great loss of life, including the death of Pericles. In 404 B.C., Athens surrendered, and the ensuing years were ones of instability for Greece. Aristophanes used the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War in many of his plays. Though many of the scenes were very funny, he sought to convey the lesson of the absurdity of the war.

Greek Women
The Greek tragedies depict strong, independent women, but in ancient Athens, this was a rare role for women to play. Women were unable to participate in politics and government; they could not vote or hold office. They rarely were even seen outside the home, except at such events as festivals, marriages, and funerals. They could not marry without the sanction of their male guardian. Only men could initiate divorce, and this was relatively easy for them to accomplish.

However, the tragedians in their plays create women who defy such social standards and the laws that uphold them. Antigone is one such character, choosing to ignore the decree of the king when she decides to bury her brother. Antigone’s sister, Ismene, reminds her of their subordinate status— “We must remember, first, that we were born women, who should not strive with men”—but Antigone ignores this warning and follows her own conscience. Medea is another character who flouts contemporary standards. At the beginning of Medea, she openly speaks out against the unfairness of this system to the women of Corinth. Throughout the drama, she emerges as a completely dominating figure.

Literary Style

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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 or moralizes or mythologizes upon what happens, and opens up the spiritual dimension of the theme or displays the reaction of public opinion.”

However, the role of the chorus changed over time and in the hands of the three great tragedians. For Aeschylus, the chorus played a more central role. In the Suppliants, the chorus is actually the protagonist, while in Agamemnon, the play’s themes find clearest expression in the vocalizations of the chorus. In Sophoclean drama, the chorus could be interpreted as a group of characters itself, with a distinct perception and point of view. In some of Sophocles’s plays, as in Ajax and Electra, the chorus was most closely attached to the title character. In other plays, namely Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, the choruses are made up of city elders who present their opinions on the events they are witnessing. By the time of Euripides, however, the chorus had taken on a far less crucial role. According to Rex Warner writing in Three Great Plays of Euripides, in the works of Euripides, “The chorus perform in the role of sympathetic listeners and commentators, or provide the audience with a kind of musical and poetic relief from the difficulties or horrors of the action.”

Comedy also made use of the chorus. In Old Comedy, the chorus might take on a slightly different role. For instance, members of the chorus often stirred up trouble among characters. By contrast, the New Comedy used the chorus primarily as a small band of performers who served to entertain the audience or provide musical interludes between scenes.

Satyr Plays
Satyr plays were a blend of tragedy and comedy. The underlying themes of the plays were usually of a serious nature, but their plots and tone were absurd and designed for humor. They featured obscene visual and verbal humor as well as characters called satyrs, which were half-man, halfanimal, and Silenus, a mythical horseman. Satyr plays were presented after the tragedies at the theatrical competitions and presented a humorous or farcical version of the tragedy that had just been witnessed. Satyr plays were shorter than tragedies, had their unique choral dance, and used more col- loquial speech. Like tragedies, satyr plays drew their themes and subjects from mythology. Because Euripides’ Cyclops is the only satyr play that has survived in its entirety, little concrete information is known about them, however.

Deus Ex Machina
Literally meaning “god from the machine,” deus ex machina was the entry of a god or gods at the end of the play to save the protagonist. The machina, a staging device, was a crane that flew in the gods or heroes at the end of the play. Euripides and Aristophanes both frequently employed a deus ex machina ending. Euripides’ gods would explain in an epilogue what happened next or would remove the protagonist. For example, the deus ex machina was used in Medea to bring Helios, the sun god, to save Medea from the wrath of Jason, her husband, as well as to allow her to take the bodies of their sons, thus depriving her husband of even the solace of their proper burial.

Ancient Greek tragedies upheld what Aristotle later named the Unities of Time, Place, and Action. Unity of time required that the play take place in twenty-four hours or less; unity of place required that the play take place in a single location; and unity of action required that the play focus on only one central story or action and eliminate action or characters that were not relevant to the plot. However, some critics have pointed out that the unity of time was not strictly adhered to but more implied by the close focus on relevant action. For example, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon opens on the morning that the Trojan War ends in Asia Minor, yet by the end of that day, Agamemnon has returned some five hundred miles from the conflict, to Greece, where he is murdered by his wife. Aristotle believed that observance of the unities contributed to the intensity of the audience’s experience while viewing the play, particularly the cathartic response.

Movement Variations

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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 the tragic.

The Greek Theater and the Staging of Plays
The ancient Greek theater was an outdoor area consisting of a large circular dancing floor on which the action took place (called the orchestra); a “scene building” (skene, from which the modern word scene derives) facade behind the orchestra to which painted scenery could be attached; and a semicircular auditorium around the orchestra fitted with bleachers to seat anywhere from ten to twenty thousand spectators. People from all social classes attended the Greek plays.

