Greek tragedy is a form of theatre from Ancient Greece and Asia Minor. It reached its most significant form in Athens in the 5th century BC, the works of which are sometimes called Attic tragedy. Greek tragedy is widely believed to be an extension of the ancient rites carried out in honor of Dionysus, and it heavily influenced the theatre of Ancient Rome and the Renaissance. Tragic plots were most often based upon myths from the oral traditions of archaic epics. In tragic theatre, however, these narratives were presented by actors. The most acclaimed Greek tragedians are Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
The evolution of tragedy
Origin of tragedy
The origin of Greek tragedy is one of the unsolved problems of classical scholarship. Ruth Scodel notes that, due to lack of evidence and doubtful reliability of sources, we know nearly nothing about tragedy’s origin. Still, R.P. Winnington-Ingram points out that we can easily trace various influences from other genres. The stories that tragedy deals with stem from epic and lyric poetry, its meter — the iambic trimeter — owed much to the political rhetoric of Solon, and the choral songs’ dialect, meter and vocabulary seem to originate in choral lyric. How these have come to be associated with one another remains a mystery however.
Speculating on the problem, Scodel writes that:
“Three innovations must have taken place for tragedy as we know it to exist. First, somebody created a new kind of performance by combining a speaker with a chorus and putting both speaker and chorus in disguise as characters in a story from legend or history. Second, this performance was made part of the City Dionysia at Athens. Third, regulations defined how it was to be managed and paid for. It is theoretically possible that all these were simultaneous, but it is not likely.”
From dithyramb to drama
Dionysus surrounded by satyrs
Aristotle writes in the Poetics that, in the beginning, tragedy was an improvisation “by those who led off the dithyramb”, which was a hymn in honor of Dionysus. This was brief and burlesque in tone because it contained elements of the Satyr play. Gradually, the language became more serious and the meter changed from trochaic tetrameter to the more prosaic iambic trimeter. In Herodotus Histories and later sources, the lyric poet Arion of Methymna is said to be the inventor of the dithyramb. The dithyramb was originally improvised, but later written down before performance. The Greek chorus of up to 50 men and boys danced and sang in a circle, probably accompanied by an aulos, relating to some event in the life of Dionysus.
Scholars have made a number of suggestions about the way the dithyramb changed into tragedy. “Somebody, presumably Thespis, decided to combine spoken verse with choral song. … As tragedy developed, the actors began to interact more with each other, and the role of the chorus became smaller.” Scodell notes that:
The Greek word for “actor” is hypocrites, which means “answerer” or “interpreter,” but the word cannot tell us anything about tragedy’s origins, since we do not know when it came into use.
Also, Easterling says:
There is .. much to be said for the view that hypokrites means ‘answerer’. He answers the questions of the chorus and so evokes their songs. He answers with a long speech about his own situation or, when he enters as messenger, with a narrative of disastrous events … Naturally, the transformation of the leader into an actor entailed a dramatization of the chorus.
The first tragedies
Tradition attributes Thespis as the first person to represent a character in a play. This took place in 534 BC during the Dionysia established by Peisistratus. Of his tragedies we know little except that the choir was still formed by Satyrs and that, according to Aristotle, he was the first to win a dramatic contest, and the first (ὑποκριτής) who portrayed a character rather than speaking as himself. Moreover, Themistius, a writer of the 4th century AD, reports that Thespis invented the prologue as well as the spoken part (ῥῆσις). Other playwrights of the time were Choerilus, author of probably one hundred and sixty tragedies (with thirteen victories), and Pratinas of Phlius, author of fifty works, of which thirty-two are satyr plays. We have little record of these works except their titles. At this time, satyr plays were presented alongside tragedies. Pratinas definitely competed with Aeschylus and worked from 499 BC.
Another playwright was Phrynichus. Aristophanes sings his praises in his plays: for example, The Wasps presents him as a radical democrat close to Themistocles. Besides introducing dialogues in iambic trimeter and including female characters for the first time, Phrynichus also introduced historical content to the genre of tragedy (e.g. in the Capture of Miletus). His first victory in a contest was in 510 BC. At this time, the organization of plays into trilogies began.
Aeschylus: the codification
Main article: Aeschylus
Aeschylus was to establish the basic rules of tragic drama. He is credited with inventing the trilogy, a series of three tragedies that tell one long story, and introduced the second actor, making the dramatization of a conflict possible. Trilogies were performed in sequence over a full day, sunrise to sunset. At the end of the last play, a satyr play was staged to revive the spirits of the public, possibly depressed by the events of the tragedy.
In the work of Aeschylus, comparing the first tragedies with those of subsequent years, there is an evolution and enrichment of the proper elements of tragic drama: dialogue, contrasts, and theatrical effects. This is due to the competition in which the older Aeschylus was with other playwrights, especially the young Sophocles, who introduced a third actor, increased plot complexity and developed more human characters, with which the audience could identify.
