THE ORIGINS OF
WESTERN THEATRE (Damon)
The Origins of Greek Theatre, Part 2
All in all, what do we know about the origins of Greek drama and
the environment in which it came into being? If theatre as such
existed prior to the sixth century BCE, there is no clear evidence
for it institutionally or autonomously, nor in any place outside of
Athens. The gradualistic Darwinian model of evolution which calls
for transitional forms and a slow development from older types of
entertainment or performance-based rituals towards theatre imports
unwarranted assumptions and leaves us with a sense that a huge and
important body of data is missing, when it's not certain that it is.
Particularly, how theatre arose out of religious ceremonies or some
other form of theatrical performance is unclear at present. Nor,
evidently, was it clear to Aristotle whose theory that tragedy
derived from dithyramb alludes little to ancient religious ceremony
and seems weak on other grounds. All in all, several aspects of the
received opinion about drama's origin have little to recommend them.
Thespis, especially, is a mystery. There is much room to doubt he
ever existed at all.
A better way to look at this puzzle is to adopt the view that drama
arose suddenly, seemingly out of thin air, as, in fact, all credible
evidence suggests. Drama need not have proceeded along gradualistic
lines of evolution because it is a cultural, not a genetic, human
artifact. Certainly, culture and its accouterments can at times
develop slowly and purposefully to clear and coherent ends. But
cultures can also make sudden, violent and seemingly inexplicable
changes in form and expression that do not conform with traditional
evolutionary models. In other words, theatre need not have followed
a step-by-step process of development. It may have been created in a
flash of insight—or two, or three—but no matter how many "big bangs"
it took, all were undeniably the product of extraordinary genius.
Whose genius is the real question? Thespis' perhaps, but if so, end
of discussion. Aeschylus' certainly, though it's important to
remember that he inherited the art form from his tragic predecessors
who, in fact, were not the first but second generation of dramatists
in Athens. In other words, Aeschylus was a third-generation
playwright, who had probably never met any of the original creators
of the art.
The first generation of theatre practitioners lived at the very
latest more than five decades before Aeschylus ever donned a mask.
We know this because the tyrant Pisistratus had incorporated drama
into his last great gift to Athens in 534 BCE, the City Dionysia
festival where all significant tragedies premiered for centuries
to come. The wily despot's reign—and probably his "genius" too—was
without doubt central in the formation of this new and revolutionary
The logic behind the shrewd tyrant's decision
is not entirely unfathomable. Drama, even if it did not arise from
or have any direct relation to Dionysian religion, certainly shared
much in common with it. Both involved masks, dance, song, and
"ecstatic" performance in which impersonation figured large. Albeit
not the typical sort of worship called for in this god's rituals,
drama could superficially pass for a Dionysian ceremony, if one
chose to press the point, which is something tyrants typically do
Nor is it hard to see why Pisistratus felt the need to press this
particular point and create a new type of "worship." The
celebrations of the effeminate, eastern god Dionysus traditionally
involved outlandish and extreme behaviors, at least in the eye of a
typical Greek male in the day, arguably even more so to a man who
had imposed himself as the ruler of a vibrant, restive people living
during a time of great social upheaval. Indeed, traditional
Dionysian worship would almost certainly have seemed to him an
invitation for civil disorder.
Instead, a new brand of entertainment dressed
up as a Dionysiac ceremony would surely have appealed to a tyrannos
like Pisistratus as a means of channeling seditious thoughts away
from revolution itself and soothing a potentially explosive mob. If
people complained this had "nothing to do with Dionysus," it didn't.
Let them complain. Complaining is better than unrest.
But surely Pisistratus did not invent the art form wholesale. It had
to have been already in existence, though probably in its infancy.
No doubt, he merely gave formal recognition and a strong financial
boost to what was already there, a new way of narrating myth in
which poets "became" the characters in a story right before their
audience's eyes. That is, rather than simply telling a tale or just
quoting the characters' words, this new type of artist brought his
audience to the myth, instead of the myth to them. In other words,
where Homer had only told us what Odysseus said—albeit with great
realism, but a realism based on the use of the voice primarily—now
people could see a "running poet" dress and act and move as well as
speak like the real Odysseus of myth.
