Unveiling the Tragic World of Ancient Greek Theater

Greek tragedy, a popular and influential form of drama, was performed in theatres across ancient Greece beginning in the late 6th century BCE. The genre was led by famous playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, with many of their works still being performed centuries after their initial premieres. The foundation upon which all modern theatre is based is formed by Greek tragedy and Greek comedy, which emerged together.

The origins of tragedy are a topic of debate amongst scholars. A connection to the earlier art form of lyrical performance of epic poetry has been suggested by some, while others propose a strong link to the rituals performed in the worship of Dionysos, such as the sacrifice of goats, known as trag-ōdia, and the wearing of masks.

Dionysos, the god of theater, may also be connected to the drinking rites, which resulted in the worshipper losing control of their emotions and effectively becoming another person, much like how actors hope to do when performing. The music and dance of Dionysiac ritual were most evident in the role of the chorus and the music provided by an aulos player, but rhythmic elements were also preserved in the use of trochaic tetrameter and then iambic trimeter in the delivery of the spoken words.

Performed in an open-air theatre, such as that of Dionysos in Athens, and seemingly open to all of the male populace, although the presence of women is contested, the plot of a tragedy was almost always inspired by episodes from Greek mythology, which were often a part of Greek religion.

Due to the serious subject matter, which often dealt with moral right and wrongs, violence was not permitted on the stage and the death of a character had to be heard from offstage and not seen. Similarly, at least in the early stages of the genre, the poet could not make comments or political statements through the play, and the more direct treatment of contemporary events had to wait for the arrival of the less austere and conventional genre, Greek comedy.

A Tragedy Play

Greek tragedy was a popular and influential form of drama performed in ancient Greece beginning in the late 6th century BCE. One of the key features of early tragedies was the use of a single actor who would perform in costume and wear a mask, allowing for the impression of impersonating a god. This can be seen as a link to earlier religious rituals, where proceedings were often carried out by a priest.

An innovation credited to Thespis in c. 520 BCE was the addition of a chorus, a group of up to 15 actors who sang and danced but did not speak. The actor would often speak to the leader of the chorus. The actor also changed costumes during the performance using a small tent behind the stage, the skēne, which would later develop into a monumental façade and break the play into distinct episodes. Phrynichos is credited with the idea of splitting the chorus into different groups to represent men, women, elders, etc. (although all actors on the stage were in fact male).

Eventually, the number of actors permitted on stage was limited to three, which allowed for equality between poets in competition. However, a play could have as many non-speaking performers as required, so plays with greater financial backing could put on a more spectacular production with finer costumes and sets. Finally, Agathon is credited with adding musical interludes unconnected with the story itself. This evolution in the format of Greek tragedy led to the development of the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based.

Tragedy in Competition

The most well-known competition for the performance of tragedy was the spring festival of Dionysos Eleuthereus or the City Dionysia in Athens, but there were many other festivals as well. These plays had to go through an audition process judged by the archon, only those deemed worthy were given the financial backing to produce a costly chorus and have rehearsal time.

The archon also nominated three chorēgoi, citizens who would each be expected to fund the chorus for one of the chosen plays, while the state paid the poet and lead actors. On the day of the festival, the plays of the three selected poets were judged by a panel and the prize for the winner was often a bronze tripod cauldron, besides honor and prestige. From 449 BCE, prizes for the leading actors (prōtagōnistēs) were also given.

The Writers of Tragedy

The first of the great tragedian poets was Aeschylus, who lived in the 6th century BCE. He was innovative in his approach and added a second actor for minor parts, and by including more dialogue in his plays, he was able to squeeze more drama from the age-old stories that were familiar to his audience. As plays were submitted for competition in groups of four (three tragedies and a satyr-play), Aeschylus often carried on a theme between plays, creating sequels. One such trilogy is Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers (or Cheoephori), and The Furies (or Eumenides) known collectively as the Oresteia. Aeschylus is said to have described his work, consisting of at least 70 plays of which six or seven survive, as ‘morsels from the feast of Homer.’

The second great poet of the genre was Sophocles, who lived in the 5th century BCE. He was tremendously popular and added a third actor to the proceedings and employed painted scenery, sometimes even changes of scenery within the play. Three actors now permitted much more sophistication in terms of plot. One of his most famous works is Antigone (c. 442 BCE) in which the lead character pays the ultimate price for burying her brother Polynices against the wishes of King Kreon of Thebes. It is a classic situation of tragedy – the political right of having the traitor Polynices denied burial rites is contrasted against the moral right of a sister seeking to lay to rest her brother. Other works include Oedipus the King and The Women of Trāchis, but he in fact wrote more than 100 plays, of which seven survive.

The last of the classic tragedy poets was Euripides, who lived in the 5th century BCE. He was known for his clever dialogues, fine choral lyrics, and a certain realism in his text and stage presentation. He liked to pose awkward questions and unsettle the audience with his thought-provoking treatment of common themes. This is probably why, although he was popular with the public, he won only a few festival competitions. Of around 90 plays, 19 survive, amongst the most famous being Medeia – where Jason, of the Golden Fleece fame.

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