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“The drama in Greece was inextricably bound up with religious feeling and religious observance.” (Cheney 33) The citizens of the Greek states were the first European communities to raise dramatic performances to the level of an art. Furthermore, the Greek playwrights still exercise a potent creative force, and many modern dramatists find strong relationships between these legendary themes and modern conditions. The Greek’s religion is wholly responsible for the creation of all facets of early Greek theatre; whether it is the content of the plays, or the immense size of the theaters required to accommodate the attendance of the city’s men.
Although much is speculated about the origins of early Greek theater, it may be stated that the “source of tragedy is to be found in choric dithyrambs sung in honor of the god Dionysus” (Nicoll 9). 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. Originally these songs were improvised and rhapsodical as time passed by they were “poetized or rendered literary” (Nicoll 9). The word “chorus” meant “dance or “dancing ground”, which was how dance evolved into the drama. Members of the chorus were characters in the play that commented on the action. They drew the audience into the play and reflected the audience’s reactions. The change from freelance song to theatre was obtained at the hands of a Greek named Thespis. He turned what was originally a song leader, or priest, into an actor whose words were answered by a chanting chorus. Thespis also “changed the subject matter of theatre events, expanding them to deal not solely on stories of Dionysus” (Nicoll 9). In the sixth century B.C., drama had been born in Greece and with the introduction of a second actor and later a third, this art form was ready to mature at the hands of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
These festivals grew in size and complexity, especially in Athens, where the largest of these festivals were held and only the premier playwrights released their plays. These prestigious and elaborate plays were performed at dramatic festivals. The two main festivals were 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.
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“Regarded as community event, not commercial enterprises, responsibility was taken by state officials on behalf of the citizens and visitors from neighboring districts and states for the production of the plays” (Wickham 39). Hence, the production of these plays required a great deal of public thought and energy before the performance actually took the stage.
Surely farmers, traders, shopkeepers, hostelries and the manufacturers of souvenirs came to these events attempting to reap the benefits of such large number of consumers. This, however, is insignificant compared to the purpose of these events. Even in the fifth century B.C., purpose was rooted in the religious calendar of Attic Life (Wickham 39). Participation in the festival for authors, actors and spectators was regarded as a civic duty and only secondary as entertainment. However, this precedent eventually reversed. As a result these events were heavily subsidized without any attempt to cover all the cost with admission prices, which would change around the end of the fifth century. Even with admission charges free spaces were held open to those who were unable to meet the cost of better seats. (Wickham 39) Government and wealthy individuals had to agree on the appointment of choragus, a business manager, to supervise the production of the plays accepted into the contest. The actual production of these attracted all then town’s male citizens, and few women. Still, the events and stories must have had a substantial impact on the thought and feelings of the community to create such a large attendance.
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 satiric drama) was performed each morning.
In order for theatre to have an effect on the people you must first bring the people to the event. The building of these great theatres must have, as stated previously, taken the effort of the entire community. 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” (Lucas 251). Small riots were known to break out if the audience was dissatisfied. Women were allowed to be spectators of tragedy, and probably even comedy.
Some theaters are still in use today, such as the theater at Epidaurus, while others are merely ruins, like the theatre of Dionysus in Athens. The theater was the largest structure in the cities and must have seemed very impressive to people from other cities that have not seen anything so large and majestic. It is not hard to see how the theater affected the people. Not counting war, it was responsible for the largest gathering of people known in Europe at this time.
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” (Wickham 42) 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.
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 production itself had to follow rules that were outlined by the intellects of the day. Aristotle was one of the most famous intellects of his day. In his book Poetics; Aristotle outlines the rules and intentions of these Greek plays. He wrote
“tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude; in embellished language, each kind of which is used separately in the different parts; in the mode of action and not narrated; and effecting through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions.” (World 758)
He believed the hero must make 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.
Aristotle also outlined “six constituent elements to the Greek tragedy as; plot, character, language, thought, spectacle and melody” (World 759). His book continues to explain the role of a tragic hero and the lessons that are to be taught through the dialogue and action. He also explains the chorus’ purpose, and how the audience was supposed to react to what the chorus sings. The fact was that it was necessary in the Greece shows play production needed to become organized in order to maintain its primary goal, religious teaching.
So far all that has been stated is how important these performances were to Greek society, now it must be stated what type of themes these plays taught the Greeks. 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” (Lucas 3). 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” (Lucas 3). 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.
One play that was performed in ancient Greece and is still taught in class today is Sophocles’ Antigone. This gamed play that stresses the importance of family, while making an attack on those who judge with an iron fist. Initially Antigone goes against a royal order wherein she is not to bury her brother. Her brother attacked the city and died killing Antigone’s only other brother. She goes against the law, which means she should be put to death. However, she is not afraid to state that she has longer to lie with the dead that living and it would be very Honorable to die as a result of paying tribute to her brother. The king Creon puts Antigone to death without listening to the pleas of his son or wife. As a result of Antigone’s death his son and wife commit suicide-leaving Creon weeping dejected at himself for not listening. Afterward the reader praises Antigone for her bravery and the honor she gave her family. In addition to this the reader feels pity for Creon’s loss, however it is realized it was his decision.
Theater in ancient Greece was an event of splendid size and artistry. The festivals were an event, which attracted people from all the neighboring cities and towns to assemble together for the purpose of witnessing the theater. Greek theater emerged out of religious speeches and became an event so prestigious that it attracted and inspired the highest intellects within this society. The theater was shaped by the society’s religious beliefs. The creation of the theater itself must have required a large amount of the city’s men and resources to build. Even the organization that went beforehand represents the importance these event was to the town, and to those a part of its production. In Greece the theater was the highest form of entertainment at hand, a focal point of their energy.
1. Brocket, Oscar G. The Essential Theatre 7th Edition. Texas: Harcourt and Brace College, 2000.
2. Cheney, Sheldon. The Theatre; Three Thousand Years of Dramas and Stagecraft. New York: David McKay Company Inc., 1972.
3. Nicoli, Allardyce. The Development of the Theatre. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanich Inc., 1966.
4. Wickhan, Glynne. A History of Theatre. Cambridge University press. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
5. World master Expanded Edition. Editor, Maynard Mack. New York: Morton and Company Press, 1995.