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Origin of Greek Tragedy

From dithyramb, a choral song dedicated to Dionysus.

A dithyramb is a hymn that was sung and danced for the god of wine and fertility.
Worship of Dionysus was achieved through intoxication, sexual orgy and sacrificial

offerings sometimes human

The Greeks created the first permanent theatre structure called Theatre of Dionysus

in honor the fertility god;

It is located in Athens.

Arion of Methymna (7th Century BCE) was the first to write a choral song, practice it with a chorus, and
perform it

Lasus of Hermione was the first to do it at Athens. It is connected with the worship of Dionysus in

Theater was first officially recognized in 534 BCE when the Athenian Government began to subsidize

Some of the first accounts of Greek Drama are documented by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his
book Poetics.

Thespis of Corinth

The first travelling actor

Active c. 538-28 BCE
Added prologue and speech to choral performance
Said to have invented the mask

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Uncertain whether he was a playwright, an actor, or a priest

thespian term comes from his name

What is theatre?

Defined theater

Art of acting a part on stage

Dramatic impersonation of another character than yourself

Aristotle's definition of Tragedy

Aristotle defines tragedy as the imitation of an action which is serious, complete, of a certain
magnitude, couched in poetic language. It should be dramatic, with incidents arousing pity and fear,
which bring about a purgation of these emotions.
Define Pity. Pity is aroused in the audience for the character(s), and we fear lest the same misfortune
happen to us purgation/catharsis is a cleansing; a release of emotions
According to Aristotle, comedy portrays men as worse than they are and tragedy as better than in actual
He also notes that Sophocles drew men as they ought to be.
Who performed tragedy?
Corinth: c. 600 BCE (Arion)
Sicyon: c. 550 BCE
Cleisthenes (not the Athenian)
Athens: c. 510 BCE
only Athenian dramas left
school of Hellas
Where and When performed?
City of Dionysia at Athensaka
Greater Dionysia
Time. End of March
Rural Dionysia
Different demes had performances
Time. Various dates in December

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The Lenaea
Less prestigious
Sometime in late January/early February
Almost every Greek city had a theater
Theaters could be very small or huge
Each theater had specific parts usually in the center of the city

Three Tragedy Playwrights

All active in the 5th Century BCE

All won first place in multiple competitions

Only Athenian plays survive
Aeschylus. b. 525 BCE d. 456 BCE (Sicily)
Fought at Marathon
Aeschylus, Euphorion's son of Athens, lies under this stone dead in Gela among the white
wheatlands; a man at need good in fight -- witness the hallowed field of Marathon, witness the
long-haired Mede.
First tragedy: 499 BCE
First prize: 484 BCE (13 overall)
Introduced the second actor
Wrote over 70 plays (seven survive)
Always revered
Main interest is in situation and event rather than character
Pericles directed the chorus for Persians
Both sons were very successful playwrights
Oresteia, Seven Against Thebes
Plays are deeply patriotic and religious
Sophocles. b. 496 BCE d. 406 BCE
Served as a general with Pericles (441 BCE)
Very active in city politics (413 BCE)
First tragedy: 468 BCE
First prize : 468 BCE
Won 18 first prizes
Never finished third
Introduced the third actor
Wrote over 120 plays (seven survive)
The most successful of the Big Three
Challenged conventional mores
Introduced more dialogue between characters (less Chorus)
Wrote Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, and Electra.
No innovations on the stage
Wrote ninety plays (19 survive)
Sophocles: I present men as they ought to be, Euripides presents men as they are.
More realistic than the other two

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Wrote Alcestis, Medea, Hippolytus, Bacchae, and Oreste.

