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Greek Drama: Life and Afterlife

Greek Drama: Life and Afterlife

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Published by Nicholas Birns
Opening lecture for my online course on Greek Drama, offered in 2008 and 2011
Opening lecture for my online course on Greek Drama, offered in 2008 and 2011

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Published by: Nicholas Birns on May 05, 2013
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Greek Drama; Life and AfterlifeBy Nichlas BirnsGreek drama has a paradoxical place in our literary culture. On the onehand, it is one of the most popular and widely known aspects of ourliterary heritage, constantly crossing temporal, linguistic, and culturalboundaries. This has been particularly true in recent years (roughly since9/11) when revivals of Greek drama have proliferated on the New Yorkstages, of all shapes, sizes, and manners, Greek drama is frequentlytaught in high schools and introductory literature courses; it is prizedfor its accessibility and its depth, for its concrete ability to speak tosituations and feelings far removed from its specifics.
Yet in many ways Greek drama is a very unlikely candidate for this role.Written in a language no longer spoken, whose modern descendant is aminor tongue in our world, Greek drama is not only two and a half millennia old but is written out of assumptions and basic beliefs andorientations that we do not share. Contemporary culture is heir to aChristian understanding of the world, whatever our personal beliefs.Greek drama is palpably endowed with a very different sense of spirituality, one that is known about by learned people today but notpracticed for many centuries: there are no temples ot Zeus, sailors donot say a prayer to Poseidon before they embark on a voyage,Dionysian and Titanic are adjectives, but not animate forces. That whatwas essential for the ancient Greeks--their gods--are quaint, trivial, andarchival to us, and yet that the literary impact of the drama stillresonates is perhaps the greatest mystery.
The origins of Greek tragedy, indeed, lie in religious ritual devoted tothe Greek pantheon. No one has quite been able to pin down justexactly where the first dramas occurred in Greece. And this is animportant question, because for all that human beings seem to bothnaturally (as Aristotle (whom we will discuss in the next thread) mightsay, 'imitate' and also 'play' or 'make-believe', drama generally does notoccur spontaneously; it has to be 'invented' in a deliberate way.Although drama manifested itself independently in other parts of theworld--the Sanskrit drama of Kalidasa, for instance--drama is notuniversal; it does not occur in nearly every society the way poetry, of sort or another, does, pr painting. Generally, drama is associated withcontexts where
1) There is a homogenous, urban, or concentrated society.
2) There is a tradition of high culture going back centuries
3) There is not only a religion but also a body of religious writing orlore
4) There is a strong sense of political unity, but also an aspect of pluralism, whatever it is the democracy of the Greeks or the equal spaceallotted to Brahmin and warrior castes--as it were, to the contemplativeand the active--in the era of Sanskrit drama.
Most people assume that Greek drama came out of the 'dithyrambicchoruses' popular in the major Greek city of Athens. These ecstaticdances and songs performed in honor of Dionysus, the ancient Greekgod of drinking, goat-songs, orgies, and revelry. Oddly for such araucous deity, the Athenian civic elevation of this god was donepartially out of prudent compromise--Athens was a city of different
classes and interest groups, and Dionysus was linked to none of these.In effect, he was like a popular TV show or action-movie series that theentire population, regardless of their politics, rallies around.
At first, the plays that developed out of the dithyrambic chorusesfeatured one person on stage at a time. If there were a series of songs,different people might sing them, but they would never be on stagetogether, never interact. It was Aeschylus, the first of our playwrights,who introduced the single actor on stage at one time. This makesdrama in the conventional sense possible; it means there is spokendialogue on stage between two represented individuals, not just arecitation of narratively contextualized song to the audience. Sophocles,our next playwright, introduced the third actor, which made possible thefull range of performative interaction and psychological depth on stage.With this, Greek drama became perhaps the richest and mostsubstantive cultural form humankind had yet manifested.
Yet for all these quick and impressive beginnings, drama, for all its gloryand fame, did not found a sustained tradition in the West. Poetry waswritten all across the Greek world; it could be written it any city inGreece itself (Sparta, that stern city of warriors, produced some of theearliest Greek poets), whether in the Greek homeland or in the variousGreek colonies across the Mediterranean. Tragedy was performedthrough the Greek-speaking world but its writing flourished specificallyat Athens, when that particular city was an independent city-state, in atime span of roughly about a century, beginning to end. In this interval,the great playwrights we are studying-Aeschylus, Sophocles,Aristophanes, and Euripides, the four dramatists who founded our ideaof the European stage--did their work. But in the succeeding era, when

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