Greek Drama

By the end of the sixth century, Athens had become the home of a tradition of drama that strengthened the bonds of the entire community. The City Dionysia, was held in March each year to welcome the spring. Dionysus, among other things, was the God of tragic art, and some scholars believe that these events were part of the religious festival in his honor. Others that they were added to the religious festival since the “audience” had already gathered for that event. Nevertheless, gods are always present in the plots, at least in the background, and sometimes as characters on the stage. 
They are often invoked, or challenged by the human heroes who are frequently their helpless pawns.

Dionysos mosaic from Pella
Dionysos riding a leopard, 4th century BC mosaic from Pella.

The plays took place in a stadium that seated about 20,000 people and were held on three specific and consecutive days each year, from sun up to sun down. Each day one poet alone would present a trilogy, followed by a burlesque satyr play which was shorter and often connected thematically to the plays that preceded it. True to the agonistic (from the Greek agōnistikos, from the word agōn meaning contest) spirit of the Greeks, these plays were part of a competition between three tragedians selected for the event by the Archon, in addition, more frequently than not, the main characters in every play were in conflict with each other.

Tragoidia is a formal term that refers not to the subject matter but to the form and its meaning was more like our word “play” than our word “tragedy”. According to Aristotle, “The plot of a Tragoidia needed to be serious.” Nevertheless, those that survived are almost all tragedies in our sense of the word. Actors were generic figures: they wore heavy masks, hiding any expression, their robes were heavy and indistinguishable from each other, their movements ritualized. To move the audience, they relied entirely on the quality of their voices, dance-like movements, and on the poetry they spoke and sang. Sophocles, for example, avoided performing in his plays because his voice was too weak.

The plots were almost always drawn from traditional Greek mythology and tended to focus on conflict within a great family from the remote and heroic past. So the broad outline of the story and the main characters would be known to the audience. But the play’s details were modified and minor characters often invented in order to refocus the story to highlight whatever angles the writer wanted, putting whatever words he wanted into the character’s mouths. Thus the tragedy commented on wider contemporary social themes, like justice, the tension between public and private duty, the dangers of political power, and the balance of power between the sexes.

Greek audiences would be accustomed to listen attentively for a long time in public assemblies, and in the law courts, consequently the spoken word would have been easier for them to listen to and retain than this format would be for us today.

Aspects, perspectives and the relevance of the trilogies would be discussed by citizens, since tragedy not only validated traditional values, reinforcing group cohesion, but also exposed weaknesses, conflicts and doubts in both the individual and the state. Athenian democracy was new and the transition from traditional blood or tribal loyalty to loyalty to the state, although intellectually welcomed, would likely have been more difficult for individuals to internalize. Athenians applied what they learned in the theatre to other aspects of their lives, to difficult civic issues, to their deliberations in the Assembly and to their judgments in the courts.

The plays told stories that dealt ruthlessly and relentlessly with human passions, conflicts and suffering at the same time expressing Greek ideals. They were open to all citizens, possibly even women and slaves. Over at least three days, Athenians had the opportunity and space to experience and think about those aspects of humanity that threatened the wellbeing and eunomia (balance) of their society, both in the oikos (family) and in the polis (state.)

Here every transgression, even the most horrific of human drives and passions, could be acted out and released in a very controlled setting and provide a cathartic experience (or cleansing) for everyone, here suffering was experienced and accepted and empathy fostered. Greek Classical Theatre was a safety valve for the society where every year, passions and concerns were revealed and then could be controlled.

“Tragedy taught the Athenians to project themselves toward the ‘other’ and to include within their sympathies those whose assumptions differed markedly from their own. … Above all, tragedy put suffering on stage. It did not allow the audience to forget that life was ‘dukkha,’ painful, unsatisfactory, and awry. By placing a tortured individual in front of the polis, analyzing that person’s pain, and helping the audience to empathize with him or her, the fifth-century tragedians – Aeschylus (c. 525 - 456), Sophocles (c. 496 - 405), and Euripides (c. 484 - 406) – had arrived at the heart of Axial Age spirituality. The Greeks firmly believed that the sharing of grief and tears created a valuable bond between people. Enemies discovered their common humanity …”

The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong. P 269.

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