The Staging of Tragedy

The audience knew every number by heart
Most tragedies dealt with mythological themes
Performers wore high heels, loud costumes and heavy make-up
They wore elaborate clothes, tall boots, and masks
They relied on background singers, known as the Chorus especially after the introduction of the
third actor
Maximum of three actors
All roles played by men
Same group of actors for each set of plays for each author
Playwrights did not act in their own plays after Sophocles
Chorus publicly funded
A choregos would pay for and train the chorus
Viewed as a civic duty
Could be prosecuted for failing to do it; wealthy enough
Choregos got a monument if his chorus won
Costumes. Actor wore:
The most salient feature
All parts by men, so mask depicted gender
Acted as a megaphone
Voice inflection paramount
Multiple Masks = Multiple Characters
Only three actors
More than three speaking roles, need for costume and mask change
Platform boots (kothornoi)
Chorus could be in costume (comedy)
Any male could attend
Women most likely able to attend
State-funded attendance
Cost was the average daily wage of a laborer
Theoric Fund
Never suspended, even when Athens in dire straights
Government supplied public tickets
learning through suffering
Moderation is to be sought in all things, even good things
The mighty fall so far that we admire them for being so high

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A spiritual cleansing of the audience

Performances are emotional

Tragic Hero
Characteristics of a tragic hero:
Undergoes a morally significant struggle that ends disastrously.
Essentially a superior person who is treated sympathetically (we like him in spite of what the
hero might do)
His destiny or choice is to go down fighting rather than submit and thus pluck a moral victory
from a physical defeat.
Not all good or all bad (very human)
Has a high, respected position to
Ignominy or unhappiness or death.
Tragic Flaw: Hamartia
Some defect in the tragic character that helps cause his own ruin. For the Greeks this flaw is
hubris (excessive pride). The flaw may seem to be jealousy, anger, ambition, etc., but it will
always be because the character thinks himself too superior in some way. Because of this
hubris, whatever happens to the tragic hero is not all undeserved.
Classic Moments in the Tragic Plot
Reversal of situation (peripety) good begins to slide or go bad
Recognition (a.k.a. epiphany) discovery of the critical fact the hero realizes his own flaw has
brought him to this low point.
Scene of suffering destructive or painful action such as a death on the stage, bodily agony,
wounds, etc. (the suffering and final submission of the hero)
Greek Theatre. Two main types of drama: tragedy and comedy.
Theatrical events were performed annually at the festival of Dionysus, which lasted 5 or 6 days: the
Dionysus; going to the theater was to take part in a religious ritual.
Competition among writers: each author submitted 4 plays (tetralogy) to be performed in one day (3
tragedies trilogy and a satyr play)
Plots were religious and drawn from mythology (dealt with the relationship between humans and the
Audiences were familiar with the stories; knowing the story allowed for dramatic irony (situations or
speeches that have one meaning to the plays characters but another for the audience, who knows
more than the character about a given situation)
Theater and Equipment
Open air theater - the theater of Dionysus in Athens had more than 17,000 seats
Theatron the seats for the audience were arranged like a horseshoe in rising tiers
Orchestra circular area at ground level
Thymele an altar in the center of the orchestra to Dionysus on which sacrifices were made
Skene the scene building on the side of the orchestra that had a backdrop with doors for entrances
and exits
Proscenium the level area in front of the skene for action of the play
Technical equipment:
Eccyclema wheeled platform rolled out of the skene to reveal action that had taken place
indoors (very violent scenes)
The machine mechanical contrivance to lower gods to the proscenium from the top of the

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Devices to imitate lightening and thunder

Painted scenery

Greek Amphitheatre. Two Major Performance Areas

The Orchestra or Dancing Circle served as the primary acting area
The Skene (scene building)- consisted of a building behind the orchestra probably used as a
dressing room, later to be integrated into the stage action by an innovative playwright.
Equipment: Deus ex Machina God From the Machine
The Machina- a crane that was used to represent characters who were flying or lifted off of the
Dramatic Unities
Time 24 hours for the action of the play.
Place no change of scenery
Action no subplot (an action which happens elsewhere is told by another character)
Structure of Tragedy

Prologue introductory section that gives the background (usually expository rather

than dramatic)

Parados entrance of chorus; chorus chants more background to the story

Episodes and Stasimon action begins with the first episode (usually 5 episodes)

followed by a parados (chorus); the choral odes are called stasima

Exodus the final action of the play; two features: messenger speech and the deus ex

machina, in which the deity is brought in to intervene in the action

Chorus there is always a chorus in Greek tragedy; fulfills several functions:

Members sang, danced and played instruments
Ideal audience responding to the action as the poet intended
Modulated the atmosphere and tone (representative of typical Athenian citizens

conservative but not submissive)

Questions new characters as to origin or purpose

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Choral odes showed the passage of time.

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