Genre - Tragedy
As was noted in the discussion of the Iliad, the word "tragedy" refers
primarily to tragic drama: a literary composition written to
be performed by actors in which a central character called a
tragic protagonist or hero suffers some serious misfortune which
is not accidental and therefore meaningless, but is significant
in that the misfortune is logically connected with the hero's
actions. Tragedy stresses the vulnerability of human beings whose
suffering is brought on by a combination of human and divine
actions, but is generally undeserved with regard to its harshness.
This genre, however, is not totally pessimistic in its outlook.
Although many tragedies end in misery for the characters, there
are also tragedies in which a satisfactory solution of the tragic
situation is attained.
Tragedy was a public genre from
its earliest beginnings at Athens; that is, it was intended to
be presented in a theater before an audience. Epic originally
was also a public genre. Homer
chanted the Iliad and Odyssey to the accompaniment
of a stringed instrument called a kithara
before an audience. Epic continued to be recited by rhapsodes
at festivals like the Panathenaia, but it gradually became more
of a private genre to be read from a manuscript at one's leisure.
This happened in part also to tragedy. In the fourth century
Aristotle in his Poetics points out that it is possible to experience
the effect of tragedy without public performance (i.e., by private
reading). Tragedy was still being written and produced in the
Athenian theater in Aristotle's day, but the plays of the three
great tragedians (Aeschylus,
and no doubt of other playwrights were also being read privately.
Reading, of course, is our primary means of access to ancient
tragedy except for occasional modern productions, which help
us to a certain degree to appreciate its theatricality, but for
the most part provide quite a different theatrical experience
from that offered by the ancient productions.
Private reading of tragedy deprives
us of the visual and aural effects, which were important elements
of this genre. Our word theater is derived from the Greek word
theatron, which contains the stem of the verb theasthai
'to view as spectators'. Drama is a Greek word meaning
'action', related to the verb dran 'to do'. The author
of a tragedy was not just a writer of a script. When his work
was approved for presentation at the state religious festival
in honor of the god Dionysus
Dionysia), the state assigned him actors and a chorus. The
author then had to perform the additional tasks of training the
actors and chorus and of composing the music for the various
songs of the actors and chorus and providing choreography for
the chorus. Because we usually read tragedies rather than seeing
theatrical productions of them and also because our reading is
usually in translation, we miss the following elements which
are additional aids to interpretation beyond the script of the
play: scenery, inflection of actors' voices, actors' gestures
and postures, costumes and masks, singing, dancing, sounds of
the original language and its various poetic rhythms. These handicaps,
however, are no reason to neglect tragedy. We still have the
most essential element of drama, the words, the playwright's
most important medium of communication. According to Aristotle,
"the plot is the soul of tragedy" and the plot is communicated
to the audience primarily by means of words. You should, however,
keep in mind that words are not all there is to tragedy. Use
your imagination as much as possible in order to compensate for
those theatrical elements lost in reading tragedy.
The Athenian theater was not
a business enterprise like our theater but was financed by the
Athenian state as an integral part of an Athenian religious festival:
the City Dionysia. Three tragic poets were chosen to present
their plays by a magistrate called an archon who had charge of
the City Dionysia. Each one of the tragedians presented a tetralogy
(a group of four plays), three tragedies and a satyr play,1
on one morning of the festival. In the first half of the fifth
century the three tragedies often formed a connected trilogy,
which told a continuous story. One connected trilogy survives,
The Oresteia of Aeschylus,
consisting of three plays: Agamemnon, Libation
Bearers and Eumenides. This trilogy traces the
story of the House of Atreus from Agamemnon's
murder by his wife after his return from Troy to the acquittal
of his son, Orestes,
who killed his mother in revenge. Three other surviving plays
of Aeschylus belong to trilogies of which two plays have been
lost. All the extant tragedies of Sophocles
do not belong to connected trilogies, but are self-contained
dramas. Although there is evidence that Sophocles wrote one connected
trilogy, the normal practice of the second half of the fifth
century was to write three unconnected tragedies.
play is so called because of its chorus which consists of satyrs,
grotesque woodland spirits having human form with a horse's ears
and tail. Only one satyr play survives, the Cyclops of Euripides,
which parodies the story of Odysseus
and Polyphemus in the Odyssey.
The tragic poets competed with
one another and their efforts were ranked by a panel of judges.
Aeschylus won thirteen first place victories, Sophocles, twenty
four, and Euripides, five. Euripides's relatively small number
of victories is due more to his unpopularity among the Athenians
because of certain radical themes in his plays than any lack
of ability as a tragedian.
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.
The theater of Dionysus in the
earliest days of tragedy (late sixth - early fifth century) must
have consisted of only the most basic elements. All that was
required was a circular dancing area for the chorus (orchestra)
at the base of a gently sloping hill, on which spectators could
sit and watch the performance (for drawing of theater click on
the following: theater).
On the other side of the orchestra facing the spectators there
probably stood a tent in which the actors could change their
costumes (one actor would play more than one part). This is suggested
by the word skene
which means 'tent', and was used to refer to a wooden wall having
doors and painted to represent a palace, temple or whatever setting
was required. The wall, which eventually became a full-fledged
stage building, probably acquired this name because it replaced
the original tent. The construction of the wooden skene (cf.
our theatrical terms "scene" and "scenery")
and of a formal seating area consisting of wooden benches on
the slope, which had been hollowed out, probably took place some
time toward the middle of the fifth century. This was no doubt
the form of the theater in which the later plays of Aeschylus
and those of Sophocles and Euripides were presented. The actors
positioned themselves either in the orchestra with the chorus
or on the steps leading to the doors of the skene. The theater
of Dionysus as it survives today with the remains of an elaborate
stone skene, paved orchestra and marble seats was built in the
last third of the fourth century BC This stone theater had a
capacity of approximately fifteen thousand spectators; the plays
of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in the earlier wooden
theater were viewed by audiences of comparable numbers.
