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Ancient Greek Tragedy: History, Playwrights and Performances

Ancient Greek Tragedy: History, Playwrights and Performances



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Not just the origins of Ancient Greek tragedy, but the origins of theatre itself traces back to classical Athens in the 6th century BCE. Greek theatre was performed in an open-aired venue called a theatron, the most famous being the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens and was an important aspect of the political landscape in Ancient Athens. The plays were about popular tales in Greek mythology, which at that time was their religion, and in some cases, although mainly in comedies, the plays would be about contemporary events such as Aeschylus’ tragedy The Persians which is about the battle of Salamis, which Aeschylus may have even fought in.

Greek tragedies were performed not just in theatrons for people to enjoy, but were composed in order to be performed in competitions, with the City Dionysia or the Great Dionysia, being the most famous of these competitions. From the many ancient tragedians we are aware of, only the works of the greatest three authors have survived, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, with a total of 32 works surviving between them. Greek tragedies were written and performed specifically for religious festivals and competitions, yet many were re-performed and written down for mass publication. Kept by the state were copies of the works of the three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and their plays even became important parts of school curriculums

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The Theater in Ancient Greece: Tragedies, Key Playwrights - and Masks

The theater in ancient Greece was a place where politics, religion, popular figures, and legends were all discussed and performed with great enthusiasm. People came from all across the Greek world to attend the popular theaters held in open-air amphitheaters. In the so-called 'glory days' some amphitheaters could accommodate crowds of up to 15,000 people, and some were so acoustically precise that a coin dropped at the center of the performance circle could be heard perfectly in the back row.

The origin of the dramatic arts in Greece was in Athens, where ancient hymns were chanted in honor of the gods. These hymns were later adapted into choral processions where participants would dress up in costumes and enact the narratives. Eventually, certain members of the chorus evolved to carry out exceptional roles within the procession and, hence, Greek theater came to life.

An ancient Roman painting from the House of Vettii in Pompeii, showing the death of Pentheus from Euripides’ Bacchae.

A festival for the gods

One of the Greek festivals was called the 'City Dionysia’. It was a festival of entertainment held in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, and featured competitions in music, singing, dance, and poetry. The revelry-filled event was conducted by drunken men dressed up in rough goat skins (goats were thought to be sexually potent). The Greeks entertained large crowd gatherings during these festivals by dramatizing scripted plays, often with only one person acting and directing the transition of each scene. As the playwrights evolved, a handful of actors produced on-stage performances consisting of a live chorus and musical background.

One particular theater, built to honor Dionysus, was called Epidaurus. It was the greatest theater in the western world and is often considered a pioneer of engineering by today’s standards. Fifty-five semi-circular rows of seats were built into the hillside with such precision that the theater had perfect acoustics. Named after the god of medicine Asklepios, it was believed that the Epidaurus (and theaters in general) had beneficial effects on mental and physical health. It was regarded as an important healing center and is considered to be the cradle of medicinal arts. Two-and-a-half-thousand years later, it is still in use and is among the largest of the surviving Greek theaters.

The Greek tragedy

Little is known about the origins of the Greek tragedy before Aeschylus (c. 525-c. 455 B.C.), the most innovative of the Greek dramatists. His earliest surviving work is 'Persians', which was produced in 472 B.C. The roots of the Greek tragedy, however, are likely embedded in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysus which included processions, religious sacrifices, parades, and competitions. Early Greek theater focused on tragic themes that still resonate with contemporary audiences. The word “tragedy” translates from “goat song,” a phrase rooted in the Dionysus Festival of dancing around sacrificial goats for a prize. The original Greek tragedies centered on mythology or historical significance that portrayed the antagonist’s search for the meaning of life. Other times, playwrights focused the overall tragedy on the nature of the gods and goddesses.

Of the few surviving Greek tragedies, all but Aeschylus’ Persians draw from heroic myths. The protagonist and the chorus portrayed the heroes who were the objects of religious cult in Attica in the fifth century B.C. Often, the dialogue between the actor and chorus served as a didactic function, linking it to a form of public discourse with debates in the assembly.

Each surviving tragedy began with a prolog that explained the action in each corresponding scene. Subsequently, the chorus introduced the paradox a transition whereby the audience becomes familiar with the characters, exposition, and overall mood of the setting. Finally, the exodus implies the departure of the chorus and characters derived through the play’s duration.

Some of the oldest surviving tragedies in the world were written by three renowned Greek playwrights. Aeschylus composed several notable tragedies, including “The Persians,” and the “Oresteia” trilogy. To this day, drama in all its forms still functions as a powerful medium for transmitting ideas.

Ancient comedies

The exact beginnings of Greek comedic plays are not known. Some historians believe they could have started from the activity of actors mimicking one another as well as making jokes about current plays and more. During the 6th century BCE, the plays started to incorporate scenes involving actors dressed in exaggerated costumes mostly of animals. They would subsequently perform a dance much to the audience’s delight. Various poems involving humor as well as songs would be performed during plays.

Unlike the Greek tragedy, comic performances produced in Athens during the fifth century B.C., the 'Old Comedy', ridiculed mythology and prominent members of Athenian society. There seems to have been no limit to speech or action in the comic exploitation of sex and other bodily functions. Terracotta figurines and vase paintings dated around the time of Aristophanes (450–ca. 387 B.C.) show comic actors wearing grotesque masks and tights with padding on the rump and belly, as well as a leather phallus.

In the second half of the fourth century B.C., 'the New Comedy' of Menander (343–291 B.C.) and his contemporaries presented fresh interpretations to familiar material. In many ways comedy became simpler and tamer, with very little obscenity. The grotesque padding and phallus of the Old Comedy were abandoned in favor of more naturalistic costumes that reflected the playwrights’ modern style. Subtle differentiation of masks worn by the actors paralleled the finer delineation of character in the texts of the New Comedy which dealt with private and family life, social tensions, and the triumph of love in a variety of contexts.

Major playwrights of the time

There were many Greek playwrights, but only the major works of three dramatists have survived: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They wrote plays for the City Dionysia, but the central idea of each of their plays were different.

The plays of Aeschylus explore the dangers of arrogance, the misuse of power and the bloody consequences of revenge. Aeschylus was the first to introduce a second actor during on-stage performances. His trilogy, the Oresteia, explores the chain of revenge set into motion by king Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter in return for a fair wind to take his ships to Troy.

Sophocles wrote seven popular tragedies including “Antigone,” “Electra,” and “Oedipus Rex” to name a few. Sophocles' playwrights are focused around the redemptive power of suffering. A good example of this is the character of Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. He portrayed Oedipus as a good-hearted but headstrong young man who kills his own father without knowing that he is his father, and marries his mother without realizing that she is his biological mother. When he discovers what he has done, he blinds himself in remorse. Sophocles introduced a third actor during on-stage performances and was the first dramatist to include painted backdrops.

Euripides, the last of the three, belongs to a somewhat later generation of Greek thought, and is a far more troubled, questioning and unsatisfied spirit. Euripides was thought of as the most direct of the three in his questioning of Athenian society and its established beliefs. He composed over ninety plays, with roughly eighteen surviving pieces studied and incorporated by contemporary playwrights including “Medea,” “Hercules,” and “The Trojan Women.” Critics lambasted Euripedes’ questionable values presented during his on-stage performances, often depicting varying psychological archetypes not explored by previous playwrights. Many authors modeled Euripedes’ experimentalism centuries after his death.

The Grecian playwrights also injected humor into certain aspects of theater. Popular comedians competed during the Athenian festivals, including Aristophanes, who authored more than forty plays. Among his eleven surviving plays included a controversial script entitled “Lysistrata,” a tale about a strong, independent woman who heads a female-based coalition against the war in Greece.

Each of these playwrights introduced something new to Athenian drama when their plays were chosen as the best, and it is largely because of these writers that theater developed into the way it has now. Despite the limited number of surviving tragedies and comedies, the Greeks greatly influenced the development of drama in the Western world.

The art behind a mask

It was common practice for Greek actors to use masks. These theatre masks were thought to amplify the actor’s voice and contribute to the theatrical ambiance. They have since become icons of the ancient Greek culture and sought after collectors’ items. Highly decorated masks were worn during feasts and celebrations as well as during funeral rites and religious ceremonies. These masks were constructed out of lightweight organic material, such as linen or cork, and copied from marble or bronze faceplates. Often, a wig was attached to the top of the mask. The mask was then painted usually brown to represent a man and white for a woman. There were two holes for the eyes, large enough for the actor to see the audience but small enough so as not to allow the audience to see him. The shape of the masks amplified the actor’s voice, causing his words to be easier for the audience to hear.

There were several practical reasons for using masks in the theater. Due to the sheer size of the amphitheaters they were performing in, exaggerated costumes and masks with vivid colors were much more visible to a distant member of the crowd than a regular face. Masks were also worn for a transformation into character. There were only two or three actors present in each production, so masks allowed for quick character changes between scenes. Masks were tools for the audience to learn something about the character, whether it be a huge beard and roaring mouth to represent the conquering hero, or curved nose and sunken eyes to represent the trickster. Tragic masks carried mournful or pained expressions, comic masks were seen smiling or leering.

Many masks have survived, as well as literary descriptions of the masks and artistic recreations in frescoes and vase paintings. One can see the evidence of the importance of masks at almost any surviving ancient Greek theater. Statues depicting the grotesquely laughing, crying, or raging masks stare down at innocent viewers, their lips largely engorged and eyes so rounded and saucer-like, one would think the mask itself had a mind of its own.

Theatrics of the stage

The Greek theater stage consisted essentially of the orchestra, a flat dancing floor of the chorus, and the actual structure of the theater building known as the ‘theatron'. Since theaters in antiquity were frequently modified and rebuilt, the surviving remains offer little evidence of the nature of the theatrical space available to Classical dramatists in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. There is no physical evidence for a circular orchestra earlier than that of the great theater at Epidauros dated to around 330 B.C. Most likely, the audience in fifth-century B.C. Athens was seated close to the stage in a rectilinear arrangement, such as appears at the well-preserved theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this initial period in Greek drama, the stage and most probably the skene(stage building) were made of wood. Vase paintings depicting Greek comedy from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. suggest that the stage stood about a meter high with a flight of steps in the center. The actors entered from either side or a central door in the skene, which also housed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform with sets of scenes. A crane, located at the right end of the stage, was used to hoist gods and heroes through the air onto the stage. Greek dramatists made the most of the extreme contrasts between the gods up high and the actors on stage, and between the dark interior of the stage building and the bright daylight.

