The History of Greek Tragedy


The Dionysia: Tragic Festival

Each spring Athens (when it was an independent city state under the kingship of Pericles) held a festival in celebration of the god Dionysus at which the contest for best tragedy was a central part. Tragic playwrights submitted three serious dramas and a comedy called a satyr play, often on a similar theme.


This was not a business enterprise but rather a central part of the religious worship of the city and so it was controlled by the State: the playwrights were chosen by judges and were allocated their actors by lot to ensure fairness. The tragic poets competed with one another and, during the 5th Century BC (the ‘Golden Age’ of Greek drama) Aeschylus won thirteen first place victories, Sophocles, twenty four, and Euripides, five.


The Theatre

The theater of Dionysus was, like all ancient Greek theaters, an open-air auditorium and, due to the lack of adequate artificial lighting, performances took place during the day. Scenes set at night had to be identified as such by the actors or the chorus; the audience, upon receiving these verbal cues, had to use its imagination. In general, the action of tragedy was well served by presentation in an open-air theater since interior scenes, which are common in our typically indoor theaters, are all but non-existent in tragedy. The action of a tragedy normally takes place in front of palaces, temples and other outdoor settings. This seemed natural to the ancient audience because Greek public affairs, whether civic or religious, were conducted out of doors as was much of Greek private life due to the relatively mild climate of the Aegean area.


Costume and setting would have been minimal. There was a central dancing area for the Chorus (called an orchestra) and, in place of a stage, there would have been a tent (called a skene – the ancestor of our modern word scene) in which the actors could change. The side of the skene facing the audience may have had a relevant picture of a palace or temple painted on it but that would have been the extent of setting.


An ‘ekkyklema’ (literally ‘wheeled out thing’) would occasionally have been hidden inside the skene.‘ This device was used to display the results of some grisly off-stage action to the audience and would have been appropriately adorned with blood and bodies and ‘wheeled out’ when required. A ‘mechane’ which could be used to hoist characters playing gods on to the roof of the skene would also occasionally be used: this is the source of the term ‘deus ex machina’.


The Actors

By the middle of the fifth century three actors were required for the performance of a tragedy. In descending order of importance of the roles they assumed they were called the protagonist 'first actor', (a term applied in modern literary criticism to the central character of a play not the actor), deuteragonist 'second actor' and tritagonist 'third actor'. Aeschylus was the first playwright to have presented more than one character on stage at a time and is thus credited with the invention of dramatic dialogue. Since most plays required more than three characters most actors played more than one role and masks were used to indicate character changes as well as to enable male actors to more convincingly play female characters as women were not allowed to perform on stage in Ancient Greece.


The Chorus

The chorus often portrayed the people of the city, responding to the protagonist as an ideal audience. During the choral odes their singing and dancing provided variety and spectacle, allowing time for the actors to change into other costumes for the next scene. The importance of singing throughout the performance suggests that the modern parallel for tragedy is actually opera rather than ‘straight’ drama.


The first function of a tragic chorus was to chant an entrance song called a parados as they marched into the orchestra. Once the chorus had taken its position in the orchestra, its duties were twofold: firstly, it engaged in dialogue with characters during the episodes and secondly it sang or danced during the stasima (singular = stasimon).


Private reading of tragedy deprives us of the visual and aural effects created by the Chorus and actors which were important elements of this genre: we miss the scenery, inflection of actors' voices, gestures and postures, costumes and masks, singing, dancing, the sounds of the original language and its various poetic rhythms. This does not render our reading of tragedy worthless because words are still the most important means of communication, however imagination must be used as much as possible in order to compensate for those theatrical elements lost in reading tragedy.