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The Role of Drama in Classical Athens
Transcript of The Role of Drama in Classical Athens
- The golden age of Greek drama revolved around Athens in the 5th century B.C.E., coinciding with the period of Athens' Imperial Democracy.
- It was the time of thinkers like Socrates and Plato, historians Thucydides and Herodotus, and of the great demagogues Pericles and Cleon.
- Athens had shed its former tyrants, and so it was the age of the citizen, but also of slavery and demagoguery, prosperity and corruption and utter brutality.
- The great tragedians of the day, whose plays gave voice to the issues of the polis were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
- Tragedies, comedies, and dythrambs were performed during the Dionysia, a festival of the god Dionysus.
- Begun with a grand procession (pompe) to the theater of up to 17,000 Athenian citizens (mostly male), the Dionysia was meant to demonstrate the power and wealth of the city. Later it became a central aspect of Athenian culture that they exported across their empire.
- A panel of ten judges, selected from the citizenry of each of the ten different phyles of Athens, awarded first, second, and third prizes to the plays and performers.
Theater of Dionysus
- The principle venue for the plays of this age was the Theater of Dionysus.
- The Chorus performed in the Orchestra while the actors performed on the Logeion in front of the Skene.
- The sets were minimalistic, relying more on the language of the plays and the performances by the chorus and the actors. Aristotle considered spectacle (the visual element of a play) to be the least important aspect of the tragedy.
Tragedy vs. Comedy
- In Aristotle's
he makes the distinction between Tragedy and Comedy as high and low forms. Tragedies "ennoble" while comedy "aims at representing men as worse".
- Comedies were often farcical, "It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain". They were inclined to represent contemporary Athenian figures satirically or take on fantastical subjects.
- Tragedies were meant to be serious. Their plots revolved around characters and stories well-known by the audience, but that were distantly removed from Athens. Their handling of ideal but familiar stories allows, according to Aristotle, a catharsis for the audience.
Elements of Tragedy
- The Chorus was made up of singers, dancers, musicians and a leader who often performed the parts of the Chorus' dialogue.
- They sometimes wore masks, depending on their role in the action of the play.
- Before Sophocles, the Chorus served to provide commentary on the plot.
- After Sophocles, the Chorus served as integral characters in the plot producing, in Aristotle's opinion, a more unified play.
History of the Peloponnesian War
The Birth of Tragedy
A delightful read, "The Staging of a Play" -
Aspects of Performance
- All performers in the Dionysia were male (some of the audience were perhaps female).
- The Chorus consisted of 12-50 members, but the plays had only 2-3 actors (it was Sophocles who introduced the third actor).
- Performers wore masks to facilitate character changes and create distance between the performer and the character.
- Central to the definition of a tragedy is the tragic hero. Usually the protagonist, they are characters "who are above the common level...a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful". Tragic heroes are usually nobility or mythical heroes.
- They suffer a "change of fortune...not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad" that arises "as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty". Tragic heroes are not the paramount of good, but are also not villains. Their flaws are especially human.
Definition of a Tragedy
- Mimesis, in a tragedy, is the quality of imitation in representation. Classical tragedians thought of their plays as imitations of ideal characters and stories ("actions") that are "true to life and yet more beautiful".
- The insinuation here is that mimesis works on two levels, representation and recognition.
- All art, in the Aristotelian sense, is imitation, the value of which is not realism in the contemporary sense but rather recognition.
- This recognition is in part how tragedies achieve what Aristotle called...
- Catharsis is the "pleasure...which comes from pity and fear through imitation". It is the experience of the tragedy for the audience which results in a purgation of negative emotions.
- The audience is capable of feeling this relief of emotions because they are held at a distance from the events of the tragedy. They might be proud, and see in Oedipus something of their own flaws, but the distance allows the audience to feel sympathy (but not empathy).
- The implication, formally, is that catharsis occurs with the resolution of the tragedy. It is a response to the unity and completeness of the play.
- Aristotle defined tragedy as "a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude—by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament...it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions".
- We might rewrite this to define tragedy as a unified story of great people, expressed through poetry, advanced by speech, who suffer reversals that evoke pity and fear and through their resolution making our fears and anxieties less so.