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Notes on Classical Greek Drama

Notes on Classical Greek Drama
Directions: Review the following.
The third era of ancient Greek history was called the ​Hellenistic Age when the Greek
language and culture spread throughout the Mediterranean world. ​Typically, historians start
the Hellenistic Age with the death of Alexander, whose empire spread from India to Africa, in
323 B.C.E.​ It follows the ​Classical Age (The Golden Age of Pericles)​ ​and precedes the
incorporation of the Greek empire within the Roman empire in 146 B.C.
Greek Drama Background and Information
1. Parts of a Greek Theater​ (physical)
a. Theatron​ ​- the viewing place; the semi-circular seating area
b. Orchestra​ - the circular space used by the chorus
c. Parada/Parados​ ​- the corridors/aisles through which the chorus entered the
d. Skene​ ​- the building that served as the backdrop for the dramas performed; it
also served as a place to change and store costumes
e. Proskenion​ (​proscenium​) ​- ​Two pillars on either side of the stage that would
rotate to change scenery.​ At times wooden sets that were attached to the
skene providing different backgrounds for the actions of the plays.
f. Paraskena​ - ​projecting side-wings attached to the skene
g. Altar​ (​thymelê​) ​- a raised structure located in the orchestra where offerings and
prayers were made to Dionysus. ​ ​The platform in the orchestra, next to the altar
of Dionysus, both platform and altar referred to as the thymelê; it is suggested
that the leader of the chorus used the thymelê: as a platform during dialogues
between the chorus leader (koryphaios) and the chorus.
h. Scenery​? -​ not really just proskenion
i. Eccyclema​ ​- a revolving platform or low rolling platform used to show an event
which occurred off stage
j. Deus Ex Machina​ ​- literally “god from the machine”. This is the term for a play’s
conflict being solved by a supernatural power. This is considered a poor way to
resolve a play. It has come to also be used synonymously with the​ aeorema ​a
mechanical device that permitted an actor playing a god to float out over the
skene; in Latin, it means “god out of a machine”
k. Aeorema​ –​ ​a crane that lifted the “gods” from the scene onto the theologion.
“Gods” would often appear at the end of a play to resolve the conflict.
l. Amphitheater​ ​- an oval or circular building with rising tiers of seats ranged about
an open space; an auditorium; The Greek amphitheater was an outdoor theater,
usually with audience seating on a hillside and the staging area at the base.
2. The Birth of Western Theater (Theatre - British), The Origin of Tragedy
a. Religious festivals in honor of Dionysus​ - ​drama developed from fertility rites
performed for the god Dionysus. In early festivals, his worshippers would dance
and sing themselves into a frenzy in order to lose their own identities and merge
with the nature of the god, Dionysius’ companion was Pan. He was the god of
forest and woodlands. Pan played a type of flute he called the syrinx or panpipes.
The music he produced was said to produce either extreme ecstasy or extreme
fear/panic. Because trembling often accompanied either condition, seizures were
also attributed to Pan.
Greek drama was financed in part by the city, in part by patrons.
Archon​ - ​ ​a high-ranking official of the city, decided which plays would be
performed in competition and which citizens would act as chorēgoi and
have the honor of funding their production while the state paid the poet
and lead actors. Each selected poet would submit three tragedies and
one satyr play, a type of short parody performance on a theme from
mythology with a chorus of satyrs, the wild followers of Dionysos. The
plays were judged on the day by a panel, and the prize for the winner of
such competitions, besides honor and prestige, was often a bronze tripod
cauldron. From 449 BCE there were also prizes for the leading actors
Concessions​ - ​were important, even in Greek theater. The audience
brought food to eat while the play was in progress. Vendors roamed the
crowds selling refreshments.
Admission​ - ​to the theater was, at first, free. Later, a ticket was required.