There can be little doubt that the more traditional members of the
audience grumbled about how this new "drama" required no real
imagination on the part of the audience, that it was not like in the
old days of Homer and Sappho when people had to use their
imaginations to "see" the story—much as some people today lament the
passing of classic radio—but Pisistratus was a forward-thinking
fellow. He brushed aside such conservative quibbling and embraced
the new art. Young people are more likely to have the energy to
revolt than older folk anyway, so an innovative art form that
appeals to the young is more apt to distract the dangerous element
in society. Giving the kids their "goat-song" and allowing them to
enjoy it more than epic or lyric makes it look like they have a
choice, when every tyrant worth his salt knows it is really just
Coke or Pepsi.
There was probably one other attraction for Pisistratus in
incorporating drama into his radical, new City Dionysia. As the
festival was largely his invention, its timing was, no doubt, up to
him. That is, he probably had a certain amount of freedom in
situating it wherever he liked in the Athenian ceremonial calendar.
And it seems doubtful his decisions were driven by any sort of
"year-spirit" worship or the observance of seasons—while perfectly
capable of using religion, he doesn't seem to have been beholden to
it (note)—except perhaps in one respect.
To the best of our knowledge, the City
Dionysia was from its very inception held in late March, a time with
important resonances in the Greek economic, if not religious year.
In particular, this month coincided with the opening of the annual
trading season. In antiquity, the eastern Mediterranean Sea was
generally too dangerous to sail in winter because of the violence of
the storms that could erupt with little warning, so commerce by sea
ceased in autumn each year, only to resume in spring after the
threat of winter storms had passed.
Thus, theological reasons notwithstanding,
financial interests, no doubt, contributed substantially to
Pisistratus' decision to launch his new Dionysus festival in late
March. The celebration of a god widely recognized in that part of
the world would almost certainly draw an international crowd, and
even more so if the ceremonies involved an exciting, new type of
entertainment. Pisistratus could lure merchants from all over the
eastern Mediterranean to Athens right at the very first of the
trading season where they would have the opportunity to buy all
sorts of Athenian goods—especially, Attic vases, olives and olive
oil—to sell on their journeys throughout the rest of their travels
during spring and summer.
With this, everybody won, except, of course, the rival trading
cities in the area. Indeed, the historical records of Athens confirm
that, as far back as we can tell, prominent foreigners and, among
them, rich merchants, were given free admission to the Dionysia
along with some of the best seats in the house. So, it seems safe to
conclude that economic concerns played a role in Pisistratus'
decision to include tragedy in his new festival, the City Dionysia.
Why it wasn't dithyramb is anybody's guess, except that at that
moment the sensationalism of seeing a myth come to life before one's
eyes probably trumped the dignity and musical beauty of tragedy's
most important early rival.
The result was that, by the late sixth century BCE, Western drama
had set off on its rise to prominence and prestige. Out of a world
seeking new boundaries and grappling with new ways of looking at
life, tragedy was a means to express the revolution happening in the
Athenians' lives. And what better symbol of their age than theatre,
a new, fast-paced, eye-catching art form built on a core of
traditional lore, all lyric and painting and spectacle on the
surface with epic and traditional myth at its heart?
If we are still left with no clear "inventor" of theatre, no
credible "Thespis" for historians to pin some name on its creation,
perhaps there never was one. Or perhaps there was but it was not the
sort of inventor we have been looking for, a founder instead of a
discoverer, a George Washington rather than a Columbus. If so, the
"father of drama" is clearly Pisistratus who sanctioned tragedy,
adopted it as the "ward of Athens" and, wherever it originally came
from, took it in and gave it a home, an oxygen-rich incubator in
which to grow and thrive.
This old tyrant with a rebel's reflexes and the savvy to make people
not just obey but work with him, saw in that particular type of
cultural expression a vehicle for playing to several factions within
his surging, restless, fractious city, a community only two decades
away from inventing democracy. Tragedy gave something to those who
wanted to import a new cult and those who wanted to hear and see a
new type of story-telling, as well as those who just wanted to make
a fast drachma. Surely, Pisistratus had no idea how far this drama
business would go, but his instincts for what worked at the moment
led him to open the door. And after that creation came the flood.