The city of theater was, indeed, Athens. Athens birthed drama, bred drama, and ultimately was responsible for cultivating it into the most important art of the Classical and Modern world. Greek theater has proven itself to be timeless as it continues to entertain audiences with its ability to portray universal themes. Although many of the plays have been lost through the ages, many of the originals from the 5th and 6th century BCE are regularly performed around the world and are still looked at as the top of their craft.

What do you think of ancient Greek theater? Let us know below.


Piecing Together the Life and Times of Sophocles

Like many other ancient Greek names, the name “Sophocles” has a meaning of its own. This name is a combination of two Greek words, sophos and kleos, which mean “wise” and “glory” respectively. In other words, the name of this ancient Greek playwright may be translated as “famous for wisdom.” Considering that Sophocles is one of the most influential writers of ancient Greece , and one of the world’s greatest playwrights, this name is quite appropriate.

Luc-Olivier Merson’s painting of runner Pheidippides giving word of victory after the Battle of Marathon. ( Public domain )

Not much is known about Sophocles’ life, and many of the details have been lost to history. He is recorded, for instance, to have been born several years before the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). The exact year of Sophocles’ birth however, is unknown, though it has been suggested that 497/6 BC is the most likely. Sophocles was born in Colonus Hippius, a rural deme (a subdivision of an ancient Greek city state) located about 1.6 km (1 mi.) to the northwest of Athens.

Whilst it is known that Sophocles’ father was a man named Sophillus, his occupation is unclear. Some, for example, have claimed that Sophillus was a carpenter, others have claimed he was a smith, and yet others, a sword maker. It has also been suggested that he may have been a wealthy nobleman who had slaves that were carpenters, smiths, and sword makers. In any event, Sophocles’ family had the means to provide him with a good education. Although Sophocles is best-remembered as a playwright, he seems to have led an active public life, based on the information that has survived. As a youth, Sophocles is reported to have excelled in wrestling and music, and to have been graceful and handsome.

After beating the Persians after the Battle of Salamis, the young Sophocles was chosen to lead chorus of victory. ( John Talbott Donoghue / CC0 )

Sophocles in the Service of Athens

In 480 BC, the Greeks, who were led by Athens, defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. At the victory celebrations, Sophocles was chosen to lead the paean (a song of triumph or thanksgiving). In 443/2 BC, Sophocles served as one of the Hellenotamiae. This was a group of ten treasures (one of each of the ten Athenian tribes) who managed the treasury of the Delian League. In 441/0 BC, Sophocles was elected as one of the ten strategoi (“generals”). At that time, Athens was at war with Samos, and Sophocles, as a general, would have contributed to his city state’s victory over the Samians. Sophocles may have served as strategos on two other occasions.

Sophocles lived a long and fruitful life, serving Athens and writing over 120 plays . ( Public domain )

In 413 BC, when he was around 80 years of age, Sophocles was appointed as a proboulos, a position that was created in the aftermath of the Sicilian Expedition, which was launched by Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Sophocles was one of the ten commissioners who were given the task of organising the city state’s domestic and financial recovery following that disastrous expedition. Sophocles’ last known public act was to lead the chorus in public mourning for Euripides. At some point of time, Sophocles also served as a priest of Halon, and is credited with the introduction of the cult of Asclepius into Athens. It is claimed that the god granted Sophocles health and vigour of mind well into his old age.


The Healing Power of Greek Tragedy

Make them wish they’d never come,  the director says, almost absently. He means the audience. The actress nods. She makes a mark in her script next to the stage direction:

And they go on rehearsing. The room is quiet. Late afternoon light angles across the floor.

An hour later from the stage her terrible howl rises over the audience to the ceiling, ringing against the walls and out the doors and down the stairs rises from somewhere inside her to fill the building and the streets and the sky with her pain and her anger and her sadness. It is a terrifying sound, not because it is inhuman, but because it is too human. It is the sound not only of shock and of loss but of every shock and of every loss, of a grief beyond language understood everywhere by everyone.

The audience shifts uncomfortably in their seats. Then silence covers them all. This is the moment the director wanted, the moment of maximum discomfort. This is where the healing starts.

Later, the audience starts talking. They won’t stop.

“I don’t know what happened,” the actress will say in a few days. “That reading, that particular night, broke open a lot of people. And in a great way.”

The creation of director and co-founder Bryan Doerries, Brooklyn-based Theater of War Productions bills itself as “an innovative public health project that presents readings of ancient Greek plays, including Sophocles’ Ajax, as a catalyst for town hall discussions about the challenges faced by service men and women, veterans, their families, caregivers and communities.”

For Doerries, ancient plays allow veterans “to bear witness to the experience of war.” (Eric Ogden)

And tonight in the Milbank Chapel of Teachers College at Columbia University, they’ve done just that, performing Ajax for a roomful of veterans and mental health professionals. Actor Chris Henry Coffey reads Ajax. The scream came from Gloria Reuben, the actress playing Tecmessa, Ajax’s wife.

Sophocles wrote the play 2,500 years ago, during a century of war and plague in Greece. It was part of the spring City Dionysia, the dramatic festival of Athens at which the great tragedies and comedies of the age were performed for every citizen. It is the wrenching story of the famed Greek warrior Ajax, betrayed and humiliated by his own generals, exhausted by war, undone by violence and pride and fate and hopelessness until at last, seeing no way forward, he takes his own life.

Doerries, 41, slim and earnest, energetic, explains all this to the audience that night. As he sometimes does, he will read the role of the chorus, too. He promises that the important work of discovery and empathy will begin during the discussion following the reading. The play is just the vehicle they’ll use to get there.

A self-described classics nerd, Doer­ries was born and raised in Newport News, Virginia. His parents were both psychologists. A smart kid in a smart household, he appeared in his first Greek play at the age of 8, as one of the children in Euripides’ Medea. He’ll tell you it was a seminal experience. “I was one of the children who were killed by their pathologically jealous mother—and I still remember my lines and the experience of screaming them, belting them backstage while a couple of college students pretended to bludgeon me and my friend. And I remember the sort of wonderment, the sense of awe, of limitless possibilities that the theater presented and associating that with Greek tragedy at a very early age.”

He was an indifferent high school student who bloomed in college. “My first week as a freshman at Kenyon, I met with my adviser—who just happened to be a classics professor assigned to me—and decided to take ancient Greek.

“I learned to commit to something hard and that it would result in incredible dividends. And so that’s when I started adding other ancient languages and doing Hebrew and Latin and a little Aramaic and a tiny bit of German and having this classical education that was about a deep dive into language, and the sense of early Greek thinking.” For his senior thesis he translated and staged Euripides’ The Bacchae.

He might have gone on to a fine and forgettable career as an academic a philologist. But his origin story is more complicated than that, as most origin stories are, and has at its heart a tragedy.

In 2003, following a long illness, Doerries’ girlfriend, Laura, died. In the weeks and months of grief that followed he found comfort where he expected none: in the tragedies of ancient Greece. He was 26. All of which he explains in his remarkable 2015 book The Theater of War.

The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today

This is the personal and deeply passionate story of a life devoted to reclaiming the timeless power of an ancient artistic tradition to comfort the afflicted. For years, theater director Bryan Doerries has led an innovative public health project that produces ancient tragedies for current and returned soldiers, addicts, tornado and hurricane survivors, and a wide range of other at-risk people in society.

“Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, witnessing Laura’s graceful death opened my eyes to what the Greek tragedies I had studied in school were trying to convey. Through tragedy, the great Athenian poets were not articulating a pessimistic or fatalistic view of human experience nor were they bent on filling audiences with despair. Instead, they were giving voice to timeless human experiences—of suffering and grief—that, when viewed by a large audience that had shared those experiences, fostered compassion, understanding and a deeply felt interconnection. Through tragedy, the Greeks faced the darkness of human existence as a community.”

But that’s the book version. Tidy. Well-considered. The truth of it was messier.

Coming out of graduate school in California, he was scrambling. He had moved to New York and was writing and translating in an apartment above the Tops grocery store on Sixth Street in Williamsburg. Laura had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis years before, and now, after medical interventions, including a double lung transplant, it was apparent she wouldn’t make it. She made her peace with it and shared that peace and for weeks was visited by the people she loved most, and who loved her. And the experience of her death at the age of 22 was thus somehow touched with joy.

“And the way that she died, which could be viewed as very sad, was actually one of the most powerful and transcendent and important moments of my life. That anyone could die this way was something I didn’t understand at age 26. It was a revelation.

“After that experience and caring for my father through his kidney transplant, I started working on Philoctetes and remember writing the chorus in the hospital where my father was recovering, thinking to myself that I’ll never get out of the transplant ward of the hospital. And it was dawning on me that the reason I was translating Philoctetes was it was specifically about a chronically ill individual abandoned on an island. And, even more poignantly, about a young person who against his will, without really knowing what he’s getting himself into, is thrust into this epically impossible situation as a caregiver. For which there aren’t right answers and by which he’s going to be haunted for the rest of his life.

“What happened was, I think, precisely what the Greeks were trying to prepare young people for, through tragedy, which is the exigencies of adult life.

“And when Laura died, all I wanted to do was talk about these big existential things, about death and what I witnessed. I really think that this apparatus that I created is really just a giant pretext to create this space where people will want to talk about this.”

This is Doerries’ magnificent obsession, the solace of history. Restarting an ancient machine for healing the living theater as a therapeutic instrument.

His translations of Ajax and several other canonical works of the Greek theater are collected in All That You’ve Seen Here Is God, also published in 2015. His latest book, The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan, an updated adaptation of The Odyssey, should probably be in the hands of every soldier everywhere for lessons it teaches about loss, loneliness and post-traumatic stress.