Price of admission was two obels, about 25 cents.
b. City of Dionysia​ (Spring - M
​ arch​) - ​Greek religious festival held in honor of the
god Dionysus.
c. Dithyrambs​ ​-a Greek choral song or chant of vehement or wild character and of
usually irregular form, originally in honor of Dionysus or Bacchus. any poem or
other composition having similar characteristics, as an impassioned or exalted
theme or irregular form. any wildly enthusiastic speech or writing.
d. Chorus ​began as 50 or more men from the town - the dancers and singers who
comment on the action in a Greek drama. ​Chorus of 12 -1​5​ men ​- Sophocles
fixed the number of men in the chorus at 15.
e. Choragus​ ​- the chorus leader
f. Dialogue​ - ​a conversation between two or more characters​ vs. Monologue​ - a
long speech by one person or character
g. Playwrights​ (and their contributions) ​- a person who writes plays (literally, one
who constructs plays)
Thespis​ (6th Century B.C.E.) -​ the first playwright; he is credited with
introducing the​ first actor​; Thespis began to write down these songs from
the Bacchanalian Festivals (Fête bacchanals) and revised them so that
they would tell a story. ​“Father of Drama”
(thespian) ​- pertaining to drama or acting
Aeschylus​ (c. 525 - c. 456 BCE) - ​ ​2nd actor introduced ​- was one of the
great writers of Greek Tragedy in 5th century BCE Classical Athens.
Known as the​ “Father of Tragedy”​, the playwright wrote up to 90 plays,
winning with half of them at the great Athenian festivals of Greek drama.
Perhaps his most famous work is ​Prometheus Bound​ which tells the
myth of the Titan punished by Zeus for giving humanity the gift of fire. All
of his surviving plays are still performed today in theatres across the
world. An innovator of the genre, Aeschylus is said to have described his
work as 'morsels from the feast of Homer'. An innovative playwright,
Aeschylus was, according to Aristotle, responsible for adding a second
actor for minor parts and, by including more dialogue into his plays, he
squeezed more drama from the age-old stories so familiar to his
audience. Aeschylus is also credited as the first to use the ekkyklema, a
wheeled platform used to change stage scenery, and the mechane, a
crane device used to lift actors. ​He was also noted for his extravagant
costume designs and the use of striking imagery. (Tetralogy =
trilogy of tragedies + one satyr play (comedy).
Sophocles​ (c. 496 - c. 406 BCE) - ​3rd actor introduced + painted
scenery​ - was one of the most famous and celebrated writers of tragedy
plays in ancient Greece and his surviving works, written throughout the
5th century BCE, including such classics as ​Oedipus the King​, ​Antigone​,
and​ ​Women​ of Trachis.​ ​A​s ​with other Greek plays, Sophocles’ work is not
only a record of Greek theatre but also provides an invaluable insight into
many of the political and social aspects of ancient Greece, from family
relations to details of Greek religion. In addition, Sophocles’ innovations in
theatre presentation would provide the foundations for all future western
dramatic performances, and his plays continue to be performed today in
theatres around the world. Sophocles won at least 20 festival
competitions, including 18 at the City Dionysia. He also came second
many times and never had the ignominy of being voted third and last in
competitions. ​Sophocles was, therefore, at least in terms of victories,
the most successful of the three great tragedians. ​Outside of theatre
life, Sophocles was also an active member of the Athenian ​polis​. He was
a state treasurer (​ ​hellenotamiai)​ ​between 443 and 442 BCE and ​a
general (alongside Pericles)​ involved with putting down the revolt on
Samos in c. 441 BCE. Tremendously popular in his own time, Sophocles
was also an innovative playwright, as he added a third actor to the
tragedy play format and was the first to employ painted scenery (to
suggest a rural scene, for example), sometimes even changing scenery
during the play. The use of three actors (playing multiple roles and
wearing masks) was a major breakthrough as now much more
sophisticated plots became possible. Sophocles, therefore, stands
between the earlier Aeschylus and the later Euripides. Sophocles was
more interested in realistic action than his predecessors but kept the
chorus segment (a group of up to 15 actors who sang rather than spoke
their lines) as a more participatory cast member than his successors. For
Sophocles the chorus became both a protagonist and a commentator on
the events of the play, creating a closer relationship with the audience.
Euripides​ (c. 484-407 BCE)​ ​ - ​was one of the greatest authors of Greek
tragedy. In the 5th century, BCE Athens his classic works such as​ ​Medea
cemented his reputation for ​clever dialogues, fine choral lyrics, and a
dash of gritty realism​ in both his text and stage presentations.
GREAT RHETORICAL SKILLS. The writer of some 90 plays, Euripides
was also famous for posing awkward questions, unsettling his audience
with a thought-provoking treatment of common themes, and spicing up
the story with thoroughly immoral characters. This is probably why
Euripides won only a few festival competitions compared to his great
tragedian rivals Aeschylus and Sophocles, although he was tremendously
popular with the public. The popularity of Euripides' work has never
diminished and ​his plays continue to be performed in theatres today.
