Written and Edited by Lindsay Price May, 2011
This month, the first of two theatre history newsletters on the Greek Theatre! Each section has articles, questions and exercises.
"Greek thought is characterized by a tension between belief in human rationality and recognition of irrational and unknowable elements. ...such a view promoted a drama that centers on human struggles but one in which the supernatural element always reminds us that we have not left the era of ritual behind altogether."
- Oscar Brockett, History of the Theatre
Over the next year we are going to intermittently address periods in theatre history including the Medieval era, Commedia Dell'Arte, Noh, Elizabethan, Restoration and more. Our first stop is a two part newsletter on the Greek Theatre. The era we know as "The Greek Theatre" ran roughly between 600 and 200 BC. Some say it ended with the arrival of Alexander the Great. Some say it was with the death of Sophocles. Dates and events tend to be less than exact.
On that note, it's appropriate to comment that research from the time period is not 100% reliable. It was thousands of years ago after all! What is presented here is for the most part what is most commonly addressed as the 'facts' of the time.
The evolution of the form we know as western theatre, however, is remarkably well laid out. It moved from choruses of men singing and dancing hymns in reverence to the God Dionysus, to choral speaking on many themes, to one actor stepping out of the chorus who introduced dialogue, then another actor was introduced, and another.
Once you start to analyze the era, given that the facts aren't fully trustworthy, it's amazing how many forms and concepts that were born in this time period remain in use today, how many words make up the vocabulary of what we know as the theatre, how many plays are still performed. It's not too difficult to see why the plays have permanence, all you have to do is look at the themes and emotions explored by the ancient Greeks. The flaws of the tragic hero popular in 500 BC are the flaws of many characters in modern works. Emotional outpourings are going to be relevant in whatever era they are expressed. As Brockett expresses above, that combination of the rational and the irrational so instilled in the Greeks is familiar to a 21st century audience.
I have worked on one adaptation of a Greek Play, Sophocles' Antigone, which became Agatha Rex. For the exact reasons just mentioned, it was amazingly easy to modernize. Antigone goes against the wishes of the king in order to honour her brother. Agatha goes against the principal in order to support her brother. Though the first involves a death and the second involves going a dress code, the emotional outpouring remains. The combination of rational and irrational; the human struggle. This is why these stories remain. Behind any difficult language, behind any stiff poetic structure, there is an understandable core.
In this newsletter we are going to look at the following:
Each section has questions and exercises you can use with your class.
I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.
Who were those Ancient Greeks anyway? What were they doing besides creating the foundations of modern theatre? Here are some details on the people and the times.
Ancient Greece is most fascinating in its contradictions: Athens incorporated the first democratic government, but still promoted slavery. Freedom was highly valued, unless you were a slave, a woman or a foreigner. The country was unified when attacked, as well as under religion and language, but each city-state, (Athens, Thebes, Cornith, Delphi, Sparta) was fiercely independent and they fought each other constantly. Just as the country was war driven, it was equally arts & culture driven. It's amazing that these waring city-states (Spartan mothers told their sons, "Either come back victorious or dead on your shield.") had time for theatre, philosophy, art or politics. And yet that is what they are most remembered for.
Further, while aspects of the people are what you'd expect for the time - men work, rule and are educated while women have few rights – this was not always the case. Spartan women had more freedom than Athenian women, had some education and were expected to maintain a physical fitness.
The Ancient Greeks believed in a multitude of gods, and centred their lives around them. Athens was named for the Goddess Athena. The Olympics were held in honour of Zeus, leader of the gods. The theatre festivals paid tribute to the god Dionysus. Each city state was devoted to a particular god and felt that god was their protector and guardian. The myths of the gods made up the stories of the tragedies staged each year and every audience member would be familiar with the particular myth being presented. Greek god myths had such resonance they were copied by other countries (see here for a comparison of Greek and Roman gods.)
Hardy is another word to describe the Greeks. Not only was physical fitness a large part of their daily life, their military life, and competitive life with the first Olympics held in 776BC, but because the terrain of the island is primarily rocky it took a lot of work to make anything grow.
