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.


by Sophocles

[Notes taken from outside source]

Antigone is the play’s tragic heroine. In the first moments of the play, Antigone is opposed to her radiant sister Ismene. Unlike her beautiful and docile sister, Antigone is scrawny, sallow, withdrawn, and recalcitrant brat. Like Anouilh’s Eurydice, the heroine of his play Eurydice, and Joan of Arc, Antigone has a boyish physique and curses her girlhood. She is the antithesis of the melodramatic heroine, the archetypal blond ingénue as embodied in Ismene. Antigone has always been difficult, terrorizing Ismene as a child, always insisting on the gratification of her desires, refusing to “understand” the limits placed on her. Her envy of Ismene is clear. Ismene is entirely of this world, the object of all men’s desires. Thus she will at one point rob Ismene of her feminine accoutrements to seduce her fiancé Haemon. She fails, however, as such human pleasures are not meant for her.

Generally audiences have received Anouilh’s Antigone as a figure for French Resistance, Antigone appearing as the young girl who rises up alone against state power. Anouilh’s adaptation strips Antigone’s act of its moral, political, religious, and filial trappings, allowing it to emerge in all its gratuitously. In the end, Antigone’s tragedy rests in her refusal to cede on her desire. Against all prohibitions and without any just cause, she will bury her brother to the point of her own death. As we learn in her confrontation with Creon, this insistence on her desire locates her in a line of tragic heroes, specifically that of Oedipus. Like Oedipus, her insistence on her desire beyond the limits of reason render her ugly, abject, tabooed. In refusing to cede it, she moves outside the human community. As with Oedipus, it is precisely her moment of abjection, when she has lost all hope, when her tragic beauty emerges. Her beauty exerts a chilling fascination. As Ismene notes, Antigone is not beautiful like the rest, but beautiful in a way that stops children in the street, beautiful in a way that unsettles, frightens, and awes.


Antigone’s uncle, the powerfully built King Creon is a weary, wrinkled man suffering the burdens of rule. Before the deaths of Oedipus and his sons, he dedicated himself to art patronage but has now surrendered himself entirely to the throne. A practical man, he firmly distances himself from the tragic aspirations of Oedipus and his line. As he tells Antigone, his only interest is in political and social order. Creon is bound to ideas of good sense, simplicity, and the banal happiness of everyday life. To Creon, life is but the happiness one makes, the happiness that inheres in a grasped tool, a garden bench, a child playing at one’s feet. Uninterested in playing the villain in his niece’s tragedy, Creon has no desire to sentence Antigone to death. Antigone is far more useful to Thebes as mother to its heir than as its martyr, and he orders her crime covered-up. Though fond of Antigone, Creon will have no choice but to but to execute her. As the recalcitrant Antigone makes clear, by saying “yes” to state power, Creon has committed himself to acts he finds loathsome if the order of the state demands it. Antigone’s insistence on her desire in face of state power brings ruin into Thebes and to Creon specifically. With the death of his family, Creon is left utterly alone in the palace. His throne even robs him of his mourning, the king and his pace sadly shuttling off to a cabinet meeting after the announcement of the family’s deaths.



The Nature of Tragedy

Halfway through the play, the Chorus appears on the scene to announce that the tragedy is on. His speech offers a meta-theatrical commentary on the nature of tragedy. Here, in apparently a reference to Jean Cocteau, tragedy appears as a machine in perfect order, a machine that proceeds automatically and has been ready since the beginning of time. Tension of the tragic plot is the tension of a spring: the most haphazard event sets it on its inexorable march: in some sense, it has been lying in wait for its catalyst. Tragedy belongs to an order outside human time and action. It will realize itself in spite of its players and all their attempts at intervention. Anouilh himself commented on the paradoxical nature of this suspense: “What was beautiful and is still beautiful about the time of the Greeks is knowing the end in advance. That is “real” suspense…” As the Chorus notes, in tragedy everything has “already happened.” Anouilh’s spectator has surrendered, masochistically, to a succession of events it can hardly bear to watch. “Suspense” here is the time before those events’ realization.

Having compared tragedy to other media, the Chorus then sets it off generically, specifically from the genre of melodrama. Tragedy is “restful” and “flawless,” free of melodramatic stock characters, dialogues, and plot complications. All is inevitable. This inevitability lends, in spite of tragedy’s tension, the genre “tranquility.” Moreover, it gives its players innocence as they are only there to play their parts. Though Creon will later accuse Antigone of casting him as the “villain” in her little melodrama, the players are embroiled in a far more inexorable mechanism. Again, note the incommensurabilities between Anouilh’s theory of the tragic and political allegory. The latter is necessarily engaged in the generally pedagogical passing of ethico-politico judgment, the arbitration of innocence, guilt, and complicity. Though tragic players face judgment, they do so on rather different terms.

The Sisters’ Rivalry

As with Sophocles’ sistes, Ismene and Antigone appear as foils and rivals. Ismene is “reasonable,” timid, and obedient, full-figured and beautiful in being a good girl. In contrast, Antigone is recalcitrant, impulsive, and moody, sallow, thin, and decidedly resistant to being a girl like the rest. Though the Chorus emphasizes the play’s distance from conventional melodrama, it is interesting to note how, in revision the opposition in Sophocles’ version, it perhaps imports the good girl/bad girl structure typical of this genre, not to mention a number of rather “sentimental” scenes. Ismene advises moderation, understanding, and capitulation. They must take Creon’s obligations into account.

