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~~ The Birth of Drama ~~

Before the ancient Greeks ever staged their first play, they were already long in the habit of holding annual festivals to Dionysus, the god of fertility, and the god of wine. Even without too much concrete information about these festivals, we can imagine what a spectacle they must have been, with the entire town gathered for singing and dancing and storytelling, and other rites. The versified stories were about Dionysus and other Greek gods, as well as infamous, legendary culture-heroes. I can almost see those pots of wine as they were filled and refilled to overflowing, every citizen of the town doing his or her duty, showing up to pay homage to the god of fertility. The stories had their moment at center stage, when long narrative performances ("dithyrambs") entertained the festival goers with poetry spoken or chanted to musical accompaniment. Somewhere around the sixth century B.C., an innovative poet named Thespis had the revolutionary idea that acting the story told in the dithyramb might be more interesting than simply telling it. He is generally credited as the world's first "actor," which is why some in that profession are sometimes called thespians. Not much later, Aeschylus (who wrote The Orestia) added a second actor, and not long after that—in head to head competition with Aeschylus—Sophocles added a third.

Greek theater was born.

From its golden age, classical Greek theater has sent down through the foggy ruins of time incredibly resonant works of literature that are still abuzz with meaning, even today. Amazingly, almost twenty-five hundred years separate us from the works of playwrights like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, yet their comedies and tragedies, firmly situated in ancient Greece, still fascinate us. The issues they grappled with, their insights into human behavior and motivation still resonate with us. Discovering our modern selves peeking out from these ancient texts is often a heady, exhilarating experience—it's what literature is all about.

Conventions of the Greek Theater

The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 6/e (pp. 969 ff) provides us with a quick overview of the way ancient Greek plays were staged.

Plays were performed in huge amphitheaters carved into hillsides. These outdoor arenas seated thousands—as many as 15,000 people. The seats faced an "orchestra" or "dancing place" behind which actors played their scenes in front of a "skene"—the building behind the stage where actors exited and changed costumes. Gradually it became customary to paint the wall facing the audience to suggest a "set"—a particular setting or place where the scenes were taking place.

A few of the conventions of Greek theater are not familiar to us now, and they bear explaining. First, each play had its "chorus," or group of men, a dozen or so, who would observe the action from the orchestra, and between episodes would sing and dance their commentary on the action. Sometimes the chorus leader would even participate in the scenes by engaging the characters in dialogue, as he does towards the end of Oedipus the King. The chorus' role was to model a response to the action unfolding on the stage. They represented public opinion, the public's response to the events of the play. They might provide background information (exposition), or tell us what they think of the relative virtue of the characters—good or ill. They might try to offer advice, or admonish bad behavior. Whatever their precise function, their poetic commentary following each episode must have been a crucial part of the entertainment, as they would sing and dance and chant rhythmic lines of poetry between scenes. I can imagine they provided a sublime, beautiful musical interlude!

Another Greek convention was the "god in the machine" (deus ex machina in Latin). This was a device some playwrights used to resolve conflicts when they were too difficult for the characters to resolve. Literally a "god" was lowered onto the stage by a mechanical platform (I imagine something like a window-washer's unit), descending from the roof of the skene, rescuing the characters from themselves. It's interesting to note that Sophocles—innovator that he indeed was—never made use of this device. He must have thought it too simplistic, too contrived. That's the way we think of it today as well—a device that provides an easy-out.

Structurally, Greek plays are somewhat different from modern drama, but still very recognizable. Things haven't changed as much as they might have in 2500 years! There's a "prologue" which provides the background to the main action, information we need to appreciate what's about to happen. Then there's a "parados" in which the chorus arrives to "spin" the prologue, providing the audience with its perspective on what was just learned. Then there are several "episodia"—episodes, or scenes—which contain the main action of the play, its dialogue, speeches, clashes. After each episode, a "stasimon" or choral ode follows to interpret what just happened. The last scene is known as the "exodus"—it provides the resolution and the characters make their exit.

To be one of those lucky Athenians gathered at the temple theater to watch the original world premier of Oedipus the King on that warm, long gone spring day, pondering those famous last words….

"Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no many happy till he dies, free of pain at last."

