Greek Theatre Ancient Beginnings
Greek Theatre The seeds of Theatre can be traced back to Egyptian Society from the 1 st millennium B. C. Although historians have not found any evidence that Egypt had a formal theatre, there is evidence that “theatrical performances “ were an important part of Egyptian rituals celebrating the story of Isis, Osiris and the treachery of Osiris’s brother Set. Dance, pretend and “acting” have most likely been around even longer.
If Theatre dates back so far why start with the Greeks? Ancient Greek society is the first to have a formal theatre. A large amount of literature, including plays and dramatic analysis have survived giving us insight into Greek theatre and its importance. Although we have a great deal to work with it is only a small fraction of what is thought to have existed.
Cultural Influences Ancient Greece was a polytheistic society. They worshipped many Gods that were each thought to govern different aspects of life, death and the world. Although the Greeks collectively worshipped the same Gods they did not have an official religious text or system of religious belief that they followed. Religious myth rarely offered ethical teaching. Instead it simply tried to explain how the physical world worked i. e. how the sun rose, why seasons changed etc.
Cultural Influences Greek deities did not fit into categories of “Good” and “Evil”, most partook or were influenced by extremely human desires. The Gods often favored or punished individual humans for reasons of their own. Even though there was no specific religious doctrine Greeks still built temples and made offerings to specific Gods and Goddesses at appropriate times to avoid catastrophe or bad luck.
Cultural Influences Dionysus (Bacchus) was the Greek God of the grape harvest, wine making, wine and festivities. Drama developed in close connection with the Dionysiareligious celebrations dedicated to Dionysus. Four Dionysiac celebrations were held in Athens each winter beginning at the grape harvest and culminating with the first wine tasting: The Rural Dionysia in December The Lenaia in January The Anthesteria in February The City Dionysia in March
The Beginnings of Drama With the exception of The Anthesteria each festival featured drama contests among playwrights. The City Dionysia, the most lavish of these festivals, lasted from five to seven days. Athenian Tribes presented choral Dithyrambs – a narrative lyric performed by groups of men or boys. Thespis was a playwright who is also credited with being the first actor. He stepped out of the chorus to act in dialogue with it.
The Beginnings of Drama Thespis played many parts and therefore used Masks to differentiate between characters. One actor was the norm until Aeschylus (the first great Greek tragedian whose work survives) introduced a second actor c. 471 B. C. Sophocles is credited with introducing the third actor in tragedy c. 468 at the City Dionysia. Most actors played multiple roles and continued to wear masks. The Chorus still existed and offered reactions and insight into what was happening- they also work masks.
Dramatic Competitions 3 days were devoted to the contest among Tragedians during the City of Dionysia. Each contestant would present a trilogy of plays. Sometimes these plays reflected a similar theme, but often they did not. Playwrights would often work for half a year on these tragedies. These plays would only be performed once. Playwrights often served as actors, directors, arranged dances, composed music, made costumes and masks etc.
Dramatic Competitions Because these plays were presented as part of a civic festival they were paid for by the wealthy citizens. Eventually contestants were required to include a fourth piece known as a Satyr Play- an erotic short play intended as comic relief that ended the day’s performances. Comedy is introduced as a dramatic form around 487 B. C. – although there is no evidence that Playwrights crossed genres.
Tragedy Greek Tragedy focused on a person of noble birth, the Greeks felt Tragedy could only befall someone of noble birth. Tragedy showed humans at the mercy of MOIRA, their fate. One objective of Greek drama was to have the audience experience a CATHARSIS- or as Aristotle explained was a purging or purifying of the emotions of pity and fear. Greeks associated these emotions with the fall of someone in a high social station – hence a protagonist of noble birth was required for any playwright hoping to evoke catharsis from an audience.
Tragedy Tragic Figures often faced a cycle of emotions with three major components: Purpose- A problem or issue the character seeks to overcome. Passion- Extensive process of soul-searching and suffering an inner agony. Perception- Realization or recognition of the “truth”, usually involves a fate that the tragic figure would rather not face.
Tragedy Aristotle felt that drama was most fulfilling when the recognition of the truth (or ANAGNORISIS) came at the same time as the tragic hero’s reversal of fortunes ( or PERIPETEIA) Such is the case in Oedipus Rex which Aristotle used as his model for the perfect tragedy. Eventually the structure of plays became an elaborate series of alternations between the characters’ dialogue and choral odes.
