into this category, since its themes and subjects are for the most part drawn from the heroic age, an idealized time about a thousand years before the classical age.Aristotle (Poetics chapter 6) will insist that mythos (“plot”) is the most important part of a Greek tragedy. For the Greeks drama (performance) came
later than the purely narrative relation of a story. The sequence would seem to have been purely oral narrative by the bards; the Homeric epics (eighth century), which, as Aristotle points out (Poetics 1448a21), do not provide pure narration, but a mixture of narration and direct speech; finally actual dramatic performance.
Another crucial term is “theater.” Thea- in Greek means “observe,” “watch” (related also to “theory” as the result of mental contemplation), and while we speak of an “audience” and an “auditorium” (from the Latin audire, “to hear”), the ancients talked of “watchers,” “spectators,” and the “watching-place.” The noun theatron (“theater”) refers both to the physical area where the plays were staged, more specifically
here to the area on the hillside occupied by the spectators, and also to the spectators themselves, much as “house” today can refer to the theater building and the audience in that building. Comedy, which was fond of breaking the dramatic illusion, refers directly to theatai (“watchers”) and a related term theomenoi (“those watching”).In modern critical discussions a distinction is made between the academic studies of “drama” and “theater.” A university course or a textbook on “Drama” tends to concentrate more on the text that was performed, that is the words of the text that are recited or read. This approach takes the plays as literature and subjects them to the various sorts of literary theory that exist, and often runs the risk of losing the visual aspect of performance in an attempt to “understand” or elucidate the “meaning” of the text. The reader becomes as important as the watcher, if not more so. Greek drama becomes part of a larger literary approach to drama, and can easily become part of a course on world drama, in which similar principles of literary criticism can be applied to all such texts.But the modern study of “Theater” goes beyond the basic text as staged or read and has developed a complex theoretical approach that some text-based students find
daunting and at times impenetrable.Mark Fortier writes well: Theater is performance, though often the performance of a dramatic text, and entails not only words but space, actors, props, audience, and the complex relations among these elements . . . Theater, of necessity, involves both doing and seeing, practice and contemplation.Moreover, the word “theory” comes from the same root as “theater.” Theater and theory are both contemplative pursuits, although theater has a practical and a sensuous side which contemplation should not be allowed to overwhelm.* The study of “theater” will concern itself with the experience of producing and watching drama, before, during, and after the actual performance of the text itself.Theatrical critics want to know about the social assumptions and experiences of organizers, authors, performers, judges, and spectators. In classical Athens plays were performed in a public setting, in a theater placed next to the shrine of a god and as part of the worship of that god, in broad daylight where spectators would be conscious of far more than the performance unfolding below of the city and country around them and of their very existence as spectators.
This is meant to be a guide to Greek Drama, rather than to Greek theatrical practice.There have been many first-rate studies over the past twenty years that have called our attention to much more than the words on the stage (or page) to be understood.Our principal concern will be the texts themselves and their authors – and, although such an approach may be somewhat out of date, to the intentions of the authors themselves.
But we do not want to lose sight of the practical elements that Fortier speaks of, especially the visual spectacle that accompanied the enactment of the recited text, for a picture is worth a thousand words, and if we could witness an ancient production, we would learn incalculably more about what the author was doing and how this was received by his original “house.” Knowing the conventions of an ancient theatrical experience can also assist with understanding the text, why certain scenes are written the way they are, why certain characters must leave and enter when they do,why crucial events are narrated rather than depicted.