The Greeks were not a people single-mindedly devoted to the physical. Some incredible thinkers came out of this time: philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, architects, doctors, and writers. And of course, it's important to note the other arts the Ancient Greeks are known for such as sculpture, vase painting and architecture. Something interesting I found in my research is that artists were not thought of on the same level as writers. They were craftsmen, which was equal to someone performing a trade. Hard to believe when you look at some of minutely detailed work and the soaring architectural tributes to the gods. The art of the time has been one of the elements historians used to learn about the Ancient Greeks.
Even in the 21st century we are constantly under the influence of this fascinating civilization.
The genius who accomplished the transition from dithyramb to drama was Thespis of Icaria. Playwright, actor, stage director, and producer all in one, Thespis is credited with a number of innovations. He is said to have connected the chorus with a plot; he seems to have evolved the protagonist, destined to dilemma and forced to answer the ever-questioning chorus; he discarded the cruder dithyrambic make-up by making use of unpainted linen masks; and if we care to trust Horace, Thespis travelled about with a company of strolling players on a wagon.
- Alois Maria Nagler, A Source book in Theatrical History
Though the plays and playwrights listed here are the ones who are known to us, hundreds of plays and many writers have been lost. Think about why these particular playwrights and these particular plays have survived while others have not.
It is common mythology that the evolution of western theatre begins with Thespis. In groups, do as much research on Thespis as you can (there isn't much). For what you don't know, fill in the blanks and create an origin story scene for Thespis. Who is he? How did he decided to step away from the chorus to become the first actor? Was he ridiculed? Do you believe he toured Greece with a wagon doing plays? What's your version of story on the creator of drama?
Thespian: an actor or actress, relating to the theatre, derived from Thespis.
Many of the words used to describe elements of the Greek Theatre and Stage remain in use today. How many of the following word origins were you aware of? Are you surprised by the evolution of any words?
Original meaning:A group of dancers or singers.
Modern meaning: The word has a dual meaning referencing both music and theatre. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/chorus
In the Greek Theatre: The chorus started out singing and dancing the dithyrambs in praise of Dionysus. As theatre evolved so did the role of the chorus. They moved from being a group of dancers and singers to representing the common man. In later plays the chorus gave commentary and reflected on the action. As time went on, plays depended on the chorus less and less.
Original meaning: dancing place
Modern meaning: A group of musicians, the area reserved for those musicians. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/orchestra
In the Greek Theatre: The orchestra was a semicircular area where the action took place.
Question! Why is an area of seats in a theatre called the orchestra? When did the word change its primary meaning to refer to musicians?
Original Meaning: Hut or tent
Modern Meaning: Most commonly used in theatre as individual parts of a play. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/scene
In the Greek Theatre: A building at the back of the orchestra. As the festivals evolved this building was often decorated, which is why it has turned into the word for scenery.
Original Meaning: Viewing place/watching place
Modern Meaning: Means both the building in which a piece takes place, and also the craft of theatre. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/theater
In the Greek Theatre: Referred only to the seating where the audience gathered to watch the plays.
Original Meaning: One who pretends, interprets - also has been defined as "answerer," as in one who answers back to the chorus.
Modern Meaning: A person who acts. A performer. Doer. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/actor
In the Greek theatre: In the beginning, there were no actors, only a chorus group. Over time, one actor was introduced and interacted with the audience, then two and finally three.
Question! When did the word move from Hypokrites to Actor? When was the word Actor first used?
Original Meaning: Goat Song - Tragos (Goat)/Odie (Song)
Modern Meaning: In theatre, tragedy references stories with somber circumstances and unhappy endings. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tragedy
In the Greek theatre: Aristotle defines tragedy as: an imitation of an action that has serious implications, is complete, and of a certain magnitude. It includes incidents that arouse pity and fear. The main character is better than actual life.
Question! The word "tragedy" comes from the Greek Word tragoidia which means Goat Song. Why would the words Goat Song be used to define a play genre?