Anouilh develops another form of rivalry between the sisters with regards to femininity. Whereas Ismene is the appropriate, beautiful girl, Antigone curses her girlhood. Antigone in particular manifests her hatred for the ideal of femininity Ismene incarnates in their childhood, brutally binding her sister to a tree to stage her mutilation. Anouilh attributes Antigone’s hate and envy in Ismene’s capacity to figure as an object of desire, as the woman men want. Thus, in attempting to seduce Haemon and become “his woman,” Antigone steals Ismene’s goods—lipstick, rouge, perfume, powder, and frock—in another act of sisterly dismemberment. Through Ismene, Antigone would be a woman; as we will see, however, such “human” pleasures are not meant for her.


The Chorus

In Greek tragedy, the Chorus consisted of a group of approximately ten people, playing the role of death messenger, dancing, singing, and commenting throughout from the margins of the action. Anouilh reduces the Chorus to a single figure who retains his collective function nevertheless. The Chorus represents an indeterminate group, be it the inhabitants of Thebes or the moved spectators. It also appears as narrator, framing frames the tragedy with a prologue and epilogue. In the prologue, it directly addresses the audience and is self- conscious with regards to the spectacle: “we” are here tonight to take part in the story of Antigone. Like its ancient predecessor, Anouilh’s Chorus prepares a ritual, instructing the audience on proper spectatorship. The Chorus then reappears throughout the play, marking its another turning points and futilely interceding into the action on “our”—that is, the spectators’ and Theban people’s—behalfs.

Tragic Beauty

As noted above, Antigone’s insistence on her desire makes her monstrous, abject. At the same time, her abjection is her tragic beauty. Antigone announces this beauty throughout her encounter with Creon. Specifically Oedipus emerges as its model. Oedipus’ moment of beauty comes at his moment of total abjection, the moment when he knew all and had lost all servile hope and passed beyond the human community in his transgression of its founding taboo. Like Oedipus, Antigone will become “beautiful” at the moment of his total ruin. As Ismene notes, Antigone’s beauty is somehow not of this world, the kind of beauty that turns the heads of small children—be it in fear, awe, and otherwise.

The Tomb/Bridal Bed

A number of commentators have cast Antigone as a figure “between two deaths,” what we will refer to here as her death as a social or even human being and her death as her demise. The space between two deaths is most certainly materialized her tomb, the cave in which she, as a tabooed and abject body, is to be immured to keep her from polluting the polis. Her death sentence makes her more wretched than animals; such is her “Oedipal” beauty, a beauty in her inhuman abjection. As she appears to sense, however, she will not die alone. Her “tomb” will also serve as her “bridal bed,” Antigone ultimately bringing Haemon with her to the grave. Strangely, another of the tragedy’s victim—Queen Eurydice—meets her demise in another tomb that doubles as bridal chamber. Eurydice dies in her bedroom—bedecked by familiar, comforting feminine accoutrements, appearing as a maiden queen of sorts, having scarcely changed since her first night with Creon. The wound in her neck appears all the more horrible in marring her virgin neck. Her death would appear all the more tragic because she dies in all her “feminine” purity.


The Gray World

Upon sneaking in from her brother’s burial, Antigone tells the Nurse that she has come from a “gray world.” Like many of Anouilh’s heroines, Antigone wanders in this gray “nowhere,” a world beyond the “post card” universe of the waking. This world is breathless with anticipation: it doubles the stage, set apart from the human world, upon which Antigone’s tragedy will ensue. At the same time, the world of the living does not lie in wait for Antigone: she is meant to pass onto another.

Creon’s attack

Anouilh symbolizes Antigone’s transcendence of state power with Creon’s assault on her person during their confrontation. Enraged by her proud defiance and his inability to sway her, Creon seizes Antigone and twists her to his side. The immediate pain passes, however: Creon squeezes to tightly, and Antigone feels nothing. Thus Antigone passes beyond the reach of state power and the realm of men.

Eurydice’s Knitting

As the Chorus remarks, Queen Eurydice’s function in the tragedy is to knit in her room until she dies. She is Creon’s final lesson, her death leaving him utterly alone. In the report of her suicide, Eurydice will stop her knitting and the stab herself with her needle. The end of her knitting is the end of her life, evoking the familiar Greek myth of the life-thread spun, measured, and cut by the Fates.




496-406 B.C.


The seven  remaining plays of Sophocles are considered the height of ancient Athens’ achievements with themes of army, city, family, the human race and independence within and without family. Acceptance of place or rejection? What does it mean to be an outsider? What should we do when forced to choose?


Life and Times

Sophocles had a long, successful, productive and happy life. He was fairly wealthy and well educated. He lived in Athens during the golden or classical age. Pericles, an important political figure, was a personal friend of Sophocles. After age 60, the city of Athens began to experience turmoil. He worked in Athenian theater all his life and introduced scene painting, increasing the chorus members from twelve to fifteen, and bringing in a third actor (a “tritagonist”) which allowed three-way dialogue and deeper relationship explorations. Sophocles’s plays seem more modern because he de-centered the chorus to focus more on the characters. He created realistic characters who explored issues such as when is it appropriate to compromise? Should I be a hero or take the course of moderation? He won first prize at the Great Dionysia while still younger than thirty. He composed over one hundred and twenty plays. He had so much charm of character that he was loved everywhere, by everyone. Sophocles’s participation in public life suggests that he was seen as a trustworthy and wise member of the community. He was married and had five sons, one of whom became involved in the theater. He lived past the age of ninety.