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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 3 - Classical Drama


Drama in Athenian Society

Greek drama evolved directly from Athenian public and religious life. For several days in March during the fifth century, the city amphitheatre admitted as many as 14,000 spectators (or about a third of the Athenians allowed to participate in the political process) to watch three series of plays. The audience, though, came not simply to be entertained; attendance at the City Dionysia, a dramatic festival in honor of the god Dionysus, was virtually a religious obligation.

The City Dionysia was founded in 534 B.C. by the tyrant Pisistratus, who hoped to consolidate his power by fostering a sense of Athenian civic pride. Although he failed in his personal objective to establish a family dynasty, he was correct in thinking that institutionalizing theatre in Athens would unite the city in a common enterprise.

Writers submitted new playscripts to the city magistrates well in advance of the festival; the best authors were "awarded a chorus," which meant that a wealthy citizen of Athens was chosen to finance each successful work for production. These producers, known as "choregoi," had many expenses to pay. Although theatre was a sacred rather than a commercial project, a choregus had to underwrite extensive rehearsal time and expensive costumes. Since the festival culminated in the selection of first, second, and third prize winners, each choregus had an incentive to fund his playwright's efforts lavishly. Civic pride, religious piety, and personal ambitions reinforced each other as poets, actors, and producers strove to excel.

The Religious Roots of Classical Drama

Scholars can only speculate about the precise beginnings of ancient dramatic traditions. The most popular theory about the origin of Greek tragedy, the main fare of the City Dionysia, argues that it evolved from the worship of Dionysus (Bacchus) in the course of the sixth century. Dionysus, the god of the vine, had to be propitiated with the coming of spring in order to ensure a good crop of grapes. Women were the prime Dionysian worshippers, linking them, the visible sources of human fertility, with the vegetative fertility Dionysus was presumed to promote. Intoxicated by the god's wine, the followers of Dionysus danced in ecstasy; in its most primitive form, their ecstatic rite also apparently involved the tearing and ingesting of human flesh. This abandon reminds scholars of ancient Near Eastern pagan rites in which local fertility gods symbolically were dismembered only to be reborn--resurrected--in a mimicry of seasonal renewal. Indeed, Dionysus is not one of the original Olympian gods, but an imported divinity, native to the richer soil of Asia Minor, rather than the rocky islands of Greece.

Dionysian excess challenges the classical values of reason, proportion, and balance, qualities often associated with Apollo, the Olympian god of the sun. It is important to remember that pagan religions see no contradiction in honoring a variety of gods. Therefore, Dionysus had his season; other gods were the focus of processions and feasts at selected times of the year. Moreover, ancient Greek religious observance was a matter of public ceremony, not private conscience, and embraced what might seem to be mutually exclusive kinds of behavior as provinces of the different gods.

To emphasize the point, consider that in Periclean Athens, the ancient fertility rites of Dionysus were only a distant memory. Significantly, the playwright Euripides used them as material for one of his greatest plays, The Bacchae, suggesting that, like the Homeric epics, Dionysian orgies had achieved mythic status. By the sixth century, the savage Bacchic rites had been replaced by a stylized form of worship, revolving around the choral singing and dancing of lyrics known as dithyrambs. 534, the first year the City Dionysia was held, supposedly marks the moment when the producer Thespis (from whose name we get the slightly outmoded word for an actor, "thespian") in effect created drama out of lyric by separating a member of the chorus from the group. Thus dialogue, literally meaning "through word," an alternation of different voices, came into being.

Although the tragic chorus of the sixth century was a massive force of fifty members(1), those fifty members sang collectively since lyric always expresses a single point of view. Drama--originally a Greek verb that means to act, to do, to perform--flourishes in the opposition of different points of view. Narrative, as we have seen, preceded the invention of Greek drama, and to the extent that narrative involves dialogue and action, the form is already dramatic. Narrative, however, tells a story; drama performs it.

The Form of Greek Tragedy

Understanding how a dramatic text was performed is an indispensable guide to reading it intelligently. Although a first acquaintance with Greek drama confronts the modern reader with many unfamiliar conventions, even more remarkable are the diverse elements of classical Greek stagecraft that have been incorporated into our fundamental understanding of what theatre does. The vocabulary we use to describe any theatrical event derives in large part from fifth-century Athens. Consider the number of familiar words in the following account: the orchestra, or dancing floor, was at the base of a hill around which tiers of seats radiated upward. Behind the orchestra stood the skene, or "hut," a reference to the building that held the scenic backdrop for most tragedies, usually a palace-front with a door that could open to eject a rolling platform into the view of the audience. Eventually, the skene was extended to contain dressing rooms and entrance ways to the playing area as well as to conceal a crane that lifted a chair up and down from the stage. Called the mechane, this device gives us the Latin term, Deus ex Machina, which literally means "god out of a machine." Figuratively, the term describes a sudden, improbable solution to a problem that could only be solved by the intervention of a god. The dramatist Euripides particularly was prone to end his plays ironically, with the descent of a god who sets things right and flies away again before the audience can examine the logic or likelihood of the solution. As the last of the three great Greek tragedians, writing while Athenian values decayed, Euripides (c. 480-406) lacked the sense of awe and grandeur expressed by the plays of Aeschylus, the first tragedian. In his frequent use of the Deus ex Machina, Euripides seems to question the notion that the gods can be relied on.

