The Origins of Drama
Twenty-five hundred years ago, two thousand years before Shakespeare, Western theatre was born in Athens, Greece.
Between 600 and 200 BC, the ancient Athenians created a theatre culture whose form, technique and terminology have
lasted two millennia, and they created plays that are still considered among the greatest works of world drama.
Their achievement is truly remarkable when one considers that there have been only two other periods in the history
of theatre that could be said to approach the greatness of ancient Athens - Elizabethan England and, perhaps the
Twentieth Century. The greatest playwright of Elizabethan England was Shakespeare, but Athens produced at least five
equally great playwrights. The Twentieth Century produced thousands of fine plays and films, but their form and often their
content are based on the innovations of the ancient Athenians.
The Cult of Dionysus
The theatre of Ancient Greece evolved from religious rites which date back to at least 1200 BC. At that time, Greece
was peopled by tribes that we in our arrogance might label 'primitive'. In northern Greece, in an area called Thrace,
a cult arose that worshipped Dionysus, the god of fertility and procreation. This Cult of Dionysus, which probably
originated in Asia Minor, practised ritual celebrations which may have included alcoholic intoxication, orgies,
human and animal sacrifices, and perhaps even hysterical rampages by women called maenads.
The cult's most controversial practice involved, it is believed, uninhibited dancing and emotional displays that created
an altered mental state. This altered state was known as 'ecstasis', from which the word ecstasy is derived. Dionysiac,
hysteria and 'catharsis' also derive from Greek words for emotional release or purification. Ecstasy was an important
religious concept to the Greeks, who would come to see theatre as a way of releasing powerful emotions through its
ritual power. Though it met with resistance, the cult spread south through the tribes of Greece over the ensuing six
centuries. During this time, the rites of Dionysus became mainstream and more formalised and symbolic. The death of a
tragic hero was offered up to god and man rather than the sacrifice of say, a goat. By 600 BC these ceremonies were
practised in spring throughout much of Greece.
An essential part of the rites of Dionysus was the dithyramb. The word means 'choric hymn'. This chant or hymn was
probably introduced into Greece early accompanied by mimic gestures and, probably, music. It began as a part of a
purely religious ceremony, like a hymn in the middle of a mass describing the adventures of Dionysus. In its earliest
form it was lead off by the leader of a band of revelers, a group of dancers, probably dressed as satyrs dancing around
an altar. It was probably performed by a chorus of about fifty men dressed as satyrs -- mythological half-human, half-
goat servants of Dionysus. They may have played drums, lyres and flutes, and chanted as they danced around an effigy
of Dionysus. Some accounts say they also wore phallus-like headgear. It was given a regular form and raised to the
rank of artistic poetry in about 600 BC. Introduced into Athens shortly before 500 BC, dithyramb was soon recognised
as one of the competitive subjects at the various Athenian festivals. For more than a generation after its introduction
the dithyramb attracted the most famous poets of the day. By this time, however, it had ceased to concern itself
exclusively with the adventures of Dionysus and begun to choose its subjects from all periods of Greek mythology.
In this way, over time the dithyramb would evolve into stories in 'play' form: drama.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF GREEK THEATRE
By 600 BC Greece was divided into city-states, separate nations centred in major cities and regions. The most prominent
city-state was Athens, where at least 150,000 people lived. It was here that the Rites of Dionysus evolved into what we
know today as theatre. Since Athens was located in a region called Attica. Greek and Athenian theatre are sometimes
referred to as Attic Theatre.
In about 600 BC, Arion of Mehtymna (Corinth) wrote down formal lyrics for the dithyramb. Some time during the next
75 years, Thespis of Attica added an actor who interacted with the chorus. This actor was called the protagonist, from
which the modern word protagonist is derived, meaning the main character of a drama. Introduce a second speaker
and one moves from one art, that of choric chant, to another, theatre. Tradition ascribes this innovation to one Thespis,
and even gives him a date; he is said to have performed Athens about 534 BC. Whether this is true of not, his name has
achieved immortality in theatrical jargon - 'actors' and 'Thespians' are synonymous.
