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Greek Tragedy and the Ancient Stage
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Suggested Background Reading

Conditions of Performance

When reading the plays it is important to keep in mind the conditions under which they were performed. The *Theater of Dionysus was large, holding some 14,000 to 18,000 spectators (depending on how large you think people's rear ends might have been in antiquity). [FN 1] This means that people at the back of the audience would have been some 75 yards from the acting area, in an age without eyeglasses or hearing aids, while the actors had to deal with an audience that was not only much larger than that at the typical modern production, but also, by many accounts, much rowdier. [FN 2] As a result, the style of acting envisioned by the ancient playwrights was declamatory rather than naturalistic: actors presented their lines much like orators — Laurence Olivier's hushed tones and subtle nuances of expression would not have been perceived by most of the people watching. Other factors also mitigated against realism. The plays were performed in broad daylight, so no stage lighting was available to establish different moods or focus the audience's attention. There does not appear to have been scenery (although this point is disputed) and the use of props was limited: for the most part you must imagine a bare space filled only by the actors. From early on in the play a chorus of 12 or 15 people (accompanied by a flute player: see The World of Athens, ill. 7:14) was constantly present: this would have been less unnatural for the Greek male, who was accustomed to living life out of doors surrounded by friends and acquaintances, than it is for us, but it is still something of an embarrassment for playwrights like Euripides who focus on intimate domestic themes. The cast was all male, attired in elaborate costumes and masks.

[The costuming in tragedy does not seem to have been naturalistic, although this point too is a matter of dispute. Actors wore elaborately decorated robes and soft boots or slippers (cothurni). The masks were made of some light material and seem to have been relatively life-like. — Do not confuse the costume of the 5th-century Greek stage with that of the later Roman stage (high platform shoes, immense masks with large rising foreheads and megaphone mouths).]

The masks were necessary, not only to allow the actors (and members of the chorus) to assume female roles, but because each playwright was limited to three actors: masks permitted them to assume multiple roles. Again, this practice precluded the use of facial expressions and placed greater emphasis on the use of the voice and gesture to convey emotion; it also precluded the use of crowd scenes (although silent "extras" were available) and of rapid series of scenes such as are often found in Shakespeare. The use of masks also limited the interaction between characters: you will find that the spoken sections of Greek tragedy generally limit themselves to monologue and dialogue, in large part to avoid possible confusion over who is speaking (since the audience cannot see the actor's lips moving). As a result Greek tragedy tends to be quite stately, at times almost hieratic, in its presentation: there is an emphasis on the spoken word rather than upon action. For an audience accustomed to attending, e.g., performances of the Homeric poems, this would not have lessened the plays' impact. Certainly the diction was not naturalistic. The language of tragedy is a lofty and quite artificial poetic dialect that does not vary: kings, peasants, slaves, foreigners — all use exactly the same diction, with very little attempt at characterization through dialect or expression. Greek tragedy is composed in verse, mixing spoken, chanted, and sung lines, the last two accompanied by the flute and, in the case of sung lines, dance. Periodically, the action stops altogether and the stage is left to the chorus who sing and dance lyric odes accompanied by the flute player.

[The first choral song, sung as the chorus enters the orchestra, is called a *parodos (pl. parodoi); each choral ode after that is called a *stasimon (pl. stasima). Choral odes are divided into alternating metrical stanzas known as strophês and antistrophês: each antistrophê is metrically identical to the strophê that precedes it. At times an isolated stanza is introduced, called an epode or, on occasion, a mesode. Translators will sometimes mark these in the margin, so it is important to realize that they indicate metrical divisions in the song and not, e.g., some strange new characters in the play.]

The mixture of speech, song, and dance ties Greek tragedy more closely to a modern opera or musical than to modern naturalistic theater: in fact, modern opera was developed in a conscious attempt to revive the practice of the ancient Greek stage.

The context of the performances was also much different from that of a modern production. Plays were produced as part of a religious festival in honor of Dionysus. For tragedy the principal festival was the *City (or Great) Dionysia (a plural noun in the Greek), celebrated in March. Comedies were produced both at the City Dionysia and at the Lenaea (late January). Three tragic playwrights would compete each year at the City Dionysia, each of them presenting three tragedies (in Aeschylus' time the three often formed a trilogy on a common theme, although there is no evidence for this in the case of Persians) and a satyr play (a curious sort of tragic farce where satyrs — the half-human, half-bestial, altogether randy followers of Dionysus — were in effect parachuted into a tragic scenario, rather like John Belushi showing up in the middle of Hamlet). There were no theatrical "runs" in the modern sense of the term, although there is evidence of small scale revivals and even of some written texts in public circulation. The City Dionysia, in particular, were an elaborate civic festival, an occasion for the polis to display its wealth, power, and cultural achievements. The festival opened with various processions (see Sommerstein, Lysistrata and Other Plays, 18-23 and The World of Athens 2.46) and included the awarding of prizes to prominent citizens, the display of the annual tribute of the "allied states" of the empire, and the exhibition of young men who had been orphaned when their fathers had been killed in battle, who had been raised at state expense, and who were just now entering into military service themselves. The expenses for the production of the plays were covered by prominent citizens who performed this deed as a liturgy: see The World of Athens 5.71-72. The person who served this function was known as the choregus ("producer") and would be honored in various ways if his poet's plays won in the voting that concluded the dramatic competition (The World of Athens 7.35 and 2.47).