Greek tragedy did not pretend to render a life-like stage picture. The Athenian playwrights and producers retained the accessories associated with the old dithyrambs; our best guess is that the first choral lyrics were performed in a circular dancing place by a chorus (dancers) of men dressed in goat skins, representing satyrs (half-men, half-goats), supposedly the companions of Dionysus. Building on these distant origins, Greek drama continued to employ masked actors moving in choreographed patterns.

The masks were doubly useful when individual members of the chorus became solo actors with dialogue to speak and characters to play. Aristotle credits Aeschylus (c. 525-456), with adding a second actor; Sophocles, his successor (496-406), introduced a third. (These developments inform the source of our words protagonist--first contestant--and antagonist, the original dramatic act being an agon-- literally contest--or debate between two speakers each backed by a chorus. The technical terms for the second and third actors are deuteragonist and tritagonist.) By changing masks, a company of three actors could become a full cast of characters of all ranks and types; for example, although only men were permitted on stage, female roles were assumed easily by skilled performers wearing appropriate masks. No attention was drawn to the actor as a personality, nor was the illusion of the staged performance ever dropped. The power of the spectacle, an amalgam of music, dancing, and colorful costumes, must have reached the audience with an impact that audiences for modern presentation of ancient tragedies cannot easily understand. Perhaps it is not too farfetched to suggest that the atmosphere at a rock concert remains closer to the experience of ancient Greek dramatic performance than an evening at a Broadway theatre.

Tragic Style and the Conditions of Performance

Classical drama addresses subjects suited to a huge outdoor arena where actors wearing masks that functioned as megaphones projected their roles to reach 14,000 spectators. With their voices thus amplified and their height enhanced by high platform shoes, the tragic actors were literally larger than life and the figures they represented mythic in stature, embodiments of the culture's deepest concerns and attitudes.

If we remember that this drama emerged from the contrast between choral lyric and single actor, then clearly one of the shaping elements of Athenian tragedy is the interplay between the individual and the mass. The chorus connected the audience to the dramas. The scene of Athenian tragedy is often a city with the chorus frequently representing the citizenry of that city. Dancing in the space before the skene that forms the physical boundary between the seated audience and the solo actors, the chorus may also represent the average Athenian citizen's point of view. At the root of Athenian drama, we might say, is the tension between the caution of the ordinary person who hopes not to be singled out and the daring of the assertive individual who wants to be the center of attention. The heroic figures in Greek drama are all risk takers, people who invite notice.

The nature of Greek dramatic poetry similarly derives from this contrast; choruses do not express individual opinions but rather emotional states. At several points in the course of the play, all the actors leave the scene and the chorus remains; the action stops while the chorus reflects on the significance of the topics being broached. The formal choral odes sung at these moments represent rapturous poetic states in complex verse that may be difficult to follow or analyze. When the actors return, the chorus speaks on another level, asking questions, seeking guidance. Within scenes, in other words, the members of the chorus become curious human beings. In between scenes, the chorus intones religious truths beyond the personal experience of its members.

The Tragic Dilemma

Like classical Greek architecture and sculpture, Athenian tragedy is organized around balanced variety. As we have seen, choral odes alternate with dramatic episodes; scenes develop as solo actors enter into dialogue and then exit, ultimately for such pragmatic reasons as changing a mask in order to reappear as a new character in the next phase of the action. Yet the stories told by Athenian tragedy fly in the face of balance, order, and reason. In the great tragic parts, as in the rhythm of the verse, the Dionysian ancestry of the drama emerges. Excess and frenzy move the protagonist to brilliant flights of poetry that affirm the capacity of the extraordinary individual to respond to the mysterious purposes of a universe that refuses to be tamed. At the heart of classical Greek tragedy lies the paradox that rationality and order can only be achieved through agony and loss.

In everyday speech we use the words "tragic" and "tragedy" to describe events which seem particularly terrible: an airplane full of travelers explodes in the sky, an earthquake destroys a whole community, a promising youngster dies unexpectedly. No matter how awful or how poignant such disasters may be, however, they do not merit the term "tragedy"(2) in its precise theatrical sense.