And for a man who spends 100 nights a year on the road, who has produced and directed hundreds of shows in the last eight years, who has published five books in the last two years, Bryan Doerries does not look drawn or haggard or tired. 
Whenever you see him, Bryan Doerries looks ready.

A page from Bryan Doerries’ 2016 graphic novel The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan, a modern retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. (Written and edited by Bryan Doerries Illustrations by Jess Ruliffson, with lettering and coloring by Sally Cantirino. Pantheon (2016)) A page from Bryan Doerries’ 2016 graphic novel The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan, a modern retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. (Written and edited by Bryan Doerries Illustrations by Jess Ruliffson, with lettering and coloring by Sally Cantirino. Pantheon (2016))

By sharing all this, by helping himself, he figures he can help the rest of us. And that core value of Theater of War is here, in a single line in Ajax, from this early exchange between the chorus and Tecmessa:

TECMESSA

Tell me. Given the choice,

which would

you prefer: happiness

while your friends

are in pain or to share in

their suffering?

CHORUS

Twice the pain is twice as worse.

TECMESSA

Then we’ll get sick while he recovers.

CHORUS

What do you mean? I do not follow the

logic of your words.

TECMESSA

In his madness he took pleasure in the evil

that possessed him, all the while afflicting

those of us nearby. But now that the fever has

broken all of his pleasure has turned to pain,

and we are still afflicted, just as before.

Twice the pain is twice the sorrow.

CHORUS

I’m afraid that some god struck him down,

for his anguish grows as his sanity returns.

TECMESSA

It is true, but still hard to understand.

CHORUS

How did the madness first take hold of him?

Tell us. We will stay and share in the pain.

“Tell us. We will stay and share in the pain,” is the premise for the entire program, as Theater of War’s own mission statement makes clear.

“By presenting these plays to military and civilian audiences, our hope is to destigmatize psychological injury,” Doerries tells his audience. “It has been suggested that ancient Greek drama was a form of storytelling, communal therapy and ritual reintegration for combat veterans by combat veterans. Sophocles himself was a general. The audiences for whom these plays were performed were undoubtedly composed of citizen-soldiers. Also, the performers themselves were most likely veterans or cadets.

“Seen through this lens,” he continues, “ancient Greek drama appears to have been an elaborate ritual aimed at helping combat veterans return to civilian life after deployments during a century that saw 80 years of war. Plays like Sophocles’ Ajax read like a textbook description of wounded warriors, struggling under the weight of psychological and physical injuries to maintain their dignity, identity and honor.”

Theater of War Productions has presented more than 650 performances for military and civilian audiences all over the world, from Guantánamo to Walter Reed, from Japan to Alaska to Germany. Doerries has employed other plays from ancient Greece to serve other purposes as well, addressing issues such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, gun violence and prison violence. Presentations can be tailored for service members, veterans, prison guards, nurses, first responders, doctors and police officers.

What the programs do in every case is crack you open.

Even these minimalist table readings engage people in a way they’re unprepared for. “The performances are always incredibly cathartic,” says Chris Henry Coffey, who has collaborated frequently with Doerries. “It touches on something Bryan says, ‘If there’s one thing you take away from this tonight, it’s that you are not alone. You’re not alone in this room, not alone in the world and across miles, and most importantly, not alone across time.’”

What did Sophocles know that we don’t? That drama, live theater, can be a machine for creating empathy and community.

Emmy winner and Academy Award nominee David Strathairn, lean and quiet and decent, was one of Doerries’ first actors. “What is extraordinary about what Bryan conceived, and is proven every time we present, is that these plays don’t need the accoutrements of a staged production to be effective. No lights, no costumes, no set, no musical enhancement. The story is delivered raw and unadorned directly to the ears of the audience. And as Bryan has said many times, the real drama begins once the reading is finished and discussion begins.”

Actors are paid a small honorarium, fly economy and stay at the two-star hotel chains.

“I speak to those who understand!” says Ajax, nearing the end of things. It is the veteran’s lament, that the story can be understood only by those who have seen the same things. But it turns out that’s not true that all of us in the tribe can contribute our understanding as therapy as medicine.

What’s more heartbreaking even than his anger or shame or self-pity is his ambivalence in his last quiet moment. Mourning himself already and what he’ll leave behind.

AJAX

Death oh Death, come now and visit me—

But I shall miss the light of day and the

sacred fields of Salamis, where I played

as a boy, and great Athens,

and all of my

friends. I call out to you springs and rivers

fields and plains who nourished me during these

long years at Troy.

These are the last words you will hear Ajax speak.

The rest I shall say to those who listen

in the world below.

Ajax falls on his sword.

A few seconds later, his wife Tecmessa finds him and sets loose her terrible cry. That cry echoes down 2,500 years of history, out of the collective unconscious. Men and women and gods, war and fate, lightning and thunder and the universal in everyone.

The United States has been at war for 16 years. Soldiers in the past might be deployed for 100 days or even 300 days in a frontline war zone now they’ve been downrange 1,000 days or more. Four, five or six tours in Iraq or Afghanistan or both. The stresses are unbearable. Armed forces suicide rates have never been higher. A Department of Veterans Affairs study was released in 2016. As reported by the Military Times:

“Researchers found that the risk of suicide for veterans is 21 percent higher when compared to civilian adults. From 2001 to 2014, as the civilian suicide rate rose about 23.3 percent, the rate of suicide among veterans jumped more than 32 percent.

The problem is particularly worrisome among female veterans, who saw their suicide rates rise more than 85 percent over that time, compared to about 40 percent for civilian women.

And roughly 65 percent of all veteran suicides in 2014 were for individuals 50 years or older, many of whom spent little or no time fighting in the most recent wars.”

Retired Army Gen. Loree Sutton, a medical doctor and commissioner of the Department of Veterans Services for the city of New York, was an early advocate of Theater of War.

“I had been through so many sorry training sessions with PowerPoint slides. We had to have something that would really engage our troops and their leaders. An experience that really spoke to their inner fears, needs and struggles.

“I first met Bryan at the Defense Centers of Excellence inaugural Warrior Resilience Conference in 2008,” recalls Sutton. “It was Elizabeth Marvel, Paul Giamatti and Adam Driver for that initial performance. I was blown away. One officer told me—I’ll never forget this—he had recently lost a buddy to suicide. He said, ‘I just know. I just know my buddy would be here today if he had seen that you can have these feelings, these struggles and you can still be the strongest of warriors.’”

“I really took that as an endorsement of Bryan’s model,” adds Sutton. “I started talking to Bryan and trying to figure out, how could we bring this to scale throughout Department of Defense? Against all odds, we were able to negotiate a contract with DoD. This has led to Ajax being so broadly shared in so many different settings and groups.”

But that initial contract funding has now run out. The challenge for Doerries is raising not only awareness but money. And at a time when veterans are being asked to return their re-enlistment bonuses, that’s no easy task. According to the Pentagon, the Pentagon is strapped.

“Theater of War has been part of my journey,” says Lt. Col. Joseph Geraci, co-founder of the Resilience Center for Veterans & Families, a privately funded initiative at Columbia University. “It’s the therapy I’ve received in its cathartic moments that help me feel connected to the person to my left and my right.

“My purpose is to help others heal,” he says. “I still get goose bumps whenever Bryan mentions that the intent of the evening is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

The key to the role of Tecmessa, says actor Gloria Reuben, is: “Don’t hold back.” (Eric Ogden)

“No one gets closer to a text or the impulse behind the language itself than actors and an audience,” Doerries says. He directs at just one tempo, prestissimo. Performed at Doerries’ ideal pace, it’s almost anti-theatrical: the urgency has a basis in brain chemistry. The discomfort he seeks triggers the fight or flight mechanism in the listener, heightening not only their dramatic apprehensions but their senses. Their attention. Their retention. You walk out of the best of these shows exhausted.

And maybe you’ll walk somewhere to get help.

The show is not a talking cure. It is not an end in itself.

It is the beginning. And right now someone somewhere needs them. Needs this.

That’s how they got to Ferguson, Missouri.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, 18, was shot to death during an altercation with police officer Darren Wilson. Ferguson became synonymous with violent unrest and militarized police, with Black Lives Matter and new social justice and old urban stereotypes of us versus them. The very name Ferguson, like Watts or Newark or the Lower Ninth Ward, became a sound bite, another shorthand for injustice and struggle, for a set of seemingly fixed assumptions about America and Americans.

Theater of War arrives trying to change that.

“When Michael Brown died,” Doer­ries says, “Christy Bertelson, the head speechwriter for Governor Jay Nixon, called me to see if I could think of a play that would help. Eventually I proposed Antigone. It was Christy who suggested we set the choruses to gospel, and then I insisted that we build a choir that included police singers.”

Landing in St. Louis, Doerries is tired. He is also hungry. He is also on his phone. He answers questions as he walks, his rolling luggage at his heels like a devoted family pet. In other words, he is as he always is. Avid, and in motion.

The Greek chorus will be played by an all-star gospel choir from several area churches, a youth choir, and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Choir. The music has been composed by Phil Woodmore, a local music teacher and musician and singer of renown. “I created all five of these songs based on the flow of the story and the text that Bryan had given me. Even in the challenge of it, there was so much structure around it. So there was still a safe zone there for me.”

Reg E. Cathey (“House of Cards,” “The Wire”), with the voice of an Old Testament prophet, will strut and fret as Creon. At rehearsal in a classroom at Normandy High School, actress Samira Wiley (Poussey Washington in the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black”) is as fierce as Antigone must be. In the scene when she is told that she’ll never get where she wants to go, her delivery of the line “Then I shall die trying” brings not only chills but tears. Even the TV news crew in the room is brought up short by it.

Glenn Davis (“Jericho,” “The Unit,” 󈬈,” Broadway) and Gloria Reuben (“ER,” “Mr. Robot”) will play a variety of roles.

There will be three performances in a single day. One at Normandy High School, two more at Wellspring Church. Understand first that Ferguson isn’t a war zone. It’s a St. Louis suburb of mixed incomes, mixed outcomes, mixed demographics. Wells- Goodfellow, the neighborhood down the road by the high school, isn’t a war zone either. It’s what a city looks like after the war is lost. Picture Berlin in 1950 black-and-white. The debris has been bulldozed and what’s left is a tidy grid of mostly empty buildings and lifeless sidewalks.