Original Meaning: Merry making singer
Modern Meaning: A humourous work with a happy ending. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/comedy
In the Greek theatre: Aristole defines comedy as an imitation of characters who are worse than actual life and have ridiculous faults.
Click here for a Greek Theatre Vocabulary Worksheet. Have students define these words associated with the Greek Theatre. Encourage students to use the Ancient Greek definition if it differs from the modern. (e.g. orchestra) Some words not defined in this particular section can be found elsewhere in the newsletter.
In Ancient Greece, all of the plays were performed outdoors in huge amphitheatres. The most notable theatres of the time were at Epidarus (especially known for its acoustics), Delphi, and the theatre of Dionysus in Athens.
The theatres had to accommodate large crowds (thousands and thousands of spectators) as well as large casts. There could be up to 50 members of the chorus.
The initial setting for the theatres was a tent in front of a circle of dirt with the audience sitting on a hillside. Over time, theatres were literally built into the hill. They were first made of wood and then stone. The tent was replaced with an actual building.
The main areas of the amphitheatre are:
skene: (meaning - Hut or tent) Building behind Orchestra. There were often one or two entrances on the side, usually decorated as a palace, or temple, depending on what was needed in the play.
orchestra: (meaning - dancing place) A semi circular area in front of the skene. This was the playing area.
Parados: (meaning - passageway) Gangway entries for the chorus on either side of the skene.
theatron: (meaning - viewing place) The area where the spectators sat. Originally referred to just the audience.
Thymele: (meaning - altar) A platform in the orchestra. It is suggested that the leader of the chorus stood on it to speak. It's also suggested that this is an altar for Dionysus, but it doesn't seem likely that one would stand on an altar. There were possibly two platforms side by side.
These amphitheatres are well known for their acoustics. The theory is that the theatres were built so that someone sitting in the very back row could hear the actors. Imagine if you had to play to an audience of 14,000! According to this article about a research study out of Georgia Institute of Technology, it was the Greeks' arrangement of the seats that aided with the acoustics.
Machina - A crane used to hoist actors into the air, and give the illusion of flight. Often used during the deux ex machina (god enters by machine).
Ekkyklema - A wagon that was used to bring in characters who had died offstage.
Of the dramas which were performed at the Great Dionysia, the tragedies, at least, were generally new pieces; repetitions do not however seem to have been excluded from any Dionysiac festival...
- A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. (ed) Sir William Smith
Before there were competitions, drama at Dionysus festivals consisted of the dithyramb - a hymn chanted and sung in praise of Dionysus by a large chorus. Dithyramb evolved into more formalized storytelling, which evolved into the play structure we're familiar with today.
So the legend goes, the first organized Tragedy festival was held in 534BC with Thespis as the first winner. The annual festivals honouring Dionysus had been a longstanding tradition and were held all over Greece. The festival we know most about was called the City Dionysia (or Great Dionysia) in Athens.
The festivals were days long, at first with just tragedies, then satyr plays and finally adding comedies. The eventual festival structure went as follows:
The process to compete was somewhat involved. Playwrights had to apply to the chief magistrate (Archon Eponymous) to have their play accepted and receive a chorus. If accepted they were also assigned a financier, a Choragus, who paid for the production. Think of them as the first producers! If a patron subsidized a production, they also got out of paying their taxes that year. More often than not the playwright also directed the play, and sometimes acted as well. In the records, playwrights were referred to didaskalos, which means teacher/trainer. This is because they trained or directed the chorus and action.
Competition winners were chosen in a pretty democratic manner. There was no one overseeing judge. Ten judges were chosen at random:
Ten lists of judges from among the ten Athenian tribes were deposited in ten urns, one for each tribe. Sealed and deposited under guard in the Acropolis, the urns were protected by a sentence of death to anyone who tampered with them. On the first day of the festival, the urns were placed in the Theatre of Dionysis, the site of the performances, before all whose names were in the urns. The archon drew one name from each urn; each of these ten judges took a solemn oath to render an impartial verdict.
