An Introduction to Athenian Tragedy
Bruce A. McMenomy

Greek drama is specifically an Athenian phenomenon. Other cities eventually adopted drama in various guises and forms, but it was the Athenian Theater of Dionysus that led the way, and Athens was the home of the three great tragedians whose surviving works are our only examples of Greek tragedy. Out of hundreds of tragedies originally written, the total corpus of surviving Greek tragedy can be printed in five modest volumes of the Oxford Classical Text series — one volume for Aeschylus (seven plays, one of which is doubtful), one for Sophocles (seven plays), and three for Euripides (eighteen tragedies and one satyr-play). That they have had the influence they have had attests the flexibility of the medium and the remarkable craftsmanship of these three leading practitioners.

One needs to know two salient facts about Athenian drama to understand why it developed as it did. First, it was an outgrowth of an earlier literary performance art that we generally call choral song. Second, it was designed for and presented at religious festivals of the god of wine and revelry, Dionysus (Bacchus). The precise origins of either of these traditions, and how they came to emerge as tragedy — indeed, even the real relevance of the word “tragedy”, which means “goat-song” — are lost to us. But we can reach certain conclusions about the earlier development of this most Athenian of forms, which stands at the head of the Western dramatic tradition, and continues to hold audiences’ attention in performance to this day.

The festival of Dionysus, an annual event at Athens, was celebrated for many years with the production of festive choral songs, not unlike those written by Pindar or Bacchylides to celebrate athletic victories. Such choral song was an elaborately artificial and difficult kind of verse, marked by extremely indirect diction and learned references to abstruse mythological points. I have linked to their authors’ names two representative samples from the Perseus Project website; you may want to give them a look. Don’t be distressed, however, if they don’t seem to make a lot of sense: to this day, most scholars who do this kind of thing still find them at least somewhat puzzling.

Choral songs were apparently composed for religious festivals, and in particular for the Athenian festival of Dionysus. These were sung and danced by a chorus, led by the choregos, as part of a civic liturgy to the god. At some time before the period for which we have very good records, these choral songs were supplemented by the addition of a solo singer/dancer, who in time came to take on a character rôle. There are traditional accounts of how this happened, but none of them can be confirmed reliably. As a part of this process, the actor began to wear a mask to help the audience (many of them seated at quite a distance) identify who he was.

It was the dramatist Aeschylus who took the enormous step — revolutionary, even though it seems obvious to us now — of introducing a second actor to represent a second character. Now, instead of addressing the audience directly, actors could interact — play against each other. During Aeschylus’ long and distinguished career, more actors were added to the cast, until the dramatic action became the leading feature of the production, rather than an ornament to the choral song.

The chorus retained a significant place, however — and throughout the remarkable development of drama in the fifth century B. C., it is important to keep our eyes on how it is used. Often the poetry seems obscure — which is perhaps not surprising, considering its heritage — and it remains some of the subtlest poetry written in Greek. The modern reader will often have the peculiar sense that some of the choruses are only distantly related to the dramatic matter at hand. This is certainly something to notice and consider, but don’t allow it to derail you: read the choruses; if they seem irrelevant, go on. They usually have some significance, but remember that they are not inserted (at least to start with) to illumine the drama, but the drama is there to illumine them. Viewed this way, some of them will make a little better sense. Either way, however, push on and consider the cohesion of the whole after you’ve finished.

The connection of the whole production to the festival of Dionysus is also rather hard to figure out. This is one of the few cases where ancient literary thought and critical response anticipates modern reactions. Early Athenian audiences also noticed and were somewhat alarmed by this apparent lack of connection — but they saw it from the other side. They wondered what all this action and dialogue had to do with a choral song in honor of Dionysus, which was, as far as they were concerned, still the main business. At one point, the puzzled contingent summed up its objections in the phrase ouden pros ton Dionyson — “[it has] nothing to do with Dionysus.”

Despite objections, however, the dramatic presentations — put on in a theater built for the occasion, and largely at public expense — continued to develop and flourish. Each year a number of playwrights contended to have their plays produced; the handful of winners got to present their plays — almost always a trilogy (a collection of three plays on a common theme, presented in sequence on a single day); these were judged by the wider audience, and the prize was given to one of them. The three dramatists whose works survive all won a number of these contests.