It’s an apt setting for Antigone. It’s a play about violence and authority and sadness and about the high price of principle and the impossible cost of weakness. It’s a play about an unburied body.

Reg E. Cathey sees his audience as “all who have fought in our Iliad today.” (Allison Shelley) Members of the Phil Woodmore Singers perform in Antigone in Ferguson at Normandy High School in St. Louis. (Michael Thomas) A performance of Antigone in Ferguson at Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri, on September 17, 2016. (Michael Thomas) Actor David Strathairn tours the exhibit “The Greeks” at the National Geographic Society before performing there with Theater of War. (Allison Shelley)

A terrible civil war has just ended in Thebes. Antigone’s brothers have killed each other and died in each other’s arms. Creon has taken the throne and ordered the rebellious brother, Polyneices, be left to rot unburied. Defying that order, Antigone rushes to bury him.

CREON

Tell me—and be careful with your words—

were you aware of my proclamation forbidding

the body to be buried?

ANTIGONE

Yes. I knew it was a crime.

CREON

And you still dared to break the law.

ANTIGONE

I didn’t know your laws were more powerful than

divine laws, Creon. Did Zeus make a proclamation,

too? I wasn’t about to break an unwritten rule of

the gods on account of one man’s whim. Of course,

I knew I would some day die. And if that day is

today, then I count myself lucky. It is better to die

an early death than live a long life surrounded by

evil men. So don’t expect me to get upset when you

sentence me to death. If I had allowed my own brother

to remain unburied, then you might see me grieving.

What’s wrong? You seem puzzled. Perhaps you think

I’ve rushed to action without considering the

consequences? Well, maybe it’s you who has rushed to

action. Either way, the question remains: Do you have the guts

to follow through?

CREON

I see you’ve inherited your father’s charm.

Citizens, I say that she is a man and I am not,

if she gets away with breaking the law and boasting

about her crime. I don’t care if she’s my niece, she

and her sister will both be put to death, for

I hold her sister equally responsible for planning

this burial. Call her. She’s right inside. I just saw

her running around the palace in hysterics.

Creon orders Antigone put to death, walling her up in a small cave where she eventually commits suicide. As does Creon’s own son, betrothed to marry her. Then Creon’s wife, when she learns of her son’s death. It is a chain of tragedies forged by Creon’s own stubbornness.

Antigone wants only to do what’s right, bury her brother. Creon wants only to do what’s right, preserve civic order. It’s a play, as Doerries instructs the audience, “about what can happen when everyone is right.”

The chorus for Antigone in Ferguson includes 34 performers from across St. Louis. (Michael Thomas)

The breakneck pace of these readings gives the events of each play a drumbeat not only of urgency but of inevitability. The price of good fortune is calamity, and it is swift-moving and it is inexorable, and as the chorus says, destiny can be avoided, but it cannot be escaped. Fate is a one-track, high-speed train wreck, and for the audience, this means a swift rush of endorphins.

The translations are part of the effect and the program’s success, too. Most textbook translations of these Greek classics, the ones dreaded by high school students, read like a 19th-century catalog of waxworks. Here’s Ajax, perfectly preserved and standing absolutely still here’s Odysseus, here’s Achilles. The heroes cast shadows, but nothing moves. More devoted to scholarship and preservation than the imperatives of living theater, the whole thing is inert on the page. Even the best modern versions lose dramatic momentum in the bogs and thickets of their own poetry.

But every Doerries translation is a hot rod. A souped-up, stripped-down engine of event. Behavioral rather than aesthetic, each one is a master class in compression in conflict and climax and American vernacular English. Lives are ruined and race to their inevitable end without the ornamentations of poetry. “To me it’s one thing. Directing and translating are one thing.” The last few lines of Antigone illustrate the point.

Creon has been destroyed by fate, by his own convictions and decisions. He begs to be led away from the city.

The Doerries translation, spare and unsentimental, is a punch in the face.

CREON

Lead me out of sight, please. I am a foolish man.

There’s blood on my hands. I killed my wife and child.

I am crushed. I have been crushed by fate.

exit Creon.

CHORUS

Wisdom is the greatest gift to mortals. The grand

words of proud men are punished with great blows. That

is wisdom.

At the moment of that last line the theater is hushed with a terrible truth.

And it arouses in people the willingness to rise and speak and to share their suffering.

One of the singers, Duane Foster, a speech and drama teacher, is also a panelist, and taught Michael Brown. He leans into the microphone and his anger is not measured, it is righteous. “So many people look at the actual act of the shooting. People forget about the total blatant disrespect of that boy laying on the ground because people were trying to figure out what to do.”

What does Sophocles know that we don’t?

“You are standing in front of people,” Samira Wiley told a film crew from PBS after the performance. “You are looking at people who were in this young man’s class, people who were his educators. And what we do, at the end of the day, is fake. It’s—we’re acting. But we can elicit real, emotional human feelings from people. And one thing that Bryan Doerries told me was that it’s not so much about what we can give them, but what they can give us. And you can hear that in theory, but I really experienced that today.”

Two shows at the church in the heat, the music rising, the audience taken up, cops and community, the intimacy and the ardor and yes, the love, even in dispute or disagreement, everyone for everyone, neighbors again, so sweetly, so briefly, unopposed. All the sweat and ecstasy and chain lightning of an old-time revival meeting.

“It was this amazing little moment, both artistic and communal,” Reg E. Cathey says. “Black people, white people, old people, young people. It was one of those things that make you glad to be an American in a weird way.”

“When I had my first rehearsal with a choir, I felt this was working, but I did not expect that level of a response,” Phil Woodmore said. “I knew that what I had created was a very well-packaged product that people could appreciate, but I did not know how overcome people were going to be.”

Late that night, even an exhausted Doerries is overwhelmed. “It was more than I had imagined for it,” he said, “Even after rehearsal I couldn’t know what that music would do to an audience. Amazing. Now we take this show on to Baltimore and New York.”

Beyond class war and political resentment, beyond even racism, there is something profoundly lonely in modernity, something isolating and dislocating. Maybe sitting in the same room with other humans who suffer and speak is comfort enough. Maybe enough to save us.

The next morning, sunrise early, singer John Leggette, a police officer who performs as a soloist in the chorus, is back in uniform. But his heart is still on stage.

“That was awesome,” he says, smiling and shaking his head and walking slowly to his squad car. “Awesome.”

A few months later, in the auditorium of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., sit the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Before the performance, the actors walk through a touring exhibition of Greek antiquities in the National Geographic Museum. David Strathairn spends a long moment looking hard at a great hammered disk of gold. The face on the disk is his own, straight-featured and serious. “Well, let’s just say that seeing the Mask of Agamemnon before reading a play written 2,500 years ago that speaks directly of that time in history, to a room full of people intimately acquainted with what it means to be a warrior, was a pretty heady experience. Time dissolved for a moment—The ‘here and now’ met ‘the then and there.’”

One of the leads, Jeffrey Wright, isn’t here yet. His plane is late. He’ll arrive at 5:05 for a 5 o’clock show.

For the other actors—Strathairn in the role of Philoctetes, Cathey as Ajax and Marjolaine Goldsmith as Tecmessa, his wife—the instruction in rehearsal remains the same: Make the audience wish they had never come.

And again Tecmessa begins,

Oh, you salt of the Earth, you sailors who serve Ajax,

those of us who care for the house of Telamon will soon

wail, for our fierce hero sits shellshocked in

his tent, glazed over, gazing into oblivion.

He has the thousand-yard stare.


CHORUS

What terrors visited him in the night

to reverse his fortune by morning?

Tell us, Tecmessa, battle-won bride, for no one is

closer to Ajax than you, so you will speak as one

who knows.

TECMESSA

How can I say something that should never

be spoken? You would rather die than hear

what I am about to say.

A divine madness poisoned his mind,

tainting his name during the night.

Our home is a slaughterhouse,

littered with cow carcasses and goats

gushing thick blood, throats slit,

horn-to-horn, by his hand,

evil omens of things to come.

“Our home is a slaughterhouse,” is the line that military wives and husbands in the audience and on the panels most often mention, the one that cracks them open with a terrible recognition. The play is as much about the challenges facing the spouses, the families, as it is about the wounded fighter, the isolated, brokenhearted hopeless.

So into this sedate wood-paneled room are beckoned all the horrors of war. Doerries, in a dark, well-cut suit, is up and down the aisles with a microphone as soon as the reading is over.

He asks the audience a question about Ajax: “Why do you think Sophocles wrote this play?” Then he tells a favorite story. “I asked that question at one of our first performances and a young enlisted man stood up and said, ‘To boost morale.’ And I thought, ‘That’s crazy’ and I asked him what could possibly be morale-boosting about a great warrior descending into madness and taking his own life?

“‘Because it’s the truth,’ he said. ‘And we’re all here watching it together.’”

Joe Geraci is again on the panel here, and tells a wrenching story. “In 2007, in July, I buried one of my best friends in Arlington. The hardest thing for us that day was that every single one of us would have given our life if Tommy could have come home alive. I haven’t been back there in about nine years. So today I went to Section 60. I placed one of my battalion coins on his gravestone and I was weeping and I looked up and saw another one of my close friends, who was also in Section 60—he was one of my bunkmates during my last deployment to Afghanistan—and we just embraced. We just embraced for like five minutes. No words exchanged. And I’m recalling Tecmessa’s message of, ‘We’ll get sick while he recovers,’ so undoubtedly me and Bryan got a little sick today, and I know my parents got a little sick today, but I was able to heal.”

