Greek Tragedy

The Origin of Greek Tragedy

According to Aristotle, Greek tragedy developed out of the improvised speeches of the dithyramb with the satyric drama as an intermediate stage. This view has been widely accepted but challenged by some authorities as difficult to reconcile with the evidence of the facts. Aristotle, it is said, may have been theorizing from what he knew of the dithyramb and satyric drama in his own time, and of the primitive dithyramb whose leader might have been transformed into an actor.

It is more probable, according to this view, that dithyramb, satyric drama, and tragedy each followed its own line of development, and that the origin of tragedy is to be sought in an elementary choral and rustic form of drama in use in the village of Attica; that Thespis introduced into this an actor’s part, and that it was adopted in the second half of the sixth century B.C. at the Great Dionysia at Athens. With this rustic drama was probably combined a solemn lyric element from the choral Dionysiac songs, invented perhaps by Arion. The subjects of tragedy, as of the dithyramb, were probably at first connected with the story of Dionysus; later their range was extended to include the stories of heroes; they were only rarely drawn from history.

The word tragedy appears to be derived from tragodoi meaning probably a chorus who personated goats, or danced either for a goat as the prize or around a sacrificed goat. The later sense of the word “tragedy” resulted from the sorrowful character of the legends dealt with in plays thus described.

The Representation of Tragedies

The representation of tragedies in Attica was an incident of public worship and, until the Alexandrian period, appears to have been confined to the festivals of Dionysus. They were performed, that is, in winter and early spring, “the season when the world is budding but there is not enough to eat,” a period of anxiety in a primitive community, of longing that the spirit of vegetation may duly be reborn. The altar of the god stood in the centre of the orchestra. The principal production of new tragedies was at the Great Dionysia on which occasion, during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., three poets were allowed to compete, each poet presenting three tragedies and one satyric play. These four plays (tetralogies) might be connected by community of subject but rarely were so. The contests were decided at first by popular acclamation, later by judges chosen by lot from an elected list. The winner of the contest was rewarded with a crown. The best actor among the protagonists also received a prize.

Choral and Dramatic Elements

Greek tragedy, as its history indicates, contained two elements, choral and dramatic. The former was expressed in a variety of lyric metres, arranged in strophes and antistrophes, occasionally with epodes added. The chorus was drawn up in a rectangular form (as distinguished from the circular chorus of the dithyramb) and its movements were based on this arrangement. It was accompanied on the flute. Its principal dance was of a dignified character. The number of persons in the chorus was probably twelve in most of the plays of Aeschylus, and was increased to fifteen by Sophocles. Choruses continued to form a part of tragedies through the fifth century and part at least of the fourth century B.C. after choruses in comedy has been discontinued.

Principal Parts of a Greek Tragedy

A Greek tragedy normally contained the following parts:

(a) The prologue, the part before the entrance of the chorus, in monologue or dialogue setting forth the subject of the drama and the situation from which it starts. In the earliest tragedies the play begins with the entrance of the chorus, who set forth the subject.

(b) The song accompanying the entrance of the chorus.

(c) The episodes, scenes in which one or more actors took part, with the chorus. The episodes might contain lyrical passages, lamentations, incidental songs by the chorus, etc.

(d)            Songs of the chorus in one place, i.e., in the orchestra as opposed to the first song which accompanied the entrance of the chorus. These songs were originally reflections or expressions of emotion evoked by the preceding episode. But this connection was gradually severed, until Agathon finally substituted mere musical interludes between the episodes.

(e) After the last choral song came the final scene.

Divine Will and Human Will

Greek tragedy had always a religious background, in keeping with its religious character. The choruses in some cases show the survival of magic dances, intended to avert pestilence, bring rain, etc. A tragedy was originally the presentation of a single pathetic situation, with little action. Aeschylus introduced the idea of the divine will shaping the course of events. Sophocles added the further element of the human will, less powerful than the divine will, working in harmony with or in opposition to it, more at the mercy of circumstances. Hence developed the peripeteia the moment when the action of the tragedy changes its course, a knot or complication having arisen in the relations of the characters which has to be resolved. With Euripides, the peripeteia became more complicated, striking, and abrupt. The anagnorisis or “recognition” (occasionally used by Sophocles) frequently provided in the tragedies of Euripides the turning-point in question.

