Classical Drama (DRAOO-DROO) and Theatre (THEA EN ROEE) (X)

( CONTINUED FROM   4/05/16)

C. Producers and Sponsorship

Last but not least, the organization and sponsorship of the Dionysia and the Lenaea, the principal dramatic festivals in Athens, evolved drastically over time. While it is hard to keep track of all the changes that took place in just the first two centuries of institutional theatre at this venue, there are some constants. Until the Hellenistic period (ca. 300 BCE), playwrights and their casts were sponsored by a producer of sorts, called a choregos (plural choregoi), literally “the chorus leader,” who underwrote the funding that allowed a play to reach the stage. Usually a rich man who was required by law to perform some kind of public service, the choregos was a producer of sorts who was handed the duty of housing and feeding the chorus for the entire duration of rehearsal and production. He also bought the costumes, props, set pieces and anything else deemed necessary for the show. It could be a very expensive endeavor, but it could also reflect well on his civic-mindedness and sense of duty to state.

Greek theatre ticket (click to see larger image)

Moreover, even from the earliest days of the Dionysia a winning choregos‘ name was recorded on stone memorials set up in public places, which made the expense of production a potentially good advertising investment. Quite a few of these “angels” over time put on lavish spectacles and won widespread acclaim for doing so, with which came other advantages. For example, if he fell later into some sort of legal trouble and was taken to court, a former choregos could remind the jury, composed largely of men who had seen “his” show, that he had once hosted a great entertainment for the state. To judge from how often such things are mentioned in the records of ancient Greek law suits, the argument must have worked.

The exact nature of the selection process by which playwrights and choregoi were brought together is not clear. Nor are any of the administrative procedures surrounding the City Dionysia, including many things we would like to know, such as the exact methods used in awarding prizes to plays. To make matters even worse, the means of matching playwright and producer seems to have changed over time, though certain features of the process stand out throughout the fifth and fourth centuries. For instance, while thechoregos funded the enterprise, it was the playwright who was in charge of the production for the most part in the Classical Age. From early on called a chorodidaskalos(“chorus teacher”), the playwright apparently “taught” the chorus its songs and dances and oversaw the rehearsal process in general, even if he did not pay for it out of his own pocket.

But by the fourth century BCE, as we noted above, the playwright’s role in drama had diminished greatly and actors had become the principal attraction in Greek theatre. As such, they began to assert their will over productions. How the theatre evolved from there is even harder to reconstruct, but in general it seems safe to say that the material remains of ancient theatre and the historical sources relating to it, as well as the extant dramas themselves, show a living, evolving art form which, maddening as it is to pin down, was a vibrant and vital part of the ancient Greeks’ world: an echo of their heartstrings, a mirror of their souls and a banquet for their minds..


Chapter 7: Classical Greek Tragedy, Part 1

I. Introduction: The Data, or the Depressing Lack Thereof

Although Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides emerge from history as the great names associated with Greek tragedy, there were scores of other dramatists who achieved renown over the course of classical antiquity. The triumphs of many playwrights at the Dionysia are recorded on inscriptions and in other sources. In the end, it isn’t clear why the works of only three tragedians have come down to us—or whythese three, in particular—except that subsequent generations put this trio in a class above their peers.

Despite so narrow a slice of history, occasionally a glimpse of the larger pool of writing talent at work in the day drifts into view, for instance, the late fifth-century tragedian Agathon. While no play of his survives entire, several other Greek authors mention him, including the philosophers Aristotle and Plato and the comic poet Aristophanes. According to Aristotle (Poetics 9), for instance, Agathon “invented plots,” by which Aristotle must mean that he devised the first dramas based on original storylines, i.e. build around characters not taken from older myths or tales. If so, Agathon’s contribution to drama is hard to disparage, inasmuch as the creation of new and innovative plots is still held in high esteem today. Moreover, we learn from Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical treatise which is set in Agathon’s house at a party celebrating his first place award for playwriting at the Dionysia of 416 BCE. From Socrates’ praise of the beauty and subtlety of Agathon’s drama there, it is impossible not to regret its loss.

Roman mosaic depicting Aeschylus directing a satyr play (click to see larger image)

Worse yet, even the dramatic output of the surviving trio is not particularly well accounted for. From the hundreds of plays Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides composed, a mere thirty-three have been preserved whole, and of those only one is a satyr play, Euripides’ Cyclops, the sole representative of its genre to have been transmitted in manuscript form to the modern age. It is rather ironic to note, then, that in antiquity Aeschylus was almost as well known for his satyr plays as his tragedies, a reputation that endured for centuries. To wit, a Roman mosaic created half a millennium after the Classical Age depicts Aeschylus directing not a tragedy but a satyr play.

Likewise, the Roman poet Horace mentions Eupolis and Cratinus, two famous playwrights of Old Comedy, in the same breath with their contemporary and rival Aristophanes, which suggests Horace held all three in relatively equal esteem. Today, however, only Aristophanes’ works survive whole. This litany of loss serves as a serious reminder that our picture of classical drama is far from complete, making reconstruction a difficult but inevitable aspect of dealing with theatre in this age.

II. Early (Pre-Aeschylean) Tragedy

Little is known about specific Greek tragedies prior to Aeschylus. While fragments of text and the occasional anecdote may shed a ray of light here and there, all but nothing can be confirmed from credible historical sources. Our best information about early drama comes, in fact, not from plays as such but from inscriptions, the official notices of the Athenian state. This type of evidence is called epigraphical(“written on”) because the records were carved onto stone plaques, usually marble, and posted in public places.