Aeschylus was at least partially receptive to Sophocles’ innovations, but remained faithful to a very strict morality and a very intense religiosity. So, for instance, in Aeschylus, Zeus always has the role of ethical thinking and action.[note 2] Musically Aeschylus remains tied to the nomoi, rhythmic and melodic structures developed in the Archaic period.
The reforms of Sophocles
Main article: Sophocles
Plutarch, in the Life of Cimon, recounts the first triumph of the young talented Sophocles against the famous and hitherto unchallenged Aeschylus. This competition ended in an unusual manner, without the usual draw for the referees, and caused the voluntary exile of Aeschylus to Sicily. Many innovations were introduced by Sophocles, and earned him at least twenty triumphs. He introduced a third actor, increased the number of chorus members to fifteen; he also introduced scenery and the use of scenes.
Compared to Aeschylus, the chorus became less important in explaining the plot and there was a greater emphasis on character development and conflict. In Oedipus at Colonus, the chorus repeats “not to be born is best.” The events that overwhelm the lives of the heroes are in no way explained or justified, and in this we see the beginning of a painful reflection on the human condition, still current in the contemporary world.
The realism of Euripides
Main article: Euripides
Votive relief that probably celebrates the triumph of the Bacchae
The peculiarities that distinguish the Euripidean tragedies from those of the other two playwrights are the search for technical experimentation, and increased attention for feelings, as a mechanism to elaborate the unfolding of tragic events.
The experimentation carried out by Euripides in his tragedies can be observed mainly in three aspects that characterize his theater: he turned the prologue into a monologue informing the spectators of the story’s background, introduced the deus ex machina and gradually diminished the choir’s prominence from the dramatic point of view in favor of a monody sung by the characters.
Another novelty of Euripidean drama is represented by the realism with which the playwright portrays his characters’ psychological dynamics. The hero described in his tragedies is no longer the resolute character as he appears in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, but often an insecure person, troubled by internal conflict.
He uses female protagonists of the plays, such as Andromache, Phaedra and Medea, to portray the tormented sensitivity and irrational impulses that collide with the world of reason.
The structure of Greek tragedy is characterized by a set of conventions. The tragedy usually begins with a prologue, (from pro and logos, “preliminary speech”) in which one or more characters introduce the drama and explain the background of the ensuing story. The prologue is followed by the parodos(entry of the characters/group) (πάροδος), after which the story unfolds through three or more episodes (ἐπεισόδια, epeisodia). The episodes are interspersed by stasima (στάσιμoν, stasimon), choral interludes explaining or commenting on the situation developing in the play. The tragedy ends with the exodus (ἔξοδος), concluding the story. Some plays do not adhere to this conventional structure. Aeschylus’ “The Persians” and “Seven Against Thebes” for example, have no prologue.
The Greek dialects used are the Attic dialect for the parts spoken or recited, and a literary Doric dialect for the vocals. For the metre, the spoken parts mainly use the iambic (iambic trimeter), described as the most natural by Aristotle, while the choral parts rely on a variety of meters. Anapaests were typically used as the chorus or a character moved on or off the stage, and lyric metres were used for the choral odes. These included Dactylo-epitrites and various Aeolic metres, sometimes interspersed with iambics. Dochmiacs often appear in passages of extreme emotion.
Greek tragedy in dramatic theory
Mimesis and catharsis
Main articles: Mimesis and Catharsis
As already mentioned, Aristotle wrote the first critical study of the tragedy: the Poetics. He uses the concepts of mimesis (μίμησις, “imitation”), and catharsis or katharsis (κάθαρσις, “cleansing”) to explain the function of tragedy. He writes: “Tragedy is, therefore, an imitation (mimēsis) of a noble and complete action […] which through compassion and fear produces purification of the passions.” Whereas mimēsis implies an imitation of human affairs, catharsis means a certain emotional cleansing of the spectator. What exactly is meant by “emotional cleansing” (κάθαρσις των παθήματων) however, remains unclear throughout the work. Although many scholars have attempted to define this element vital to the understanding of Aristotle’s Poetics, they remain divided on the subject.
Gregory, for instance, argues that there is “a close relationship between tragic katharsis and the transformation of pity and fear […] into essentially pleasurable emotions in the theater”.
Katharsis, on this reading, will denote the overall ethical benefit that accrues from such an intense yet fulfillingly integrated experience. Exempt from the stresses that accompany pity and fear in social life, the audience of tragedy can allow these emotions an uninhibited flow that … is satisfyingly attuned to its contemplation of the rich human significance of a well-plotted play. A katharsis of this kind is not reducible to either ‘‘purgation’’ or ‘‘purification.’’