|The Classical Origins of Western Culture
The Core Studies 1 Study Guide
by Roger Dunkle
Brooklyn College Core Curriculum Series
Copyright ® 1986 by Brooklyn College, The City University of New
York All rights reserved. Published 1986.
INTRODUCTION TO GREEK TRAGEDY
As was noted in the discussion of the Iliad, the word "tragedy" refers
primarily to tragic drama: a literary composition written to be performed
by actors in which a central character called a tragic protagonist or hero
suffers some serious misfortune which is not accidental and therefore meaningless,
but is significant in that the misfortune is logically connected with the
hero's actions. Tragedy stresses the vulnerability of human beings whose
suffering is brought on by a combination of human and divine actions, but
is generally undeserved with regard to its harshness. This genre, however,
is not totally pessimistic in its outlook. Although many tragedies end
in misery for the characters, there are also tragedies in which a satisfactory
solution of the tragic situation is attained.
Tragedy was a public genre from its earliest beginnings at Athens; that
is, it was intended to be presented in a theater before an audience. Epic
originally was also a public genre. Homer chanted the Iliad and Odyssey
to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument called a kithara before an
audience. Epic continued to be recited by rhapsodes at festivals like the
Panathenaia, but it gradually became more of a private genre to be read
from a manuscript at one's leisure. This happened in part also to tragedy.
In the fourth century Aristotle in his Poetics points out that it is possible
to experience the effect of tragedy without public performance (i.e., by
private reading). Tragedy was still being written and produced in the Athenian
theater in Aristotle's day, but the plays of the three great tragedians
(Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides) and no doubt of other playwrights
were also being read privately. Reading, of course, is our primary means
of access to ancient tragedy except for occasional modern productions,
which help us to a certain degree to appreciate its theatricality, but
for the most part provide quite a different theatrical experience from
that offered by the ancient productions.
Private reading of tragedy deprives us of the visual and aural effects,
which were important elements of this genre. Our word theater is derived
from the Greek word theatron, which contains the stem of the verb theasthai
`to view as spectators'. Drama is a Greek word meaning `action', related
to the verb dran `to do'. The author of a tragedy was not just a writer
of a script. When his work was approved for presentation at the state religious
festival in honor of the god Dionysus (the City Dionysia), the state assigned
him actors and a chorus. The author then had to perform the additional
tasks of training the actors and chorus and of composing the music for
the various songs of the actors and chorus and providing choreography for
the chorus. Because we usually read tragedies rather than seeing theatrical
productions of them and also because our reading is usually in translation,
we miss the following elements which are additional aids to interpretation
beyond the script of the play: scenery, inflection of actors' voices, actors'
gestures and postures, costumes and masks, singing, dancing, sounds of
the original language and its various poetic rhythms. These handicaps,
however, are no reason to neglect tragedy. We still have the most essential
element of drama, the words, the playwright's most important medium of
communication. According to Aristotle, "the plot is the soul of tragedy"
and the plot is communicated to the audience primarily by means of words.
You should, however, keep in mind that words are not all there is to tragedy.
Use your imagination as much as possible in order to compensate for those
theatrical elements lost in reading tragedy.
The Athenian theater was not a business enterprise like our theater
but was financed by the Athenian state as an integral part of an Athenian
religious festival: the City Dionysia. Three tragic poets were chosen to
present their plays by a magistrate called an archon who had charge of
the City Dionysia. Each one of the tragedians presented a tetralogy (a
group of four plays), three tragedies and a satyr play,1 on one morning
of the festival. In the first half of the fifth century the three tragedies
often formed a connected trilogy, which told a continuous story. One connected
trilogy survives, The Oresteia of Aeschylus, consisting of three plays:
Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides. This trilogy traces the story
of the House of Atreus from Agamemnon's murder by his wife after his return
from Troy to the acquittal of his son, Orestes, who killed his mother in
revenge. Three other surviving plays of Aeschylus belong to trilogies of
which two plays have been lost. All the extant tragedies of Sophocles and
Euripides do not belong to connected trilogies, but are self-contained
dramas. Although there is evidence that Sophocles wrote one connected trilogy,
the normal practice of the second half of the fifth century was to write
three unconnected tragedies.