Drama and the poets
Homer (eighth century) stands not just at the beginning of Greek poetry, but of Western literature as we know it. His two great epic poems in the heroic manner, Iliad (about Achilles, the great Greek hero of the Trojan War) and Odyssey (the return of Odysseus [Ulysses] from that war), did much to provide standard versions of the myths of both gods and men. Homer is the great poet of classical Greece, and his epics (along with those that we call the “epic cycle” – in addition to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which we possess, there were several other poems [certainly later than Homer] that completed the story of the Trojan War as well as another complete cycle relating the epic events at Thebes) formed the backdrop to so much later Greek literature,including the dramatists. They would take much of the language, characters,and plots from Homer – Aeschylus is described as serving up “slices from the banquet of Homer,” and the dramatic critic needs to have one eye on Homer at all times, to see what use the poets are making of his seminal material. For example, Homer created a brilliantly whole and sympathetic, if a somewhat unconventional, character in his Odysseus, but for the dramatists of the fifth century Odysseus becomes a onesided figure: the paragon of clever talk and deceit, the concocter of evil schemes, and in one instance (Sophokles’ Ajax) the embodiment of a new and enlightened sort of heroism. Homer’s Achilles is one of the great explorations of what it means to be a truly “tragic” hero, a man whose pursuit of honor leads to the death of his dearest
friend and ultimately his own, but when he appears in Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis,we behold an ineffective youth, full of sound and fury, unable to rescue the damsel in distress. Of the surviving thirty-three plays attri-buted to the tragedians, only two directly overlap with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (Euripides’ satyr-drama Cyclops and Rhesos of doubtful authenticity), but we know that several of the lost plays did dramatize Homeric material. Homer may be three centuries earlier than the tragedians of the fifth century, but his influence upon them was seminal. Homer himself was looking back to an earlier age, what we call the late Bronze Age (1500–1100), a tradition which he passed on to the dramatists. Both Homer and the tragedians depict people and stories not of their own time, but of an earlier, lost, and idealized age of heroes.In the seventh and sixth centuries, heroic epic began to yield to choral poetry (often called “lyric,” from its accompaniment by the lyre). These were poems intended to be sung, usually by large groups in a public setting. Particularly important for the study of drama are the grand poets Stesichoros (ca. 600), Bacchylides (career: 510–450),and Pindar (career: 498–ca. 440), who took the traditional tales from myth and retold
them in smaller chunks, with an effort to vary the material that they had inherited.And they used a different meter from Homer, not the epic hexameter sung (chanted?) by a single bard, but elaborate “lyric” meters, intended to be sung by large choruses.None of Stesichoros’ poems has survived intact, but we know of a poem on the Theban story, one of the favorite themes of tragedy; an Oresteia (with significant points of contact with Aeschylus’ Oresteia); and a retelling of the story of Helen that Euripides will take up wholesale in his Helen. One poem by Bacchylides tells the story of Herakles’ death at the hands of his wife in much the same fashion that Sophokles dramatizes in his Trachinian Women (it is not clear whether Bacchylides’ poem or Sophokles’ tragedy is the earlier work) and Pindar in Pythian 11 (474) will anticipate Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (458) by speculating about the various motives of Klytaimestra for killing her husband.
Drama and Athens
We shall be concerned principally with the dramas that were written and performed at Athens, for us the best-known city of the ancient Greek world. But theaters were not exclusive to Athens. A reasonably sized theater of the fifth century can be seen at Argos, and Syracuse, the greatest of the Greek states on Sicily, certainly had an elaborate theater and a tradition of comedy in the early fifth century. In the fourth century a theater was a sine qua non of every Greek city-state, however small, and the production of plays was an international practice throughout the Greek, and later through the Roman world. During Alexander’s great expedition to the East, we know of theatrical performances staged for the entertainment of his army. But it was at Athens in the late sixth and early fifth centuries that the three genres of drama were first formalized
in public competitions.Why did formal drama develop at Athens and not, say, at Corinth or Samos, both
major city-states of the sixth century and centers of culture? It is important to remember that during the sixth century Athens was not the leading city of the Greek world,politically, militarily, economically, or culturally, that she would become in the fifth century. The leading states of the sixth century in the Greek homeland were Sparta,Corinth, Sikyon, and Samos. Athens was an important city, but not really in the same league as these others. By the early sixth century Athens had brought under her central control the region calle “Attica” – the actual Greek is “the Attic land .” This is a triangular peninsula roughly forty miles in length from the height of land that divides Boiotia (dominated by Thebes) from Attica to the south-eastern tip of Cape Sounion,and at its widest expanse about another forty miles. Athens itself lies roughly in the center, no more than thirty miles or so from any outlying point – the most famous distance is that from Athens to Marathon, twenty-six miles and change, the distance run by the runner announcing the victory at Marathon in 490 and that of the modern Marathon race today. Attica itself was not particularly rich agriculturally – the only substantial plains lie around Athens itself and at Marathon – nor does it supply good grazing for cattle or sheep. But in the late sixth century Athens underwent an economic boom, through the discovery and utilization of three products of the Attic soil: olives and olive oil, which rapidly became the best in the eastern Mediterranean; clay for pottery – Athenian vase-ware soon replaced Corinthian as the finest of the day;and silver from the mines at Laureion – the Athenian “owls” (figure 1.1) became a standard coinage of the Eastern Mediterranean.Coupled with this economic advance was the political situation in the late sixth century. The Greeks of the seventh and sixth centuries experienced an uneasy mix of hereditary monarchy, factional aristocracy, popular unrest (at Athens especially over debts and the loss of freedom), and what they called “tyranny.” To us “tyrant” is a pejorative term, like “dictator,” but in Archaic Greece it meant “one-man rule,”usually where that one man had made himself ruler, often rescuing a state from an internal stasis (“civil unrest”). In some versions of the “seven sages” of ancient Greece,the traditional wise men, as many as four tyrants were included. At Athens the tyrant Peisistratos seized power permanently in the mid-540s. He ruled to his death in 528/7, and was succeeded by his son Hippias, who was expelled from Athens in 510 by an alliance of exiled aristocrats and the Spartan kings.