(​Modern temperament - less reverent to the gods)​ Euripides managed
to appeal through the presentation of universal themes of relevance to his
audience, themes such as justice versus revenge, the rule of law against
the will of the gods, and the struggle between reason and passion. The
characters in Greek tragedy were usually society's elite and the story
often dealt with matters of state, however, ​Euripides gave prominent
roles to intelligent female characters and included significant parts
for more ordinary citizens in his works. ​This is reflected in a comment
attributed to him by Aristophanes in his comedy play Frogs: "I made
tragedy more democratic". ​Euripides also removed the previously
prominent roles of Greek gods and generally restricted their
appearance to only the beginning or end of his plays.
Aristophanes​ - ​was the ​most famous writer of Old Comedy plays ​in
ancient Greece and his surviving works are the only examples of that
style. His innovative and sometimes rough comedy could also hide more
sophisticated digs at the political elite and deal with social issues such as
cultural change and the role of women in society. Indeed, the plays of
Aristophanes are not only a record of Greek theatre but also provide an
invaluable insight into many of the political and social aspects of ancient
Greece, from the practicalities of jury service to details of religious rituals
in major festivals.
Plato presents a fictional gathering of historical characters in his
Symposium, but Aristophanes was still well known at the time of its
creation (380s BCE) and, therefore, we may assume that the portrayal of
Aristophanes reflected this fact and was recognizably accurate. The poet
is presented as a rather amiable chap, sociable, and someone who
‘divides his time between Aphrodite and ​Dionysus’​, i.e. likes women,
boys, and wine. That Plato was disposed to Aristophanes is evidenced in
the positive tones of the epitaph he later wrote for the great poet. Plato
did, however, in his Apology, blame the poet for fuelling a public distrust
of Socrates. ​( ​The Birds, The Frogs, ​and ​The​ ​Clouds)​
3. Actors and Acting
a. Hypocrites​ ​- what the Greeks called the actors
b. Actors and Playwrights were often the same people
c. Only three actors
Protagonist​ - ​the first actor/character, the main character, the hero
Deuteragonist​ ​- the second actor - you could now have a conflict
Tritagonist​ ​- the third actor
d. Costumes and masks - ​Extremely stylized. A
​ mask enabled an actor to hide his
own identity and take on that of another, namely the character he was playing, by
giving him a new face. But putting on a mask or donning a face was not really a
negative act of concealment but more really a positive act of becoming. Masks
are worn by the chorus also gave the members of the chorus a group identity,
especially if their masks were similar or all the same. In the large Ancient Greek
theatres, most of the audience could not see the expressions on the real faces of
the actors or chorus. ​Masks enlarged the images of a facial expression
allowing the audience to see grief, joy, and/or any other feeling or emotion
the poet or playwright was trying to express. ​Masks identified and
distinguished the good characters from the bad, the tragic characters from the
comic ones. Ancient Greek theatre used a standard set of masks with
conventional expressions on them, such that the moment the audience saw a
character on stage wearing one those masks, they knew exactly what standard
character that actor was trying to portray.
Long flowing robes - colors symbolic. High platform boots were used.
A mask was at the center or heart of imitation, the very core of Ancient Greek
[​Ugliness, in the Greek mind, was equivalent to badness​.]
Some have argued that the shape of the mask amplified the actor's voice, like a
megaphone, making it easier for the audience to hear the words and lines he was
speaking. Others, after testing this theory, have argued that this did not hold up
but rather that it was the tone of the voice of the actor which the mask changed
rather than its loudness. A mask forced the actor to become clearer in his diction.
4. Chorus (choragus)
a. Music & Dance
Ode​ - ​Patterned after the movements of the chorus in Greek drama, the
ode was set up in three acts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode.
The strophe told one side of a story, while the antistrophe conveyed its
counterpart. These elements were originally poetic pieces performed with
musical accompaniment.
Paean​ ​- a song of praise or exaltation to a god or gods; it often includes a
request for help as well
b. Functions​ - ​First, the chorus sang and danced during the interludes between the
actor’s dialogue. Next, the chorus carried out the dramatic functions listed below.