- The Making of Theatre History by Paul Kuritz
At the end each judge cast a vote but only five were used to declare a winner. Five ballots were picked, again randomly, and that was how the winner was chosen.
Divide the class into groups. Each group has to put together a proposal for a play to present to the Archon Eponymous. Groups can propose either a comedy or a tragedy. They must follow the Ancient Greek rules of the two genres, but can use modern subject matter. Who gets picked to perform and why?
Put on your own festival. Include all aspects such as the Introduction and Processional where everyone parades through the school. Have groups write short (2 minutes) plays and choose audience members as the judges. Let them decide on a winner, and present ivy wreathes.
Aristotle defines the six elements of tragedy as follows: plot, character, thought, diction, song spectacle.
Before the formal introduction of theatre, the playwright encompassed all roles: writer, actor and director. Because the Greeks documented the winners of their competitions, we know the names of many Ancient Greek playwrights. However we only have complete plays from four (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes) and fragments from a fifth (Meander).
Thespis was, theoretically, the first to separate from the chorus creating an actor. Aeschylus introduced a second actor and Sophocles introduced a third. The rule then became that no more than three actors could be on stage at the same time. This is why scenes were primarily among 2 or 3 characters. Because the actors used masks, it was possible for each actor to play the part of one character. Actors were always men, never women, so men played female roles. In fact, actors were expected to be able to play both genders and all ages. Due to the outdoor settings, and the large audiences, subtle acting was not possible. Actors wore large masks instead of makeup and acted with large simple gestures.
Laughter on American television has taken the place of the chorus in Greek tragedy. In other countries, the business of laughing is left to the viewers. Here, their laughter is put on the screen, integrated into the show. It is the screen that is laughing and having a good time.
- Jean Baudrillard
The chorus was always made up of amateurs who practised for months and months. At first, the duties of the chorus were basically the same as when they performed the dithyramb - to sing and dance. As theatre evolved the chorus began to take a role - they became a specifically designated group in a play, as opposed just a random group of men. They represented the common man, the voice of the audience. In a tragedy they acted as a counter balance to the flaws of the main character. They would watch and comment on the action. Aside from the group there was always a leader, the Choryphaeus. The leader was able to interact with the actors. The size of the chorus could be upwards of 50 men but were more often around 15. As theatre evolved playwrights began to rely more and more on the actors and less and less on the chorus.
All actors wore masks in the Greek Theatre. They were made of wood, cloth or leather and made to show certain emotions. The masks were oversized, covering the entire head, and often had a large mouth, which may have helped with amplification. Using masks also helped the three actors play multiple parts - one character could be played by the three different actors over the course of the play. It shouldn't take too long to realize that the traditional "Comedy" and "tragedy" masks we know today come from the Greeks.
Costumes also helped the audience know what kind of character the actors were playing be it rich or poor, male or female. Actors wore a gown (a chiton) and tall boots (cothurnuses) to help them become larger than life. It also differentiated them from the Chorus who wore flat shoes. When the men played women, they often added padding to their chest and behind.
Make your own Greek Theatre Masks. Here are a couple of sites to get you started.
This site has a very detailed account of trying to make authentic Greek masks: http://greekplaymasks.blogspot.com/
"As tragedy by painful emotions elevates us to the most dignified views of human nature, as being, according to Plato's expression, "the imitation of the most beautiful and excellent life," so Comedy calls forth the most unrestrained frolicsomeness from an altogether jocular and degrading contemplation of things."
The Theatre of the Greeks, by Philip Wentworth Buckham
Greek Tragedy evolved to follow a number of specific criteria. They focused on stories based on the distant past, be it myth or historical. Everyone in the audience would have known the basic story for the plays they were seeing, although playwrights were given licence to alter the story as they saw fit.
The stories centred on a main character who, by definition, is better than the common man. This main character has imperfections and flaws, and their downfall is caused by their own choices. More often than not, the pride of the character gets in the way and they fail to realize their mistake until it's too late, no matter how many times they are warned by the chorus.