Lt. Col. Joe Geraci believes that “fighting isolation” powers the performances. (Eric Ogden) (Eric Ogden)

Then a man rises in the audience and takes the microphone and says in a soft voice, “First I want to thank the actors and thank our panel members. My name is Lieutenant Colonel Ian Fairchild. I’m a C-130 pilot. I have flown in Afghanistan and Iraq. To answer your question, ‘Why do they take it to that extreme, 15 or 20 minutes of wailing?’ I think that he probably did it that way because that’s the only way, comparatively, for his audience, it must have seemed awful, and horrible, and that really would have brought the message home. But for the people who have served, it probably did not compare on any level. And then personally what really struck me about the wailing is that more powerful than wailing is the silence that covers you when you come to your aircraft and you see an American in a flag-draped casket and you have to fly them home in silence. That to me is more powerful than any scream. So, thank you very much for the performance this evening and for the chance to have this conversation.”

And the room goes quiet for what feels like a very long time.

After the show, at the reception, vets from the audience were still thinking and talking about what they’d seen. It’s a beginning. Not an end.

How do we reintegrate our soldiers—and ourselves—into a healthier society?

To say that the effect is cathartic or therapeutic is to understate things by an order of magnitude. Those screams. The human agony. The effect is that of being split down the middle, not at the weakest parts of yourself, but at the strongest. Things pour out, and things pour in. It is a machine for healing, for making empathy.

The quality of the performance, however superb, is secondary. The discussion is why these folks are here, and that chance for healing and connection and intimacy. Go often enough, long enough, and you’ll see soldiers rise in tears, and husbands speak of wives, and sons and daughters tell the stories of their mothers and fathers.

A month after the presentation at National Geographic, the then Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert A. McDonald, who was seated in front that night, tells Doerries that he thinks there’s a way to scale Theater of War into a national program. The Veterans department is probably where it belongs. But Washington is a wheel that grinds slow, and anything can still happen. But “this bodes well,” Doerries says, “and this only adds to our groundswell of momentum.”

In addition, Doerries has proposed that the Department of Defense consider an initiative to provide newly inducted members of the military with a copy of Doerries’ The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan. The graphic-novel retelling of The Odyssey by a Marine sergeant to his squad the night before they rotate stateside, succeeds as art and instruction. It is a primer on the struggle and isolation every soldier since the beginning of time has faced on the way home. It connects soldiers not only to the experience of war but to its psychological costs and to history itself.

Today, however, when spending cuts may loom, even popular projects lose momentum. Who’s in, who’s out, who’ll write the checks? And it’s the same at Veterans Affairs as at the Defense Department. What the future holds for large-scale implementation of the books or workshops or performances is unknown.

A Theater of War performance, Doerries says, would be held “for all the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense and everyone below them, which would be hosted by the chairman and his top staff.” The date for the event was set for October 4 at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

A few months after the original Ferguson production, another performance of what is now called Antigone in Ferguson was mounted in New York City, in the atrium of a skyscraper on Fifth Avenue. Most of the singers and performers are the same, but the setting couldn’t be more different. The night is part of the Onassis Festival NY, “Antigone Now,” a celebration of Greece and Greek culture and history produced by the Onassis Foundation.

The space is a block long, tall and narrow, hung with lights and speakers and temporary staging. Sound ricochets off everything. There are chairs for 100 audience members and standing room for a few hundred more. The crowd is a New York City mix of men and women of all ages and colors and classes and languages. The choir is off to one side, rather than behind the actors, and once the singing starts, the entire atrium is filled with music. And before the night is over, you’ll see the panelist who hates police, who fears for the lives of her black sons at the hands of police, gather up the police lieutenant in her arms and not let go.

Again, Samira Wiley is fierce as Antigone. Actors Glenn Davis and Gloria Reuben are grounded and honest they bracket Reg E. Cathey as he roars and gets steamrolled by fate. Again, the music soars. Again the night is ecstatic in the truest sense, nearly hypnotic, with the spirit in words and music moving through everyone. But even in this sanitized corporate setting, once the discussion starts the tension is between hope and hopelessness.

“What are the effects of segregation on policing?”

“What about stop and frisk?”

“How do you defend what is obviously wrong?”

And again, Duane Foster is ardent, and Lt. Latricia Allen is the reasonable voice of responsible policing. She doesn’t believe in the blue wall of silence. “I have to be the change I want to see,” she says. “I don’t go along with the okey-doke.”

The discussion goes on and on, about the nature of respect and disrespect about the relationship between police and the people they’re meant to serve about parents and violence and politics and fear and love.

Doerries reminds everyone that tonight is only a beginning they’ll carry the conversation out into the wider world. One of the last questions is one of the simplest. And most complicated. “I’m African-American,” a woman says in a level tone that rises in the polite silence. “How are we supposed to live?” And for a long time that question sifts down over everyone. It is the question at the center of everything. And for a while the panel gives well-meaning answers touched with optimism, but the question is too grave, too planetary. The answers wander and stop.

How are we supposed to live?

Then Duane Foster leans forward.

“Shit ain’t right,” he says finally, decisively, “but you can’t give up. The God I serve does really weird things to make a point.”

And the room fills with applause.

A few days later, Bryan Doerries will say the actors and the panelists and the musicians and the members of the chorus “were delighted to discover that we had the power to turn even a corporate lobby into a church.”

In the meantime, Antigone in Ferguson is for the moment a fully funded hit, a runaway success from Baltimore to Athens, Greece, underwritten in part by Doerries’ recent appointment as a public artist in residence for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Operating for the next couple of years on a grant of $1.365 million donated by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Doerries sees the sudden and unexpected popularity of this show as a first step toward a more permanent home for Theater of War performances.

“The next phase of this project is to resocialize audiences to expect something different of the theater,” Doerries says. “It’s really turning New York City into this laboratory, so it’s kind of a dream come true.”

In that way Ajax begets Prometheus begets Medea begets Hercules in Brooklyn, taking Euripides into the streets to talk about gun violence. And also new for 2017 is The Drum Major Instinct, another show with a gospel choir and a score by Phil Woodmore. Based on one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final sermons, the production wrestles questions of racism and inequality and social justice.

So the success of its Antigone is pushing other Theater of War productions into the cities and neighborhoods where they’re needed most, into the libraries and shelters and housing projects and community centers, into the lives of audiences in real need of their ancient message of consolation, reconciliation and hope.

The future of the past is bright.

Out of suffering, hope. Maybe that’s what Sophocles knows—that Ajax and Tecmessa and Creon and Antigone suffer and speak for us all, so that we too might suffer and speak.

Twenty-five hundred years later, that terrifying cry comes back to you not only as an echo through time, or a theatrical antique, but as an expression of new grief and fresh loss as near and familiar as your own voice. Because it is your own voice.

“Make them wish they’d never come.”

But here we are. Every one of us.

Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $12

This article is a selection from the November issue of Smithsonian magazine

About Jeff MacGregor

Jeff MacGregor is the award-winning Writer-at-Large for Smithsonian. He has written for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and many others, and is the author of the acclaimed book Sunday Money. Photo by Olya Evanitsky.


Comedy

Greek comedy comes from Attica—the country around Athens—and is often called Attic Comedy. It is divided into what is known as Old Comedy and New Comedy. Old Comedy tended to examine political and allegorical topics, while New Comedy looked at personal and domestic themes. For comparison, compare a late night talk show about current events and satire when thinking of Old, and a primetime sitcom about relationships, romance, and family when thinking about New. Thousands of years later, restoration comedy performances can also be traced to New Comedy.

Aristophanes wrote mostly Old Comedy. He is the last and primary Old Comedy writer whose works survive. New Comedy, almost a century later, is represented by Menander. We have much less of his work: many fragments and "Dyskolos," a nearly complete, prize-winning comedy. Euripides is also considered an important influence on the development of New Comedy.


Ancient World History

This spectacle created by the Greeks involved and enveloped the entire population of a Greek town in secret rites honoring a god, usually Dionysus, whose followers carried phallic symbols, imbibed wine, and were transported to states of ecstasy. In Athens the theater building was considered a temple, and the god was believed to be present for the performances.

The Greeks used the word orgy to describe these rites, in accordance with the original sense of the word as described by the Merriam Webster Dictionary: "secret ceremonial rites held in honor of an ancient Greek or Roman deity and usually characterized by ecstatic singing and dancing".


Nearly all of the parodies, melodies, and mysteries seen or heard in modern times are connected to ancient Greece, where those terms were invented. A parody was a song, or ode, about something (para, "about").

A mystery was a secret religious ceremony. A melody was the tune sung by the chorus. Modern television shows, movies, plays, and many popular songs emerged out of these intense Greek religious rites. This is true whether the movie is a comedy, a tragedy, or a satire.

Origins and Evolution

The popular view is that Greek tragedy evolved out of jovial folk hymns to Dionysus, called dithyrambs, and that the other forms of drama evolved from this. Dithyrambs were composed as early as the seventh century b.c.e., and spread from Athens to many other Greek city-states. A chorus of up to 50 people sang the dithyrambs, and competitions enlivened religious festivals.

Dionysus is also known as Bacchus, the god who roamed the world followed by throngs of crazed women (called Bacchantes or Maenads, from whom we get the term mania). The god and his followers were often found drunk on grape wine, which was held sacred to Dionysus.

Originally, festivals honoring Dionysus took the form of choreographed dances performed by a chorus about an altar on an orchestra, or "dancing ground". This evolved into performances designed to produce such a powerful rush of emotions that the entire audience achieved an intense communal emotional rush known as catharsis, which cleansed and revitalized the people.

Catharsis became one of the hallmarks of performances of tragedy, a word that literally means "goat ode", the goat being the symbol of Dionysus. In contrast, William Ridgeway claims that tragedy arose out of the worship of and communion with the dead.

Since this communion was presided over by Dionysus as well, and since tragedy refers to a symbol of Dionysus, the worship of Dionysus was most likely integral to the inception and performance of tragedy.

The 12- to 50-member chorus, singing, dancing, and critiquing throughout the play, was a major distinguishing facet of Greek tragedy. The chorus was held by some to represent the will and opinions of the society, as if the populace itself were onstage with the chorus, commenting upon and making sense of the action. Many famous Greek dramatists were successful playwrights and actors and were responsible for major innovations in the form of tragedy.

Thespian of Icaria in 534 b.c.e. separated the leader of the chorus from the rest of the group, to become Athens’s first actor, reading the parts of several characters and wearing a different mask for each. Thus, we now call actors thespians, after the man who, for the first time, made a play that consisted of more than simply a chorus.