In the fifth century “tyrant” was a dirty word, used in political in-fighting as an accusation to pillory an opponent, and the first use of the practice of ostracism (a state-wide vote to expel a political leader for ten years) in 487 was to exile “friends of the tyrants.” But in the fourth century the age of the tyrants (546–510) was remembered as an “age of Kronos,” a golden age before the defeat of Athens during the democracy. The tyrants in fact set Athens on the road to her future greatness in the fifth century under the democracy. They provided political and economic stability after a period of particularly bitter economic class-conflict in the early sixth century, attracted artists to their court at Athens, including the major poets Anakreon, Simonides, and Bacchylides, inaugurated a building program that would be surpassed only by the grandeur of the Acropolis in the next century, established or enhanced the festival of the Panthenaia, the great celebration of Athene and of Athens, and instituted contests for the recitation of the Homeric poems, establishing incidentally the first “official” text of Homer. What the tyrants did was to quell discontent and
divisions within the state and instill a communal sense of ethnic identity that paved the way for Athens’ greatness in the next century. One other act of the tyrants was the creation of a single festival of Dionysos at Athens, the City Dionysia, which overrode all the local festivals and created one official celebration for the people of Attica.It was at this festival that tragedy was first performed.In this place and against this background drama develops, tragedy first of all, traditionally dated to 534 and thus part of the cultural program of the tyranny, later satyr-play, and finally comedy. We shall see that drama evolved from some sort of choral performance, a melding of song and dance, allegedly the dithyramb for tragedy,dancing satyrs for satyr-drama, and perhaps animal-choruses, phallic dancers, or padded dancers for comedy. The exact details of this development remain obscure, and we can give no firm answer to the question: why Athens? Corinth, for example,was an even more prosperous city in the sixth century and had flourished under its
tyranny. Samos under the tyrant Polykrates in the 520s enjoyed a brilliant artistic life,
but it was at Athens that drama first emerged as a distinct art-form.
