Background of Greek Tragedy
Tragedy was performed in Athens at the three annual festivals of Dionysus, the most important of which was the Great, or City, Dionysia in late March. On three successive mornings at this festival, three tragic poets, who had been selected competitively earlier in the year, each presented a tetralogy consisting of three tragedies and a satyr-play. In addition, the festival featured comic and dithyrambic contests, and religious processions and rituals of various kinds. At the close of the festival, ten judges who had been chosen by lot determined the winners and awarded prizes.
Besides writing the plays and composing the accompanying music, the poet was responsible for directing the production and supervising rehearsals. Often, in earlier times, he acted the role of the protagonist, or central character, also, but this tradition seems to have been broken in the time of Sophocles. The poets chosen to compete at the festivals were assigned actors, chorus, extras, and musicians by the state. The costs of the production were paid by the choregus, a wealthy citizen appointed by the government to do this as a liturgy, or public service. The privilege of backing the plays was considered a great honor, and the choregus shared the praise and awards given the poet if their plays won first prize.
Because attendance was a civic and religious obligation as well as a source of entertainment, admission to the theater was originally free. When it eventually became necessary to charge for tickets, the state provided funds for all citizens who could not afford the price.
Tragedy is thought to have developed from the ancient dithyramb, or choral lyric, which was sung by a male chorus in honor of the god Dionysus at his annual festivals. These performances also included group dancing and probably some brief dialogue between the leader and the chorus. At first the dithyramb was a crude improvisation based on the myths about Dionysus and may have taken the form of a rough burlesque or satire, from which the satyr-play of classical drama was derived. In time it came to have a more formal artistic structure and its content was expanded to include stories from the whole legendary tradition.
At some point, a radical transformation in approach took place and a serious philosophical attitude replaced the older boisterousness. The addition of an actor to the chorus allowed more complicated and lengthy stories to be used. The father of drama was said by the Greeks to have been Thespis. He first used an actor in his productions and was responsible for several other innovations. In 534 B.C., Thespis put on the first tragedy at the festival of Dionysus in Athens, although his new dramatic form may have been in existence for a short while before this in the rural areas of Attica.
There is some reason to believe, however, that it was Aeschylus who first wrote tragedy in the sense that the word is used today, with emphasis on content rather than stylistic matters. During the fifth century, tragedy matured and its technique was improved until it became the sophisticated literary form seen in the hands of Sophocles.
Regardless of the changes in style and content, tragic performances remained an important element in the civic worship of Dionysus. The dithyramb also developed along independent lines as a choral medium, and dithyrambic contests continued to be a regular part of the dramatic festivals at Athens along with tragedy for the next few centuries.
The stories used in tragedy were taken almost exclusively from the great cycles of mythology, although occasionally, as in The Persians of Aeschylus, a poet might draw upon a contemporary theme. These ancient myths and heroic legends were like a bible to the Greeks, for they recorded what was thought to be the collective social, political, and religious history of the people and included many profound and searching tales about the problems of human life and the nature of the gods. The custom requiring the use of these mythological stories in tragedy satisfied an essential requirement of the religious function of drama, for it enabled the poets to deal with subjects of great moral dignity and emotional significance.
From a dramatic point of view, the use of plots and characters already familiar to the audience gave the poet many opportunities for the use of irony and subtle allusions that are not available to the modern playwright. Suspense as it is known in the present-day theater could not easily be evoked, but the audience's attention was held by the poet's freedom to change or interpret the myths as he thought necessary. The spectators, already aware of the outlines of the story, learned from tragedy what personal motives and outside forces had driven the characters to act as they did. It is thought that the dramatist's reinterpretation and explanation of the ancient myths was one of the most important factors considered by the Greeks in evaluating his work.
The solemn and exalted quality of Greek tragedy, and the purposeful examination of the meaning of life in which its characters engage, are even today able to make a deep impression on readers and are direct results of the use of stories based on mythological themes.
The Theater and Theatrical Equipment
The Greek theater was built in the open air and was generally quite large; the Theater of Dionysus at Athens, for example, had more than 17,000 seats. The theaters were usually built in hollowed-out hillsides and despite their size had excellent acoustics, so that words spoken by the performers could easily be heard in all sections.
The theatron was the area in which the audience sat. It was shaped like a horseshoe and had rows of stone seats rising upward and backward in tiers. In the first row were stone thrones for the principal citizens and the priest of Dionysus.
