Greek tragedy

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Greek tragedy[1] was a form of drama which developed in Ancient Greece, particularly in Attica, around the fifth century BCE. It grew out of the choral ode, a public performance of an extended work of lyrical poetry and dance. To the performance of the chorus, Thespis is said to have added an actor (hypokrites) as interpreter or narrator. Aeschylus added a second actor, both of whom might play more than one part, so creating an event which might be recognized as "dramatic" in modern terms. Sophocles is said to have added the third actor. The chorus, its commentary, music and dancing continued to be important. The essence of the drama was that a tragic hero such as Oedipus or Orestes would be brought to his death or some other terrible fate through the strength of circumstances or a personal weakness.

To start with, tragedies were normally composed and performed in trilogies at a religious festival in honor of Dionysos.

Characteristics of the drama

Aristotle, theorising about tragedy in his Poetics, considered that tragedy had a cathartic effect upon theater-goers, as they would be caught up in the emotions of the performance, and then released from it, so enabling them to leave the theater purged, in "calm of mind, all passion spent."[2] He also described tragedy in terms which induced others to state the so-called laws of the three Unities: (1) Unity of place; (2) Unity of action—a single plot proceeding inexorably to its conclusion; (3) Unity of time—the action on the stage taking place over the same period of time as the "historical" or mythical action depicted, or at most within a 24 hour period.

The action would typically consist of four or five episodes with choral interludes which might advance the action in some way, comment on it, or discourse at a more abstract level.

To the Greek audience, the outline of the story would be known. There would be no surprises. The poet would achieve his effect by the way he handled his material and by his rhetoric, poetry and music.

The actors wore masks, and the whole event would be stylised, with no attempt at realism. No actual violence was shown on stage. It was always reported. The female parts were played by men.

The theaters

The auditoria of several Greek theaters remain visible and visitable to this day, and their acoustics can be tested. To judge by their size, the audiences could be very large, as might be expected for a religious festival. A certain amount has been deduced about the stage, though not without some controversy.

The plays and playwrights

The three great poets the words of whose plays, but not their music, have come down to us are Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Aeschylus is known to have written about eighty plays, but we have the texts of only seven, including one complete trilogy, the Oresteia.

  1. Etymologically, the word appears to mean "goat-song", though it is not clear why.
  2. Milton, Samson Agonistes, final line