The Birth of Drama ~~
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
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.
of the Greek Theater
The Bedford Introduction
to Literature (pp. 982-984) 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.
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
as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no many happy till he dies, free of pain at last."
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.
"On Tragic Character" (pp. 1030)
These are not my original notes--they
are from a textbook, the title of which I need to track down!.... (S.T.E.)
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
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
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.
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
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
(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.)
Few Stray Notes on the Craft of Playwriting
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
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 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
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
· Dramatic irony: the fulfillment of a plan, action, or expectation in
a surprising way, often opposite of what was intended.
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.
The means the playwright employs are determined at least in part by dramatic
· 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.
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
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.