The main character at the end must pay dearly for their actions. It's clear to see that Greek Tragedy thrives on big issues and big emotions.
The structure of a Greek Tragedy was fairly standard.
Aristotle on Tragedy:
Tragedy is an imitation of an action that has serious implications, is complete, and of a certain magnitude. It uses a heightened language and includes incidents that arouse pity and fear in the audience. At the end, there must be an emotional purging, a catharsis, caused by the pity and fear.
Question! Why do you think tragedy equals pity and fear for Aristotle? What would pity and fear mean to the Ancient Greeks? Is there a fear that they might meet the same fate as the main character? Are there any modern stories that arouse pity and fear in you? Are there any modern stories that following Aristotle's definition of tragedy?
Exercise: Have students look up the words Peripeteia and Anagnorisis in reference to Greek Tragedy and then find examples of the two.
Aristotle also spoke of these unities as the mark of great theatre.
Question! Are there any Greek plays that don't follow the three unities?
Take a fairy tale and re-write it to accommodate the elements and structure of Greek Tragedy.
Aristotle named six elements for the tragic hero: Hamartia (tragic flaw), hubris (pride), anagnorisis (discovery) peripeteia (change in fortune), nemesis, (fate) and catharsis (emotional purging).
The tragic hero is the main character in a tragedy. They are a good person of noble birth but have a lot of pride (or some other fatal flaw) and therefore makes mistakes. They are not perfect. They refuse to accept their situation, even though everyone else including the audience knows the hero is wrong. Because of that, the tragic hero brings about their own downfall. When the hero finally realizes they have erred, it's too late and their destruction is inevitable.
Question! Why is Oedipus Rex thought of as a tragic hero? Can you name a tragic hero in a modern work?
Satyr: a half man, half beast. Known for rude and lascivious behaviour. The companion of Dionysus.
Only one satyr play remains today - Euripides' Cyclops. But the tone and sentiment behind the genre is very clear. There's no two ways about it. Satyr plays are lewd, bawdy, lascivious, and burlesque. They're downright dirty. The chorus appeared as Satyrs adorned with large phalluses. A satyr play is all about providing comic relief, with little character or story development, at the end of a trilogy of tragedy.
The evolution of satyr plays also come directly from the choral singing and dancing in tribute to Dionysus. Eventually the satyr play became attached to the tragedy competition. The playwrights who wrote the tragedies would tack on a fourth comedic play, which was usually a mockery of gods and heroes. Satyr plays eventually would take the same structure as tragedy.
The functions of the comic poet as they developed in Athens and as Aristophanes interpreted them were threefold: one, to reconcile man to his world; two, to save the city; and three,
to release man from troubles.
- The Art of Greek Comedy Katherine Lever
Comedy was introduced at the City Dionysia in 486 but there is evidence that comedic plays had been performed earlier at other festivals.
While the stories of Greek tragedy were always found in the past, the comedies remained in the present. The stories reflected on and made fun of the people and events of the day including politics, literature, society, and war. The characters were not of noble birth. The style was always exaggerated, full of farce and fantasy with an inevitable happy ending. Further to that, in the work of Aristophanes there was always some 'happy idea' that was to be gained by the end of the play whether it be peace or pleasure.
The chorus in a comedy was larger than that in a tragedy. They may represent a human or non-human group (e.g. Aristophanes' The Birds). Half the chorus was usually on the side of the main character and the other half was against the main character. There was not the same reverence to characters as in a Tragedy.
The genre is split into three eras: Old Comedy (contemporary topics, with the satirizing of public officials and events known directly to the audience) Middle Comedy (mostly lost) and New Comedy (more romantic, more stock characters, less fantasy, less political commentary). The surviving plays of Aristophanes are an example of Old Comedy, and those of Meander represent New Comedy.
The elements of a Greek comedy are pretty straightforward:
Aristotle on comedy:
While tragedy examines characters who are better than us with serious flaws, comedy is the imitation of characters who are worse than actual life and have ridiculous faults.
Take a school issue or person in your school and create a comic scene about them in the Ancient Greek style.