Athenian Drama Competitions
In 534 BC, the ruler of Athens, Pisistratus, changed the Dionysian Festivals and instituted drama competitions. Thespis
is said to have won the first competition in 534 BC. In the ensuing 50 years, the competitions became popular annual
events. A government authority called the archon would choose the competitors and the choregos, wealthy patrons
who financed the productions. Even in ancient Greece, the funding of the arts was a way of tax avoidance. In return for
funding a production, the choregos would pay no taxes that year.
During this time, major theatres were constructed, notably the theatre at Delphi, the Attic Theatre and the Theatre of
Dionysus in Athens. The Theatre of Dionysus, built at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, could seat 17,000 people.
During their heyday, the competitions drew as many as 30,000 spectators. The words theatre and amphitheatre
derive from the Greek word theatron, which referred to the wooden spectator stands erected on those hillsides.
Similarly, the word orchestra is derived from the Greek word for a platform between the raised stage and the
audience on which the chorus was situated.
How Plays Were Performed
Plays were performed in the daytime. The annual drama competitions in Athens were spread over several, entire days.
Actors probably wore little or no makeup. Instead, they carried masks with exaggerated facial expressions. They also
wore cothornos, or buskins, which were leather boots laced up to the knees. There was little or no scenery. Initially,
most of the action took place in the orchestra. Later, as the importance shifted from the chorus to the characters, the
action moved to the stage.
Between 600 and 500 BC, the dithyramb had evolved into new forms, most notably the tragedy and the ‘satyr’ play.
Tragedy, derived from the Greek words tragos (goat) and ode (song), told a story that was intended to teach religious
lessons. Much like Biblical parables, tragedies were designed to show the right and wrong paths in life. Tragedies were
not simply plays with bad endings, nor were they simply spectacles devised to ‘make 'em laugh and make 'em cry.’ Tragedy
was viewed as a form of ritual purification, Aristotle's catharsis, which gives rise to pathos, another Greek word, meaning
'instructive suffering'. They depicted the life voyages of people who steered themselves or who were steered by fate on
collision courses with society, life's rules, orsimply fate. The tragic protagonist is one who refuses out of either weakness
or strength to acquiesce to fate: what for us nowmight better be described as the objective realities of life. Most often, the
protagonist's main fault is hubris, a Greek, and English word meaning false or overweening arrogance. It could be the
arrogance of not accepting ones destiny (i.e. as in Oedipus Rex), the arrogance of assuming the right to kill (Agamemnon),
or the arrogance of assuming the right to seek vengeance (Orestes). Whatever the root cause, the protagonist's ultimate
collision with fate, reality, or society is inevitable and irrevocable.
The Culture That Created Tragedy
Tragedy did not develop in a vacuum. It was an outgrowth of what was happening at the time in Athens. One hand, Greek
religion (see Bullfinch's Mythology. It is in library) had dictated how people should behave and think for centuries. On
the other, there was a birth of free thought and intellectual inquiry. Athens in the fourth and fifth centuries BC was bustling
with radical ideas like democracy, philosophy, mathematics, science and art. It boasted philosophers like Plato, Socrates,
Aristotle, Epicurus, and Democritus. There were the first known historians Thucydides and Herodotus. The scientists and
mathematicians like Thales, Hippocrates, Archimedes, and later Euclid (euclidean geometry), Pythagoras (the Pythagorean
theorem), Eratosthenes, Hero (the steam engine!), Hipparchus and Ptolemy. In these respects -- a blossoming of free
thought after years of religious dicta -- ancient Athens resembled Renaissance England, which not coincidentally spawned
the next great era in theatre. In essence, the ancient Athenians had begun to question how nature worked, how society
should work, and what man's role was in the scheme of things. Tragedy was the poets' answer to some of these questions
-- How should one behave? How can one accept the injustices of life? What is the price of hubris? Read a soliloquy from a
Greek tragedy, or from Hamlet or Macbeth, and what you will hear is these questions being asked.
