Ancient Greece, part 7 – Greek Drama


The Origins of 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.