Plays began with the entrance of the actors and the chorus, accompanied by musicians, through the two entrances on either side of the orchestra. The performers moved and gestured in unison, only breaking formation when they reached their assigned places in the orchestra. Then the story began to unfold, and the members of the chorus moved from place to place as they reacted to the play’s events and characters. The actors who were distinct from the chorus wore elaborate masks that depicted recognizable types, for example, old men or young women. These masks allowed the same actor to play multiple roles in the different scenes of the play and also let men play women’s parts. The theatrical costumes were brightly colored, which aided in character recognition as well. For example, royalty wore purple. All the action took place in outdoor settings, either natural or urban ones.

Opera developed out of the Greek tragedies. This musical form was created in Florence, Italy, at the end of the sixteenth century when a group of scholars, poets, and musicians, called the Camerata, discovered the important role that music had played in ancient tragedy. Members of the Camerata collaborated and performed two shows based on mythological stories of Daphne and Eurydice, in 1597 and 1600, respectively. Both performances combined drama, music, and spectacle into what they believed was a recreation of Greek tragedy. The operas were an immediate success, and, in the early 1600s, this new type of performance spread throughout Italy as well as to France, Austria, Germany, and England. By 1607, Claude Monteverdi’s masterpiece, Orfeo, established the fundamental form of the European opera that would remain virtually unchanged for the next three hundred years.

Compare and Contrast

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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 is implemented. In the midfifth century B.C., Pericles opens public offices to all male citizens and provides that officeholders be paid, thus making it possible for nonwealthy men to serve in government.

Today: Greece is a parliamentary republic. Parliament consists of three hundred deputies, and its members are elected for four-year terms by direct, universal, and secret ballots. The prime minister holds extensive power but must be able to command the confidence of the parliament.

Representative Works

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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 Dionysus arrives in Thebes to introduce his cult. King Pentheus resists, so Dionysus causes the women, including Pentheus’s mother, to fall into a deluded, frenzied state. When the women come across Pentheus, they believe him to be a wild animal, and they kill and dismember him. Dionysus considers his terrible revenge justified, thus showing his own lack of morality. The play demonstrates how the ecstatic side of the Dionysiac religion needs reason and self-control for balance.

Birds Along with Frogs, Birds (414 B.C.) is widely considered to be one of Aristophanes’ masterpieces. It exemplifies the utopian theme in Greek literature. The ruler of Athens, Peisthetaerus, wants to escape the war that has engulfed Greece, and he has persuaded the birds to join him in building a new city that will hang in the sky, between the dominions of humankind and the gods. Peisthetaerus comes to rule over even the gods. Birds satirizes Athens’ imperial goals, and some critics believe that it foretells the city’s impending loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War and subsequent decline. Birds is longer than any other ancient Greek drama—comedy or tragedy—and demonstrates the prowess of Aristophanes.

DyscolusDyscolus (The Grouch), Menander’s prizewinning play, was first produced in 317 B.C. While the play tells about a young man’s efforts to marry, it focuses on the curmudgeonly figure of the girl’s father, Knemon, whose misanthropy has led him to abandon his parental responsibility. The play, an early work, is relatively simple, but it is the only one of Menander’s plays for which a complete text exists today, and it shows his ability to create surprise in the final act.

Many critics consider Frogs to be one of Aristophanes’ masterpieces. It mixes humor and serious matters with contemporary politics, literary criticism, gods, and religion. It won first prize at the City Dionysia when it was first produced in 405 B.C. and was unusually honored by being given a repeat production. In Frogs, Dionysus, the god of drama, goes to the underworld to bring Euripides back to Athens. In Hades, Dionysus witnesses a drama competition between Euripides and Aeschylus; Euripides represents the modern age, while Aeschylus represents the elite and the glory days of the past. As a result of the competition, Dionysus decides to take Aeschylus back to the land of the living with him instead of Euripides, believing that Aeschylus is better able to restore moral, political, and martial strength in Athens’ citizenry.

Arisophanes’ comedy Lysistrata was written in 411 B.C., a few years after Athenian warriors were defeated in Sicily in the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata has the women of Athens, in conjunction with the rest of the women in Greece—including the Spartan enemies—go on a domestic and sexual strike in order to force their husbands to stop fighting. Aristophanes thus used women, who took no part in political or military life, to attack the long-lasting war. This play is the most often produced Greek Drama in modern times.

MedeaMedea (431 B.C.) is one of Euripides’ most powerful and best-known plays. It focuses on Medea, who takes revenge on her unfaithful hus- band by killing their sons. The play depicts her struggle between her sense of personal injury and her love for her children, and it raises an important theme of Greek tragedy, vengeance. Despite Medea’s horrible actions, Euripides evokes sympathies for Medea, who, for most of the play, has the support of the women of Corinth.

