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Chapter 6: Early Classical Theatre
I. Introduction: An Overview of Classical Greek Drama
Let’s begin by overviewing what we’ll cover in the next two sections of the class: Classical Greek Tragedy (Section 2) and Greek Comedy (Section 3).
According to Aristotle, the Athenians developed tragedy first, with comedy following a generation or so later. While this assessment is essentially correct, the truth seems to have been somewhat more complicated. Comic dramas as opposed to comedy itself—that is, humorous plays versus the formal genre of “comedy”—appear to have evolved alongside their tragic counterpart, perhaps even before it. The satyr play, in particular, a farcical rendition of myths more often treated seriously which featured a chorus of rowdy, irreverent satyrs (half-human half-animal spirits of the wilderness notorious for their lust and gluttony), emerged early in the tradition of Greek theatre, though exactly how early is not clear. Nevertheless, the historical sources for theatrical performances in the Classical Age focus largely on tragedy as the hub of early dramatic activity, even if its pre-eminence probably looks clearer in hindsight than it seemed in the day.
Three tragedians emerge from the fifth century BCE as the principal practitioners of classical Greek tragic drama: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Theirs are the only tragedies preserved whole. First and foremost, Aeschylus lived a generation earlier than the other two so his work provides our first hard look at Greek drama. If to modern viewers his plays seem static and slow-moving, there can be little doubt they were exciting and controversial in their day.
The elder of the later pair, Sophocles is often seen as the best playwright of the three—in the general estimation of many in the scholarly community, Sophocles remains the finest exponent of tragic arts ever—and certainly his polished dramas were very well-respected in the Classical Age, as they have been for the most part ever since. It is somewhat ironic to note, then, that interest in his drama in performance seems to have waned fairly soon after his lifetime.
Conversely, Euripides, while alienating his contemporaries and considered by many a distant second to Sophocles when the two of them were alive, left behind a body of drama which commanded the stage after the Classical Age. There can be little doubt why: Euripides had a knack for putting on stage eye-catching situations and creating memorable characters with extreme personality disorders. Accordingly, theatrical records show that his works were very frequently produced in later ages, outstripping both Sophocles and Aeschylus.
No Greek tragedy from the fourth century or later (the Post-Classical Age) has been preserved intact, making it hard to determine the course of tragic drama in Greece after the lifetime of Sophocles and Euripides . We can, however, follow the evolution of its close kin, comedy, in later Greek theatre.
The presentation of humorous material has deep roots in ancient Greece, perhaps as old as tragedy itself, but because comedy was seen as a lesser art form until quite late in the evolution of Western Civilization, the evidence for this genre of drama is scant. Historical records make it clear skits designed to provoke laughter were being written throughout and even before the Classical Age—comedy officially premiered at the Dionysia at some point during the 480’s BCE, between the Persian Wars—and this type of theatre, now termed “Old Comedy,” gained popularity steadily across the fifth century. In particular, it began to attract widespread attention during the Peloponnesian War when productions of comedy provided the Athenians much needed relief from the anxiety and sorrow of their conflict with Sparta.
While the names of several exponents of this genre in the fifth century are preserved, and in some cases fragments of their work as well, the plays of only one Old Comedy playwright, Aristophanes, have come down to us complete. His drama—and presumably that of his predecessors and contemporaries, too—was primarily built around current events and issues. Indeed, all indications point to political and social satire as the hallmark of Old Comedy, especially toward the end of the Classical Age.
Later, however, after the end of the Peloponnesian War, as Greece moved into the Post-Classical period, comedy underwent a major transformation. From ridiculing celebrities and the regime in power to focusing on the lives and lifestyles of less prominent people, comic drama evolved toward the end of the fourth century (the 300’s BCE) into a new and very different-looking type of entertainment. Out of the ashes of civil war and Alexander’s conquests and the many desperations of the upper-middle class was born the “sit-com.”
The master of this “New Comedy” was Menander, heralded by at least one ancient critic as an author unsurpassed in quality. However, for reasons having nothing to do with his brilliant stagecraft, his work did not survive the Middle Ages. Fortunately, the sands of Egypt have rendered up several of his plays, albeit in “rags and patches” but well enough preserved for us to see what his drama looked like. Character-driven, highly stylized pieces with recurring characters and inclined toward subtle rather than broad humor, Menandrean New Comedy in more ways than one marks the beginning of modern drama.
The physical remains of Greek theatre from the Classical Age are pitifully few, making it a treacherous enterprise to reconstruct the theatre spaces, sets, costumes, music or any of the material features of theatre in the great age which fostered Greek tragedy (the 400’s BCE). Thus, what is known about theatre in the century before that, the 500’s BCE, the age when drama itself first emerged, is a veritable blank. Most Greek theatres visible today around the Mediterranean basin were constructed after the Classical Age, while those few which belong to the earliest periods of theatre evolution have almost universally been renovated in later periods of antiquity, leaving them dubious sources of information about classical theatre. That is, they constitute “secondary sources,” for the most part.