The Form of Tragedy
The traditional tragedy in Aeschylus' time (circa 475 BC) consisted of the following parts:
1. Prologue, which described the situation and set the scene
2. Parados, an ode sung by the chorus as it made its entrance
3. Five dramatic scenes, each followed by a Komos, an exchange of laments by the chorus and the protagonist
4. Exodus, the climax and conclusion
Aristotle - arousing of fear and emotion, purging (catharsis) - the unities: unity of time place and character - Pathos
(Greek for instructive suffering) which has come to mean the quality in something that arouses sympathy. Often used
today to describe something sad but not necessarily tragic. Satyrs, trilogies of tragedies were interrupted by satyr plays
(which made fun of characters in the tragedies around them). Hence the word tragedy. Comedy from Komodos which means 'merrymaking,' and 'singer.'
Aeschylus, the First Playwright
Until 484 BC the Athenian drama competitions consisted of a trilogy of dithyrambs and a satyr play. Their style of presentation was choral rather than dramatic. However, around 484 BC there appeared on the Athenian theatre scene a playwright named Aeschylus. Aeschylus turned the dithyramb into drama. He added a second actor (the antagonist) to interact with the first. Heintroduced props and scenery and reduced the chorus from 50 to 12. Aeschylus' Persians, written in 472 BC, is the earliest play in existence. Aeschylus' crowning work was The Oresteia, a trilogy of tragedies first performed in 458 BC. They tell the legend of Agamemnon, the Greek war hero who was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, and the pursuit of justice by his children, Orestes and Electra. Thematically, the trilogy is about the tragedy of excessive human pride, arrogance or hubris. This hubris is required to murder a person for personal gain, as Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus do, as well as the hubris to in turn hunt down and kill them, as Orestes and Electra do. In the end, the Furies, vengeful emissaries of the gods, themselves bring Orestes and Electra to trial. Aeschylus makes a point that has been echoed by historians and dramatists, psychologists and crime writers for centuries since: that the root of evil and suffering is usually human arrogance. On a dramatic level, the plays convey the suffering of a family torn apart by patricide and matricide.
The Periclean Age
Aeschylus' death in 456 BC coincided with the beginning of the Periclean Age, a period during which Athens' population grew to 150,000, its government embraced democracy (although two-thirds of its population were slaves), and the arts flourished. In a span of 60 years, Thucydides and Herodotus wrote their histories, the sophists, Socrates and Plato expounded their philosophies, and Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes wrote some of the world's best plays.
In 468 BC, Aeschylus was defeated in the tragedy competition by Sophocles. Sophocles' contribution to drama was the
addition of a third actor and an emphasis on drama between humans rather than between humans and gods. Sophocles
was a fine craftsman. Aristotle used Sophocles' play, Oedipus Rex for his classic analysis of drama, The Poetics. Sophocles'
plays are suffused with irony. In The Oedipus Trilogy, Oedipus seeks the truth about his father's murder. The truth that
awaits him, however, is that he is the murderer. Click here for a summary of the 'Oedipus Trilogy'. In Electra, the hunted murderer Aegisthus finds the identity of a body
under a blanket is Orestes, the man who has relentlessly hunted him and his lover, Clytemnestra. He is relieved that he
has escaped justice. However, when he lifts the blanket he discovers the body is that of his lover Clytemnestra. Orestes
has indeed caught up with him. Sophocles' plays are about the folly of arrogance and the wisdom of accepting fate.
Sophocles believed in the Greek gods, but his plays are suffused with existential insights that have been voiced many
times since. For instance, compare this observation by Antigone: What joy is there in day repeating day, some short,
some long, with death the only end? I think them fools who warm their hearts with the glow of empty hopes.