Tragedy The “story” of tragedies were divided into three parts: Prologue: Established the conflict Agons (or episodes): Developed the dramatic relationship between characters Exodus: The Conclusion of the Action These parts were intermingled with choral odes: Parados- performed while moving onstage. Stasima- performed while standing still. Strophe*- performed while moving from right to left. Antistrophe*- peformed while moving back to the right. * not present in all plays
Oedipus Rex for example Modern scholars have plotted Oedipus Rex like so: Prologue: Dialogue with Oedipus, the Priests, and Kreon establishing the plague afflicting Thebes will cease when Laios’s murderer is found. Parodos: The opening hymn of the Chorus appealing to the gods. First Episode: Oedipus seeks the murderer; Teiresias says it is Oedipus. First Stasimon: The Chorus supports Oedipus, disbelieving Teiresias. Second Episode: Oedipus accuses Kreon of being in league with Teiresias and the real murderer. Iokaste pleads for Kreon and tells the oracle of Oedipus’s birth and of the death of Laios at the fork of a road. Oedipus sends for the eyewitness of the murder.
Oedipus Rex con’t. Second Stasimon: The Chorus grows agitated for Oedipus. Third Episode: The messenger from Oedipus’s “hometown” tells him that his adoptive father has died and is not his real father. Iokaste guesses the truth and Oedipus becomes deeply worried. Third Stasimon: The chorus delivers a reassuring, hopeful song. Fourth Episode: Oedipus, the Shepherd and the Messenger confront the facts and Oedipus experiences the turning point of the play: he realizes he is the murderer he seeks. Fourth Stasimon: The chorus sings of the illusion of human happiness. Exodos: Iokaste kills herself; Oedipus puts out his eyes; the chorus and Kreon try to decide the best future action.
The Chorus As evident in the previous description the Chorus plays an important role in Greek Tragedy. They usually represented the citizenry in the drama. In Agamemnon it represents the elders of the community. In Oedipus Rex it is a group of concerned citizens who give Oedipus advice and make demands on him. In Antigone it consists of men loyal to the state. In Medea it is a group of the important women of Corinth.
Comedy No theories on Greek Comedy have survived. Although Aristotle is said to have written one it has been lost. However in The Poetics Aristotle does point out that Comedy shows people from a lower social order than the nobility (who are the main figures of Tragedy) Relics (including statuettes) indicate that Greek Comedy saw three phases: Old Comedy Middle Comedy New Comedy
Old Comedy Exemplified in the works of Aristophanes (c. 448 -c. 385 B. C. ) such as Lysistrata which details a group of Athenian women swearing to not have physical relations with their husbands or lovers until they promise to stop going to war. Plays attacked individuals, sometimes well known to the audience. The nature of the humor was coarse, brassy and bawdy- but not vicious. Concentrated on buffoonery and farce. Comedy appears to have provided a release, but for entirely different emotions than Tragedy.
Middle Comedy Not much is know about Middle Comedy No scripts survive Evidence comes from statuettes of players that indicate a more realistic portrayal of character- and thus a less broad or bawdy type of comedy than Old Comedy.
New Comedy Exemplified by the works of Meander (c. 342 -c. 291 B. C. ) Humor was less bawdy than Old Comedy. Meander was well respected in his own time and by the Romans after him. Meander is thought to have written over a hundred plays – of which only one, The Grouch survives intact.
New Comedy concentrated on social manners. Instead of attacking individuals it was more likely to attack vices, such as vanity or the foibles of a social class. Meander established the pattern of parents or guardians struggling, usually over the issue of marriage, against the wishes of their children. The children ordinarily foil their parent’s wishes, usually with the help of an acerbic slave who provides the comedy with most of its humor. This pattern has proved so durable that it is used heavily even today.
The Greek Stage Theatres were built into hillsides Tiered seating on three sides of the playing space At the center was the ORCHESTRA – derived from the Greek word meaning “dancing place”. The orchestra was a large open area at ground level. Eventually the SKENE or scene house was built at the rear of the orchestra as a space for the actors or to serve as a backdrop for the action. Later the PROSKENION- a raised stage in front of the skene where the actors performed- was added.
The Greek Stage Acoustics were so good in these theatres that a stage whisper could be heard in every seat. There was no “lighting” equipment so plays were performed during the day. Greeks did have one technical element called the MEKANE (“machine”). This was a platform elaborately rigged so that it could raise or lower actors (usually God characters descending from the heavens) This machine and Euripides’ use of it in his plays led to the literary term deus ex machina.