Our data concerning classical stage practices, such as acting styles, costumes, musical accompaniment and the like, are in general equally unclear. Though some historical sources seem to provide reliable information about the performance of classical tragedy, the modern appreciation of these data still relies heavily on the fifth-century drama that happen to have survived. To make matters worse, ancient theatre was in its customs and practices a rather fluid enterprise, and what rules applied to one period—or even one decade!—may not necessarily have applied to another. As a consequence, the discussion below is an attempt to review the highlights of an issue clouded by mystery and delve into a few of the better attested theatre practices of the Classical and Post-Classical period.
A. Festivals and the Nature of Ancient Performance
For some time—until the first half of the fifth century, at least (ca. 450 BCE)—all drama appears to have been presented at the City Dionysia, the annual Athenian festival held each spring in honor of the god Dionysus. While it’s clear that there was a competition held there among dramatists in which the work of one of them was awarded “first place,” much else is uncertain, such as how many tragedians each year wrote how many plays distributed over how many festival days. The figures seem to have varied over the course of the century. That tragedies would later be packaged into trilogies—that is, groups of three plays connected by plot or theme (or both)—with a comic satyr play appended afterwards has led some scholars to retroject this tradition back to the earliest days, but the validity of that supposition is impossible to determine given the paucity of information within our grasp.
What is clear is that among the ancient Athenians interest in theatre as an art form rose precipitously from the end of the Pre-Classical Age (ca. 500 BCE) and continued to grow steadily over the course of the fifth century. For instance, in the 440’s BCE another competition among tragic and comic dramatists was instituted at a subsidiary festival held in honor of Dionysus, the Lenaea, a strictly intra-Athenian affair occurring in mid-winter (late January). By the post-classical period (after 400 BCE), all sorts of festivals had started to incorporate drama into their festivities whether they had a natural connection with theatre or not. Clearly, the popularity of drama made it attractive to a wide range of cults as a way of catering to the public. It comes as no surprise, then, that Greek plays began in this age to be exported all over the ancient world, laying the foundation for not only theatre as a key feature of ancient Western Civilization but also Greek as the “common” (koine) language of international commerce in this region.
The performance spaces of classical antiquity are enormous by today’s standards, closer in size to modern sports stadiums than the sorts of theatres with which we are most familiar. Outdoors and most often situated on steep slopes that curved around the playing area, many ancient theatres were capable of housing thousands of spectators. These theatra (the plural of theatron)—the Greek word originally referred only to the seating area in a theatre, as was noted in Chapter 1—call for a certain style of performance. In order to be heard, for instance, the ancient actor had to have a strong voice. Likewise, costumes, sets and movement also needed to be visible from and intelligible at great distances. Unlike modern realistic plays which for the most part call for intimate, indoor theatre spaces with controlled lighting, ancient drama had more the feel we associate with large-scale athletic events.
Actually, if the ancient Greeks had compared drama to anything in their day, it would probably have been courtroom trials. Lawyers back then were seen as “actors” of a sort inasmuch as they provided some of the more sensational and theatrical moments in Greek history. Often pleading cases before thousands of people and hardly shy about dramatizing their appearance in court, orators in antiquity rarely hesitated to allude to drama during litigation, one at least even going so far as to quote tragedy at some length as if he were an actor. In fact, the ancient Athenians fairly often used their large, centrally located acting venue, the Theatre of Dionysus, as the site of important trials. So, if theatre seemed like anything to the ancient Greeks, it was most likely a lawsuit and, as such, Greek drama imports at times a distinctly litigious atmosphere where characters appear to prosecute each other, appealing on occasion to the audience as if it were a jury. Nor is this at all out of line with reality since most of the Athenian spectators would have served as jury-members at some point during their lives, some watching the play from the very same seats in which they had sat as jurors.
In that light, the ancient Greeks saw little reason for maintaining an invisible “fourth wall” or building characters with interiority (i.e. psychological subtlety effected through subtext), features conventional in modern theatre. Instead, presentationalism and overt grandeur typify Greek theatre and drama. Like the trials and public spectacles which Greek drama so often resembles—and which it surely shaped, in turn—ancient theatre in Greece had little choice but to meet the enormity of the arena it played in. And so it did, in high style, especially in the hands of its greatest exponents. Thus, it is safe to conclude that the ancient theatron and its close kin, the courtroom, shared a long-standing tradition of showmanship. In other words, the ancient Greeks would have felt right at home watching any of the sensational trials televised today, especially the prosecution of celebrities, and would probably have watched Senate hearings on CSPAN in far greater numbers than we do.