The time-frame : The traditional date for the formal introduction of a dramatic form (tragedy) is give as 534 and linked with the shadowy figure of Thespis. For some the evidence for this date is not compelling and a rather lower date (ca. 500) is preferred – the matter will be discussed more fully later. Clearly tragedy was not “invented” overnight and we should postulate some sort of choral performances in the sixth century developing into what would be called “tragedy.” Thus we begin our study of drama in the sixth century, even
though the first extant play (Aeschylus’ Persians) belongs to 472. Like any form of art, drama has its periods, each with its own style and leading poets. The period we know best is that which corresponds with Athens’ ascendancy in the Greek world (479–404), from which we have thirty tragedies, one satyr-drama, one quasi-satyr-drama, and nine comedies, as well as a wealth of fragments and testimonia about lost plays and authors.But drama continued through the fourth century and well into the third. New tragedies continued to be written and performed in the fourth century, but along with the new arose a fascination with the old, and competitions were widened to include an “old” performance. In the third century tragic activity shifted to the scholar-poets of Alexandria, but here it is uncertain whether these tragedies were meant to be read rather than performed, and if performed, for how wide an audience.The evidence suggests strongly that satyr-drama is a later addition to the dramatic festivals; most scholars accept a date of introduction of ca. 501. Thus satyr-drama is not the primitive dramatic form from which tragedy would develop. In the fifth
century satyr-drama would accompany the performance of the three tragedies by each of the competing playwrights, but by 340 satyr-drama was divorced from the tragic competitions and only one performed at the opening of the festival. Thus at some point during the fourth century satyr-drama becomes its own separate genre.Comedy began later than tragedy and satyr-drama, the canonical first date being the Dionysia of 486. The ancient critics divided comedy at Athens into three distinct chronological phases: Old Comedy, roughly synonymous with the classical fifth century (486 to ca. 385); Middle Comedy (ca. 385–325, or “between Aristophanes and Menander”); New Comedy (325 onward).We have complete plays surviving from the first and third of these periods. The ancients knew also about comedy at Syracuse in the early fifth century and about something from the same period called “Megarian comedy.”
Dates in the history of Greek drama
ca. 600 – Arion “invents” the dithyramb
534 – first official performance of tragedy at Athens (Thespis)
ca. 501 – reorganization of the festival; first official satyr-drama
498 – début of Aeschylus
486 – first official performance of comedy
468 – début of Sophokles
456 – death of Aeschylus
455 – début of Euripides
ca. 440 – introduction of dramatic competitions at the Lenaia
427 – début of Aristophanes
407 – death of Euripides
406 – death of Sophokles
ca. 385 – death of Aristophanes
ca. 330 – building of the stone theater at Athens
325 or 321 – début of Menander
290 – death of Menander
The evidence : We face two distinct problems in approaching the study of Greek drama: the distance in time and culture, and the sheer loss of evidence. In some instances we are dealing with texts that are nearly 2,500 years removed from our own, in a different language and produced for an audience with cultural assumptions very different in some ways from our own. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L. P. Hartley, and we should not react to reading (or watching) an ancient Greek drama in the same way that we approach a modern “classic” such as Shakespeare or a contemporary drama. The actual evidence is of four sorts: literary texts, literary testimonia, physical remains of theaters, and visual representations of theatrical scenes. The manuscript tradition and discoveries on papyrus have yielded to date as complete texts: thirty-one tragedies, one satyr-drama, one quasi-satyr-drama, and thirteen comedies. But these belong to only five (perhaps six or seven) distinct playwrights, out of the dozens that we know were active on the Greek stage. We would like to think that Aeschylus,Sophokles, and Euripides (for tragedy), and Aristophanes and Menander (for comedy) were the best at their business, but were they representative of all that the Athenians watched during those two centuries? Within these individual authors we have six or seven plays out of eighty or so by Aeschylus, seven out of 120 by Sophokles, eighteen
out of ninety by Euripides, eleven comedies out of forty by Aristophanes, and only two comedies by Menander out of over a hundred. On what grounds were these selections made, by whom, for whom, and when? Are these selected plays representative of their author’s larger opus? In the case of Euripides we have both a selected collection of ten plays and an alphabetical sequence of nine plays that may be more
indicative of his work as a whole.We do not possess anything at all resembling the folios and quartos of Shakespeare, nor anything remotely close to the scripts of the original production or to the “official” texts that were established by Lykourgos ca. 330 and which then passed to the Library in Alexandria.We have some remains preserved on papyrus from the Roman period (most notably Menander’s The Grouch, virtually complete on a codex from the third century AD), but the earliest manuscripts of Greek drama belong about AD 1000.