1The satyr play is so called because of its chorus which consists of
satyrs, grotesque woodland spirits having human form with a horse's ears
and tail. Only one satyr play survives, the Cyclops of Euripides, which
parodies the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus in the Odyssey.
The tragic poets competed with one another and their efforts were ranked
by a panel of judges. Aeschylus won thirteen first place victories, Sophocles,
twenty four, and Euripides, five. Euripides's relatively small number of
victories is due more to his unpopularity among the Athenians because of
certain radical themes in his plays than any lack of ability as a tragedian.
The theater of Dionysus was, like all ancient Greek theaters, an open-air
auditorium and, due to the lack of adequate artificial lighting, performances
took place during the day. Scenes set at night had to be identified as
such by the actors or the chorus; the audience, upon receiving these verbal
cues, had to use its imagination. In general, the action of tragedy was
well served by presentation in an open-air theater since interior scenes,
which are common in our typically indoor theaters, are all but non-existent
in tragedy. The action of a tragedy normally takes place in front of palaces,
temples and other outdoor settings. This seemed natural to the ancient
audience because Greek public affairs, whether civic or religious, were
conducted out of doors as was much of Greek private life due to the relatively
mild climate of the Aegean area.
The theater of Dionysus in the earliest days of tragedy (late sixth
- early fifth century) must have consisted of only the most basic elements.
All that was required was a circular dancing area for the chorus (orchestra)
at the base of a gently sloping hill, on which spectators could sit and
watch the performance (for drawing of theater click on the following: theater).
On the other side of the orchestra facing the spectators there probably
stood a tent in which the actors could change their costumes (one actor
would play more than one part). This is suggested by the word skene which
means `tent', and was used to refer to a wooden wall having doors and painted
to represent a palace, temple or whatever setting was required (for drawing
of the skene, click on the following: skene. The wall, which eventually
became a full-fledged stage building, probably acquired this name because
it replaced the original tent. The construction of the wooden skene (cf.
our theatrical terms "scene" and "scenery") and of a formal seating area
consisting of wooden benches on the slope, which had been hollowed out,
probably took place some time toward the middle of the fifth century. This
was no doubt the form of the theater in which the later plays of Aeschylus
and those of Sophocles and Euripides were presented. The actors positioned
themselves either in the orchestra with the chorus or on the steps leading
to the doors of the skene. The theater of Dionysus as it survives today
with the remains of an elaborate stone skene, paved orchestra and marble
seats was built in the last third of the fourth century BC This stone theater
had a capacity of approximately fifteen thousand spectators; the plays
of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in the earlier wooden theater were
viewed by audiences of comparable numbers.
Two mechanical devices which were part of the ancient Greek theater
deserve mention. One device is the ekkyklema `a wheeled-out thing', a platform
on wheels rolled out through one of the doors of the skene, on which a
tableau was displayed representing the result of an action indoors (e.g.,
a murder) and therefore was unseen by the audience. The other device is
called a mechane `theatrical machine', a crane to which a cable with a
harness for an actor was attached. This device allowed an actor portraying
a god or goddess to arrive on scene in the most realistic way possible,
from the sky. The mechane deposited the actor on top of the skene so that
he as a deity could address the human characters from an appropriately
higher level. This device was not exclusively limited to use by divine
characters, but was employed whenever the plot required any character to
fly. On the other hand, not every god arrived on scene by means of this
machine. The Latin phrase deus ex machina `the god from the machine' is
often used to refer to the appearance of gods by means of the mechane in
tragedy. This phrase is also employed in a pejorative sense in modern literary
criticism to refer to an improbable character or event introduced by an
author to resolve a difficult situation. This secondary meaning of deus
ex machina developed from the practice of inferior ancient dramatists who
introduced a god at the end of a play in order to untangle a badly snarled
The actors in tragedy were hired and paid by the state and assigned
to the tragic poets probably by lot. By the middle of the fifth century
three actors were required for the performance of a tragedy. In descending
order of importance of the roles they assumed they were called the protagonist2
`first actor', (a term also applied in modern literary criticism to the
central character of a play), deuteragonist `second actor' and tritagonist
`third actor'. The protagonist took the role of the most important character
in the play while the other two actors played the lesser roles. Since most
plays have more than two or three characters (although never more than
three speaking actors in the same scene), all three actors played multiple
2In modern literary criticism, the term protagonist refers to the central
character of the play, not the actor.
