The Birth of Athenian Drama
Though theatre historians regularly talk about "Greek drama," all of the extent plays from ancient Greece come from a single city-state, Athens. Indeed, Athens dominated Greek drama, just as it dominated so many other aspects of Greek culture in the fifth century BCE. Even after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian Wars, Athenian culture remained the gold standard. This was also true after the conquest of Greece, first by the Macedonians, and then by the Romans. Even today, our entire global culture frequently looks back to Athens as the model of drama, philosophy, art, and democracy.
All Greek theatre seems to have grown out of the dithyramb, a choral ode sung and danced in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility who subsequently became the god of drama as well.
According to ancient sources, the extraordinary man who transformed the dithyramb into a piece of drama was Thespis, who came from the island of Icaria but later seems to have settled in Athens. It was Thespis who turned the dithyramb into a story and stepped out from the chorus to take on the role of one of the characters. While people continued to perform dithyrambs, this modified version became its own art form. The Greek's called it tragedy, which means "goat-ode," so it is possible a goat might have been given to the person who composed the best tragedy.
Dithyrambs, tragedies, and later comedies were all performed at festivals in honor of Dionysus. These included the Rural Dionysia at the beginning of winter, the Lenaia in mid-winter, and most importantly the City Dionysia at the beginning of spring. The Athenian tyrant Pisistratus, who seized power in the sixth century BCE, encouraged the City Dionysia as a means to win popular support. The festival continued to grow after his death and the subsequent return of democracy. Eventually, three full days of the festival were dedicated to the performance of tragedies.
Athenian playwrights not only wrote the words for their plays, they frequently composed music, choreographed dances, and even acted the leading roles. For the City Dionysia, officials would select three playwrights to present performances on each of the three days dedicated to tragedy. Each performance consisted of three tragic plays and a comic satyr play, which poked fun at myths and legends. Originally, all of these plays seem to have been related. As time went on they evolved into four relatively independent works. The playwrights competed against one another for first, second, and third prize, which would be awarded for an entire cycle of four plays. A jury of ten citizens chosen by lot would award the prizes. With victory came prestige, but no great material benefit.
The first Athenian playwright whose work survives is Aeschylus. It was Aeschylus who introduced a second actor to the stage. Prior to that, the main actor could only make speeches or converse with the chorus. With Aeschylus, for the first time, there were actual scenes, with actors speaking to one another. Aeschylus was also famous as an actor, usually performing the leading role in his own plays. He also introduced lavish spectacles, including choruses wearing exotic costumes.
The oldest surviving drama is The Persians, a tragedy by Aeschylus celebrating the defeat of the Persian Empire by an alliance of Greek city-states. Aeschylus himself fought in that war, as did many in his audience. As a result, most historians view the play's account of the naval battle at Salamis as reasonably accurate. The play features a chorus of exotically dressed Persians hearing about their nation's defeat. It also includes a dramatic moment where the ghost of the emperor's father returns from the grave to condemn his son's decision to invade Greece.
The rest of the Greek tragedies we have are based on myths. Aeschylus wrote The Seven Against Thebes about a fratricidal war between the two sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Eteocles. Another play, The Suppliants, seems to be a throwback to an earlier era of drama, because the chorus functions as the main character. It concerns the daughters of Danaus, known as the Danaids, who flee Egypt after being forced to marry their cousins. The modern playwright Charles Mee later used the same story as the basis for his play Big Love. Aeschylus probably also wrote the play Prometheus Bound, which shows the unjust punishment of the titan Prometheus for bringing fire to mankind.
Most importantly, however, Aeschylus wrote the only surviving trilogy of related tragedies performed at the same festival. The trilogy, known as the Oresteia, consists of the three plays Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Originally, it was performed with the satyr play Proteus, but that play has been lost, with the exception of a few fragments. Together, the plays tell the story of the fall of the House of Atreus, which allegedly ruled the city of Argos during the Trojan War. Queen Clytemnestra murders her husband Agamemnon after he returns victoriously from the war. Her son Orestes comes home to revenge his father's murder and kills Clytemnestra, but then is tormented by the mythical Furies for murdering his mother.