Two mechanical devices which
were part of the ancient Greek theater deserve mention. One device
is the ekkyklema
'a wheeled-out thing', a platform on wheels rolled out through
one of the doors of the skene, on which a tableau was displayed
representing the result of an action indoors (e.g., a murder)
and therefore was unseen by the audience. The other device is
called a mechane
'theatrical machine', a crane to which a cable with a harness
for an actor was attached. This device allowed an actor portraying
a god or goddess to arrive on scene in the most realistic way
possible, from the sky. The mechane deposited the actor
on top of the skene so that he as a deity could address
the human characters from an appropriately higher level. This
device was not exclusively limited to use by divine characters,
but was employed whenever the plot required any character to
fly. On the other hand, not every god arrived on scene by means
of this machine. The Latin phrase deus ex machina, 'the
god from the machine', is often used to refer to the appearance
of gods by means of the mechane in tragedy. This phrase is also
employed in a pejorative sense in modern literary criticism to
refer to an improbable character or event introduced by an author
to resolve a difficult situation. This secondary meaning of deus
ex machina developed from the practice of inferior ancient dramatists
who introduced a god at the end of a play in order to untangle
a badly snarled plot.
The actors in tragedy were hired
and paid by the state and assigned to the tragic poets probably
by lot. 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
protagonist2 'first actor', (a term also applied
in modern literary criticism to the central character of a play),
deuteragonist 'second actor' and tritagonist 'third
actor'. The protagonist took the role of the most important character
in the play while the other two actors played the lesser roles.
Since most plays have more than two or three characters (although
never more than three speaking actors in the same scene), all
three actors played multiple roles.
literary criticism, the term protagonist refers to the
central character of the play, not the actor.
Since women were not allowed
to take part in dramatic productions, male actors had to play
female roles. The playing of multiple roles, both male and female,
was made possible by the use of masks, which prevented the audience
from identifying the face of any actor with one specific character
in the play and helped eliminate the physical incongruity of
men impersonating women. The masks with subtle variations also
helped the audience identify the sex, age, and social rank of
the characters. The fact that the chorus remained in the orchestra
throughout the play and sang and danced choral songs between
the episodes allowed the actors to exit after an episode in order
to change mask and costume and assume a new role in the next
episode without any illusion-destroying interruption in the play.
The main duty of an actor was,
of course, to speak the dialogue assigned to his characters.
This, however, was not the only responsibility of the actor.
He occasionally had to sing songs solo or with the chorus or
with other actors (e.g., a song of lament called a kommos).
The combination of acting and singing ability must have been
as rare in the ancient world as it is today.
For the modern reader the chorus
is one of the more foreign elements of tragedy. The chorus is
not one of the conventions of modern tragedy. We associate the
chorus with such musical forms as opera, musical comedy and oratorio.
But tragedy was not just straight drama. It was interspersed
with songs sung both by actors and chorus and also with dancing
by the chorus. The modern parallel for tragedy is actually opera
(along with its descendant, musical comedy), which is a dramatic
form containing song and dance.
The chorus, unlike the actors,
were non-professionals who had a talent for singing and dancing
and were trained by the poet in preparation for the performance.
The standard number of members of a chorus was twelve throughout
most of Aeschylus's career, but was raised to fifteen by Sophocles.
The chorus, like the actors, wore costumes and masks.
The first function of a tragic
chorus was to chant an entrance song called a parodos
as they marched into the orchestra. The entrance song took its
name from the two ramps (parodoi)
on either side of the orchestra which the chorus used as it made
its way into the orchestra. Once the chorus had taken its position
in the orchestra, its duties were twofold. It engaged in dialogue
with characters through its leader, the Coryphaeus, who alone
spoke the lines of dialogue assigned to the chorus. The tragic
chorus's most important function was to sing and dance choral
songs called stasima (singular = stasimon). The modern reader
of Greek Tragedy, whether in English or even in the original
Greek, finds it very difficult to appreciate the effect of these
choral songs which are devoid of their music and dance.
Tragedy has a characteristic
structure in which scenes of dialogue alternate with choral songs.
This arrangement allows the chorus to comment in its song in
a general way on what has been said and/or done in the preceding
scene. Most tragedies begin with an opening scene of expository
dialogue or monologue called a prologue.
After the prologue the chorus
marches into the orchestra chanting the parodos. Then
follows a scene of dialogue called an episode, which in turn
is followed by the first stasimon. The alternation of episode
and stasimon continues until the last stasimon, after which there
is a final scene of dialogue called an exodos 'exit' scene'.
The exodos is in general a scene of dialogue, but, as
in the case of episodes, sometimes songs are included, especially
in the form of a kommos.
Here is the structure of a typical
tragedy (some tragedies have one more or one less episode and
- First Episode
- First Stasimon
- Second Episode
- Second Stasimon
- Third Episode
- Third Stasimon
- Fourth Episode
- Fourth Stasimon
have one more or less episode and stasimon.
To learn more about the ancient
authors mentioned in the text above from the Perseus Encyclopedia,
click on their names below.