Aeschylus, a highly honored Greek playwright, added a second actor and stage decorations to his play, while giving costumes to the already masked actors and chorus. His tragedies, such as Prometheus Bound, Agamemnon, and Seven against Thebes, portray humans who are punished by cosmic forces for their misdeeds and failings.

Sophocles, another famous Greek author, added a third actor and in a groundbreaking move gave the actors more emphasis than the chorus. He also added three members to the chorus, bringing the total to 15.

Comedies and satires evolved from tragedy. The oldest known comedies were breaks between tragedies or between parts of a single tragedy, in which exaggerated characters lampooned the tragedy in a spoof that closely followed the format, costumes, and masks of the tragedy.

Soon entire comic plays arose. These are referred to as Old Comedy, referring to comedies performed in the period beginning with Pericles’ establishment of democracy c. 450 b.c.e. Old Comedy followed the strict format of tragedy and included the chorus.

Satire was a third type of Greek drama that bridged the gap between comedy and tragedy. Satire, a word coming from the satyrs sacred to Dionysus, is a term for a play that was performed to make fun of tragedy and lighten the impact of the tragedies the audience had just seen.

The satyrs were odd and amusing creatures who made possible a unique sort of parody of the typical tragedy. The hairy, half-human satyrs had the hoofed, short legs of a goat, together with the goat’s short horns, and the tail and ears of a horse.

The chorus of satyrs was always known to be jovial, bawdy, rustic, and roguish in their humor. Clearly, the illustrious citizens characterized in tragedies should be above such company—which is why it was so amusing to place them in the midst of a carousing chorus of satyrs.

In attempting to fit in with such a crowd, the famous characters had to suffer a certain loss of dignity, and thus, the satire made fun of the tragedy and perhaps also of itself.

Notable authors such as Aristophanes ridiculed and satirized all aspects of the Greek society, particularly the famous, noble, and most upstanding citizens of their day, or even of revered, legendary figures.

His Clouds lampooned the philosopher Socrates as a quarrelsome Sophist, and his Wasps attacked the Athenian courts and their proceedings. In satires the main characters were exaggerated buffoons, who spoke and performed every manner of nonsense.

No aspect of society was sacred in these comedies, and often even the very gods were lampooned. No limits were placed on the extent to which the author could go to ridicule his subject.

Experiencing The Drama

Greeks devoted two to four major religious holidays a year entirely to seeing plays—much as with modern three-day music festivals. Contests were held to determine the best tetralogy, or set of four plays.

Each tetralogy consisted of three tragedies followed by a satire. Each such quartet was performed on a single day, and many would never be repeated during the playwright’s lifetime.

The festivals, called by such names as the Lesser Dionysia and the Greater Dionysia, were believed necessary to keep the cosmos in proper order, to enable the crops to grow, and the people to survive. Since the outlying villages held their own Dionysia on different days, it was possible to attend several such festivals during one season.

These ceremonies were so important that their proper conduct was a major responsibility of the state, which selected the actors and the choruses—and charged wealthy citizens special taxes to defray the costs.

All of Athens attended plays those who could not afford to attend were provided with ticket money by the state. Dwarfing any modern theater, the Dionysian Theater held the whole town—estimates range from 14,000 to upward of 20,000 people. As these people were all Athenians, they were likely more homogenous in their outlook than a modern crowd.

Thus, the playwright could address plays very directly to his audience, making fun of individual Athenians, suggesting a course of action on current issues, referencing an inside joke, or even jokingly accusing someone in the audience of misconduct. The people watched plays from morning to evening, still maintaining an appetite for the subsequent days’ performances.

With a single-minded audience in such rapt attention, leading tragic poets had an enormous opportunity to make an impact upon the people and upon the political process in towns such as Athens. They were thought of as teachers of the populace and bore an incredible responsibility for shaping the character of a powerful nation-state.

As these festivals were established at the urging of an oracle, all legal proceedings and business were put on hold. To disturb the proceedings, to strike the performers, or even to remove a person who had taken the wrong seat would be a crime that might well be punished with death.

The theater was treated like a temple. The high priest of Dionysus was seated in the center of the front row. An altar of Dionysus stood in the orchestral dancing ground, and the audience was seated on stone benches on the hillside. Across the dancing ground was the skene, a building where the actors could change their costumes.

Between the skene and the orchestra was the proskenion, which would later be called a stage. The chorus would parade in military formation up the paradoi, the entrance ramps leading to the proskenion.

Greek drama greatly influenced drama all over Europe throughout Roman times and during the Middle Ages. Many modern movies bear the influences of ancient Greek authors. Modern songs have choruses. Even if some of the religious implications have been dropped, the Greek influence remains.


History of Greek Theater

Theater and drama in Ancient Greece took form in about 5th century BCE, with Sophocles, the great writer of tragedy. In his plays and those of the same genre, heroes and the ideals of life were depicted and glorified.

It was believed that man should live for honor and fame, his action was courageous and glorious and his life would climax in a great and noble death. Originally, the hero’s recognition was created by selfish behaviors and little thought of service to others.

As the Greeks grew toward city-states and colonization, it became the destiny and ambition of the hero to gain honor by serving his city. The second major characteristic of the early Greek world was the supernatural.

The two worlds were not separate, as the gods lived in the same world as the men, and they interfered in the men’s lives as they chose to. It was the gods who sent suffering and evil to men.

In the plays of Sophocles, the gods brought about the hero’s downfall because of a tragic flaw in the character of the hero. In Greek tragedy, suffering brought knowledge of worldly matters and of the individual. Aristotle attempted to explain how an audience could observe tragic events and still have a pleasurable experience.

Aristotle, by searching the works of writers of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles (whose Oedipus Rex he considered the finest of all Greek tragedies), arrived at his definition of tragedy. This explanation has a profound influence for more than twenty centuries on those writing tragedies, most significantly Shakespeare.

Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy began with a description of the effect such work had on the audience as a “catharsis” or purging of the emotions. He decided that catharsis was the purging of two specific emotions, pity, and fear. The hero has made a mistake due to ignorance, not because of wickedness or corruption. Aristotle used the word “hamartia”, which is the “tragic flaw” or offense committed in ignorance.

For example, Oedipus is ignorant of his true parentage when he commits his fatal deed. Oedipus Rex is one of the stories in a three-part myth called the Thebian cycle. The structure of almost all Greek tragedies is similar to Oedipus Rex. Such plays are divided into five parts, the prologue or introduction, the “Prados” or entrance of the chorus, four-episode or acts separates from one another by “stasimons” or choral odes, and “exodos”, the action after the last stasimon.

These odes are lyric poetry, lines chanted or sung as the chorus moved rhythmically across the orchestra. The lines that accompanied the movement of the chorus in one direction were called “strophe”, the return movement was accompanied by lines called “antistrophe”. The choral ode might contain more than one strophe or antistrophe.

Greek tragedy originated in honor of the god of wine, Dionysus, the patron god of tragedy. The performance took place in an open-air theater. The word tragedy is derived from the term “tragedia” or “goat-song”, named for the goat skins the chorus wore in the performance. The plots came from legends of the Heroic Age. Tragedy grew from a choral lyric, as Aristotle said, tragedy is largely based on life’s pity and splendor. Plays were performed at dramatic festivals, the two main ones being the Feast of the Winepress in January and the City Dionysia at the end of March.

The Proceeding began with the procession of choruses and actors of the three competing poets. A herald then announced the poet’s names and the titles of their plays.

On this day it was likely that the image of Dionysus was taken in a procession from his temple beside the theater to a point near the road he had once taken to reach Athens from the north, then it was brought back by torch light, amid a carnival celebration, to the theater itself, where his priest occupied the central seat of honor during the performances.

On the first day of the festival there were contests between the choruses, five of men and five of boys. Each chorus consisted of fifty men or boys. On the next three days, a “tragic tetralogy” (group made up of four pieces, a trilogy followed by a satyric drama) was performed each morning. This is compared to the Elizabethan habit of following a tragedy with a jig. During the Peloponnesian Wars, this was followed by a comedy each afternoon.

The Father of the drama was the Thesis of Athens, 535 BC, who created the first actor. The actor performed in intervals between the dancing of the chorus and conversing at times with the leader of the chorus. The tragedy was further developed when new myths became part of the performance, changing the nature of the chorus to a group appropriate to the individual story.

A second actor was added by Aeschylus and a third actor was added by Sophocles, and the number of the chorus was fixed at fifteen. The chorus’ part was gradually reduced, and the dialogue of the actors became increasingly important. The word “chorus” meant “dance or “dancing ground”, which was how the dance evolved into drama. Members of the chorus were characters in the play who commented on the action.

They drew the audience into the play and reflected the audience’s reactions. The Greek plays were performed in open-air theaters. Nocturnal scenes were performed even in sunlight. The area in front of the stages was called the “orchestra”, the area in which the chorus moved and danced. There was no curtain and the play was presented as a whole with no act or scene divisions.

There was a building at the back of the stage called a skene, which represented the front of a palace or temple. It contained a central doorway and two other stage entrances, one at the left and the other at the right, representing the country and the city. Sacrifices were performed at the altar of Dionysus, and the chorus performed in the orchestra, which surrounded the altar.

The theatron, from where the word “theater” is derived, is where the audience sat, built on a hollowed-out hillside. Seated of honor, found in the front and center of the theatron, were for public officials and priests. The seating capacity of the theater was about 17,000.

The audience of about 14,000 was lively, noisy, emotional, and unrestrained. They ate, applauded, cheered, hissed, and kicked their wooden seats in disgust. Small riots were known to break out if the audience was dissatisfied. Women were allowed to be spectators of tragedy, and probably even comedy.

Admission was free or nominal, and the poor were paid for by the state. The Attic dramatists, like the Elizabethans, had a public of all classes. Because of the size of the audience, the actors must also have been physically remote.

The sense of remoteness may have been heightened by masked, statuesque figures of the actors whose acting depended largely on voice gestures and grouping. Since there were only three actors, the same men in the same play had to play double parts. At first, the dramatists themselves acted, like Shakespeare.

