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Aristotle's 'satyric' may refer to the saturoi or attendants of Dionysus who were also called tragoi because they wore goats' ears (according to the Suidas, a 10th century AD Greek lexicon), and it is possible that the tragic chorus developed from a chorus of singers dressed as satyrs. This would explain the word tragoidia (tragedy), which appears to mean 'goat song'.
Commentators other than Aristotle generally attributed the origin of tragedy to Thespis, a sixth century poet who introduced speeches by an actor into choral performances. There was a tradition that he travelled about Attica performing plays on a plaustrum or wagon, according to the 1st century poet Horace (Ars Poetica 275-7). The name may be fictional, derived from the Homeric description of bardic song as 'god-spoken' (as at Odyssey 1.328). The term 'thespian' has been used in English to describe an actor since the early 19th century. The 1st century AD biographer Plutarch (Solon 29) writes that the Athenian poet and statesman Solon criticised the performances of Thespis as lies and paidia (sport). At the end of Wasps (1475ff), Aristophanes satirises tragic dancing in a burlesque 'scene from Thespis'.
The scale of the theatre compares with modern sporting arenas: the Athenian Theatre of Dionysus could hold perhaps 18,000 people, though Plato (Symposium 175e) implies that there were 30,000 spectators. It is still disputed whether women and children were present, though the current view is that they were.
The productions were organised as competitions, and precise dates are known only when the play is recorded as having won a prize. Poets submitted tetralogies of three tragedies and one satyr play. The chief official of the city, the archon, selected three, and appointed a choregos to finance and organise the chorus for each. This choregia counted as a civic duty, comparable to paying for a troop of soldiers or equipping a trireme. The chorus was composed of ephebes, youths who had reached the age of 18. The poets produced the productions themselves, and may also have acted in them: Athenaeus (The Sophists at Dinner I.21.e - about 200AD) states that Aeschylus acted in his own plays, and describes Sophocles' proficiency in music and dancing.
While the performances were part of the cult of Dionysus, the extent to which they were religious events is disputed. What is clear is that the plots (with the exception of the Bacchae) generally involve mythic but not religious stories. Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics 1111a8-10) implies that the plays of Aeschylus reveal secrets from the Eleusinian or Orphic mysteries. There was a tradition, mentioned by Plutarch (Symposium 1.1, 615) and the Suidas, that the seriousness of tragedy led to a reaction from audiences that it had 'nothing to do with Dionysus', so that in the time of Aeschylus the custom of having tragic choruses dressed as satyrs was reintroduced, for the burlesque form of tragedy, the satyr play.
Satyr plays might be considered a subdivision of tragedy, as they were written by the tragedians and performed together with the tragedies. Only one has survived in its entirety: the Cyclops of Euripides. While being a dramatic re-working of a Homeric story (from Odyssey Book 9), it has thematic similarities with the same poet's Hecuba. A substantial part of Sophocles' Ichneutai ('Trackers') has also survived: it may be a parody of Ajax. Its theme (the theft of Apollo's cattle by the infant Hermes) was later recounted by Ovid (Metamorphoses 2.676-707). Tony Harrison's play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (1990) recounts its theme and textual history.
Comedy has even less certain origins. Aristotle (Poetics 1449a) believed it originated in phallic processions which were a feature of Dionysian ritual, and its name is reminiscent of the bands of revellers (komoi) noted above. The comic competitions were established around the time of Aeschylus. The poets competed separately from the tragedians. Their themes were highly topical: Aristophanes' plays satirize many aspects of the contemporary Athenian society, including the writing and performance of tragedy.
The ancient commentators write of the spectacular theatricality of the productions, and particularly those of Aeschylus, who was noted for creating astonishment (ekplexis): ghosts appear as characters in Persai and the Eumenides, and one text (Life of Aeschylus) tells that children fainted and women had miscarriages at the sight of the Furies.