Tragedy

Suffering. Human suffering. Unfortunately it's all around us, every day, if we open our eyes to see it. "Count no man happy till he dies." No one is safe; we're all vulnerable. And we can't always shield ourselves from that basic but terrifying truth, as much as we may want to. There it is. A hero rushes to someone's rescue and is killed in the process. That's bad enough. But what about the hero who rushes to someone's rescue, insisting on doing it alone, unwilling to risk anyone else's life—or feeling overconfident, maybe—and dies because he tried to make the rescue alone? A child dies of a disease. That's bad enough. But then you learn she died of a curable disease, but her family didn't have the resources to get her the treatment.

Are those kinds of suffering the same thing as tragedy? Yes and no. Yes, we commonly refer to all of that as "tragedy." But no, the ancient Greeks—Aristotle in particular—meant something along the same lines but even more specific when they used that term.

The Greek tragedians were interested in how the human spirit responded in the face of suffering. Does the hero acknowledge it, dance with it, overcome it, or become crushed by it? In your text, Michael Meyer tells us, "A literary tragedy presents courageous individuals who confront powerful forces within or outside themselves with a dignity that reveals the breadth and depth of the human spirit in the face of failure, defeat, and even death." And what's at stake is usually more than an individual life—it's the life of the state, the fate of the community, that's in danger.

The best source for understanding the nature of Greek tragedy is still Aristotle. He wrote about tragedy in The Poetics, and he wrote about Oedipus the King extensively because he considered it the consummate tragedy. His work is excerpted in your textbook under the title "On Tragic Character" (pp. 1018). You can jump to my notes on this excerpt from here.

Why did Aristotle consider Oedipus one of the finest examples of tragedy in existence? Aristotle is the first literary critic to appreciate the subtle form of craftsmanship that went into the composition of really fine tragedy. He went to great lengths to explain how the magic was accomplished, and could be accomplished again, if anyone was up to the task. He served up concepts like "unity," and "catharsis," and the "tragic hero," to name a few.

Sophocles

Sophocles is one of the great Greek tragedians (Aeschylus and Euripides being two others) from the Golden Age of Athens. Although he wrote over a hundred plays, only seven survive. But it may be that we have his best one, if we're to take Aristotle's word for it. By the works we do have, we can confidently say that Sophocles was a master craftsman as well as an innovator. He was the first to add three and more actors to the set (previously the convention was to use two). In Oedipus and Antigone it's human beings who are steadily front and center, and the Gods are removed to the wings, spooky perhaps, but invisible except in the minds and hearts of the human characters before us. They never descend from the machine, deux ex machina style, as they might in other plays less subtle than Sophocles'. With no supernatural forces superseding, interfering, or fixing, Sophocles is able to force our attention upon the absolute humanity of his characters. His characters suffer as we suffer. They toss in the same haunted, unattended maelstrom we toss in. The gods are visible by faith alone. And what is faith?


Further Supplemental Notes...

What follows are not my original notes--they are from a textbook, the title of which I need to track down!.... (S.T.E.)

The Ancient World
In a survey of ancient literature (in the western tradition) reveals that variety is more apparent than unity. But a few threads do lead us to the development of the major literary genres: narrative, drama, poetry, and expository literary prose.

The characteristic narrative forms of the ancient world are the folk tale, the epic, and the history. We know only that a large body of folk narrative must have been in oral circulation since earliest times among the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Romans. But these tales have reached us only as they were incorporated into written narratives. We can detect signs of them in, for example, the Hebrew Bible, Homer (The Iliad and The Odyssey), and Virgil (The Aeneid).

In narrative, the greatest achievement of the ancient western world was the epic. Long heroic poems seem to be a natural form in most early literatures. There are the Exodus epic in the Bible and the Iliad and the Odyssey at the dawn of Greek literature. But we can also point to, among others, the Babylonian Gilgamesh (circa 2000 B.C.), the Indian Mahabharata (A.D. 350-500), and the German Nibelungenlied (circa 1200 A.D.) These are all "folk epics"-that is, although they might have been put into final form by single authors, they were developed by folk poets, over extended periods of time, from traditional materials that dealt with the legendary histories of their peoples. The folk epics have a wide variety of forms, but they are linked by certain recurring characteristics. Though not all are regarded as, like the Bible, "sacred books," all hold special places in their ultures as major statements of national or cultural identity. They purport to tell the stories of the formation or the early history of an entire people; thus they are never regarded as mere fictional entertainment but are held in some degree of reverence. All of them, too, center on heroes, drawn from history or legend, who are regarded not merely as individuals but as embodiments of the special values of their cultures. The settings are vast, ranging across nations or the entire world. Even when the action is confined to a limited place, as in Homer's Iliad, that place is the scene of great events determining the fate of nations. The action is similarly grand, involving deeds that exemplify extraordinary qualities treasured by the culture, especially military prowess, physical strength, and spiritual force. Often the action takes the hero on a journey which consists of a series of trials testing his heroism. The gods of the culture often involve themselves in the action, as the Lord does in the Exodus story, or as, in a very different way, the Olympian gods enter the plots of the Homeric epics. The style is at once exalted and simple, grand but not highly embellished. And the point of view is objective; the action is seen from an impersonal angle, without authorial intrusion and with the emphasis upon external action rather than upon inner motivation.