The ritualistic dancing and sing of the chorus was the center of early Dionysian festivals until about
534 B.C.E. The Greek chorus continued to play an important role in classical Greek drama,
especially in tragedy; however, as the role of the actors in tragedy increased, the role of the chorus
diminished in importance. Ranging in number from 50 in the time of Thespis to 15 in later classical
Greek drama, t​he chorus consisted of Athenian citizens and were not professional actors.
They function, scholars have suggested variously:
● to offer a sense of rich ​spectacle​ to the drama;
● to provide time for ​scene & costume​ changes and give the principal actors a break and
announced the entrance and exit of characters;
● to offer important​ background and summary information ​that facilitates an audience's
ability to follow the live performance by recounting and interpreting history or past events;
● to ​offer commentary​ about and ​underline main themes​ animating the action, and
● to model an ideal audience.​ “Ideal spectator,”​ response to the unfolding drama. The
chorus embodied the moral ideals of society and often admonished the characters against
breaking these moral laws.
c. Evolution - ​early on there were​ ​many singers and dancers (with women), 50,
5. Greek Tragedy Concept and Terms:
a. Hamartia​ "Creon is not your downfall, no, you are your own."​ -- Tiresias, ​Oedipus Rex
The most common definition of tragic ​hamartia​ is ​"tragic flaw",​ but we
need to be careful with this term and understand what the Greeks meant
by "flaw" and how it relates to a broadly defined sense of "fate": ​Through
hamartia, the tragic hero visits his own fate upon him or herself.​ In
this way, "fate" is transformed from some metaphysical concept -- "the will
of the gods," "the divine order of the cosmos" etc. -- to one in which we
see ​our fates as tied to inherent elements of ourselves,​ of our
psyches,​ our own personal characteristics, that ordain our destinies.
To put it in a simplistic way, hamartia means "no matter where you go,
there you are"; you cannot escape your own personality; there are
elements of ourselves from which we simply cannot escape, and, for the
Greeks, these elements are "inherited" and will sometimes determine the
course of our lives.
This suggests we might see hamartia as "layered", like an onion: on the
surface, fate seems beyond one's control and "the will of the gods", but
dig deeper and we find we will our own fates through our own
personalities and character traits, ​but dig deeper still and we find our
character traits were in turn formed largely by luck or inherited via
the choices others made:​ you did not choose your parents; you did not
choose your DNA; you did not choose what continent you were born on or
in what century you found yourself.... You did not choose your skin color
or how others perceive that color; you did not choose to be born, say, to
a parent who would be killed in war or to be born to one who inherited
tens of millions of dollars and sent you to the best private schools... In
short, fate determines your character, and your character then determines
your fate.
b. Hubris​ - ​Excessive, arrogant PRIDE,​ especially in attempting to go outside or
beyond human knowledge, action, or capacity. Often, hubris is a direct violation
of the will of the gods. At this point, you've probably guessed the close link
between hamartia and hubris, for what makes us great often leads to our own
downfall ​when it is excessive. Y
​ outhful passion is a good thing​ until it's
excessive, ​and then it can destroy Romeo and Juliet. So too Oedipus'
intelligence and obsession with justice and finding the truth -- these are good
qualities and they make him a good king, but too much of a good thing is going to
lead to some mighty bad stuff. Remember that these plays are likely, loosely
based around actual, historical figures, so in many ways, they are an artistic
representation of reality. In our culture, these same "tragedies" play out nearly
identically in the media's treatment of, say, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse,
Heath Ledger, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, etc.
c. Peripeteia​ - ​The Ironic Reversal - ​Tragic irony is also expressed in the nature of
the hero's fall, as well, and how his fate is ironically reversed. Often, the hero
discovers he is exactly the opposite of what he has tried so hard to be, or moral
choices (or conflict between competing moral values or impulses) have led him
toward immoral behavior; note how these relate to hubris: how our downfall is
related to an excess of a quality that is normally beneficial.
d. Anagnorisis​ -​ i​ s a moment in a plot or story, specifically a tragedy, wherein the
main character either recognizes or identifies his/her true nature,
recognizes the other character’s true identity, discovers the true nature of
his situation, or that of the others (the “ah-ha” moment)​ – leading to the
resolution of the story. Aristotle discussed anagnorisis in his ​Poetics​ in detail. He
defines it as “a change [that] occurs from ignorance to knowledge, creating love
or hate between the individuals doomed by the poet for bad or good fortune.”