Gradually, acting became professionalized. Simple scenery began with Sophocles, but changes of scene were rare and stage properties were also rare, such as an occasional altar, a tomb, or an image of gods. Machinery was used for lightning or thunder or for lifting celestial persons from heaven and back, or for revealing the interior of the stage building.

This was called “deus ex machina”, which means god from the machine, and was a technical device that used a metal crane on top of the skene building, which contained the dressing rooms, from which a dummy was suspended to represent a god. This device was first employed by Euripides to give a miraculous conclusion to a tragedy.

In later romantic literature, this device was no longer used and the miracles supplied by it were replaced by the sudden appearance of a rich uncle, the discovery of new wills, or of infants changed at birth.

Many proprieties of the Greek plays were attached to violence. Therefore, it was a rule that acts of violence must take place off stage. This carried through to the Elizabethan theater which avoided the horrors of men being flayed alive or Glouster’s eyes being put out in full view of an audience (King Lear).

When Medea went inside the house to murder her children, the chorus was left outside, chanting in anguish, to represent the feelings the chorus had and could not act upon, because of their metaphysical existence. The use of music in the theater began very simply consisting of a single flute player that accompanied the chorus. Toward the close of the century, more complicated solo singing was developed by Euripides.

There could-then be large-scale spectacular events, with stage crowds and chariots, particularly in plays by Aeschylus. Greek comedy was derived from two different sources, the more known being the choral element which included ceremonies to stimulate fertility at the festival of Dionysus or in ribald drunken revel in his honor.

The term comedy is actually drawn from “komos”, meaning the song of revelry. The second source of Greek comedy was that from the Sicilian “mimes”, who put on very rude performances where they would make satirical allusions to audience members as they ad-libbed their performances. In the beginning, comedy was frank, indecent, and sexual.

The plots were loosely and carelessly structured and included broad farce and buffoonery. The performers were coarse and obscene while using satire to depict important contemporary moral, social, and political issues of Athenian life. The comedy included a broad satire of well-known persons of that time. Throughout the comedic period in Greece, there were three distinctive eras of comedies as the genre progressed.

Old comedy, which lasted from approximately 450 to 400 BCE, was performed at the festivals of Dionysus following the tragedies. There would be contests between three poets, each exhibiting one comedy. Each comedy troupe would consist of one or two actors and a chorus of twenty-four. The actors wore masks and “soccus”, or sandals, and the chorus often wore fantastic costumes.

Comedies were constructed in five parts, the prologue, where the leading character conceived the “happy idea”, the parodos or entrance of the chorus, the agon, a dramatized debate between the proponent and opponent of the “happy idea” where the opposition was always defeated, the parabasis, the coming forth of the chorus where they directly addressed the audience and aired the poet’s views on almost any matter the poet felt like having expressed, and the episodes, where the “happy idea” was put into practical application.

Aristotle highly criticized comedy, saying that it was just a ridiculous imitation of lower types of men with eminent faults emphasized for the audience’s pleasure, such as a mask worn to show deformity, or for the man to do something like slip and fall on a banana peel. Aristophanes, a comic poet of the old comedy period, wrote comedies that came to represent old comedy, as his style was widely copied by other poets. In his most famous works, he used dramatic satire on some of the most famous philosophers and poets of the era.

In “The Frogs” he ridiculed Euripides, and in “The Clouds” he mocked Socrates. His works followed all the basic principles of old comedy, but he added a facet of cleverness and depth in feeling to his lyrics, in an attempt to appeal to both the emotions and intellect of the audience. Middle comedy, which dominated from 400 to 336 BCE, was very transitional, having aspects of both old comedy and new comedy. It was timider than old comedy, having many fewer sexual gestures and innuendoes.

It was concerned less with people and politics, and more with myths and tragedies. The chorus began its fade into the background, becoming more of an interlude than the important component it used to be. Aristophanes wrote a few works in middle comedy, but the most famous writers of the time were Antiphanes of Athens and Alexis of Thurii, whose compositions have mostly been lost and only very few of their found works have been full extant plays.

In new comedy which lasted from 336 to 250 BCE, satire is almost entirely replaced by social comedy involving the family and individual character development, and the themes of romantic love. A closely-knit plot in new comedy was based on intrigue, identities, relationships, or a combination of these. A subplot was often utilized as well.

The characters in the new comedy are very similar in each work, possibly including a father who is very miser-like, a son who is mistreated but deserving, and other people with stereotypical personas. The chief writer of new comedy was Menander, and as with the prominent writers of the middle comedic era, most of his works have been lost, but other dramatists of the time period, like Terence and Platus, had imitated and adapted his methods.

Menander’s The Curmudgeon is the only complete extant play known by him to date, and it served as the basis for the later Latin writers to adapt. Adventure, brilliance, invention, romance, and scenic effect, together with delightful lyrics and wisdom, were the gifts of the Greek theater. These conventions strongly affected subsequent plays and playwrights, having put forth influence on theater throughout the centuries.


Ancient Greece, part 7 – Greek Drama

If there is one thing that we know to definitely have been invented for the first time in the city of Athens, then it is the art of dramatic performance.

The ancient Athenian theatre was probably as central to Athenian society as Hollywood is to modern Western society, and perhaps even more so (considering the fact that few other forms of entertainment existed at that time – there were no PC games and no internet back then)

Ancient Athenians even had dreams about the theatre.

In one story that has come down to us from the historian Diodorus Siculus, we are told that, before the battle of Arginoussae, the democratic hero Thrasybulus dreamt that he and his fellow Athenian admirals were acting in the role of the famous ‘Seven against Thebes’ in a production of one of Euripides’ plays. (The Seven were a group of seven heroes who led an attack against the city of Thebes in Greek mythology). In the same dream, he saw the opposing Spartan commanders acting in another play of Euripides, that was titled “The Suppliant Women”. Based on this dream, Thrasybulus was said to have come to the conclusion that his forces would win the coming battle.

Traditionally, the invention of Greek drama was attributed to a man called Thespis. (It is from his name that the modern English word ‘thespian’, meaning an actor, is derived)

Thespis was supposed to have lived sometime in the late sixth century BC. Plutarch has preserved a story that when Thespis put on his first performance in Athens, the great Athenian statesman Solon (see the Origins of Athenian democracy above) went up to him and asked him if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies in public. Thespis boldly answered by saying that there was no harm in speaking or acting in the way that he did as long as it was all make-believe. It is said that the great Solon was not terribly impressed with this reply!!

The original meaning of the word ‘tragedy’ is uncertain.

One theory is that it comes from a Greek phrase that meant ‘song of goats’, and that this came about because the first dramatic performances were actually satyr plays. (Satyrs were mythological creatures that were half man and half goat – and they were invariably male, there seem to have been no female satyrs).

The Festival of Dionysus

Dramatic performances in Classical Athens were very different from what we see today.

For one thing, the theatre was a popular and not an elite form of entertainment.

In our modern society, only a minority of the population attend theatrical performances on a regular basis. In fact, unless one lives in a major city like London or New York, it is very difficult to have access to good quality theatrical performances in the first place. Many people never even attend major theatrical performances.

In Classical Athens the picture was somewhat different. Dramatic performances were not held on a regular basis and when they were it was usually on a festival day. Most people would do their best to attend, as they would probably not have to work on such a day.

The most important of the theatrical festivals was the Festival of Dionysus.

Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, was intimately associated with the theatre. In fact, he was even worshipped in the form of a mask!! The main theatre in Athens was also called the Theatre of Dionysus.

The Festival itself was actually a religious event dedicated to Dionysus. It usually ran over a few days.

On each day, the audience would watch three tragedies, a satyr play and a comedy, quite a heavy schedule for even the most enthusiastic theatre-goer! (Greek plays, however, were a lot shorter than our modern or even Shakespearian plays)

These dramatic festivals were highly competitive events. The different playwrights were all competing agaisnt one another to win the first prize.

Competition was an integral part of Greek culture. Greek society has been described as one in which “zero-sum” competitiveness played an important part. This was roughly equivalent with what we would mean by the phrase “winner takes all”.

The classical Greek word for a competition was ‘agon’, from which we get our English word ‘agony’!

There was usually a first prize for tragedy and another for comedy.

Greek Mythology and Greek Drama

The most important sources for the plots of many Greek plays were the actual Greek myths themselves. This was mainly true for the tragedies.

This is not very surprising as they were after all part of a religious event. What is strange though is the fact that the gods were not always very favourably portrayed in these plays. In the famous play “Prometheus Bound” which was traditionally believed to have been written by Aeschylus, Zeus himself is depicted as a rather unreasonable tyrant.

(Compare this with the Christian tradition of mystery plays, all of which deal with religious stories – it is inconceivable that God or Christ could have been portrayed in anything but a positive light in these plays).

Many of the plots were also taken from stories about the events and people mentioned in the two great Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

One other way in which the Greek dramatic tradition differed from our own concepts is that the stories were always changing. There seems to have been no problem whatsoever for a playwright to take a good mythological story and then to re-invent it according to his own whims and fancies.

Each of the three great Greek tragedians took the story of Orestes and produced plays about it. These versions are all quite different from one another, and you can almost imagine that each one is a completely different story each time.

Greek Tragedy

We only have plays written by three Greek tragedians from the classical period: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Aeschylus was the earliest of the three. In his time, there were only two actors on stage at any one time, (in addition, of course, to the ever-present chorus).

The earliest of his plays that we have any record of is ‘The Persians’ which was produced in 472 BC.

The Aeschylean work that is most well known is probably “Prometheus Bound”, but there are doubts as to whether it was Aeschylus who actually wrote it.

Sophocles rose to prominence some time later. It is said that when he produced his first tragedy at the Festival of Dionysus, he was awarded the first prize. The great Aeschylus was supposed to have been a little displeased about having been beaten by him!

Of all the Greek plays that we have with us, it is one of Sophocles plays, “Oedipus Rex” that most people have some knowledge about.

The plot of “Oedipus Rex” itself is supposed to have been the main reason for its popularity, as it is about a man who kills his own father and marries his mother.

However, there can be no denying the fact that the sheer dramatic quality of the play itself is riveting.