Ultimately, Orestes is forgiven and the Furies are transformed into Eumenides, which represent a new spirit of justice. Much of the success of the last play, however, came from the elaborate outfits in which Aeschylus costumed the Furies, as well as the chaotic dances he choreographed for them. According to an anonymous biographer of Aeschylus writing long after the events occurred, at the premiere of The Euminides the Furies were so frightening that a woman in the audience went into labor. Though the anecdote might be an exaggeration, it does show how moved audiences could be by Athenian drama. It also establishes that women were in the audience for tragedies, even though men performed all of the roles (though some scholars still dispute this assertion).
Aeschylus eventually lost his place as the top tragic poet in Athens to his younger rival Sophocles. While Aeschylus was known to take leading roles in his plays, the soft-spoken Sophocles did not act, instead sometimes playing the lyre onstage. He introduced a number of innovations to tragedy, including painted scenery, and he added a third actor, allowing for more complicated scenes. Sophocles also seems to have fixed the size of the chorus at fifteen, including the choral leader, or koryphaios. Though the chorus grew out of the dithyramb, which had 50 members, Aeschylus had dramatically reduced it in size, possibly using as few as 12 performers.
Though many tragedies relegate scenes of violence to offstage, Sophocles showed explicit violence onstage in his play Ajax, in which the tragic hero falls on his sword in full view of the audience. Though it is unknown how his painted scenery functioned, it could have aided the action, such as providing partial cover for the suicide of Ajax. Other plays of Sophocles also seem to have involved dramatic onstage action. According to one ancient account, Sophocles himself played with a ball onstage in his now lost play Nausicaa. Later dramatic theorists who wanted to hold up Sophocles as a model of restraint and decorum conveniently forgot these facts.
His play Antigone (first performed around 441 BCE) so impressed Athenians it is thought to have helped him win election as one of the city's ten generals. In the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Georg Hegel singled out Antigone as the greatest tragedy of the ancient world, because it so successfully lines up opposing forces that clash onstage. The character of Antigone represents traditionally female values, including home and hearth, the gods of the family, the netherworld, and the importance of the individual. Her uncle Creon, on the other hand, represents traditionally male values, including the security of the state, the public good, practical expedience, and the importance of the group. Sophocles gives both sides their due, even though the audience's sympathy ultimately rests with Antigone.
The other plays by Sophocles that have survived are Oedipus Tyrannus (Oedipus the Tyrant), Electra, The Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus. These have all inspired countless retellings over the years. Oedipus Tyrannus became the basis for Jean Cocteau's play The Infernal Machine. Luis Alfaro reset Electra in a barrio in East L.A. with his play Electricidad. The poet Ezra Pound did a modern verse adaptation of The Women of Trachis. Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote an adaptation of Philoctetes called The Cure at Troy. The most famous modern version of Oedipus at Colonus, the last play Sophocles wrote, was a Broadway production directed by Lee Breuer called Gospel at Colonus, which famously used a gospel choir for the chorus.
We also have about 400 lines of The Trackers, a satyr play by Sophocles about the search for the newborn god Hermes after he had stolen cattle sacred to Apollo. While tragedies and comedies had all sorts of choruses, satyr plays always had a chorus of satyrs. Greek art depicts these mythical creatures as naked men with erect phalluses and long horsetails. They traveled in the company of the fat god Silenus, who always led the chorus. Satyr plays lampooned myths and reveled in low comedy.
The playwright Euripides was somewhat younger than Sophocles, though the two died roughly around the same time, in about 406 BCE. Euripides first competed in the City Dionysia in 455 BCE, a year after the death of Aeschylus. Though he was a frequent competitor, his plays won first prize only five times during his career. After his death, however, the plays of Euripides became wildly popular. For this reason, more plays have survived by Euripides than by any other tragic writer of antiquity.
