Greek Drama


   Tragedy and Comedy. Three types of drama were composed in Athens: tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays , the latter of which seemed not to be taken quite as seriously, at least during the Greek Enlightenment (450-400). The ancients distinguished between tragedy and comedy in two ways. The first, the Aristotelian tradition, defined tragedy as a drama which concerns better than average people (heroes, kings, gods) who suffer a transition from good fortune to bad fortune, and who speak in an elevated language. Tragedy, in the Aristotelean tradition, serves the purpose of purging the soul of the "fear and pity" which most of us carry around (Aristotle called this catharsis ). Comedy concerns average, or below average, people (people like you and me) who enjoy a transition from bad circumstances to good (but not too good) and who speak everyday language. The second, or rhetorical tradition, defined comedy as a fiction which, though not true, is at least believable (that is, realistic), while tragedy is a fiction which is neither true nor believable. Plato and most of antiquity (and the Middle Ages) looked at drama from this second, rhetorical, tradition. The Aristotelian tradition does not really become important until the Renaissance. It's important to realize that comedy isn't necessarily "funny," at least in classical Athens, and tragedy isn't necessarily "tragic" (many tragedies have happy endings), so any neat definition doesn't really work. Also, Aristotle's famous theory of the "tragic flaw," that is, that the reason the hero of a tragedy suffers a bad change in fortune is because he or she has some character "flaw," is not very helpful in understanding most Greek tragedies.

Tragedies were part of a religious festival to Dionysus. On each of three days, three tragedies and a satyr-play were presented by the same poet; in some cases the plays were connected in theme and we now call them a trilogy, such as the Oresteia (the three Theban plays by Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos , Oedipus at Colonus , and Antigone , were not presented together and are not a trilogy). A panel of judges awarded a prize for the best group of plays. Aeschylus and Sophocles usually won when they presented plays, but the other great playwright of classical Athens, Euripides, won only five times.

The plot of a tragedy usually followed a known myth, partly perhaps for ease of exposition; but much flexibility was possible in handling the story. Normally the dramas begin with a prologue by one or two actors; then the chorus enters and sings its first song; and a number of "acts" follow, separated by choral odes. The choruses are not simply interludes, but often vital for understanding the play; the chorus is not simply a spectator or commentator, but often a direct participant in the action. The actors also sometimes sing, often in responsion to the chorus, as well as engage in dialogue with each other.

Origins. Origins of Athenian tragedy and comedy are obscure. The basic background is the existence, perhaps for centuries, of a chorus , with a leader, singing a song about some legendary hero; then the leader, instead of singing about the hero, began to impersonate him. Add spoken dialogue, and we have "tragedy" in the Greek form. The further addition of a second actor (or perhaps the leader of a second chorus?) made action and on-stage conflict of views possible. The third actor is still not used by Aeschylus for three-way dialogue, but is silent on stage or is off-stage changing roles. Early tragedy may have been largely sung, like a cross between a modern oratorio and a modern opera. The very first prize for tragedy went to Thespis (hence our word "thespian") in 534.

It is important to understand that drama began in the Greek world as a form of religious ritual; and although drama in classical Athens became a great day out and ripping good entertainment, especially if there was alot of blood and gore, its religious character was never really lost on the audience. Hence, the drama works out many of the characteristics all religious ritual works out: explaining the relation of the human to the divine, of the human to the material world, of explaining violence and its origins, and attempting to control the irrational and the material worlds.

Production. The theatre of the later 5th century consisted of a large circular orchestra, or dancing-floor, for the chorus, surrounded on more than half its circumference by the audience; on the other side was a low stage offering easy communication with the orchestra. Behind the stage was some kind of building probably with a large central door and a roof. The chorus could enter the orchestra from either side. The chorus (from 12-15 people) sang and danced; their leader might engage in dialogue with the actors; they were always men, masked and in costume. In the early plays of Aeschylus there were only two actors; by about 450 B.C., a third had been added; all were men, taking several parts each if necessary. The poet composed the music and the dance as well as the text, directed the production, and trained the chorus; some dramatists also played the leading roles.



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-18-96