Greek Tragedy Overview

Drama as we know it today has its roots in the plays of ancient Greece. These plays were created as part of the worship of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine. The four Dionysian festivals, the Rural Dionysia, the Lenaia, the Anthesteria, and the City (or Great) Dionysia, celebrated the god, with plays performed in competition at all but the Anthesteria. Playwrights in competition would be expected to create and produce three tragedies and a satyr play. An excellent explanation of this process may be found at this link from Reed College.

Greek play performances differ quite a bit from modern theater. A key element of each performance was the chorus of fifteen. The chorus normally performed in unison, often with movement. The chorus served several functions. It could serve as an actor in the drama itself, establish the ethical framework of the play (the Prologue in Romeo and Juliet is very much like a Greek choral ode), act as a spectator modeling the reactions the playwright hopes to evoke in the audience, and, most importantly, set the mood of the play and enhance its dramatic effect. Choral performances often involved movement and dance which broke up the action of the play and allowed the audience time to absorb the themes being expressed. Older men were often assigned parts in the chorus, adding to the dignity and wisdom the chorus represents.

Three actors apart from the chorus played all the major parts in a Greek play. Most actors wore a simple chiton fastened by brooches, tall boots, and a series of masks which represented the variety of characters the actor was playing. Depending on the demands of the play, an actor might play a single role throughout or switch roles. As in Shakespeare, men played all the roles.

Although Greek theater featured comedies, satyr plays, and dithyrambs (hymns to Dionysus sung and danced by a chorus of fifty), it is the Greek tragedies that were held in the highest esteem. The philosopher Aristotle, in his Poetics, defined tragedy this way:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.

In essence, a tragedy contained the following elements, listed in order of importance:

Plot (mythos)
The ideal Greek play should have a complex plot involving a change in fortune for the main character. Reversals, recognitions, and suffering are common features.

Character (ethos)
The central character of a Greek tragedy is usually a good person who holds a position of honor or status. The character’s downfall can occur because of a mistake he makes (hamartia) either knowingly or unknowingly. The concept of hamartia is the origin of the “tragic flaw” often referenced in Shakespeare.

Diction (lexis)
The language of the play should be well-chosen to enhance the meaning and message of the work.

Melody (melos)
The songs and dancing of the chorus should be an integral part of the play.

Spectacle (opsis)
Although the visual presentation of the play was considered a key element, Aristotle viewed it as the “least artistic” element of tragedy. Think of a movie which is all visuals and action and very little plot, and you’ll understand what Aristotle means.

The audience of a well-presented Greek play should undergo a catharsis, a purging of the emotions of pity and fear. Dr. Barbara F. McManus, Professor of Classics Emerita, College of New Rochelle provides an excellent, detailed explanation of these aspects of Greek theatre here.

A translation of Aristotle’s Poetics may be found at the Classics Archive at MIT.

Adapted from Brockett, Oscar G. Historical Edition. The Theatre: An Introduction. New York: Holt. 1979.

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