Dramatic Contests

Tragedies were presented in the Athenian theatre at certain annual festivals. At the principal festival held in the spring, the whole population assembled on a number of successive days in an open-air theatre accommodating thousands of spectators to witness a cycle of dramatic performances presented amid high civic splendour and religious ritual. On the practitioners of the dramatic art, therefore, rested a solemn responsibility. Competition was the order of the day and was not felt to be inconsistent with the religious dignity of the occasion. Before a tragedy could be performed at all, it had to pass the scrutiny of a selection board. In performance it competed with the work of two other chosen authors. The victory in the whole contest was awarded by the votes of a committee of judges who were influenced to some extent by the reactions of the audience. For the purpose of this contest, the work of each author consisted of a group of four plays—three tragedies and a satyr play in lighter vein. Such were the basic conditions of the dramatist’s art and within them was established a code of technique and convention.

“The Encounters of Man with More Than Man”

The origins of the art of drama lay not only in the human instinct for narrative and for impersonation but also in the instinct for the ritualistic expression and interpretation of the power of natural forces, the cycle of life and death, and the nexus of past, present and future. The elements of dance and song were essential to the nature of this art. Its prime function was the expression of the feelings and reasonings aroused by man’s struggle with the eternal forces that appear to govern his life. Sophocles calls this struggle “the encounters of man with more than man”. These two characteristics— namely, the choric element and the religious note—survive throughout the great period of Greek tragedy. In the earliest plays of Aeschylus the strictly dramatic element is scanty; the play is more or less a poem recited or sung by a chorus with one or two characters to personify its leading themes. Even with Euripides, the chorus is still the unifying and commenting interpreter of the drama.

The Role of the Chorus

Sophocles stands midway between Euripides and Aeschylus in this respect. For him the dramatic action is vital and goes to a great extent realistic; but the chorus is also essential to the play both in its capacity as actor in the events of the drama and as presenter of its dominating theme in lyric terms. A subtle and interesting feature of his technique is the way in which the chorus, clearly described as “elders of Thebes”, “people of Colonus”, etc. bridge the footlights, as it were, between spectator and stage. The persons of the chorus and their participation in the acted events increase the vividness and urgency of the action. With them we, the audience, are citizens of Thebes, witnesses of the passion of Oedipus, the martyrdom of Antigone, etc. The conflict of these characters was not only to be fought out but had to be fought out in public and submitted to the scrutiny and judgement of their fellowmen. Sometimes, indeed, this double function of the chorus, as actors and as commentators, leads to a glaring inconsistency. The chorus of Antigone, in their dramatic character, must express a submissive, if rather unenthusiastic, loyalty to King Creon, and are heard to rebuke Antigone as having gone to the farthest limit of daring and stumbled against the “enthroned law”. But in the greater detachment of their lyric utterances they are instinctively aware that the truth of the situation, and of the tragedy, lies deeper than that, for it is here a question of two obstinate wills, each loyal to a principal good in itself, but each pressing that loyalty to the point at which it breaks against the other, and on both the disaster falls. Yet there is a plausibility and a dramatic necessity in this convention. The tragedy, whatever its subject, is the tragedy of all of us. We, like the chorus, are both in it and spectators of it. And while the tragedy is being enacted, we identify ourselves now with this character and now with that—inconsistent, wavering mortals that we are. But the tragedy is not fully enacted and the story is not fully told until we have looked the whole matter squarely in the face and commented on it impartially. It is thus in the chorus as persons, and in their more impersonal lyric interludes, that we chiefly observe that religious approach to the dramatic theme which is an essential characteristic of Greek tragedy.

Prior Knowledge of the Story

Another consequence of this religious approach is noteworthy. The Greek dramatists could, no doubt, have written plays of ordinary life depicting the tragic aspects of human ambition or perversity against a contemporary background. But it was at that time taken for granted that the play should tell some already established story of the legendary and heroic past. In fact, it was not necessary that the play should tell a complete and self-contained story. Since the audience was already aware of the main facts of the story, the dramatist could rapidly come to whatever situation in it he had selected for the exposition of his theme. Some element of narrative, of course, remained as well as much scope for originality in the design of the incidents within the selected field. But the attention of the audience was not chiefly to be held by the element of suspense or the desire to know what happened next. And this was the most fitting condition for an art-form which was to attract not a passing curiosity but a profound contemplation of eternal truths. On the technical side, it gave the dramatist that powerful and subtle weapon of dramatic irony which Sophocles used with skill. Because of the use of this weapon, the audience could judge every speech and action of the play in the light of their prior knowledge of the situation. In other words, the audience all the time listened to a tragedy somewhat in the matter of a Christian audience of today listening to a play dealing with a Biblical theme with which it is already familiar. In this way the audience was better equipped to understand and to criticise the particular interpretation offered by the author and to be impressed by any out-of-the-way incident or a new emphasis in his treatment of the subject. It is also reasonable to suppose that part of the function of the drama was to keep alive the old stories. The younger members of the audience often found in the theatre their first introduction to those old stories presented in a clear and exciting manner.

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