Theater and drama in Ancient Greece took form in about 5th century BCE, with the Sopocles, the great writer of tragedy. In his plays and those of the same genre, heroes and the ideals of life were depicted and glorified. It was believed that man should live for honor and fame, his action was courageous and glorious and his life would climax in a great and noble death. Originally, the hero’s recognition was created by selfish behaviors and little thought of service to others. As the Greeks grew toward city-states and colonization, it became the destiny and ambition of the hero to gain honor by serving his city.
The second major characteristic of the early Greek world was the supernatural. The two worlds were not separate, as the gods lived in the same world as the men, and they interfered in the men’s lives as they chose to. It was the gods who sent suffering and evil to men. In the plays of Sophocles, the gods brought about the hero’s downfall because of a tragic flaw in the character of the hero. In Greek tragedy, suffering brought knowledge of worldly matters and of the individual.
Aristotle attempted to explain how an audience could observe tragic events and still have a pleasurable experience. Aristotle, by searching the works of writers of Greek tragedy, Aeschulus, Euripides and Sophocles (whose Oedipus Rex he considered the finest of all Greek tragedies), arrived at his definition of tragedy. This explanation has a profound influence for more than twenty centuries on those writing tragedies, most significantly Shakespeare. Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy began with a description of the effect such a work had on the audience as a “catharsis” or purging of the emotions. He decided that catharsis was the purging of two specific emotions, pity and fear. The hero has made a mistake due to ignorance, not because of wickedness or corruption.
Aristotle used the word “hamartia”, which is the “tragic flaw” or offense committed in ignorance. For example, Oedipus is ignorant of his true parentage when he commits his fatal deed. Oedipus Rex is one of the stories in a three-part myth called the Thebian cycle. The structure of most all Greek tragedies is similar to Oedipus Rex. Such plays are divided in to five parts, the prologue or introduction, the “prados” or entrance of the chorus, four episode or acts separates from one another by “stasimons” or choral odes, and “exodos”, the action after the last stasimon.
These odes are lyric poetry, lines chanted or sung as the chorus moved rhythmically across the orchestra. The lines that accompanied the movement of the chorus in one direction were called “strophe”, the return movement was accompanied by lines called “antistrophe”. The choral ode might contain more than one strophe or antistrophe. Greek tragedy originated in honor of the god of wine, Dionysus, the patron god of tragedy. The performance took place in an open-air theater.
The word tragedy is derived from the term “tragedia” or “goat-song”, named for the goat skins the chorus wore in the performance. The plots came from legends of the Heroic Age. Tragedy grew from a choral lyric, as Aristotle said, tragedy is largely based on life’s pity and splendor. Plays were performed at dramatic festivals, the two main ones being the Feast of the Winepress in January and the City Dionysia at the end of March. The Proceeding began with the procession of choruses and actors of the three competing poets.
A herald then announced the poet’s names and the titles of their plays. On this day it was likely that the image of Dionysus was taken in a procession from his temple beside the theater to a point near the road he had once taken to reach Athens from the north, then it was brought back by torch light, amid a carnival celebration, to the theater itself, where his priest occupied the central seat of honor during the performances. On the first day of the festival there were contests between the choruses, five of men and five of boys. Each chorus consisted of fifty men or boys. On the next three days, a “tragic tetralogy” (group made up of four pieces, a trilogy followed by a satyric drama) was performed each morning.
This is compared to the Elizabethan habit of following a tragedy with a jig. During the Peloponnesian Wars, this was followed by a comedy each afternoon. The Father of the drama was Thesis of Athens, 535 BC, who created the first actor. The actor performed in intervals between the dancing of the chorus and conversing at times with the leader of the chorus. The tragedy was further developed when new myths became part of the performance, changing the nature of the chorus to a group appropriate to the individual story. A second actor was added by Aeschylus and a third actor was added by Sophocles, and the number of the chorus was fixed at fifteen.
The chorus’ part was gradually reduced, and the dialogue of the actors became increasingly important. The word “chorus” meant “dance or “dancing ground”, which was how dance evolved into the drama. Members of the chorus were characters in the play who commented on the action. They drew the audience into the play and reflected the audience’s reactions. The Greek plays were performed in open-air theaters. Nocturnal scenes were performed even in sunlight. The area in front of the stages was called the “orchestra”, the area in which the chorus moved and danced.
There was no curtain and the play was presented as a whole with no act or scene divisions. There was a building at the back of the stage called a skene, which represented the front of a palace or temple. It contained a central doorway and two other stage entrances, one at the left and the other at the right, representing the country and the city. Sacrifices were performed at the altar of Dionysus, and the chorus performed in the orchestra, which surrounded the altar. The theatron, from where the word “theater” is derived, is where the audience sat, built on a hollowed-out hillside.
Seated of honor, found in the front and center of the theatron, were for public officials and priests. he seating capacity of the theater was about 17,000. The audience of about 14,000 was lively, noisy, emotional and unrestrained. They ate, applauded, cheered, hissed, and kicked their wooden seats in disgust. Small riots were known to break out if the audience was dissatisfied. Women were allowed to be spectators of tragedy, and probably even comedy.
Admission was free or nominal, and the poor were paid for by the state. The Attic dramatists, like the Elizabethans, had a public of all classes. Because of the size of the audience, the actors must also have been physically remote. The sense of remoteness may have been heightened by masked, statuesque figures of the actors whose acting depended largely on voice gestures and grouping. Since there were only three actors, the same men in the same play had to play double parts. At first, the dramatists themselves acted, like Shakespeare.
Gradually, acting became professionalized. Simple scenery began with Sophocles, but changes of scene were rare and stage properties were also rare, such as an occasional altar, a tomb or an image of gods. Machinery was used for lightning or thunder or for lifting celestial persons from heaven and back, or for revealing the interior of the stage building. …