The epic form captured the imaginations of a great many poets who attempted to incorporate its qualities in original works, or art epics. In addition to employing the features of folk epics, these poets developed a number of epic conventions, which refine and develop the features inherited in the folk epic, especially the epics of Homer. The art epic opens with a statement of a grand governing theme and an invocation to an appropriate muse to inspire and instruct the poet. The poet plunges in in media res, or "into the middle of things," with earlier action recounted at a later point in the epic. There are, characteristically, catalogues of warriors, ships, armies; extended formal speeches by the main characters; and epic similes, extended set-pieces which develop comparisons at length. The greatest ancient art epic is Virgil's Aeneid; Ovid's Metamorphoses is another, in some ways, though he introduces the epic conventions in a playful and deliberately trivializing way.

The other major narrative form of the ancient world is the history. The dividing line between epic and history is not always precise; the epic finds its roots in legendary history, and history is often seen through epic lenses. About half of the Old Testament is presented as a history of the Hebrews, though a good part of it-the Exodus saga-blends history with folk epic.

Of the major literary kinds, drama has had the most sporadic history. Perhaps because a fairly complex set of social and intellectual circumstances are necessary to make theatrical production possible, drama has flourished in only three fairly brief periods in Western history, and the first of these is in ancient Greece of the fifth century B.C. (The other two are late renaissance through early neoclassical-around 1580-1700-and the modern period, since about 1860.)
There's some evidence that a dramatic tradition existed in Egypt as early as 3000 B.C., but practically nothing is known of it. The Hebrews had no theater, although the Book of Job shows some evidence of the influence of Greek tragedy, and the Song of Solomon may have some relation to a quasi-dramatic wedding performance. It is to Greece that we look for the beginnings of Western drama.

Greek drama originated in the sixth century B.C., in the worship of Dionysus. Four annual festivals were consecrated to him: the Rural Dionysia (in December), the Lenaia (in January), the Anthesteria (in February), and the City or Great Dionysia (in March). The god was worshipped at these festivals through the performance of dithyrambs, which were hymns of ecstasy narrating an incident in the life of the god and performed by choruses of singers and dancers. The step from narration to drama presumably was taken when a chorus leader moved from telling about the god to impersonating him and acting out his story. The Greeks believed that this revolutionary innovator was a man named Thespis, who is therefore traditionally regarded as the first actor in history. It was Thespis, too, who won the prize for tragedy in 534 B.C. when the City Dionysia was reorganized and a contest for tragedy was established. Dithyrambic performances took place on the circular stone platforms which were used as threshing floors in the center of Greek villages; these platforms seem to have provided the model for the orchestra, or circular dancing place, which served as the central acting area of the fully developed Greek theater.

It's in the fifth century that we emerge from theatrical legend to theatrical history. Plays were performed in festivals that were civic and religious rituals, occasions for exploring the fundamental ideas and values that made Athens a unified community. These annual dramatic festivals were organized, and the plays produced, by a cooperative effort of the civic leaders of the city, eminent private sponsors, and the artists themselves, in accordance with rules that had become standard. The audience consisted, in effect, the whole citizenry, brought together not in a spirit of playgoing whim but of community solidarity. During the fifth century, the Great Dionysia, the most important of the annual festivals, included four days devoted plays. On the first day, five comedies, by different authors, were presented. On each of the next three days, plays by a single author were acted: three tragedies, followed by a broadly comic "satyr play" designed to relieve the intensity of the tragedies. Prizes were awarded to the best actor and to the best combination of playwright and producer.


(What follows are also not my original notes, but I believe they are from a different textbook--sorry I don't have the title yet!...S.T.E.)

A Few Stray Notes on the Craft of Playwriting

Drama on stage often reflects the drama of everyday life, but (just like other forms of literature and art) it concentrates life, focuses it, and holds it up for examination. Since plays are written with the intention of performance, the reader of the play must use her imagination to enact the play as she reads it. Readers of the play need to imagine not just feelings or a flow of action, but how the action and the characters look in a theater, on a stage, before a live audience.