B. The Theatre in the Classical Age
The primary and primordial performance space in ancient Athens and the home of the City Dionysia was the Theatre of Dionysus. Built into the slopes of the Acropolis where it can utilize the natural terrain to create seating, this “instrument for viewing” is, if not the actual birthplace, certainly the cradle of Western drama. But its exact structure in the Classical Age is impossible to determine. It was substantially refurbished twice in antiquity, once in the later fourth century (300’s BCE) and once again in Roman times, making it unlikely that a single stone visible in the theatre today was there in the Classical Age. Thus, it is improbable any of the classical tragedians would recognize much of the theatre we see now other than its location.
For instance, the orchestra—“dancing place” (literally, “instrument for dance”)—of the Theatre of Dionysus, the flat area at the bottom of the theatre where the chorus sang and danced, is today circular. In the fifth century BCE, however, it was more likely rectangular. This assertion is based on two, albeit scanty, pieces of information. First, ancient choral dances were “rectangular,” which a rectangular space would suit better.
Second, the only known theatre which has remained unchanged from that day, theTheatre at Thorikos—Thorikos was an Athenian deme (“district, borough”)—has a rectangular orchestra with only its corners rounded. Nevertheless, it is not certain that the Theatre at Thorikos was used as a space for performing drama, or just a public meeting ground. In sum, it is hard to speak definitively about the physical nature of the Theatre of Dionysus as it existed in the Classical Age, except to say that it was a large structure capable of housing crowds which were huge even by modern standards.
1. The Skene
Still, it is possible to make a few conclusions. For instance, from the very dawn of Greek drama there was probably a backstage area of some sort, into which the actors could retire during a show and change costume. There is no ancient theatre extant which does not preserve or have room for the remains of a “backstage” of some sort. The Greeks referred to this part of the theatre as the skene (“tent”), recalling, no doubt, its origins as a temporary structure, perhaps even an actual tent into which the first actors of antiquity withdrew during performance.
The situation is not that simple, however. For instance, Aeschylus’ earliest plays (Persae, Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes) were produced in the Theatre of Dionysus—they are the oldest Greek tragedies preserved entire—but they do not call for any permanent structure on stage. Thus, it is not clear that the Theatre of Dionysus prior to the 460’s BCE had any building as such on stage; in that case, the skene could have been merely a “tent.” So, we can be certain that the Theatre of Dionysus had a permanent skene building only after the first decades of the Classical Age.
On the other hand, mask and costume changes which all of Aeschylus’ dramas entail require some sort of structure into which the actor can briefly retire out the audience’s sight during performance. That Aeschylus’ later plays do indeed call for a skene building with a roof strong enough to hold an actor standing on top of it, as in the opening scene of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (the first play of the Oresteia trilogy), shows that by at least 458 BCE there must have been some type of skene building in the Theatre of Dionysus. However, its architectural style and specific dimensions lie outside of our understanding at present.
Other dramas preserved from the Classical Age shed a bit more light on the nature of the skene building in the Classical Age. For instance, they show that it must have had at least one door, because several fifth-century tragedies call for actors to enter from a building or for the chorus to pass from the orchestra into the skene building. Therefore, there was not only a backstage structure of some sort but relatively easy access between it and the area where the chorus danced. Furthermore, as noted above, the roof of the skene building must have been flat and strong enough to support at least one actor’s weight—and two or more by the end of the Classical Age—so it follows that there had to have been stairs or a ladder inside the skene leading up to the roof.
But, unfortunately, that is about all that can be said with certainty about the ancient skene. That surviving classical dramas do not refer to it often or call for its extensive utilization argues it was not particularly complex in its design or application. If true, perhaps, of the Classical Age, the same did not apply to the post-classical Greek world. By that time the “tent” was being used to depict a play’s setting through a process the Greeks called skenographia (“tent-drawing,” implying some sort of painted backdrop) from which comes our word “scene” in the sense of scenery. So, even if the skene started out as a weak presence in classical theatre, it grew later, in the fourth century BCE, to be an elaborate structure and, without doubt, represents the beginnings of set design.
C. Special Effects
Other requirements of the theatre called for in classical drama shed further light on the nature of the Theatre of Dionysus in the fifth century BCE. Several classical tragedies, for instance, require that the skenebuilding open up and reveal an interior scene. The device used for this was called by the Greeks the ekkyklema (“roll-out”), presumably a wheeled platform on which an interior scene could be set and then “rolled out” from the skene building through the main door into the audience’s view. Because Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (458 BCE) appears to call for such a revelation, the ekkyklema probably came into use during the first half of the fifth century BCE, which makes it one of the earliest special effects on record.