With that of Macbeth's famous speech:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Click here for a summary of 'Macbeth')
In all, Sophocles won 20 competitions, making him the Carl Lewis (?) of Greek dramatic competition. Although
far behind Sophocles in the medal count with a mere five, Euripides has since eclipsed both Sophocles and Aeschylus
in popularity. The modern attraction to him stems largely from his point of view, which finds a strong echo in modern
attitudes. His plays were not about Gods or royalty but real people. He placed peasants alongside princes and gave
their feelings equal weight. He showed the reality of war, criticised religion, and portrayed the forgotten of society:
women, slaves, and the old. Euripides is credited with adding to the dramatic form the prologue, which "set the stage"
at the beginning of the play, and the deus ex machina, which wrapped up loose ends at the close. Aside from those
devices, there is less contrivance, fate or philosophy in Euripides than in either Aeschylus or Sophocles. There is
instead a poignant realism, such as in this scene from the anti-war Trojan Women, in which a grandmother grieves
over the daughter and grandson she has outlived. During his life, Euripides was viewed as a heretic and was often
lampooned in Aristophanes' comedies. Extremely cynical of human nature, he became a bookish recluse and died in
406 BC, two years before Sophocles.
Tragedy was not the only product of Athens' flourishing theatre culture; comedy also thrived. Not only did the
Greeks produce many lasting comedies; they also cast the moulds for many Roman, Elizabethan and modern comedies.
The historical development of comedy was not as well recorded as that of tragedy. Aristotle notes in The Poetics that
before his own time comedy was considered trivial and common -- though when it was finally recognised as an art
form, the orphan suddenly had many fathers: Aristophanes and Old Comedy
Greek comedy had two periods: Old Comedy, represented by Cratinus and Aristophanes; and New Comedy, whose
main exponent was Menander. Aristophanes theatrical works were presented at the Athenian festivals. Aristophanes
and Cratinus used three actors, a chorus that sung, danced, and sometimes participated in the dialogue. The Chorus's
address to the audience reveals the author's opinion. In these speeches, he ridicules the Gods, Athenian institutions,
popular and powerful individuals, including Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Given the cultivated and scholarly
culture of its ruling elite, Athens invited satire. Aristophanes assumed the task with zeal, aiming his lampoonery at
those who stuck their heads above the crowd:
Take, for example, the Warriors, in 'Lysistrata':
First Speaker: For through man's heart there runs in flood
A natural and noble taste for blood---
Second Speaker: To form a ring and fight--
Third Speaker: To cut off heads at sight--
All in Unison: It is our right!
Youth... Come, listen now to the good old days when children,
strange to tell, were seen not heard, led a simple life,
in short were brought up well.
See, too, the treatment of intellectuals, in 'The Clouds':
Father: (enrolling his son in a "school for thinking") O Socrates! O--dear--sweet--Socrates!
Socrates: (meditating in a basket overhead) Mortal! Why call you on me?
Father: Tell me, please, what are you doing up there in that basket?
Socrates: I walk on air while I contemplate the sun. One cannot ponder cosmic matters
unless one mingles with theatmosphere, one's ethereal spirit above ground. The ground
is not a place for lofty thoughts. Gravity would draw their essence down, as it does with
watercress. Father: Well, well. Thought draws the essence into watercress.
The Athenian audiences were well versed in their highbrow culture and must have enjoyed these in-jokes
immensely. Aristophanes' other targets included Aeschylus and Euripides, whom Aristophanes portrayed variously
as a windbag and corrupter of youth with his heretical ideas.
Comedy developed along similar lines as tragedy did, becoming more aimed at the common people and less concerned
with its religious origins. By 317 BC, a new form had evolved that resembled modern farces. The use of overt satire,
topicality and the pointed lampooning of celebrated characters to be found in Aristophanes' style were replaced by
mistaken identities, ironic situations, ordinary characters and wit. This period is called New Comedy, and its two main
practitioners were Menander and Phlyates. Menander is the more significant of the two. Most of his plays are
now lost, but parts found their way into plays by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence (whom Julius Caesar
called "a half-Menander"). From these works they were incorporated into Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, Stephen
Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, even the writings of St. Paul: "Bad messages belie good
manners". In 1905 a manuscript was discovered in Cairo that contained pieces of five Menander plays, and in 1957 a
complete play, Diskolos (The Grouch, 317 BC), was unearthed in Egypt. Menander's main contribution was to create a
comedy model that greatly influenced later comedy. Unlike Aristophanes, his characters were not celebrities but
ordinary people. The chorus in Menander's plays resembled a modern chorus -- singers and dancers who provided
filler between acts; Menander sometimes portrayed them as drunken audience members. His characters were classic
comedy archetypes, such as the curmudgeonly old man in The Grouch, who would become staples of comedy. Most
of all, the style of comedy that Menander created, with its emphasis on mistaken identity, romance and situational
humour, became the model for subsequent comedy, from the Romans to Shakespeare to Broadway.
