Ancient Athenian Drama

Common themes: divine vs. human perspectives, family, human relationships, justice, state, suffering, and violent/melodramatic plots. Greek drama was performed differently than we experience it today. New plays were performed at festivals involving dance, drama, music, open-air spectacles, poetry, politics, religion, and slapstick. Festivals like the Great Dionysia and the Lernaea incorporated both comedy and tragedy. These festivals celebrated the subversive outsiders.
Comedy comes from komos, the Greek idea of a drunken procession. Tragedy, or “goat song” is a genre that originated as part of a ritual goat sacrifice or one was offered as a prize. Thespis was the name of a person from whom we get thespian who is traditionally said to have invented tragedy in the year 534 B.C. He “stepped out of the Chorus” creating a part for a single actor who could talk back to the chorus. One person stepping out from the chorus changed the entire direction of theater from then on.
Athenians loved the performance of poetry contests and the Homeric poems were an essential model for later drama. Many tragedies dealt with heroes who fought in the Trojan War. Dramatists learned from Homer how to create vivid dialogue and fast exciting narrative, as well as sympathy for a range of different characters.
Most of the works from this time are lost. The only complete works of Greek drama that have survived are a small selection of tragedies from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides with a few comedies by Aristophanes.
Words were only a small part of these plays. The costumes, gestures, music, props, and visual effects all worked together to create an overall effect. The writer of the play sometimes did everything, even act in his own play. Prizes were awarded to the director. The audience was mostly male and all the cast members were male. The theater was in the open air with the orchestra at the lowest point in the valley. Wooden benches rose up the slope on three sides. A wooden platform and building, or skene, represented interior space. The ekkuklema could roll out and was conventionally used to show interior space, bringing the indoors out. The mechane was a pulley system that allowed actors to appear and disappear by air. All actors wore masks and played multiple roles, for there were only two or three actors on the stage. Facial expressions were irrelevant, so body language, gestures, and voice projection were all-important.
Two important dialogue techniques: agon (contest or struggle) in which one character makes a long speech representing one side of an argument, then the other character has a long speech representing the opposite side. The second technique is called stichomythia (line-speech) where each character says one line and they go back and forth. Greek drama was always composed of verse; mostly elements of iambic.
The choral passages were in extremely complex meters, sung and accompanied by elaborate choreography. The chorus had 12-15 masked dancers with one leader who could speak. The chorus often represent the “home crowd” of where the story is set. They can represent the voice of the common man or word on the street. They may not always make sense and are often incorrect in their assessment. The chorus may listen, then voice internal thoughts of the character. The chorus may be neutral or even hostile toward certain characters. Choruses can be characters themselves, with their own biases and preoccupations.
Mutilation and violent death, by murder or suicide, accident, fate, or gods, are frequent events in Greek tragedy, yet there is little visible horror. The messenger speech is therefore one of the most important conventions of Athenian drama.
Comic poets combined reality, fantasy, and myth to show caricatures of real people mixing with made-up characters. Comedy often made direct references to recent events, and directly attacked, parodied or satirized the behavior of real contemporary people. Plots of tragedy focus on a few traditional story patterns set in the distant past and far away. The author felt free, within limits, to shape the myth their own way. Greek gods were often written as cruel and unreliable, but Athenians of the fifth century saw no necessary connection between religion and morality. Athenian drama was an act of service to the gods (especially Dionysus) because it over-turned the everyday world and explored the power of imagination. Athenian dramatists also served the audience, creating dramas that were gripping, profound, and unpredictable.

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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