Katharsis in the house, y’all. Be warned! Salty language and adult themes ahead. Proceed with caution.
Tag Archives: Greek theater
Still from the 1957 Sir Tyrone Guthrie production of Oedipus Rex.
Like all great plays, Oedipus the King develops a number of important themes. One is stated in the final lines:
And count no man blessed in his life until,
He’s crossed life’s bound unstruck by ruin still.
The play shows the fall of Oedipus from the place of highest honor to that of an outcast and demonstrates the uncertainty of human destiny. A second motif is man’s inability to control his own fate. Oedipus is a man who attempts to do his best at all times; he wants to help his people. He has taken what he considers the necessary steps to avoid the terrible fate predicted by the oracle (that he will kill his father and marry his mother). But humans are limited in their vision, no matter how they may attempt to avoid mistakes. The contrast, then, between humans seeking to control their destiny and other forces determining destiny is clearly depicted. But while fate (or the will of the gods) is always the superior force in the play, it works through human beings. It is Jocasta’s attempt to destroy the infant Oedipus, Oedipus’ desire to avoid his parents, and Oedipus’ search for the murderer that lead inevitably to the outcome. At the end, while Oedipus accepts his fate as he must, he still does not see himself entirely under the control of the gods:
Friends, it was Apollo, spirit of Apollo,
He made this evil fructify,
Oh, yes, I pierced my eyes, my useless eyes, why not?
It is significant that no attempt is made to explain why destruction comes to Oedipus. It is implied that man must submit to fate and that in struggling to avoid it he only becomes more entangled. There is then an irrational, or at least an unknowable, force at work. This idea is emphasized through the various attempts to communicate with the gods (through oracles) and to propitiate them. The plague is viewed as a punishment from the gods; the exiling of Oedipus is an attempt to placate them, but no one asks why the gods have decreed Oedipus’ fate. The truth of the oracles is established, but the purpose is unclear. The Greek concept of the gods, however, did not demand that all the gods be benevolent, since all forces were deified whether good or evil. Therefore, a god might visit evil upon human beings, and they had to be constantly on guard not to offend any of the many gods.
It is also possible to interpret this play as suggesting that the gods, rather than having decreed events, have merely foreseen and foretold what the characters will do when confronted with certain problems. Such an interpretation, while it shifts the emphasis somewhat, does not contradict the picture of humans as victims of forces beyond their control, no matter by what name we call those forces.
Another implication, which may not have been a conscious one with Sophocles, is that Oedipus is a scapegoat. The city of Thebes will be saved if one guilty man can be found and punished. Oedipus, in a sense then, takes the sins of the city upon himself, and in his punishment lies the salvation of others. Thus, Oedipus becomes a sacrificial offering to the gods…
Another motif—blindness versus sight—is emphasized in poetic images and in various overt comparisons. A contrast is repeatedly drawn between the physical power of sight and the inner sight of understanding. For example, Tiresias, though blind, can see the truth which escapes Oedipus, while Oedipus, who has penetrated the riddle of the Sphinx, cannot solve the puzzle of his own life. When it is revealed to him, he blinds himself in an act of retribution.
These themes indicate that Oedipus the King is a comment in part on humankind’s relationship to the gods and on humans’ attempt to control their own destiny. While the Greek views of these problems may not be ours, the problems and many of the implications are still vital and meaningful.
from Brockett, Oscar G. Historical Edition. The Theatre: An Introduction. New York: Holt, 1979.
Here is the closing scene from Igor Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex, filmed in Japan in 1992 with a multiracial case directed by Julie Taymor. Dame Jessye Norman is singing the role of Jocasta, while Philip Langridge (voice) and Min Tanaka (dance) create the role of Oedipus. Opera certainly fits Aristotle’s requirement for spectacle, does it not?
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:
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.
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.
The language of the play should be well-chosen to enhance the meaning and message of the work.
The songs and dancing of the chorus should be an integral part of the play.
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.
The opening credits of Disney’s animated film Hercules (yes, that’s the Roman name, but retraining Americans to say the proper Greek “Herakles” is a high bar even for Disney to clear) plays with the concept of the Greek chorus. Included in this short clip are references to the rise of the pantheon of gods after the defeat of the Titans, the role of the muses in Greek mythology, the characteristic art of Greek vases, a gorgeous presentation of Mount Olympus (check out Apollo and his flaming chariot of the sun!), and, of course, the musical pun of the gospel style of the song and its title, “The Gospel Truth.”
As a side note, the stentorian introduction is voiced by the late actor Charlton Heston, whose fame was solidified based on his roles in the films The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, so there’s another performing arts pun for you: who better to narrate the tale of an epic hero than, well, the quintessential Hollywood epic hero? Enjoy!