AUDIENCE
The fact of a live audience also has an important impact on the way plays are created. The essential feature of an audience at a play involves the fact that they have, at a single instant, a common experience; they have assembled for the explicit purpose of seeing a play. Drama not only plays before a live audience of real people who respond directly and immediately to it, but drama is also conceived of by the author in expectation of specific response. Authors calculate for the effect of a community of watchers rather than for the silent response. With this in mind, most plays written deal with topics that are timely.

DIALOGUE
Dialogue provides the substance of a play. Each word uttered by the character furthers the business of the play, contributes to its effect as a whole. Therefore, a sense of DECORUM must be established by the characters, ie., what is said is appropriate to the role and situation of a character. Also the exposition of the play often falls on the dialogue of the characters. Remember exposition establishes the relationships, tensions or conflicts from which later plot developments derive.

PLOT
The interest generated by the plot varies for different kinds of plays. The plot is usually structured with acts and scenes.
· Open conflict plays: rely on the suspense of a struggle in which the hero, through perhaps fight a against all odds, is not doomed.
· Dramatic thesis: foreshadowing, in the form of ominous hints or symbolic incidents, conditions the audience to expect certain logical developments.
· Coincidence: sudden reversal of fortune plays depict climatic ironies or misunderstandings.
· Dramatic irony: the fulfillment of a plan, action, or expectation in a surprising way, often opposite of what was intended.

STAGECRAFT
The stage creates its effects in spite of, and in part because of, definite physical limitations. Setting and action tend to be suggestive rather than panoramic or colossal. Both setting and action may be little more than hints for the spectator to fill out.

CONVENTIONS
The means the playwright employs are determined at least in part by dramatic convention.
· Greek: Playwrights of the this era often worked with familiar story material, legend about gods and famous families that the audience was familiar with. Since the audience was familiar with certain aspects of these, the playwrights used allusion rather than explicit exposition. In representing action, they often relied on messengers to report off-stage action. For interpretation the Greeks relied on the CHORUS, a body of onlookers, usually citizens or elders, whose comments on the play reflected reactions common to the community. These plays were written in metered verse arranged in elaborate stanzas. This required intense attention from the audience.
· English Drama: Minor characters play an important role in providing information and guiding interpretation. The confidant, a friend or servant, listens to the complaints, plans and reminiscences of a major character. Minor characters casually comment among themselves on major characters and plot development. Extended SOLILOQUY enables a major character to reveal his thoughts in much greater detail than in natural dialogue. ASIDES, remarks made to the audience but not heard by those on the stage, are common.
· Realism: Toward the end of the nineteenth century, realistic depiction of everyday life entered the genre of drama, whereas the characters may be unconventional and their thoughts turbulent and fantasy-ridden.
· Contemporary: Experimentation seems to be the key word here. A NARRATOR replaces the messenger, the chorus and the confidant. FLASHBACKS often substitute for narration. Many contemporary playwrights have abandoned recognizable setting, chronological sequence and characterization through dialogue.

GENRES
Just a there are various types of novels, ie., western, romance, science fiction, there are different genres of plays. While it is difficult at times to place many latter day plays into a specific genre, seeing the attributes will enable the reader to understand the particular play better.
· Tragedy: In classic tragedy and the modern problem play, tragedy is a play in which a central character faces, and is finally defeated by, some overwhelming threat or disaster. The hero or heroine is an active participant in the event through a tragic flaw, a shortcoming of the protagonist, ie., pride, rashness, indecision. This reinforces the emphasis on action derived from character, which explains the psychological and moral interest of much great drama. Another common type of tragedy focuses not on how the protagonist brings about but on how he meets his fate. Tragedy so defined celebrates the triumph of the human spirit over physical necessity.
· Comedy: Different kinds of comedy illustrate different ways a playwright may leaven grim truth with humor or temper the playful with the serious. Traditionally comedy is defined as a play that bestows on its characters good fortune, or more popularly, a happy ending. It may deal with the loves and jealousies of the young, and the reluctance other elders to give their blessings or the necessary funds.

CHARACTERIZATION
A playwright's success ultimately depends on his ability to create a character that an actor can "bring to life." The playwright's ability to match the PROTAGONIST against an ANTAGONIST of some complexity and vitality can make the difference between a success and failure. Idiom, a character's personal thoughts and feelings as reflected through dialogue.


 

 

 

 

 

     

 


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