For the layout of the Theater of Dionysus see The World of Athens, ill. 7:16 and the modern model of the precinct of Dionysus (that does not, however, attempt to represent the scene-building). In the time of Aeschylus and for most (if not all) of the careers of Sophocles and Euripides, the layout of the theater was astonishingly simple. The audience sat on benches on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis (The World of Athens, ill. 1:10) in the theatron ("viewing area" — the English "auditorium" follows the Romans in emphasizing hearing over seeing). In front of them was a level terrace called the *orchestra ("dancing area" — contrary to what The World of Athens maintains, this was not necessarily circular), where the chorus sang and danced and where (with a few exceptions) it remained throughout the play after its initial entrance. At the back edge of the terrace was the *skenê or scene-building (cf. Engl. "scene") which was made of wood and seems not to have been a permanent structure but to have been erected anew for each dramatic festival. The skenê seems to have had only one door (some scholars argue for three) [FN 3] and a flat roof, upon which characters (esp. gods) could appear. It usually is imagined to be a palace, temple, or cave. (Aeschylus' Persians (472 B.C., our earliest surviving play) is thought by many not to make use of the skenê — some scholars therefore think that the skenê did not appear until later, perhaps c. 460.) There may have been a low wooden stage projecting out from the front of the skenê into the orchestra, but this is far from certain. To either side of the skenê were ramps leading into the orchestra, called (in the singular) a parodos (or eisodos: the latter term is often used to avoid confusion with the chorus' entry song, which is also designated by the term parodos). Other fixtures of the theater include: a stage altar (either on stage or in the orchestra); a large wheeled platform (the eccyclema) that could be rolled out to portray interior scenes and fixed tableaux; a crane (the mechanê) which was used (from the later 5th century, at least) to portray characters in flight.

[Our term *deus ex machina is Latin for "the god from the mechanê," used to refer to the practice (common in the 4th century) of effecting a miraculous and quite unbelievable happy ending at the last moment by bringing in a god on the mechanê. The comic poet Antiphanes, complaining of how easy tragedians have it compared to writers of comedy, notes that whenever tragedians run into difficulty they have only to raise up the mechanê "like a finger to the audience" (the Greeks used their middle finger much as we do today) and, presto!, their plot is resolved.) Today the term refers to any artificial or unbelievable device used to resolve a plot.]


The Poets and their Works

Preserved works in approximate chronological order. (For a more complete outline, with plot summaries, see M. Reinhold, Classical Drama, Greek and Roman (Barron's Educational Series, Woodbury, New York, 1959) — caveat lector. For biographical information on the poets and their careers, see The Oxford Classical Dictionary and M. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (Baltimore, 1981).)
($ — Authorship disputed.)
Aeschylus (c. 525-456)
First production: 499?
First victory: 484
Total number of plays: 90?
Total number of victories: 13?

Preserved Works: Persians (472 — First place), Seven Against Thebes (467 — First place), The Suppliant Women (463?), The Oresteia (Agamemnon, Choephori (Libation Bearers), Eumenides ) (458 — First place), Prometheus Bound ($ — 430s?); we have extensive fragments of: The Net-Haulers (satyr play)

Bibliography: A. Lesky, Greek Tragic Poetry; H.W. Smyth, ed., Aeschylus, vol. 2 (with appendix by H. Lloyd-Jones).
Sophocles (c.496-406)
First production: 468 (First place)
Total number of plays: 123?
Total number of victories: 24?

Preserved Works: Ajax (date?), Antigone (c. 442), Oedipus the King (427? — Second place), Electra (date?), Women of Trachis (date?), Philoctetes (409 — First place), Oedipus at Colonus (posthumous — 401); we have extensive fragments of: The Trackers (satyr play)

Bibliography: W.N. Bates, Sophocles; A. Lesky, Greek Tragic Poetry; D. Sutton, The Lost Sophocles
Euripides (c. 485-406)
First production: 455
First victory: 441
Total number of plays: 92?
Total number of victories: 4 (+ 1 posthumous victory)

Preserved Works: Alcestis (438 — Second place), Medea (431 — Third place), The Children of Heracles (429?), Hippolytus (428 — First place), Andromache (428-24), Hecuba (424?), The Suppliant Women (422?), Electra (420-410), Heracles (421-416), The Trojan Women (415 — Second place), Iphigenia among the Taurians (414-412?), Ion (414-412?), Helen (412), The Phoenician Women (411-409), Cyclops (satyr play — 408?), Orestes (408), The Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis (Posthumous — First place), Rhesus ($ — Fourth century?); we have extensive fragments of several other plays, including Antiope, Hypsipyle, Phaethon, Telephus

Bibliography: D. Kovacs, Euripidea; W.N. Bates, Euripides; A. Lesky, Greek Tragic Poetry; T.B.L. Webster, The Tragedies of Euripides


[FN 1] More recent exploration of the theater has cast this traditional number in doubt. E. Csapo ("The Men who Built the Theatres: Theatropolai, Theatronai and Arkhitektones [with an archeological appendix by H. R. Goette]," in P. Wilson, ed., Epigraphy of the Greek Theatre [Oxford 2007] 87-115, at 97) argues for a number between 4,000 and 7,000. (Csapo also follows earlier scholars in arguing for a trapezoidal seating arrangement.) [Return to text]

[FN 2] See in particular R.W. Wallace, "Poet, Public, and 'Theatrocracy': Audience Performance in Classical Athens," in L. Edmunds and R.W. Wallace, eds., Poet, Public, and Performance in Ancient Greece (Baltimore, 1997) 97-111. [Return to text]

[FN 3] N.B. Your translations of the plays contain various stage directions: all are the result of the translators' interpretation; none is found in our ancient manuscripts. Do not assume that these stage directions are correct. (Sommerstein's translations of Aristophanes are particularly misleading: they are adapted for the modern stage and often ignore the ancient conventions altogether.) [Return to text]

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