Simply, it is a startling discovery, which brings a change from ignorance to
knowledge. EXAMPLE: In “Oedipus Rex,” anagnorisis occurs when a
messenger comes and reveals to King Oedipus his true birth. Oedipus then
recognizes his queen, Jocasta, as his real mother, and the man whom he has
killed at crossroads as his real father, as well as himself as an unnatural sinner,
who has caused the disaster in the city of Thebes. Oedipus’ recognition is
artistically satisfying, as ​peripeteia​ (reversal of fortune) accompanies it. Here
peripeteia is a reversal of fortune from good to bad, moving to a tragic
e. Catharsis​ - ​the ​purging of emotions​ such as pity or fear. Greek tragedian
expects the audience (i.e. ourselves) to respond with a ​sense of pity, relief, and
a sense of divine justice. (Glad that it wasn’t us)
f. Allusion​ - ​a reference to a historical or literary figure or event.​ It may allude
(refer) to myth, religion, or to any other aspect of ancient or modern culture.
6. Structure of Greek Plays
a. Prologue​ ​- a speech often in verse, at the beginning of the play, that is addressed
to the audience; any preface or introduction to a literary work; An opening
dialogue presenting the tragedy's topic that took place before the entry of the
b. Parados​ -​ the first song sung by the chorus in a Greek tragedy; The entry chant
or song of the chorus, often in an anapestic (short-short-long) marching rhythm or
meter of four feet per line. (A "foot" in poetry contains one stressed syllable and
at least one unstressed syllable.) Following the parode, the chorus typically
remains onstage throughout the remainder of the play.
The parode and other choral odes usually involve the following parts, repeated in
order several times:
c. First Episode​ - ​There are several episodes in which actors interact with the
chorus. Episodes are typically sung or chanted. Each episode ends with a
d. First Stasimon (choral ode)​ - ​A choral ode in which the chorus may react to the
preceding episode.
Strophe​ -​ (​Turn)​ : A stanza in which the chorus moves in one direction
(toward the altar).
Antistrophe​ -​ (​Counter-Turn​): The following stanza, in which it moves in
the opposite direction. The antistrophe is in the same meter as the
e. Second through ??? Stasimon
f. Exodos​ Gr. (Exodus) ​- the closing choral song in a Greek drama; the exit song of
the chorus after the last episode.
7. General Analysis of information:
a. Aristotle’s Dramatic Unities from Poetics
Unity of Time​ - ​the action of the play occurs within a 24 hour period
Unity of Place​ - ​the action of the play takes place within the same
Unity of Action​ (Plot) - ​one plot-line; all events contribute to the final effect
(example: nothing is funny in the tragic play)
b. Elements of Tragedy
Tragedies are ​based on stories and heroes of Greek mythology​.
Because of the ​religious and civic nature​ of the festival of Dionysus,
they are required to be
morally instructive as well as entertaining​.
Tragedies are not just sad stories of unhappy people; rather, they are
complex studies of the nature of human beings in conflict with
themselves, another, society, and the gods​.
Tragedies depict ​high-born persons​ who, because of some ​tragic flaw
or shortcomings in their personalities, make a ​mistake which brings
about misery, loss of moral dignity, great sorrow, and suffering​.
Protagonist​ Antagonist​ - the character(s) or force that opposes the main character/ hero in a
Greek drama
Conflict​ Climax - ​The narrative element that is the turning point of the play; once done
there is no turning back.
Catastrophe​ - ​Catastrophe is a final resolution that appears in a narrative plot or
a long poem. It unravels the mystery or intrigue, and brings the story toward a
logical end. In a tragedy, it could be the death of a protagonist or other character.
Tragedy​ (elements of tragedy - Aristotle - ​Poetics)​ ​- a serious drama typically
describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force and having a
sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror
Tragic hero​ Tragic flaw ​Men play the roles
Actors wore masks and elevated shoes
Performances were outdoors during the day
Drama:​ a play; a literary composition meant to be acted out
Works Cited
Cartwright, Mark. "​Ancient Greek Theatre​." ​Ancient History Encyclopedia.​ Ancient History
Encyclopedia, 14 Jul 2016. ​www.ancient.eu/Greek_Theatre/​ Web. 30 Oct 2018.