Alcestis appears to be the oldest surviving play by Euripides, but it is not a typical tragedy. When it was first performed in 438 BCE, it took the place of a satyr play, which might help to explain the play's tragicomic tone. Euripides also wrote the one complete satyr play that has survived, Cyclops. The play closely follows the account of the cyclops in Homer's Odyssey, but with lewd comments being made by Silenus and the chorus of satyrs. Another early play, Medea, has proven remarkably popular over time, though when it was first performed Euripides came in only at third place.
In 428 BCE, Euripides captured first prize for a cycle of plays containing Hippolytus, a tale about a vengeful queen who lusts after her stepson. This later became the basis of the neoclassical play Phedre by the French playwright Jean Racine. The play helped to incite critics of Euripides to accuse him of misogyny. This charge was strengthened by rumors his two unhappy marriages suffered from infidelity on both sides. However, Euripides presented highly sympathetic portraits of women taken as captives in war in such plays as Andromache, Hecuba, and The Trojan Women.
In some cases, Euripides seems to be competing directly with his predecessors. His play Electra, for instance, tells the same story as The Libation Bearers, but with far more cynicism. Sophocles might have intended his own Electra as an answer to the way Euripides had handled the story. His plays often contain a break midway through in which the direction of the plot markedly shifts, as is the case with Herakles. They can also indulge in excess to the point that they become melodramatic, a criticism often leveled at his play Orestes.
In his later tragedies, Euripides often employs a happy ending, as is the case with Iphigenia in Taurus, Ion, and Helen. These plays are sometimes called romances, a genre also identified with the late plays of Shakespeare. To achieve his joyous resolutions, Euripides sometimes had a god appear at the end of the play, possibly being lowered down from a crane in the theatre known as the mechane. His last cycle of plays, which included Iphigenia at Aulis and The Bacchae are noticeably darker. These won him first prize in 405 BCE, but only posthumously, as Euripides died the previous year.
Most of the tragedies we have from classical Athens fit the same general structure. They begin with a prologue, in which one person or a handful of characters might set the scene. A parodos follows, in which the chorus enters singing and dancing. This is typically followed by a series of episodes in which the characters confront one another. After each episode comes a stasimon, in which the chorus sings and dances again. After the episodes and stasimons comes the final scene, often known as the catastrophe, followed by an exit of the chorus known as the exodus.
The chorus was typically a homogenous group of people, such as a group of elders, suppliants, or local women. There was generally one choral leader (the koryphaios), and the chorus was sometimes divided into two halves. One half might sing the first part of an ode, known as the strophe (meaning "turn"). The other half would sing a response, called the antistrophe (meaning "counterturn"). There sometimes followed an after-song known as the epode.
In addition to the chorus, tragedies had no more than three actors, though these actors usually played several roles. In some cases, multiple actors might even portray the same character at different parts of the play. In addition to the playwright, the lead actor, known as the protagonist, also competed for a prize, as did each chorus. The secondary actor was known as the deuteragonist, while the third actor was called the tritagonist. There could also be any number of mute characters brought out, but at no point could a playwright have more than three speaking characters onstage, though the chorus and choral leader effectively functioned as characters as well.
In his book on tragedy, The Poetics, the Athenian philosopher Aristotle looked back from the fourth century BCE at the golden age of theatre and identified some of the dramatic techniques that were most effective. He wrote that a tragic hero should be a great personage who commits a misstep or harmartia, which is frequently translated as a tragic flaw. A typical example of harmartia is pride, or hubris. The hero should at some point achieve the insight of recognition, or anagnorisis, in which he or she uncovers a hidden truth. There should also be a reversal, or peripeteia, where a great person is brought low or an unfortunate person is lifted up. Aristotle suggested it is best when anagnorisis and peripeteia happen at the same time.