Both the choral lyrics and the developed dramatic form that today we call tragedy concerned themselves with essentially religious questions, befitting their origins in ritual. For example, what responsibility do human beings bear for their actions? How much can even the most gifted and brilliant understand and achieve in a world no human being ultimately can control? Like the biblical prophets, the tragic playwrights confronted their societies with bitter truths. The Athenians of Pericles' Golden Age, like the kings of Israel and Judea, were proud of their triumphs. Measured by the highest moral and spiritual standards, however, those triumphs were flawed. Tragedy tested the liberal, rational, Athenian ethos and showed its limitations.

That tragedy demonstrates human limits calls tragic heroism into question, since tragic heroes seem doomed to fail. Here again, we have to discriminate between popular and literary vocabulary. Each of us probably has a personal definition of what we consider "heroic"; in classical tragedy, for example, the quality of the heroes (or better, protagonists) emerges less from what they do, than from the capacity they have to grapple with an impossible set of circumstances, beyond their control but not beyond reaction.

The hypothetical victims of airplane crashes and earthquakes personally have nothing to do with the horror that befalls them. In classical tragedy, by contrast, the protagonists have everything to do with their fates; indeed, even to speak of tragic "fate" is in many ways unproductive, for the term invites an overemphasis on the protagonist's helplessness. While the chorus and the lesser characters lack the strength to pursue an independent course of action, the protagonist, or principal sufferer, deliberately courts tragedy. Thus the quality that gives the tragic protagonist dignity, importance, and stature is a refusal to be helpless, or passively to accept the inevitable. Classical tragedy both reminds the audience of the power of the universe and of the grandeur of the individual whom that universe contrives to crush by the end of the play.

The Comic Celebration

Comedy and tragedy originated in the same Dionysian rites of celebrating the dying fertility god because he is reborn, as is the earth in springtime. Glorifying the renewal of life, the ritual revelers wore padded costumes with a huge phallus attached to symbolize the readiness of the male for the sexual act that perpetuated human life. Traditionally divided into two groups, one representing men and one women, the comic chorus played out the battle of the sexes in rowdy actions and bawdy lyrics.(3) This open enactment of sexual urges was not subject to censorship, for ancient comedy treated sex simply as an impersonal force that populates the world.

Classical literature in general pays little attention to erotic love between individuals as opposed to sex. Old Comedy, the genre of the plays performed at the Dionysia, never depicts personal love. The only extant examples of Old Comedy are eleven plays by Aristophanes (445?-385?B.C.), which all begin from an impossible premise that catalyzes an astonishing range of stage actions. Wild slapstick, ribald farce, and brilliant verbal wit coalesce in an essentially serious critique of some aspect of Athenian society that Aristophanes clearly found troubling. The best known of these comedies, Lysistrata, combines courageous social criticism with a coarse sexual humor that stuns audiences unused to the Dionysian abandon that forms the core of Old Comedy.

Romantic love becomes the staple concern of New Comedy, a genre associated with Menander (342-291? B.C.), a typical product of Hellenistic rather than classical Greece in its concentration on the narrow sphere of private life. Since most of Menander's plays have been lost,(4) scholars know New Comedy best through the work of two Roman playwrights influenced by him. The Latin comedies of Plautus (255?-184 B.C.) feature the standard characters such as braggart soldiers, lecherous old men, seductive courtesans, and clever slaves, whose intrigues generate the standard plot (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl) that furnished the basic material of later Western comedy, from Shakespeare to Molière to Mel Brooks. The other noted practitioner of New Comedy, Terence, was born in Carthage around the year 186 B.C., and taken as a slave to Rome where he was educated and set free by his owner. Writing under the name Publius Terentius Afer (the African), Terence achieved literary and social success. Like the plots of his plays, his personal story aptly illustrates comedy's liberating force.

The contrasts between comedy and tragedy, then, are as basic as the contrast between life and death. Tragedy isolates its protagonist, comedy knits a community together. From these differing goals, different emphases emerge. Tragedy explores the implications of history, legend, and myth, although it need not ignore the reality of domestic life. And while Old Comedy certainly has much to say about history, legend, and myth, in general comedy exposes the absurdities of everyday experience. Thus comedy in some ways may seem harder to understand than tragedy because the topicality of the comic play usually requires footnotes that describe the specific customs of an earlier age, while tragedy tends to universalize experience. Aristophanes, for example, expects his audience to have sufficiently detailed knowledge of the tastes of Athenian consumers to laugh when Lysistrata refers to Boeotian eels. In tragedy, such mundane allusions are irrelevant.


(1) A number that the Greeks favored to show impressive size -- recall the fifty sons supposed to have been fathered by Priam.

(2) In Greek, the word originally meant "goat song" presumably referring to the dancing companions of Dioysus described above.

(3) A komos was a chorus of revelers and komodia the song of the komos.

(4) The only complete play by Menander that has survived, The Dyskolos, or The Grouch, was unearthed in a recent archeological dig and first published in 1959.