Since women were not allowed to take part in dramatic productions, male
actors had to play female roles. The playing of multiple roles, both male
and female, was made possible by the use of masks, which prevented the
audience from identifying the face of any actor with one specific character
in the play and helped eliminate the physical incongruity of men impersonating
women. The masks with subtle variations also helped the audience identify
the sex, age, and social rank of the characters. The fact that the chorus
remained in the orchestra throughout the play and sang and danced choral
songs between the episodes allowed the actors to exit after an episode
in order to change mask and costume and assume a new role in the next episode
without any illusion-destroying interruption in the play.
The main duty of an actor was, of course, to speak the dialogue assigned
to his characters. This, however, was not the only responsibility of the
actor. He occasionally had to sing songs solo or with the chorus or with
other actors (e.g., a song of lament called a kommos). The combination
of acting and singing ability must have been as rare in the ancient world
as it is today.
For the modern reader the chorus is one of the more foreign elements
of tragedy. The chorus is not one of the conventions of modern tragedy.
We associate the chorus with such musical forms as opera, musical comedy
and oratorio. But tragedy was not just straight drama. It was interspersed
with songs sung both by actors and chorus and also with dancing by the
chorus. The modern parallel for tragedy is actually opera (along with its
descendant, musical comedy), which is a dramatic form containing song and
The chorus, unlike the actors, were non-professionals who had a talent
for singing and dancing and were trained by the poet in preparation for
the performance. The standard number of members of a chorus was twelve
throughout most of Aeschylus's career, but was raised to fifteen by Sophocles.
The chorus, like the actors, wore costumes and masks.
The first function of a tragic chorus was to chant an entrance song
called a parodos as they marched into the orchestra. The entrance song
took its name from the two ramps (parodoi) on either side of the orchestra
which the chorus used as it made its way into the orchestra. Once the chorus
had taken its position in the orchestra, its duties were twofold. It engaged
in dialogue with characters through its leader, the Coryphaeus, who alone
spoke the lines of dialogue assigned to the chorus. The tragic chorus's
most important function was to sing and dance choral songs called stasima
(singular = stasimon). The modern reader of Greek Tragedy, whether in English
or even in the original Greek, finds it very difficult to appreciate the
effect of these choral songs which are devoid of their music and dance.
Tragedy has a characteristic structure in which scenes of dialogue alternate
with choral songs. This arrangement allows the chorus to comment in its
song in a general way on what has been said and/or done in the preceding
scene. Most tragedies begin with an opening scene of expository dialogue
or monologue called a prologue.
After the prologue the chorus marches into the orchestra chanting the
parodos. Then follows a scene of dialogue called an episode, which in turn
is followed by the first stasimon. The alternation of episode and stasimon
continues until the last stasimon, after which there is a final scene of
dialogue called an exodos `exit' scene'. The exodos is in general a scene
of dialogue, but, as in the case of episodes, sometimes songs are included,
especially in the form of a kommos.
Here is the structure of a typical tragedy (some tragedies have one
more or one less episode and stasimon)3 :
* First Episode
* First Stasimon
* Second Episode
* Second Stasimon
* Third Episode
* Third Stasimon
* Fourth Episode
* Fourth Stasimon
3 Some tragedies have one more or less episode and stasimon.