The purpose of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is catharsis. He described this as an experience of pity and fear that purges the audience of these emotions. Much has been written about the experience of catharsis and how it functions in tragedy, but it is probably easier to experience than to define. Anyone who has experienced awe and wonder at the end of a tragedy has felt catharsis. Whether or not it has any social function, as some theorists suggest, it is an undeniable fact of tragedy, at least when well performed.
Aristotle said that tragedy should have a unity of action, so that the plot was all of one piece. Later commentators added a unity of time and a unity of place. Aristotle does state that poets, so far as is possible, do tend to confine the action of plays to a single revolution of the sun or slightly longer. He never states this as a hard and fast rule, though, and some of the tragedies he discusses exceed this limit. Nowhere does Aristotle state that a tragedy must occur in a single place, as classical tragedies can move across vast distances in a single play.
The Poetics singles out Oedipus Tyrannus as the most perfect tragedy. Aristotle also frequently cites Iphigenia in Tauris as an example of an exception to many of the norms of tragedy. Other plays he discusses include Medea, Antigone, Orestes, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Libation Bearers, Ajax, Prometheus Bound, Philoctetes, Trojan Women, and Electra.
Greek Performance Techniques
In classical Greek theatres, the main action occurred in a circular space where the chorus danced known as the orchestra or "dancing place." In the middle of the orchestra was a stone called the thymele, which could have served as a prop alter, or it might have been a place for the koryphaios to stand. Behind the orchestra was the skene, a temporary building that provided a backstage area. Actors could enter and exit through the skene, and gods could be lowered down from the top of the skene using the mechane. Performers behind the skene could also roll out a cart known as the ekkyklema, which often revealed corpses in tragedies. The skene had small openings called thyromata in which there might be small painted panels known as pinakes.
Spectators sat on a semi-circular slope radiating out from the orchestra. The Greeks built this seating area into a hill, unlike the Romans who built freestanding structures for the audience. At first the Greeks used temporary wooden benches known as ikria, but later they built a permanent semi-circular stone structure called the theatron. A walkway called the diazoma separated upper and lower section of the theatron. The seat of honor directly in front of the orchestra was called the prohedria, and was reserved for priests and other dignitaries.
Actors typically wore long, sleeved tunics and were masked. Masks were made of lightweight materials such as linen, cork, and wood. They covered the entire head, making the character's head slightly larger than normal. Masks and costumes were especially important in comedy, when they might transform actors into insects, birds, or other animals. Portrait masks could also depict prominent individuals being lampooned.
While tragedy was associated with the city, Athenian comedy was originally associated more with the farming region around Athens known as Attica. The oldest surviving Greek comedy, The Acharnians, features a chorus of men from a rural district outside the city and attacks the pro-war policies of Athens that frequently devastated the countryside. Comedy was not added to the City Dionysia until 487 BCE. Comedy seems to have been most associated with the Lenaia festival held in mid-winter. While visitors came from across Greece to the City Dionysia, the Lenaia festival was primarily for locals, so comic playwrights could be relatively free to criticize Athenian politicians.
The only comic plays to survive from the golden age of Athens are by Aristophanes. In addition to The Acharnians, he wrote a number of other plays criticizing Athenian politics and politicians, especially the demagogue Cleon, the chief object of satire in the play The Knights. Aristophanes also made fun of philosophers, putting Socrates on stage in The Clouds. His play The Wasps pokes fun of older men who liked to sit on juries. The heroes of The Birds are so fed up with Athenians doing nothing but argue over laws, they convince the birds to build a new kingdom in the sky.
Like tragedies, these comedies begin with a prologue followed by a parados in which the chorus comes onstage singing and dancing. The protagonist in an Aristophanes play typically has an outrageous plan, sometimes called the "happy idea." In Lysistrata, for instance, the title character wants the women of Athens and Sparta to stop sleeping with men until their husbands agree to end the war between their two cities. Though there was generally only one chorus, Aristophanes sometimes makes use of two. Lysistrata contains both a female and a male chorus who are ultimately reconciled at the end.