Dionysos in Frogs (405) talks blithely of “sitting on his ship reading [Euripides’] Andromeda” and we do know of book-stalls in the fifth century, but these would not have been elaborate “books” in our sense of the word, but very basic texts allowing the reader to re-create his experience in the theater. The manuscripts and papyri present texts in an abbreviated form, with no division between words, changes of speaker often indicated (if at all) by an underlining or a dicolon, no stage directions – almost all the directions in a modern translation are the creation of the translator – and very frequent errors, omissions, and later additions to the text. But they are what we have, and we must make the most of them.In addition to the actual play texts, we have a considerable amount of literary testimonia about the dramatic tradition generally and about individual plays and personalities.Most important is Aristotle’s Poetics, a sketchily written treatise dating from ca. 330, principally on tragedy and epic, but with some general introductory comments on drama. Aristotle was himself not an Athenian by birth, although resident or many years there, and was writing a hundred years after the great period of Attic tragedy. The great question in dealing with Poetics is whether Aristotle knows what he is talking about, or whether he is extrapolating backwards in much the same manner as a modern critic. He did see actual plays performed in the theater, both new dramas of the fourth century and the old dramas of the masters, and he did have access to much documentary material that we lack. An early work of Aristotle’s was his Production Lists, the records of the productions and victories from the inception of
the contests ca. 501. He would have known writers on drama and dramatists, the anecdotes of Ion of Chios, himself a dramatist and contemporary of Sophokles,Sophokles’ own work On the Chorus, and perhaps the lost work by Glaukos of Rhegion (ca. 400), On the Old Poets and Musicians. Thus his raw material would have been far greater than ours. But would this pure data have shed any light on the history of the genre? Was he, at times, just making an educated guess? When Aristotle makes a pronouncement,
we need both to pay attention but also to wonder how secure is the evidence on which he bases that conclusion. His Poetics is partly an analytical breakdown of the genre of tragedy into its component parts and partly a guide for reader and playwright, and contains much that is hard to follow and also controversial: the “end” of tragedy is a katharsis of pity and fear, one can have a tragedy without character but not without plot, the best tragic characters are those who fall into misfortune through some hamartia.(Hamartia is another battleground. When mistranslated as “tragic flaw,” it tends to give Greek tragedy an emphasis on character. It is better rendered as “mistake,” and as such restores Aristotle’s emphasis on plot.) Other useful later sources include the Attic orators of the fourth century, who often cite from the tragic poets to make a rhetorical point. For example, Lykourgos, the fourth-century orator responsible for the rebuilding of the theater at Athens ca. 330, gives us fifty-five lines from Euripides’ lost Erechtheus. The fourth book of the Onomasticon (“Thesaurus”) by Pollux (second century AD) contains much that is useful about the ancient theater, especially a list and description of the masks employed to designate certain type characters of comedy. The Roman architectural writer, Vitruvius (first century AD), has much to say about theatrical buildings especially of the Hellenistic period. Much of what we possess of the lost plays comes in quotations from a wide variety of ancient and mediaeval writers. Two in particular are useful for the student of drama: the learned Athenaios (second century AD), whose Experts at Dining contains a treasury of citations, and Stobaios (fourth–fifth century AD), a collector of quotable passages. The first-century AD scholar, Dion of Prusa, has shed light on the three tragedies on the subject of Philoktetes and the bow of Herakles, by summarizing the plots and styles of all three – we possess only the version by Sophokles (409).
Inscriptions provide another source of written evidence. The ancients loved to post publicly their decrees, rolls of officials, and records of competitions. One inscription contains a partial list of the victors at the Dionysia in dithyramb, comedy, and tragedy (IG ii2 2318), while another presents the tragic and comic victors at both festivals in order of their first victory (IG ii2 2325), and a Roman inscription lists the various
victories of Kallias, a comedian of the 430s, in order of finish (first through fifth).Another group of inscriptions gives invaluable details about the contests at the Dionysia for 341, 340, and 311, including the information that satyr-drama by 340 was performed separately at the start of the festival. Another inscription from the second century records a series of productions starring an individual actor. On the purely physical front, remains of hundreds of Greek and Roman theaters are known, ranging from the major sites of Athens, Delphi, Epidauros, Dodona, Syracuse, and Ephesos to small theaters tucked away in the backwoods and barely known. The actual physical details of a Greek theater will be discussed later, but some general comments are appropriate here. Most of the theaters are not in their fifthcentury condition – major rebuilding took place in the fourth century, in the Hellenistic period (300–30), and especially under Roman occupation. When the tourist or the student visits Athens today, the theater that he or she sees (figure 1.2) is not the