Yet other classical plays call for an even more spectacular effect, for actors to “fly” into the theatre. Ancient sources report that this was done using a device called the mechane (“machine”), a crane which could lift actors over the skene building and suspend them up in the air by a rope. But the history of the mechane is more problematical than that of the ekkyklema and raises several important questions which are unfortunately unanswerable. When was the mechane first used? How did the actor suspended in the air keep from twisting around on the rope? Was the mechane’s arm (the crane itself) hidden when it was not in use, or did the ancients even care if it was kept out of general sight? In either case, where was it placed? Finally, how was it weighted so that it was manageable? There are no clear answers to any of these questions, though we can make some educated guesses.
First, the mechane was probably introduced fairly late in the Classical Age, since no extant play dating before the late 420’s BCE absolutely requires it. The late 430’s BCE would be a safe guess. Second, there are simple ways to keep an actor from spinning around on the rope—for instance, by tying another rope to his back—but this is pure speculation. The last two questions—could the audience see themechane when it was not in use? and how did the crew manage it?—are crucial because they pertain to another issue central in theatre history: how illusionistic was the classical Greek theatre? That is, did the Athenian audience see the action on stage as realistic, or was it to them a stylized presentation whose art and merit were not bound up in how natural and real-looking the dramatic vision appeared? There are no immediate or easy answers to these questions, but if we had greater knowledge of the mechane, it would certainly help to illuminate this and other fundamental issues about the evolution of ancient drama.
What is more certain and what we can see for ourselves is how classical playwrights utilized the mechane and other devices, and also the Theater of Dionysus as a whole. Their dramas, at least, give our speculations a guiding framework and become a laboratory of sorts for our reconstructions. A good example is Euripides’ Orestes, his most frequently revived play in post-classical antiquity—so we are told in the ancient notes appended to this play—and a case study in extreme behaviors, psychotic personalities and theatrical brilliance. The finale of this tragedy shows how a master dramatist can utilize the stage tools at his disposal to create an gripping, panoramic crescendo of action in the classical theatre.
The play deals with the aftermath of Orestes‘ murder of his mother Clytemnestra, a famous saga in Greek myth. In the course of Euripides’ play, Orestes is driven to despair because no one will help defend him, including the god Apollo who had originally ordered the young man to commit matricide, or so Orestes claims. When even his uncle Menelaus refuses assistance, Orestes at last goes insane, seizes Menelaus’ wife, the beautiful Helen who had caused the Trojan War, and kills her—or seems to, because the report of her death is inconclusive—and then, to ensure his own safety, Orestes kidnaps Menelaus’ daughter Hermione, his cousin, and holds her hostage.
The end of the play is a study in the possibilities for producing spectacle in the Theatre of Dionysus. Euripides gradually fills the stage with characters one level at a time, literally from bottom to top. Eventually every possible acting space and virtually every resource at the disposal of a playwright in that day is in use.
The finale begins with the chorus alone on stage, singing and dancing in the orchestra at the bottom of the theatre. Next, Menelaus enters with his army, a secondary silent chorus. He—and they, too, presumably—stand on the main level of the stage before the door of the skene building. He demands that Orestes open the gates of the palace, but Orestes appears on its roof with several other characters: his sister Electra, his friend Pylades and Menelaus’ daughter Hermione whom Orestes threatens to kill if her father tries to force his way into the palace. They quarrel and Menelaus gives the signal to attack. In response, Orestes orders his friends to torch the palace and kill Hermione.
Primordial chaos seems ready for its climactic close-up, when in flies the god Apollo on the mechane, soaring above the din and smoke. This solar deity—the divine personification of light, reason and, in this case, “better late than never”—does not, however, hover over Argos alone but has the not-dead-yet Helen, flying beside him in first class. He had just recently rescued her from Orestes’ assault and turned her into a goddess so she can live with him.
The Greek stage is now packed as full as can be, with speaking characters on every level, in order from bottom to top: the chorus in the orchestra, Menelaus and his troops at the door of the skene, Orestes and his gang of kidnappers above them on the roof of the skene, and the gods, both new and old, swinging on the mechane over all of it. It is a very craftily orchestrated and deliberate sequence of action designed to lead to a visually stunning spectacle of pessimistic, or at least ironic, grandeur! And, if one counts the sun—which it is a safe guess was shining that day, or any day when there were plays being presented at the City Dionysia—there are, in fact, five levels of action, with the “star of stars,” Apollo’s ensign, beaming down impassively on all of this feeble human madness. [We will return to this tragedy later. It is too theatrical and well-written to pass without a second glance.]
(TO BE CONTINUED)
BY MARKUS DAMEN