By the time of Sophocles' death in 406 BC, 128 years after Thespis' victory in the first Athenian drama competition,
the golden era of Greek drama was waning. Athens, whose freethinking culture had spawned the birth of theatre,
would be overrun in 404 BC by the Spartans. It would later be torn apart by constant warring with other city states,
eventually falling under the dominion of Alexander the Great and his Macedonian armies. Theatre continued, but it
would not return to the same creative heights until Elizabethan England two millennia later.
THE PHYSICAL SPACE:
Stages and Styles of Presentation:
According to tradition, the first tragedian, Thespis, performed his plays on wagons with which he travelled, and seats
were set up for performances in the agora or market place of Athens. By the end of the sixth century BC, however, a
permanent theatron of ‘watching place’, was set up in the precinct of Dionysuson the south slope of the Athenian
Acropolis. Since at first any construction above ground was made of wood, and since the theatre was later rebuilt
many times, the surviving remains of this earliest Theatre of Dionysus are extremely scanty. It has therefore to be
reconstructed on the analogy of other Greek theatres and on the evidence of the plays performed there. The only
features which necessarily existed in the early fifth century are wooden seats for spectators on the hillside, and a
level earth-floored orchestra, or ‘dancing area’ in the centre. The orchestra is usually believed to have been circular,
like a threshing floor. The orchestra at Epidaurus, for example, has a diameter of just over 20 metres. If the spot chosen
necessitated another shape, it could be rectangular like that at Thoricus.
Most of the surviving plays also make use of a building, the skene or scene building. This was used as a changing-room
for actors and as a sounding board, but also served to represent the palace or house in front of which most plays are set.
At first, it must have been a temporary building re-erected each year (skene means merely ‘tent’ or ‘hut’). The number
of doors in its facade is disputed; most tragedies require only one, but it most likely that there were in fact three. Actors
and chorus could enter by paths, called parodoi or eisodoi, to the right and left of the skene. Chiefly they made these
entrances on horse-drawn chariots. The roof of the building could be used as an acting area, for watchmen, gods and
others. There is some oblique suggestion in two texts of the period that permanent screens with architectural images
were used, not ‘sets’ for specific plays, but permanent fixtures. It is conceivable, too, that there was some rather
underground passage, allowing ghosts to appear from below.
There have been many disputes as to the existence of a stage (logeion) in front of the skene, raising the actors above
the orchestra where the Chorus performed. The evidence is sparse, but is probable that this stage existed, although it
will not have been so high as to prevent easy interaction between actors and Chorus. Other features of the orchestra
were a central altar several images of gods, which could be noticed in the plays, when required.
Various items of stage machinery are mentioned by late authors, but the only devices for which there is 5th century
evidence are the ekkylema and the mechane. The former was a low platform on wheels, which could be pushed into
view to reveal, in the form of a tableau, the consequences of events (normally killings) within the palace. It is a quite
artificial device, but it seems to be an accepted convention as early as the Oresteia. This play contains striking tableaux
of Clytemnestra with the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra and of Orestes with the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Thereafter it is used in many tragedies and in comic parodies of tragedies.
The mechane was a kind of crane that could transport an actor through the air to give an effect of flying. It seems to be little used in surviving tragedy, though there are a few examples. Fifth century tragedians probably did not use it for epiphanies of gods, though the ‘god from the machine,’ the deus ex machina became proverbial at an early date. Though some simple effects like those mentioned here were occasionally used, it is very important to remember that all the real power of the drama lay in the author’s verse lines. The poetic effects were left to work upon the imagination.