Another of Sophocles’ plays which has been very well received in our own time is “Antigone”, which is a play about a woman who breaks the law in order to perform the proper burial rites for her dead brother.

Euripides was the most controversial of the three great tragedians.

We have a fragment of a speech from one of his plays the “Bellerophon”, in which the speaker questions the existence of the gods.

In fact, Euripides was closely associated with the Sophists, and many of his plays feature scenes in which two characters oppose arguments to one another in the best rhetorical fashion.

Euripides was actually prosecuted towards the end of the fifth century for impiety, but he was found innocent and not punished.

During his last days, Euripides left Athens and went to live in the court of the king of Macedonia. It was while he was there that he produced what is probably the best known of his plays “The Bacchae”.

Attic Comedy

Tragedy was always considered the ‘senior’ of the two main forms of Greek drama.

There was usually one comedy staged at the end of each day during the Festival of Dionysus. This meant that the audience would already have watched three tragedies and a satyr play before the comedy even began.

Unlike tragedy, the subject matter of the comedies was usually contemporary. Few mythical elements were introduced.

Comedies were often used as a platform for attacking and ridiculing politicians. Even the great Pericles was attacked on stage by the comic poets.

The most important comic poet that we know of is Aristophanes.

Aristophanes himself came from a wealthy family. He was not very sympathetic to the democratic system.

He directed a lot of vicious jokes against the politician Cleon, who was the leader of the ‘popular’ (that is, democratic) party in the Athenian ‘Ekklesia’. Because the only other source we have about Cleon is Thucydides, who was also hostile to the democracy in many ways, the image of Cleon that has come down to us from the ancient sources is a very negative one.

This image is not necessarily accurate, as you would already be working out for yourself by now if you have been going through the course carefully.

Another one of Aristophanes’ well known works is one called “The Clouds”, in which Aristophanes makes fun of Socrates. The image that Aristophanes presented of Socrates may well have played a large part in the Anti-Socrates prejudices that led to his trial and condemnation.


The Setting

Many of these plays were held at wine festivals and were a competition between three playwrights. The words “protagonist” and “antagonist” were actually words to describe first and second place writers, not characters it now means the principal character –the chief actor– and their nemesis.

Since many of the theatres are landmarks and still preserved, we can surmise that the general structure is a semicircle. The theatron (“seeing place”), the seating area had either bleachers or stone steps it also had an orchestra, a flat area where the chorus performed, and the altar of Dionysus at the center. The stage part might have been a covered section and the actors entered through central doors. Later, a skene or dressing place where actors prepared (usually by wearing masks made of linen with hair attached) was added. A wheeled trolley might have brought in the tableaux—this is where participants establish the scene by making still images with their bodies. (See: reference below.) The chorus, and integral part of the play may have entered on a walkway on each side.

History tells us the theatrics were sometimes very special. In Aeschylus’ productions he utilized ghosts as characters. Did children faint and women miscarriage that the sight of the Furies (goddesses of vengeance and retribution)? Doubtful, but it does point up the dramatically.

There were painted scenes, some owe that to Sophocles, and there could be stage props and equipment for thunder and lighting effects, and even a crane to allow a character god flight called “the god in the machine” or deus ex machina.


Ancient Greek Tragedy: History, Playwrights and Performances - History

History of the Theatre
Online Course
SPD 231

This page last modified: December 12, 2006

A ncient G reek T heatre

Objectives for this lesson:

Everything we think we know from the Ancient Greek theatre, and about the origins of theatre, comes from the following sources:

From the 4th century B.C., there are some lengthy extant fragments of some of the 100 plus plays of :

This period was called the period of New Comedy (Aristophanes was Old Comedy)

Sources of information for theatre origins and Greek theatre:

Therefore, the conclusions we make are highly conjectural, but we can discuss the standard accepted views of Greek theatre.

8th century B.C. -- the first drama in recorded history.

By 5th century B.C. The "polis" or city-state was the governing unit.

Athens was the strongest polis for art and literature - t he first democracy -- all could participate (citizens -- no women, slaves, or foreigners)

Pericles (c. 460-430 B.C.) -- "first citizen" of Athens -- led Athens in the "Golden Age of Greece" -- "Age of Pericles" -- he emphasized culture --architecture, art, and drama

Had temples and public building built, including the Theatre of Dionysus (Dionysus) and the Parthenon

Athens was defeated in the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C.

Greek society viewed gods in human terms - gods held grudges, etc., fought with each other - therefor their destiny (and those of humans) was uncertain

A strong concern for humanity - the founders of philosophy came from this period

Humans were elevated from animals, but harmony depended on a conjunction of human and divine forces. If disharmony, peace was endangered.

Drama therefore focused on human struggles, but with a "supernatural" element.

F our Q ualities of G reek D rama:

1. Performed for special occasions (festivals)

Athens had four festivals worshipping Dionysus -- (Bacchus in

Latin, Roman) god of wine, fertility, rebirth

The son of Zeus [a god] and Semele [a mortal], reared by satyrs, killed, dismembered, and resurrected (was actually reborn) --

Actors and playwrights competed --Oedipus apparently didn't win

3. Choral -- singing seems to have been an important part

a chorus of men (varied in size form 3 to 50) -- many think the choral song -- dithyramb-- was the beginnings of Greek drama (but origins are unclear)

4. Closely associated with religion - stories based on myth or history

Some believe the chorus sang, moved, danced

Most believe the chorus underscored the ideas of the play, provided point-of-view, and focused on issues of the play and implications of the action, established the play's ethical system, and participated in the action

Structure of Greek Tragedy:

  1. Late point of attack
  2. Violence and death offstage (Sophocles's Ajax is an exception)
  3. Frequent use of messengers to relate information
  4. Usually continuous time of action (except Aeschylus's Eumenides)
  5. Usually single place (except Ajax)
  6. Stories based on myth or history, but varied interpretations of events
  7. Focus is on psychological and ethical attributes of characters, rather than physical and sociological.

"The Artists of Dionysus" seem to have been a sort of actors' union in the 3rd century B.C.


The Three Greek Tragedieans:

1. Aeschylus - his are the oldest surviving plays - began competing 449 B.C. at Dionysus Theatre. Most of his plays were part of trilogies the only extant Greek trilogy is The Orestia.

He is Believed to have introduced the 2 nd actor (Thespis was one, the 2 nd added after 468 B.C. Sophocles is believed to have introduced the 3 rd actor, which Aeschylus then used.

Characteristics of Aeschylus's plays:

2. Sophocles: (496-406 B.C.) won 24 contests, never lower than 2 nd believed to have introduced the 3 rd actor fixed the chorus at 15 (had been 50)

Characteristics of Sophocles' plays:


3. Euripides (480-406 B.C.) very popular in later Greek times, little appreciated during his life sometimes known as "the father of melodrama"

Characteristics of Euripides' plays:

Tragedy was abandoned in favor of melodramatic treatment.

Theme emphasized: sometimes chance rules world, people are more concerned with morals than gods are.

T he S atyr P lay

The Satyr Play, of unknown origin, had to be mastered by tragedians

The Cyclops - Euripides - from The Odyssey - where Odyssus meets the Cyclops and a captive band of satyrs

The Trackers - Sophocles - much is extant - about Apollo's attempt to find a herd of cattle stolen by Hermes, god of thieves.

Structure of the Comedy:

prolog - chorus gives debate or "agon" over merits of the ides

parabasis - a choral ode addressing the audience, in which a social or political problem in discussed

Playwrights applied to the archon (religious leader) for a chorus.

Expense borne by a choregai, wealthy citizen chosen by the archon as part of civic / religious duty

Choregus paid for training, costuming, etc. (tho' term choregus also refers to leader of the chorus.

The State responsible for theatre buildings, prizes, payments to actors (and perhaps to playwrights). Prizes were awarded jointly to playwrights and choregus.

Dramatists themselves probably "directed" the tragic plays, but probably not the comedies.

Aeschylus and others in his time acted, trained chorus, wrote music, choreographed, etc.

Playwrights called didaskalas (teacher) -- [didactic = teaching].

Playwrights originally acted, but by 449 B.C. with the contests for tragic actors, they didn't.

Actors were semi-professional, at best.

Three-actor rule (that only three actors were in productions) - seems supported by evidence, but questioned by some.

Oedipus at Colonus - could have only three actors, but only if a different actor played the same character in different scenes.

Playwrights cast till 449 B.C., with the advent of the contests, then the main actors were chosen by lot and the others by the main actors and the playwright.

Actors were paid by the State.

Only the leading actors were eligible for competition.

A vocal acting - declamatory - to project appropriate emotional tone, mood, and character.

Three kinds of delivery: speech, recitative, and song.

No facial importance - masks used.

Gesture and movement were broadened and simplified.

Actors usually played more than one role

Stylized - used masks, choral declamation, etc.

Tragedy leaned toward idealization comedy toward burlesque.

Other elements affecting 5 th century Greek productions:

dominant in early tragedies (so main actors could change roles ?)

by Euripides, chorus only loosely related to the action

traditional view : from 50 to 12 to 15.

Generally believed to be 15 by the time of Sophocles and Euripides.

Entered with stately march, sometimes singing or in small groups.

Choral passages sung and danced in unison, sometimes divided into two groups.

Sometimes exchanged dialog with the main characters, rarely individual speaking (though some say the choregus may have spoken / sung alone).

The type of groupings are unknown.

Chorus for "Old Comedy" (Menander's plays are considered to be Greek "New Comedy"):

24 people, sometimes divided into two

Could have both genders (Lysistrata).

More varied entrances, groupings, etc.

In both comedy and tragedy, the chorus probably entered after the prolog and then stayed.

Functions of the chorus

1. an agent: gives advice, asks, takes part

2. establishes ethical framework, sets up standard by which action will be judged

3. ideal spectator - reacts as playwright hopes audience would

4. sets mood and heightens dramatic effects

5. adds movement, spectacle, song, and dance

6. rhythmical function - pauses / paces the action so that the audience can reflect.

The chorus was usually made up of amateurs - 11 months training - the most expensive part of the production.

Music - most believe music was integral-most dialog was recitative (retch-ee-tah-teev')


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