The continuing interest and fascination with Greek drama stems partly from its innate power, and partly from its stunning diversity. The choral songs are themselves products of a highly self-conscious literary culture; the drama that grew around them in a single remarkable century expresses a vast cultural revolution, showing, among other things, the rise, zenith, and decline of the Athenian democratic zeal, changing views of religious reality, and a prodigious variation in the history of the art itself. There are several reasons for this.

In the first place, Greek tragedy is much broader in scope than what we nowadays call tragedy. A majority of surviving tragedies end with the death or fall of one or more principal characters, but this is by no means assured. Many do not. In subject matter, tragedy can range from highly abstract philosophical or political reflection (as we see in Aeschylus’ earlier plays) to melodrama with snarling villains and damsels in distress. It can have a sad ending or a happy one. It is always at least chiefly serious, but there is a considerable comic element in some of them.

In the second place, the world-view represented by the dramatists is exceedingly diverse. Aeschylus triumphantly proclaims the arrival of an age of reason coincident with the mature evolution of Athenian democracy, and represented as the working out of a divine plan. The Oresteia ends with an exultant proclamation that the ancient blood-feud is at an end — the hereditary curse such as that on the house of Atreus need not bind people to irrational choices between disastrous options. Sophocles takes a less optimistic but still balanced view of matters, probing conflicting claims on the interior moral life of the individual, especially obligations to the gods and to the state. For many, his achievement is the pinnacle of Greek drama. Euripides, writing at least part of his work in the midst of the politically, economically, and morally ruinous Peloponnesian War, instead inclines to a dark, occasionally bitter view of man and gods, suggesting that Aeschylus’ experiment in rationalism has failed, and that behind everything remains the hand of the gods — largely capricious and cruel gods, at that — whose will can be neither averted nor understood.

Through it all, the play continues to change shape even through the career of a single author. In the Persae (early Aeschylus), we see static choruses and recitations in which everyone agrees that what has gone on is simply terrible; in later works, such as the Oresteia, characters exhibit conflicting motives and purposes, and the chorus becomes more and more an interpreter for the audience. Sophocles perfects the assimilation of the chorus to the dramatic fiction, giving the chorus a specific rôle — a kind of group character that also becomes the primary interpreter of the moral reality of the play. Euripides pushes all this much further, giving us insane or evil characters of electrifying power (such as Medea, who kills her children to avenge herself upon her faithless husband) or rendering heroic figures up as buffoons (cf. Menelaus in the Helen or Teiresias and Cadmus in the Bacchae). He also plays much more freely with his choruses. In one play they may represent a kind of idealized audience, and in another an impotent set of horrified bystanders, or in another the primary agent of destruction and chaos.

At the end of the fifth century, following the destruction of war and plague, Athenian drama continued to be written, but tragedy never regained the stature and social importance it had achieved in the hands of these three authors. Nevertheless, it has continued to exercise an influence, directly and indirectly, on every subsequent generation of Western dramatic writing. The fourth-century philosopher Aristotle attempted to codify rules and principles of dramatic composition; his Poetics have been used as a point of reference in almost every literary field since. Romans such as Seneca were fascinated by Athenian drama, and attempted (without much success) to emulate it. The playwrights of the English Renaissance (Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson) hearkened back to ancient dramatic theories even as they molded a new form of drama. The German classicist-poets (and dramatists) Goethe and Schiller wrestled with the medium’s peculiar emotional power. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when Richard Wagner conceived of a new kind of opera, he saw that work as a direct response to Greek tragedy (Aeschylus in particular). Indeed, even the recent musical Little Shop of Horrors features something suspiciously like a Greek chorus, commenting all the way through on the action. And in a broader sense Athenian tragedy is the ultimate ancestor of all Western dramatic literature: Roman comedies, mediaeval miracle plays, and Shakespeare’s plays, to be sure, but also Star Wars, situation comedies, the dramatic miniseries, and advertisements for Coca-Cola. Its influence has surely not yet been exhausted.

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