Aristotle (Poetics 1449a) attributes the introduction of scene-painting to Sophocles. There was a variety of stage equipment, especially flying gear, and also machinery for thunder and lightning. The crane or mechane was often used to effect a theophany: Plato (Cratylus 425d) wrote that 'the tragic poets when in some dilemma have recourse to raising gods on machines', and the Latin phrase deus ex machina has become a metaphor for a contrived solution. The device appears to have been used by Sophocles in Philoctetes 1408ff, by Euripides in Orestes, Medea, Electra, IT, Bacchae, and often features in the comedies of Aristophanes (most humorously in Peace 126-176).
The setting of many tragedies is liminal, at the threshold to the house. The dramatic boundary between the orchestra and the skene may therefore reflect that between polis, the city, and oikos, the household. The interior world remained private, being seen only as a tableau, usually of death, by means of the ek-kuklema ('wheeled platform' - the relation of its name to English 'cycle' can be seen if we replace the 'k's by 'c's and the 'u' by 'y').
Rewriting might involve reworking the same story: it is known that Euripides wrote two versions of Hippolytus, and we are fortunate to have a version of the same Homeric story (from the Odyssey) by each of the three great tragedians: the Choephoroi of Aeschylus, and the Electra plays of Euripides and Sophocles.
The three tragedies which each poet presented at a competition were not necessarily on a related subject: only Aeschylus is known to have written trilogies on a single theme, like the Oresteia. The Theban plays of Sophocles, though sometimes performed now as a trilogy, were written for different competitions.
Greek tragedy is as much choral as dramatic. There were twelve singers in the Aeschylean chorus, and fifteen in the Sophoclean and Euripidean. Though Thespis probably performed as a solo actor with chorus, by the mid fifth century BC there were three hypokritai ('responders' or perhaps 'interpreters'). Aristotle (Poetics 1449a) credits Aeschylus with introducing a second actor and Sophocles with the third. Aeschylus adopted the Sophoclean practice in the Oresteia, which requires a specialist singer. Aeschylus was famous for the use of a non-speaking actor, a 'silent face' (kophon prosopon), who may speak at moments of maximum tension, as at Choephoroi 900-902. Aristophanes mocks the use of a silent actor in Frogs (911-920).
As well as speeches, the episodes usually include passages of stichomythia ('line-speech'), dialogic exchanges in which the actors speak in alternate lines. Such highly formal dialogue can highlight confrontation, as in the 'tapestry scene' in Agamemnon 931-943; a balanced argument, as at Eumenides 587-608; or simply be a dramatic way to tell a narrative, as at Ajax 38-51. Euripidean stichomythia is generally rather mannered, and uses many techniques of rhetorical debate. Some of the effects of stichomythia can be seen from the Shakespearean use of the form, as at Love's Labours Lost V.2, Richard III IV.4, and 3 Henry VI III.2.
The choral odes are written in a wide variety of metres, in mostly shorter lines. They were composed in a different dialect from the spoken passages: an artificial form of Doric rather than Attic Greek (perhaps for historical reasons, since the choral forms out of which tragedy developed may have been composed in it. Its most distinctive feature is the use of the vowel alpha instead of eta). Anapaestic lines were normally chanted during the first entry of the chorus, as a marching rhythm, and were also used at moments of high tension between episodes. During the odes, the chorus danced as well as singing. The musical accompaniment was provided by a flute-player (auletes: as the instrument probably had a reed, it's nowadays often translated as 'pipe').
The dramatic function of the chorus has been one of the most disputed topics in subsequent commentary on tragedy, and one of the most difficult aspects to realise in performance. The contrasting views of Schlegel and Nietzsche on its artistic function are noted in a discussion of the influence of tragedy elsewhere on this server.