The character’s words alone established the time of day, just as they did the settings. Therefore, it was with natural phenomena. In two of Euripides’ plays, the Bacchanntes and Madness of Heracles, the plot demands an earthquake which destroys the house, and the Prometheus Unbound ends with Prometheus and the chorus swept down to Hades in a storm. To present such a spectacle realistically would have been a technical miracle, though not beyond Greek ingenuity. Yet, more important, it would have been alien to every tradition of Greek theatre. As it was based so firmly upon the power of the word upon the imagination and emotion. In the ‘earthquake’ plays, the effect is conveyed by the speeches of characters and choral songs. The chorus of the Bacchantes describe vividly what is happening to the palace -- the noise of the earthquake, the stonework crumbling, and fire blazing from a nearby tomb.
Dionysus (inside the palace) Spirit of Earthquake, rock, rock the floor of the Earth!
Chorus I: Soon the palace of Pentheus
Will be shaken to its fall.
Dionysus is over the house:
Bow down before him!
Chorus II. We bow before him.
See the stone lintels
Crowning the pillars
Reeling and shaking
Bromios’ war cry rings from within.
Dionysus: Kindle the flaming torch of the light;
Burn, burn down the palace of Pentheus.
This is enough. Once the earthquake has achieved its dramatic purpose, it can be ignored. Characters entering subsequently do not comment on the fact that the house lies in ruins. This lack of observation would be incongruous if the effects of the earthquake had been shown realistically. Compare also the language in which Aeschylus paints the great storm at the end of Prometheus Bound.
"See, word is replaced by deed;
Earth shudders from the shock; the peals
Of thunder roll from the depths, and lightening
Flicker afire; the whirlwind tosses
Dust heavenwards, with the four winds dancing
A giddy reel, challenging each other
To fight; sea and sky are as one."
We should remember, too, the way which Shakespeare, without the doubtful benefit of elaborate effects, gives the impression of storm at the beginning of The Tempest.
Boatswain: Here, master! What cheer!
Master. Good, speak to the mariners; fall t’it, yarely, or we run ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.
Boatswain: Heigh, my hearts! Cheerly, my hearts! Yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to the master’s whistle.
Blow, till thou burst thy wind, if room enough!
And at the end of the scene:
A confused noise within, ‘Mercy on us!’ ‘We split, we split!’ ’Farewell, my wife and children!’
‘Farewell brother!’ ‘We split, we split, we split!’
The Elizabethan stage-manager could produce convincing thunder and lightening, but in the scene the picture of a shipwreck is conveyed in words alone. I all these examples, the language used is not that of realistic (illusionist) drama. When the doomed Prometheus or the Master and Boatswain embark on their respective speeches, the audience knows that mighty tempests have erupted; they need no other indication.
Lighting, Properties and Costume.
The sun provided lighting. Torches were used, more as properties in order to heighten the power of the appearance of certain passages or characters, the furies, for example. The actor was dwarfed by his surroundings. Tiny movements and the nuance of facial expression used by modern actors would have been invisible to the audience. Gestures had to be large and sweeping and costumes had to be large and flowing in order to allow free, athletic movement, and to make a strong visual impression upon the audience. As facial expression would have been lost beyond the first few rows, masks were used. They were broadly and simply designed to be visible a long way off. The principal traits of the characters portrayed could be expressed in the mask, and a simple convention arose whereby types of character had their own types of mask. This convention of human types, a view of human psychology in a way, continued to shape theatrical presentation well into the seventeenth century in Europe. In the tragedies, these types were few and simple. There was the protagonist, the noble man/woman; the messenger; the sightless seer, and the serious or careworn man, the figure of respect and responsibility. More will be said of these masks elsewhere.
Cobbled together out of the following sources:
The ELAC Guide to Ancient Greek Theatre.
The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton
The Oxford Companion to the Theatre (In the school library)
The Guinness Book of the Theatre
The Penguin Dictionary of the Theatre
The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger, Frank J. Warnke and O. B. Hardison, Jr.
An Introduction to the Greek Theatre, Peter D. Arnott (In the school library)