Theater and drama in Ancient Greece took form in about 5th century BCE,
with the Sopocles, the great writer of tragedy. In his plays and those of the
same genre, heroes and the ideals of life were depicted and glorified. It was
believed that man should live for honor and fame, his action was courageous and
glorious and his life would climax in a great and noble death.
Originally, the hero’s recognition was created by selfish behaviors and
little thought of service to others. As the Greeks grew toward city-states and
colonization, it became the destiny and ambition of the hero to gain honor by
serving his city. The second major characteristic of the early Greek world was
the supernatural. The two worlds were not separate, as the gods lived in the
same world as the men, and they interfered in the men’s lives as they chose to.
It was the gods who sent suffering and evil to men. In the plays of Sophocles,
the gods brought about the hero’s downfall because of a tragic flaw in the
character of the hero.
In Greek tragedy, suffering brought knowledge of worldly matters and of
the individual. Aristotle attempted to explain how an audience could observe
tragic events and still have a pleasurable experience. Aristotle, by searching
the works of writers of Greek tragedy, Aeschulus, Euripides and Sophocles (whose
Oedipus Rex he considered the finest of all Greek tragedies), arrived at his
definition of tragedy. This explanation has a profound influence for more than
twenty centuries on those writing tragedies, most significantly Shakespeare.
Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy began with a description of the effect such a
work had on the audience as a catharsis or purging of the emotions. He
decided that catharsis was the purging of two specific emotions, pity and fear.
The hero has made a mistake due to ignorance, not because of wickedness or
corruption. Aristotle used the word hamartia, which is the tragic flaw or
offense committed in ignorance. For example, Oedipus is ignorant of his true
parentage when he commits his fatal deed.
Oedipus Rex is one of the stories in a three-part myth called the
Thebian cycle. The structure of most all Greek tragedies is similar to Oedipus
Rex. Such plays are divided in to five parts, the prologue or introduction, the
prados or entrance of the chorus, four episode or acts separates from one
another by stasimons or choral odes, and exodos, the action after the last
stasimon. These odes are lyric poetry, lines chanted or sung as the chorus moved
rhythmically across the orchestra. The lines that accompanied the movement of
the chorus in one direction were called strophe, the return movement was
accompanied by lines called antistrophe. The choral ode might contain more
than one strophe or antistrophe.
Greek tragedy originated in honor of the god of wine, Dionysus, the
patron god of tragedy. The performance took place in an open-air theater. The
word tragedy is derived from the term tragedia or goat-song, named for the
goat skins the chorus wore in the performance. The plots came from legends of
the Heroic Age. Tragedy grew from a choral lyric, as Aristotle said, tragedy is
largely based on life’s pity and splendor.
Plays were performed at dramatic festivals, the two main ones being the
Feast of the Winepress in January and the City Dionysia at the end of March. The
Proceeding began with the procession of choruses and actors of the three
competing poets. A herald then announced the poet’s names and the titles of
their plays. On this day it was likely that the image of Dionysus was taken in a
procession from his temple beside the theater to a point near the road he had
once taken to reach Athens from the north, then it was brought back by torch
light, amid a carnival celebration, to the theater itself, where his priest
occupied the central seat of honor during the performances. On the first day
of the festival there were contests between the choruses, five of men and five
of boys. Each chorus consisted of fifty men or boys. On the next three days, a
tragic tetralogy (group made up of four pieces, a trilogy followed by a satyric
drama) was performed each morning. This is compared to the Elizabethan habit of
following a tragedy with a jig. During the Peloponnesian Wars, this was followed
by a comedy each afternoon.
The Father of the drama was Thesis of Athens, 535 BC, who created the
first actor. The