Aristophanes frequently made fun of Euripides and often quoted the tragic writer's more overwrought lines for comedic effect. In his play The Frogs, performed at the Lenaia the year after Euripides died, the god Dionysus himself goes down to the underworld to bring the playwright back to life. While there, he finds there is a dispute going on between Euripides and Aeschylus as to who is the better writer. Dionysus judges between the two, and decides to take Aeschylus back to life instead. The play manages to combine slapstick with a rather serious attempt at literary criticism.
One of the hallmarks of comedy during the period, sometimes referred to as "Old Comedy," was the ability to blend together incredibly bawdy jokes about sex, excrement, and drunkenness with lofty ideas concerning politics, art, and philosophy. The play The Parliament of Women portrays a group of women who seize political power in Athens and create a collectivist state in which everything is owned jointly. Extending this to sexual relations, they declare that young and beautiful people can have as much sex as they want, so long as they sleep with the old and ugly first. Halfway through a comedy, the chorus would typically come forward and address the audience directly in the parabasis, asking them to support the playwright. However, Aristophanes dropped this device in some of his later plays, including The Parliament of Women.
These later plays move toward a transitional form called "Middle Comedy" which was less political and focused on fictional characters rather than lampooning public figures. The chorus became less important in Middle Comedy and had virtually no effect on the plot. The only surviving example of Middle Comedy is Plutus by Aristophanes. In the play, the god of wealth walks the earth, but because he is blind he cannot tell good people from bad ones. Eventually, Middle Comedy would give way to the so-called "New Comedy" of Menander, the chief comic writer of Hellenistic Greece.
The Hellenistic Stage
Alexander the Great transformed the ancient world when he led the armies of Greece, which had been united under his Macedonian father Philip, to conquer the sprawling Persian Empire and even invade India in 327 BCE. Though Alexander's empire fell apart shortly after his death a few years later, Greek culture, known as Hellenic, was spread across the Mediterranean, and at the same time it was profoundly influenced by other cultures, particularly those from the east. Historians refer to the period after Alexander as Hellenistic, since it kept many of the traditions of classical Greece while also melding them together with other traditions.
During the Hellenistic period, theatre changed dramatically. The orchestra, which seems to have been circular before, became semi-circular, or sometimes in the shape of a polygon. While the chorus continued to dance in the orchestra, the main actors moved to an elevated area called the logeion behind the orchestra but in front of the skene. Both the skene and logeion came to be built out of stone, not just wood. Theatres also employed trap doors during this period, from which characters could ascend from the netherworld.
The stature of the actor increased, both metaphorically and physically. As festivals frequently revived older plays rather than presenting new ones, commentators focused on the craft of the actor rather than just that of the poet. Hellenistic actors wore thick-soled platform shoes called kothornoi, at least for tragedies. They augmented their already large masks with a headpiece, or onkos, making themselves appear even taller. To fill out the body, they would employ chest and stomach pads.
In comedy, the chorus declined in importance and the interest shifted from supernatural events to improbable but still realistic situations. This was the New Comedy of Menander, who flourished at the end of the fourth century BCE. Only one more or less complete play by Menander survives. This is Dyskolos, sometimes translated as The Grouch. The play relies on quick changes among the actors, who numbered four in comedy, as opposed to the traditional three in tragedy.
Fragments of other plays by Menander also survive. One, The Girl From Samos, is substantially complete, though it is missing more than a hundred lines. It is notable, however, in that a surviving mosaic from Roman times illustrates a scene from the play. Roman writers frequently adapted Menander's plays into Latin, so the situational comedy he developed had a long-lasting influence. Even modern-day sitcoms can trace their origin back to the New Comedy of Menander.