The tragedians used sung and spoken verse in distinctive ways. Aeschylean odes may be very long: nearly half the Agamemnon is sung. They are noted for their powerful and unpolished imagery: Aristophanes (Frogs 823-4) depicts Aeschylus as 'hurling bolted words, tearing them away like boards'. Euripidean odes are often very short (mostly about 40 lines), and Aristotle criticised them (most commentators would say unjustifiably) as interludes, with little relation to the plot (Poetics 1456a). They are often very beautiful: Plutarch (Lysander 15.3) recounts that the Spartan army did not destroy Athens in 404 because they were moved to pity by the singing of the first chorus of the Electra (432-486). The third stasimon of the Bacchae (862-911) is another lovely, almost Marvellian, nature poem. A distinctive feature of Sophoclean tragedy is the frequent use of choral interchanges (kommoi) between the chorus and one of the actors, rather than purely choral odes, so the chorus is particularly highly integrated in the language of the drama.
The doubling of parts and the portrayal of women were possible because the actors wore masks. The earliest written information on masks is given by the 2nd century AD lexicographer Julius Pollux, who listed 26 types of masks used in tragedy, and more in comedy. The tragic prosopeion was a full-face mask. In Hellenistic theatre, the masks were large, with a raised forehead or onkos, and exaggeratedly distorted mouths, but pottery illustrations show that 5th century masks were more naturalistic. It is becoming clear that the theatrical realisation of the emotional power of tragedy requires the use of masks, both to integrate the chorus in the drama, and to affect the actor's vocal projection, by forming a resonating chamber, and modern mask-makers concentrate as much on the sound as the appearance. Directors particularly interested in mask work include Peter Stein at the Berlin Schaubühne, and Peter Hall, as in the 1981-2 production of the Oresteia at the National Theatre in London, and the 1996 production of Oedipus Tyrannus at the Greek theatre of Epidaurus.
The layout of Greek theatres is closer to 'theatre in the round' than to a frontal proscenium-arch configuration. It is possible that in the 5th century the actors moved among the chorus in the orchestra, rather than standing behind them on a raised stage (proskenion). Some productions now favour this approach, rather than presenting tragedy in tableau form, and aim for a more dynamic, choreographed, use of the chorus (as argued for by Michael Ewans, cited below). It seems likely that choral lyrics like the Furies' binding song would have been interpreted through the dance (Eumenides 372-5: 'For in truth leaping from on high, with heavy fall I bring down my foot; my legs trip the runner...'). It is, of course, difficult to recreate movement patterns on such indirect evidence.
Reading on the performance of tragedy:
Taplin, O. (1977) The Stagecraft of Aeschylus, Oxford: Clarendon.
Ewans, M. (1995) The Oresteia, London: Everyman
See also Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama
The oldest surviving complete texts are mostly Byzantine (from the 9th century AD). The scholars concentrated on three plays of each tragedian: the 'Byzantine triad' (Aeschylus: Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus; Sophocles: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus the King; Euripides: Hecuba, Orestes, Phoenician Women). The oldest texts are papyri found at Oxyrhynchus in upper Egypt, some of which date from the 1st and 2nd century BC. Substantial fragments of the Euripidean tragedy Hypsipyle, the Sophoclean satyr play Ichneutai (Trackers), and Menander's comedy Dyscolus (The Bad-tempered Man) were discovered there (as well as work by Aristotle, Callimachus, Homer, and Pindar).
Greek tragedy as we know it represents the original literary canon: the extant plays are those which the Alexandrian scholars thought were the best, and listed as kanones ('rods' or 'rules'). The work of other tragedians (such as Ion of Chios, Critias, and Agathon) is discussed by Aristophanes, Aristotle, and other ancient commentators, and some fragments of their work survive.