structure that Aeschylus or Aristophanes knew. We see curved stone seats, individual “thrones” in the front row, a paved orchestra floor, and an elaborate raised structure in the middle of the orchestra. The theater of the high classical period had straight benches on the hillside, an orchestra floor of packed earth (an orchestra that may not have been a perfect circle), and a wooden building at the back of the orchestra. We have been spoiled by the classical perfection of the famous theater at Epidauros. At Athens and Syracuse the new theater replaced the old on the same site, while at Argos the impressive and large fourth-century theater was built on a new site, the fifth-century theater being more compact and straight rather than circular. The theaters that we do have, from whatever period of Greek antiquity, do,however, shed invaluable light on the mechanics of production. Audiences were large and sat as a community in the open air – this was not theater of the private enclosed space. Distances were great – from the last row of the theater at Epidauros a performer in the orchestra would appear only inches high. Thus theater of the individual expression was out – impossible in fact since the performers wore masks. But acoustics were superb and directed spectators’ attention to what was being said or sung. Special effects were limited – the word and the gesture carried the force of the drama. The prominence and centrality of the orchestra reflect the importance of the chorus – Greek audiences were used to seeing more rather than fewer performers before them. Most of the visual representations are found on Greek vases. This particular form of Greek art begins to reach its classical perfection with the black figure pottery of the late sixth century (figures appear in black against a red background), and continues with the exquisite red figure (the reverse) of the fifth and fourth centuries. About
520 we start to get representations of performances, usually marked by the presence of an aulos-player, and later scenes from tragedy, satyr-drama, and comedy. There are not many scenes showing a self-conscious performance of tragedy; one vase ca. 430 does show a pair of performers preparing to dress as maenads But from 440 onward vases depict scenes clearly influenced by tragedy: the opening-scenes of Libation Bearers, a series of vases depicting Sophokles’ early tragedy Andromeda, another series reflecting Euripides’ innovative Iphigeneia among the Taurians , the Cleveland Medea , and a striking fourth-century tableau illustrating the opening scenes of Eumenides.One or two of these do show a pillar structure, which some interpret as an attempt to render the skene front. But these are not depicting an actual tragic performance. The characters do not wear masks, males are often shown nude (or nearly so) instead of wearing the elaborate costume of tragedy, and there is no hint of the aulos-player, a sure sign of a representation of performance. For satyr-drama there is the superb Pronomos Vase from the very end of the fifth century, the equivalent of the modern movie poster, the performers of a satyr-drama by Demetrios in various degrees of their onstage dress, accompanied by the aulos-player, Pronomos.
For comedy the vases show various sorts of performers of something which may have been the predecessor to what would become comedy, principally padded dancers in a celebration (komos) and men performing in animal-choruses. There is not much direct evidence from the fifth century. A vase (ca. 420) showing a comic performer on a raised platform before two spectators may or may not reflect a performance in the theater; it might equally well reflect a private performance at a symposium. But there is a wealth of vases from the fourth century, principally from the south of Italy, which show grotesquely masked and padded comic performers with limp and dangling phalloi in obviously humorous situations. For a long time these were thought to be representations of a local Italian low comedy called “phlyakes,” but it is now accepted
that these reflect Athenian Old Comedy which, contrary to established belief, did travel and was reproduced in the Greek cities of southern Italy. Some of these vases show a raised stage with steps and the double door of drama, and are plainly illustrating an actual stage performance. The most famous of these are the Würzburg Telephos, a vase from about 370 which depicts a scene from Aristophanes’ Women at the Thesmophoria (411); a vase by Assteas (ca. 350) showing a scene from Eupolis’ lost comedy, Demes (417); and the Choregoi vase, which seems to show figures from both comedy and tragedy. Sculptural representations of drama are much less common, but we do have a relief from the late fifth century featuring three actors holding masks before Dionysos and consort – some have conjectured that this is the cast of Euripides’ prize-winning Bacchae. One rich source of visual evidence is terracotta masks from various periods that shed valuable light on the nature of comic masks. Scenes from the comedy of Menander (career: 325–290) were often part of the decoration of ancient houses, most notably the so-called “House of Menander” in Pompeii (destroyed in AD 79 by the eruption of Vesuvius) and a third-century AD house in Mytilene on Lesbos, where eleven mosaics remain, with named characters that allow us to identify the exact scene in at least two comedies.