The circular area at ground level that was enclosed on three sides by the U-shaped theatron was known as the orchestra, or dancing place of the chorus. In its center was the thymele, an altar to Dionysus on which sacrifices were made and which was sometimes used as a stage prop during plays. The chorus assembled in the orchestra after marching in through the right or left parodos, or entrance passage, and remained there during the rest of the performance. The flute player and occasional harpist who provided musical accompaniment for the tragedies generally sat in a corner of the orchestra.
On the side of the orchestra that formed the open end of the theatron stood a wooden structure, the skene, or scene building. This was a dressing room for the actors, but its facade was usually made to resemble a palace or temple and served as a backdrop for the action of the play. The three doors of the skene were used for entrances and exits.
The proscenium was the level area in front of the skene on which most of the play's action took place, although at times the actors might move to the orchestra or even to the roof of the skene. There was no stage, but the proscenium may have been raised one step higher than the orchestra, and there was no curtain.
A few items of technical equipment were available for special effects. These included devices for imitating lightning and the sound of thunder; other noisemakers; painted scenery; the eccyclema, a wheeled platform which was rolled out of the skene to reveal a tableau of action that had taken place indoors (e.g., at the end of Agamemnon where the doors of the palace are opened to show the bodies of the dead king and Cassandra, also at the end of The Choephori); and the "machine," some kind of derrick that could be mounted on the roof of the skene and used to bring about the miraculous appearances of gods.
The actors performed in elaborate formal costumes and wore masks that emphasized the dominant traits of the characters they were impersonating. All members of the cast were male. They had to be competent singers as well as actors because many of their lyrical lines were chanted to music. The mode of acting seems to have been conventional and stylized rather than naturalistic, but it could not have been too artificial since many scenes call for lively, realistic action.
On the whole, tragic performances must have been very stately and colorful spectacles in which a pageant-like quality was derived from the brilliant costumes and organized movements of large numbers of players and extras, and the blending of drama, poetry, music, and dance to create a solemn yet entertaining act of devotion to the gods.
The chorus was the nucleus from which tragedy evolved, and it continued to have a central place in the drama throughout classical times. The use of the chorus varied, depending on the method of the playwright and the needs of the play being performed, but most often it acted as the "ideal spectator," as in King Oedipus, wherein it clarifies the experiences and feelings of the characters in everyday terms and expresses the conventional attitude toward developments in the story.
In some plays, like The Suppliants of Aeschylus, the chorus was itself a central figure in the tragedy rather than a group of interested bystanders, and this had a direct effect on the size and nature of its role, but usually the chorus was not so closely involved in the action of the drama. In general, the tragedians used the chorus to create a psychological and emotional background to the action through its odes, to introduce and question new characters, to point out the significance of events as they occurred, to establish facts and affirm the outlook of society, to cover the passage of time between events, and to separate episodes.
The trend in tragedy was toward a decline in the importance of the chorus, caused mainly by the introduction of additional actors and increasing sophistication in their dramatic use, and by the more personal and complex nature of the stories selected for dramatization. With the passage of time, the proportion of choral to individual lines decreased significantly, and the dramatic functions of the chorus, aside from the continued use of choral odes between episodes, were greatly reduced.
At a typical performance of tragedy in the fifth century, the chorus marched into the orchestra chanting the parodos and remained drawn up there until the end of the play. At various points it divided into semi-choruses and moved around in the orchestra to suit the requirements of the play, but its most important moments came when it chanted the choral odes to music, accompanied by stylized gestures and a series of intricate group dances. At times the chorus also engaged in a lyrical dialogue, or kommos, with one of the characters and made brief comments or inquiries during the course of an episode.
Classical tragedies were composed within a definite structural framework although there are occasional minor variations in some plays. These structural divisions are noted in the summaries of the plays in these Notes, but it should be remembered that such notation is artificial and is inserted only for illustrative purposes since Greek tragedy was performed without intermissions or breaks.
The following are the main elements of a typical tragedy:
Prologue. The opening scene, in which the background of the story is established, usually by a single actor or in a dialogue between two actors.
Parodos. The entrance of the chorus, usually chanting a lyric that bears some relation to the main theme of the play.
Episode. The counterpart of the modern act or scene, in which the plot is developed through action and dialogue between the actors, with the chorus sometimes playing a minor role.
Stasimon. The choral ode. A stasimon comes at the end of each episode so that the tragedy is a measured alternation between these two elements.
Exodos. The final action after the last stasimon, ended by the ceremonial exit of all the players.