Oedipus at ColonusOedipus at Colonus (produced circa 401 B.C., posthumously), Sophocles’ final play, finds the old, blind Oedipus at the sacred grove at Colonus, a village near Athens. He has spent the past years in exile, rejected by his family with the exception of his two daughters. Now, however, his sons and his brother-in-law turn to him to help them protect the city of Thebes. The play is noted for its melancholy, beauty, and lyricism. Sophocles also invests in Oedipus spiritual and moral authority. Some critics have read the play biographically, as Sophocles’ poetic last will and testament.

Oedipus the King
Also known as Oedipus Rex, Oedipus the King, first presented by Sophocles about 427 B.C., is one of the most important tragedies ever written. It concerns the downfall of Oedipus, the king of Thebes, who discovers that he unwittingly has killed his father and married his mother. When Oedipus realizes what he has done, he blinds himself and leaves Thebes. However, although Oedipus has fulfilled his preordained fate, his actions show integrity and powerful self-will. They also show an acceptance of his new and horrific existence. Aristotle used this play in his Poetics to define the qualities of all successful tragedies. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud made use of the story of Oedipus in coining the term Oedipal complex to express man’s usually suppressed desire to get rid of his father in order to marry his mother and have her all to himself.

Aeschylus’ Oresteia is the only trilogy that has survived from ancient Greece. First performed in 458 B.C., it consists of Agamemnon, Choephoroi (The Libation Bearers), and Eumenides (which referes to the “kindly ones,” the avenging furies who seek vengeance on Orestes). It tells the story of the cycle of murder, vengeance, punishment, and justice acted out within the royal house of Atreus. The Oresteia is widely considered to be Aeschylus’ masterpiece and one of the greatest works of world literature. It is remarkable for its brilliant union of poetry, song, dance, and music as well as its depiction of the development of the Athenian democratic jury system.

Prometheus BoundPrometheus Bound was presented as one part of a trilogy in 472 B.C. In the play, Prometheus has defied Zeus and saved humankind by giving them fire, and Zeus has chained Prometheus to a peak as punishment. The struggle of the play derives from the clash of wills between the powerful king of the gods, Zeus, and Prometheus, who stubbornly refuses to share the secret knowledge concerning Zeus’s ability to hold onto his power. Prometheus has come to stand for an archetypal figure of defiance against tyrannical power. Some scholars doubt Aeschylus’s authorship of Prometheus Bound.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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 Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962.

Hammond, N. G. L., and H. H. Scullard, eds., Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2d ed., Clarendon Press, 1970.

Hartigan, Karelisa V., Excerpt from Greek Tragedy on the American Stage, in Greek Drama, edited by Don Nardo, Greenhaven Press, 2000, pp. 155–62, originally published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995.

Henderson, Jeffrey, “Aristophanes,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 176: Ancient Greek Authors, edited by Ward W. Briggs, Gale, 1997, pp. 47–54.

Keaney, John J., “Plato,” in Ancient Writers, Vol. 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982, pp. 353–76.

Kopf, E. Christian, “Aeschylus,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 176: Ancient Greek Authors, edited by Ward W. Briggs, Gale, 1997, pp. 8–23.

Roche, Paul, trans., The Orestes Plays of Aeschylus, New American Library, 1962, p. xvii.

Segal, Charles, “Sophocles,” in Ancient Writers, Vol. 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982, pp. 179–207.

Walker, Charles R., Excerpt from Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” and “Oedipus at Colonus,” in Greek Drama, edited by Don Nardo, Greenhaven Press, 2000, pp. 148–54, originally published by Doubleday, 1966.

Warner, Rex, trans., Three Great Plays of Euripides, New American Library, 1958, p. vii. Wolff, Christian, “Euripides,” in Ancient Writers, Vol. 1., Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982, pp. 233–66. Further Reading Ferguson, John, A Companion to Greek Tragedy, University of Texas Press, 1972. This book is useful in understanding the basic themes of Greek tragedy as well as the individual plays and playwrights. Martin, Thomas R., Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Oxford University Press, 1998. This narrative history provides a solid overview of ancient Greece, focusing on the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Nardo, Don, ed., Greek Drama, Greenhaven Press, 2000. Nardo compiles excerpts from salient texts about Greek drama, including articles that cover the development of Greek drama, the tragedies, the comedies, and Greek drama in the modern world. Pomery, Sarah B., et al., Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History, Yale University Press, 2000. This comprehensive narrative, written by four leading classical scholars, emphasizes the creativity of ancient Greek culture. Vickers, Brian, Towards Greek Tragedy: Drama, Myth, Society, Longman, 1973. This book explores the cultural elements that went into the creation of Greek tragedies.


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