‘Drama’ is an ancient Dorian word meaning ‘doing’ or
‘action’. Drama is a mode of artistic expression that works through
action (praxis), not narration
as in the other forms of poetry: epic (like Homer’s Odyssey)
and lyric (like the choral odes in Oedipus
Rex). Drama is more closely related to ritual than the other poetic
modes. Action or plot is at the heart of its purpose. You should
think of action not simply as special effects or martial arts
spectacles, like in an ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’ movie. The plot of a
story drives its action. A good plot has fascinating twists and turns,
sudden surprises and, hopefully, an ending that devastates you. That’s
pretty hard to do, especially if everyone in the audience knows the
story, as was the case in Oedipus
Rex. Aristotle, the
great Athenian philosopher, defined action
as a movement of the spirit through a whole community. If you have
been in the audience at the end of a terrific play or movie, you
know what that means. In a great work of art action moves to a catharsis,
a moment of sympathy yet terror, what Aristotle defined as the
simultaneous evocation of pity and fear.
Drama, and in particular the art form of tragedy, grew out of the
worship of the god Dionysus. His cult spread throughout the
Mediterranean during the eighth or ninth centuries BC with the
cultivation of the grape and the discovery of its special properties
when distilled into wine. Dramatic plays developed as part of the
worship of Dionysus. Other religions also had festivals, contests,
sacrifices, processions and music, but the religion of Dionysus had
certain peculiarities that gave rise to the art form of drama.
The cult became popular in Greece after the epic and lyric forms
of poetry had fully formed and could thus be used in drama.
Dionysus’ story, as you have learned, is very diversified in
content. There are many stories to tell. The dithyramb
or hymn to Dionysus could take many forms. (Dithyramb
literally means ‘double birth’.)
3) The religion was ecstatic in nature. The celebrants believed that when they drank wine, the spirit of Dionusus possessed them and made them, for a brief time, divine. Dionysus had transformed them into the thiasus or sacred herd. The thiasus would dance to the sound of flutes, clappers and drums; they dressed in masks and skins and tails. The men became satyrs, the women bacchae. Here we have the beginning of the practice of representing someone or something other than oneself, the mimetic art of acting.
Tragedy: Tragos literally means ‘goat’. A member of the parade of costumed animals became known as a tragedian. Tragedy literally means ‘goat-song’. That is a pretty grim idea if one realizes that first human, then animal sacrifices climaxed the celebration of the Dionysian revels. Eating the flesh of the goat and wearing its skin allowed the participant to become the animal itself. In its origins, tragedy enacted this bloody, intoxicated rite. The teaching of Dionysus was experienced not learned. There was no study of a sacred text, no guidance from a priest. Dionysus’ wisdom was communicated through participation in the ecstatic experience: direct union with the divine. Orphism was a feature of many ancient religions: “Thou shalt be a god, not a mortal.”
The bloody rituals of the Dionysian revels evolved into the
high art of Attic Tragedy. The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles
and Euripides developed out of a religion featuring orgiastic ritual
ceremonies that enacted the myths of Dionysus.
Even though intoxication and sacrifice ceased to play a part in
the actual performance, tragedy remained a sacred ritual enacted to
conjure the spirit of the god Dionysus himself, and blood is still shed,
even if symbolically, in every tragedy.
Tragedy made use of literature, particularly the characters and stories
from after Homer’s great epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey.
form of Attic tragedy developed from the dithyramb:
a spectacle in which the thiasus gathered on a large field and
performed hymns in honor of Dionysus. (See
Theseus Dithyramb" (476 BC))
singing, dancing, music and poetry,
in some ways like
a half-time spectacle at a football game. The exarchontes
(leaders of the dithyramb)
were the poets who wrote the hymns to Dionysus and the choreographers
who led the dances that accompanied these songs. A typical
performance might include an enactment of the story of Dionysus crossing the sea,
how he was taken
prisoner by pirates and then freed by the satyrs. The pirates
are thrown into the sea and transformed into dolphins. Then the satyrs
rejoice with Dionysus as he arrives in Greece- just as he does each
festival of Dionysus at Athens became the site for theatrical
innovations that created the art form of tragedy. In the sixth century
BCE, an exarchonte
named Thespis separated a performer from the thiasus, or chorus, of singers and dancers of the dithyramb.
Thespis named this performer the hypocrites
(answerer). His function was to engage in dialogue with the chorus
leader. These dialogues took place between the song and dance numbers
and eventually developed into little scenes or epeisodion.
In essence, Thespis had invented the modern actor as we know it; he had
also invented the art of playwriting.
534 BCE Thespis brought his traveling troupe of performers to Athens
to participate in the local Festival of Dionysus held on the Acropolis.
You can imagine the procession: a float, on top of which stands a huge
statue of Dionysus, is drawn by a herd of flute playing satyrs and bacchae
to the holy precinct where performances take place. Eventually this flat
site next to the Acropolis became the site of the great Theatre of
Dionysus that stands to this day. Thespis’ avant-garde
innovation, interspersing scenes of dialogue in between the great choral
dithyrambs, caught on quickly,
and within the next fifty years, Aeschylus and Sophocles had refined
tragedy into a timeless art form. It all happened that quickly!
is dialogue such an essential component of tragedy? Why not just stick
to the thiasus' ecstatic songs and dances mixed with spectacular special scenic
effects (like the pirate attack)? The answer goes to the heart of what
tragedy is all about. First, the early playwrights discovered that plot
holds an audience more powerfully than any spectacle can. The story of a
character marching inexorably toward a terrible climax transfixed the audience.
