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Glossary of Terms Associated with the Greek Stage
compiled 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.


For a more extensive list, see: A. Brown, A New Companion to Greek Tragedy (London, Canberra, and Totowa [N.J.], 1983).


agon: 'contest';   a formal debate, highly rhetorical in nature and often somewhat artificial

amoibaion (-a): an exchange sung in lyrics between two actors (or an actor and the chorus). Cf. kommos.

anapaests: a meter that can be chanted (recitative anapaests) or sung (melic anapaests), often associated with marching;   basic metrical scheme:   ̌ ̌ ̄   |   ̌ ̌ ̄   ||   ̌ ̌ ̄   |   ̌ ̌ ̄   (Compare "The William Tell Overture")

antistrophê: see triadic structure

auletes (-ai): musician (without mask) who played the aulos;   came on with chorus and remained in orchestra throughout the play

aulos: the "double flute";   an oboe-like instrument used to accompany lyric passages

choregus: 'producer';   person charged with the public duty ('liturgy') of financing the performance of an author's work

City (Great) Dionysia: a civic festival in honor of Dionysus, celebrated in March. In the classical period, three tragic playwrights would present tetralogies at the Dionysia, while (from c. 486 B.C.) five comedians would produce one comedy each. (The number of comedies was reportedly reduced to three during the later years of the Peloponnesian War.)

coryphaeus: chorus leader who delivers lines of spoken verse on behalf of the chorus as a whole

deuteragonist: second actor

dochmiacs: a meter peculiar to tragedy, expressing extreme agitation or distress;   typical metrical schemes:   ̌ ̄ ̄ ̌ ̄   and   ̄ ̌ ̌ ̄ ̌ ̄

eccyclema: wheeled device that could be rolled out of skenê to portray tableaux

eisodos (-oi): one of two passageways leading into orchestra, between theatron and skenê (also known as the parodos)

epeisodion (-ia): 'episode';   in Aristotle, the section of a play between two stasima (or between the parodos [2] and the first stasimon);   equivalent of our 'act'

epirrhema (-ata): passage wherein one actor (or the chorus) speaks or chants lines in response to another actor's lyrics

epode: see triadic structure

exodos: in Aristotle, the section of the play following the last stasimon or choral song;   more loosely, the 'finale'

hypothesis (-eis): summary, found in our manuscripts, of the play's plot and principal characters, occasionally with some information about the original date of production and an attempt at critical evaluation of the work;   the most valuable are those by Aristophanes of Byzantium

iambic trimeter: the spoken meter of Greek drama, said to resemble daily speech;   basic metrical scheme:   ̌ ̄ ̌ ̄   |   ̌ ̄ ̌ ̄   |   ̌ ̄ ̌ ̄

interpolation: passage inserted into our text of a play by a later hand. Interpolations are of four general types: 1) actors' interpolations (intended to spice up the text — usually quite melodramatic);   2) editorial interpolations (designed to clarify a point felt to be obscure or to otherwise "improve" the text);   3) scribal interpolations (the insertion of what originally was a marginal note — often a passage from elsewhere provided for comparison or contrast — on the mistaken assumption that it was a part of the text left out by the previous scribe);   4) a combination of 2) and 3) above.

kommos: lyric or chanted 'duet' between actor(s) and chorus of a highly mournful or emotional nature

Lenaea (Lenaia): an ancient religious festival in honor of Dionysus, celebrated in late January. Dramatic productions were introduced in the mid-fifth century, with the emphasis on comedy. The site of these productions is disputed, but it is probably safest to assume that they too were presented in the Theater of Dionysus.

logeion: 'stage' (existence and nature uncertain in the fifth century)

mechanê (Latin: machina): crane used to portray figures in flight, often divinities (hence the term deus ex machina: 'the god from the machine')

messenger speech: a lengthy report of some off-stage event, usually delivered by an anonymous character of low status who has no other role in the play

metrical schemes: notation used to describe meters.   ̌   = a short syllable;   ̄   = a long syllable;     |   = notation used to mark off individual metra;   ||   = diaeresis (pause between metra, marked by word end)

metron (-a): metrical unit used to compose a particular type of verse

monody: lyric sung by single actor;   'solo', 'aria'

orchestra: 'dancing floor';   the area in front of the skenê where the chorus danced and where, as a rule, it remained during the course of the play

parabasis: in Old Comedy, a pause in the action during which the coryphaeus comes forward and addresses a series of speeches to the audience directly in the poet's name while the chorus intersperses a series of comic songs on themes relevant to their character in the play. (The coryphaeus' speeches often are composed in recitative anapaests: hence Aristophanes can use the term "anapaests" as a short-hand reference for the parabasis.) The parabasis usually occurs near the mid-point in the action, prior to the institution of the hero's comic scheme.

paraskenion (-ia): wings extending out from either end of skenê (existence in fifth century disputed)

parodos: [1] = eisodos;   [2] song sung by chorus as it first enters the orchestra

phorbeia: the leather strap worn around the head of musicians to allow them to attach the double pipes of the aulos

prologos: in Aristotle, the section of the play that precedes the parodos [2];   more loosely, 'prologue'

protagonist: lead actor, usually assumed to have taken the most demanding roles

rhesis (-eis): formal speech, often highly rhetorical in nature

satyr play: a curious sort of tragic farce offered as the concluding piece in a tragic tetralogy. In the typical plot, satyrs — the half-human, half-bestial, altogether randy followers of Dionysus — are in effect parachuted into a tragic scenario, rather like Jack Black showing up in the middle of Hamlet. We have extensive fragments of several satyr plays, but only one complete work — Euripides' Cyclops, where Odysseus and his men land at the cave of the man-eating Cyclops only to discover that a band of comic satyrs is trapped there as well, forced to serve as the Cyclops' slaves.

scholia: 'curlicues';   marginal notes added to our earlier manuscripts by scholars ('scholiasts') who culled their information from a variety of ancient sources

skenê: stage building (origin of our 'scene')

stasimon (-ma): lyric ode sung (with accompanying dance) by chorus, usually with no actors present;   stasima serve to articulate the different epeisodia of the play

stichomythia: 'line-speech';   rapid, highly stylized dialogue between two characters, with each speaking one line, two lines, or a part of a line in turn

strophê: see triadic structure

tetralogy: group of four plays presented by a tragic playwright at the City Dionysia, composed of three tragedies and a satyr play. In Aeschylus' time, tetralogies were often composed on a single theme;   by the time of the preserved plays of Sophocles and Euripides, this practice seems to have been largely abandoned.

Theater of Dionysus: the theatrical space located at the base of the Athenian acropolis, on the southeast side. First developed in the last quarter of the sixth century BC.

theatron: "theater";   more specifically: seating-area for the audience (our "auditorium")

theologeion: raised structure from which supernatural beings spoke;   either above skenê roof or simply the skenê roof itself

triadic structure: typical metrical division of choral stasima, featuring pairs of 'stanzas' that are metrically identical to one another (the strophê and antistrophê). These pairs can be followed by a 'refrain' (the epode) composed according to a different metrical pattern. (N.B. In later tragedy there will often be only a single epode, at the conclusion of the ode.)

tritagonist: third actor, usually assumed to have portrayed messengers, etc.

trochaic tetrameter: a chanted meter, accompanied by aulos and often associated with agitated scenes;   basic metrical scheme:   ̄ ̌ ̄ ̄   |   ̄ ̌ ̄ ̄   ||   ̄ ̌ ̄ ̄   |   ̄ ̌ ̄   (Compare "My Darling Clementine")


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