Further information on the transmission of Classical texts may be found in:
Knox, B.M.W. and Easterling, P.E. (1985) 'Books and Readers in the Greek World', Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Volume 1, Cambridge: CUP
Reynolds, L.D. and Wilson, N.G. (1991) Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Texts, Oxford: Clarendon
Information on dating is derived from the standard reference work:
Lesky, A. (1972) Die tragische Dichtung der Hellenen, 3rd edition, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht,
published in English as:
Lesky, A. (1983) Greek Tragic Poetry, tr Dillon, New Haven: Yale University Press
Wrote about 80 plays, and won 1st prize 28 times. Seven of the plays traditionally ascribed to him are listed here. (Links to the Greek and English texts)
[480 Battle of Salamis, the end of the war with Persia]
472 Persians (Persai)
467 Seven Against Thebes (Hepta Epi Thebas) ['Septem' in Latin]
(c460?) Suppliant Women (Hiketides) ['Supplices']
458 The Story of Orestes (Oresteia), trilogy comprising
Agamemnon, Libation Bearers (Choephoroi), Eumenides
? Prometheus Bound (Prometheus Desmotes) [Prometheus Vinctus], traditionally ascribed to Aeschylus, though linguistic analysis suggests otherwise
Wrote over 100 plays, won 1st prize 18 times. Seven of the completely-extant plays ascribed to him are listed here, plus the incompletely-preserved Trackers. (Links to the Greek and English texts)
(c445) Ajax (Aias)
(?) Women of Trachis (Trachiniai)
[The 30-year Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta began in 430]
(c430) Oedipus the King (Oidipous Turannos) [Oedipus Rex]
(c412) Electra (Elektra)
409 Philoctetes (Philoktetes)
401 Oedipus at Colonus (Oidipous Epi Kolonoi)
(?) Trackers (Ichneutai): satyr play
Wrote about 90 plays, won 1st prize only 4 times. Nineteen of the completely-extant plays traditionally ascribed to him are listed here. (Links to the Greek and English texts)
(?) Rhesus (Rhesos) traditionally ascribed to Euripides, though stylistic analysis suggests otherwise
438 Alcestis (Alkestis)
431 Medea (Medeia)
(c430) Children of Herakles (Herakleidai)
428 Hippolytus (Hippolutos)
(c424) Hecuba (Hekabe)
(?) Cyclops (Kuklops): satyr play
(c424) Suppliant Women (Hiketides) [Supplices]
(c417) (Madness of) Heracles (Herakles Mainomenos) [Hercules Furens]
415 Trojan Women (Troiades)
(c413) Electra (Elektra)
(c413) Iphigenia in Tauris (Iphigeneia He En Taurois) (Note that, unlike 'Aulis', there is no place named 'Tauris': it is a dative plural, referring to a people living to the north of the Black Sea, in modern Crimea, and the title is more correctly rendered 'Iphigenia among the Taureans')
412 Helen (Helene)
(c410) Phoenician Women (Phoinissai)
(c405) Bacchae (Bakchai): the text is incompletely-preserved.
(c405) Iphigenia in Aulis (Iphigeneia He En Aulisi)
Wrote about 44 comedies. 'Frogs' and 'Women at the Festival' contain satirical analyses of the tragic writing (and the personalities) of Aeschylus and Euripides. (Links to the Greek and English texts)
424 Knights (Hippeis) [Equites]
423 Clouds (Nephelai) (Nubes]
422 Wasps (Sphekes) [Vespae]
421 Peace (Eirene) [Pax]
414 Birds (Ornithes) [Aves]
411 Lysistrata (Lusistrate)
410 Women at the Festival (Thesmophoriazusai)
405 Frogs (Batrachoi) [Ranae]
392 Women at the Assembly (Ecclesiazusai)
388 Wealth (Ploutos) [Plutus]
Zimmermann, B. (1986) Die griechische Tragödie, München: Artemis
published in English as Zimmermann, B. (1991) Greek Tragedy: An Introduction, trans Marier, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
An extensive collection of Classical Theatre Resources is posted by John Porter at Saskatchewan.
A bibliography and brief discussion on the influence of Greek tragedy on European thought and theatrical practice may be found elsewhere on this server.