Dialogue advances the action of tragedy towards a great moment: a
revelation about the truth of its central character. The truth revealed
by catharsis is deeply ironic.
The truth reveals the nature of what it means to be human in this
mysterious and violent world.
looks at the deepest and most disturbing facts of human life and
discovers in them mysterious double meanings. Why must we die? Whazt
makes us capable of inflicting such cruelty on one another? Are we in
control of our fates or are we toys for the gods who
personify the immutable facts of life? Does justice exist? The heroes of Greek tragedy, endowed with our best qualities-
intelligence, strength, courage, perseverance and dedication to
principle (or honor)- are placed in situations beyond the limits of
their understanding or control. Their protective covering is stripped
from them, and the true nature of humanity is exposed.
the climax of a tragedy is terrifying and horrible; catharsis always
involves blood. However, there is another equally important aspect of catharsis
that cannot be extricated from the horror: awe at an insight achieved
into the truth. Tragedy is deeply ironic. It celebrates the facts of
life and allows the actors and audience to participate open-eyed in the
horror and splendor of our animal existence.
is a ritual in honor of the great god Dionysus. As in the earliest
ecstatic ceremonies, the revels of tragedy climax with blood, but the
spilling of the blood nourishes the earth and makes the approaching
harvest possible. At the climax of Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus
enters blinded and bloody, yet finally in possession of the truth, we
too participate in catharsis,
and for a moment, we too are gods, truly alive.
Aeschylus and Sophocles
of the four greatest tragedians of all time were contemporaries, living
in the same city, competing in the same dramatic festivals. Euripides,
who we don’t have time to discuss, was the third great Athenian
tragedian. Only Shakespeare surpassed their artistic achievement..
was a general at Marathon, the great victory of the Greeks over the
Persians that ushered in the golden age of Athens. His greatest cycle of
tragedies, The Oresteia, tells
a story familiar to you from Homer. Remember Agamemnon’s greeting when
he returned home from Troy? In Homer, Clytemnestra’s lover Aegisthus murdered him. In Aeschylus’ version of the myth, Agamemnon,
it is Clytemnestra herself who does the dirty deed, and she is given a
much more palatable motivation for murdering her husband: vengeance.
Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to free the Greek fleet
from off shore winds so that the Achaean warriors could sail for Troy.
Clytemnestra waited ten long years to avenge her daughter’s death. In
the second tragedy of the trilogy, Orestes,
the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra returns home and meets with his
sister Electra. When Orestes finds out about the murder of his father,
he and his sister plot vengeance against their mother. Orestes has no
problem killing Aegisthus, but the prospect of taking his mother’s
life torments him. After a great confrontation with her, Orestes does
the deed and is immediately assailed by three supernatural spirits, the
Furies, who pursue him and torture him as he wanders aimlessly to and
fro. In the final play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, Orestes seeks refuge in Athens still suffering from the
Furies who will not allow him to forgive himself for the murder of his
mother. Orestes pleads his case before Athena herself. He claims that he
has been taught by his suffering and misery that no crime, even his
mother’s, even his own, is beyond atonement. The Furies demand
Orestes's death, but he claims that he has been cleansed of his guilt. Athena
accepts his plea and persuades the Furies to forgive him as well. With
this new law of mercy established (and the precedent of the justice of legal trial not blood
vengeance), Athena transforms the Furies into the Eumenides,
protectors of all suppliants. The cycle of vengeance has been broken,
and the instituion of trial by jury has been established.
Aeschylus’ tragic vision, a profound religious experience subsumes
human evil and Orestes’ terrible fate. Compare this catharsis
to the one that occurs at the end of Oedipus Rex. Aeschylus was
the true creator of Greek tragedy. He elevated the theatre from its
origins in satyr dances and orgiastic rituals into a profound
philosophical experience without losing the ecstatic impact of the
ritual’s cathartic experience. He joined thought and emotion into a
deeply significant ceremonial experience.
introduced a second actor into the action to join Thespis’ hypokrites.
Consequently, dialogue developed much more freely and became the central
focus of the action. He reduced the size of the chorus and began to
withdraw it from the center of the spectacle.
built on Aeschylus’ model (a far easier job than Aeschylus’ feat of
creating an art form from a pagan tradition.) Sophocles competed with
Aeschylus in several festivals and won the prize in 468 BCE
career spanned the period of Athens’ greatest political and cultural
achievements. He was a friend of Pericles, Herodotus and Phidias; he
served as Treasurer in the government and as a general in the
Peloponnesian Wars. He was one of the three commissioners who governed
Athens after she was defeated by Sparta and as the great golden age of
Athens drew to a close.
wrote Oedipus Rex in 425 BCE, after Athens had been defeated in war and
while plague was raging in the city. The great Athenian experiment in
democracy was drawing to an inglorious end.
his plays, Sophocles introduced a third
actor and reduced the chorus even further in size (to twelve). This
innovation forced the hero to shoulder an even greater burden of the
action. The hero’s response to a destiny determined by the gods
becomes the focus of the action.
created the five-act play. The great philosopher Aristotle saw Oedipus
Rex and declared the play the model tragedy in his Poetics. Nearly two thousand years later, during the Renaissance in
Europe, Oedipus Rex remained
the model tragedy. Shakespeare studied the Classics, and he wrote his
great tragedies in response to Aeschylus and Sophocles.