Victory Lists (click to see larger image)

For drama, the most informative of the inscriptions are the Athenian victory lists, a catalogue of playwrights and producers—and later, performers—who won first prize at the City Dionysia annually. From these lists not only emerge many names of Greek playwrights and choregoi who would otherwise have passed from memory entirely, but these inscriptions also shed light on the evolution of theatre and drama in ancient Athens. For instance, the victory lists document the rise of actors by indicating the period when they began to be awarded prizes.

Also, because a playwright’s name was carved on the list the first time he won the competition, but if he succeeded again, his name was not inscribed a second time—instead, a tick mark was added next to it—the victory lists provide a relative chronology of winning playwrights. If these accounts were complete, the information given there would be among the best primary evidence available for drama in the Classical Age. Unfortunately they are not.

Another epigraphical source providing important information about fifth-century theatre is the Parian Marble. This monumental inscription—it is six feet, seven inches high, and two feet, three inches wide—was found on the Aegean island of Paros, hence its name. Its text is a purported history of Greece, but it focuses mainly on Athens with a clear bias toward glorifying the Athenians. Though it dates to around 275 BCE which is well after the Classical Age, many of the data cited on the Parian Marble can be corroborated elsewhere and so in general it seems fairly reliable.  Because Athens was by then widely recognized as the “birthplace of theatre,” it often addresses drama, in particular, tragedy and the lives and careers of the principal playwrights who lived during the Classical Age.

Given such data, we can piece together a rough outline of the course of early fifth-century tragedy. One of the first playwrights to appear in the historical record is Choerilus, in fact, little more than a name to which but one play title has been attached (Alope). About Pratinas, another playwright of roughly the same period, all that is known is he composed both tragedies and satyr plays . Standing somewhat closer to the horizon of our knowledge, Phrynichus is mentioned in Herodotus’ Histories (6.21) for “causing too much grief” to the Athenians when he staged a tragedy entitled The Siege of Miletus. This play deserves mention if for nothing else than that it is the first Western drama for which there exists specific information about the production. For instance, its subject revolved around recent history, not myth, making it also the earliest known historical drama.

We know more about another of Phrynichus’ tragedies, The Phoenician Women, a play which was set in the distant East around the end of the Second Persian War (479 BCE). This tragedy, no doubt, focused on the sorrows of the defeated Persians but was staged, according to one source, in a remarkably modern manner. If our source can be trusted, the play opened with a servant relating to the audience the recent defeat of the Persians as he went around the stage arranging chairs for nobles at a council meeting. Two decades later, Aeschylus employed the same sort of device in Agamemnon, which also begins with a servant, in this case a Watchman, waiting for his master to return home from Troy. He, too, lays out the scene for the audience at the outset of the play.

In other ways, too, Phrynichus seems to have laid the groundwork for tragedy’s rise to greatness. One source claims he was the first dramatist to introduce female characters onto the stage but, as such, that is hard to believe because tragedy had been up and going for at least two generations by Phrynichus’ day. It seems unlikely, if not impossible, for all those early tragedians to have restricted themselves to presenting only male characters in their plays. Nor is there any real reason that they should have. There would have been little pressure on male performers in ancient Greece to refrain from portraying women on stage, since, as far back in Greek poetry as Homer, poets were quoting female characters’ words in performance with no evident social repercussions. More likely, Phrynichus was the first playwright tofocus on female characters, which would in this case tie him to Euripides who was also known for creating memorable stage women.

All in all, Phrynichus was admired and imitated for at least two generations after his lifetime. But like Philip II of Macedon whose glory was also eclipsed by his successor (and son), Alexander the Great, Phrynichus’ fame was later overshadowed by the man who assumed his mantle as the pre-eminent playwright of Athens in the next generation. That man was, of course, Aeschylus.

III. Aeschylus (ca. 525-456 BCE)

A. Aeschylus’ Life and Career

We know much more about Aeschylus than his predecessors, due, no doubt, to his subsequent renown as both poet and dramatist. Aeschylus was born around 525/524 BCE and died in 456 BCE. Though not among the rich, he came from good Athenian stock and was apparently well-educated. As an adult, Aeschylus fought at the Battle of Marathon in the First Persian War, a detail preserved on the Parian Marble. And again, during the Second Persian War, it is likely Aeschylus, by then in his forties, rowed with the Greek navy when it defeated its Persian counterpart at the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE). His brother Cynegirus is reported to have died there. Related by historical sources of varying reliability, Aeschylus’ participation in this battle finds its best confirmation in his own Persae, a play which narrates the events that happened at sea that day and pays close attention to the sorts of details a common sailor would have noted.

Aeschylus is said to have died in Sicily, presumably on tour since the Greeks who lived there admired his work, or so some sources relate. Confirmation of this comes from the title of one of his tragedies, The Women of Etna, which appears to have been written primarily for a Sicilian viewership.  If so, it constitutes one of the few specific instances that we know of classical drama being performed outside the City Dionysia in Athens during the fifth century BCE.

So beginning at least in the later part of his career and from that time on, the ancients held Aeschylus’ work in high esteem, at least to judge from the number of times he won first prize at the Dionysia—his biography says thirteen—and from the praise showered on him after his lifetime. To wit, a decree issued by the Athenians several decades after Aeschylus’ life attests to his enduring popularity throughout the Classical Age. It proclaimed that, if anyone wished to revive one of Aeschylus’ plays, the city itself would act as choregos and pay for the chorus, by far the costliest aspect of theatre production in that day.

Conversely, the Parian Marble also reports that Aeschylus’ first victory at the Dionysia came only in 484 BCE, which must have been fairly late in his career, certainly not the first time he entered the Dionysia. To judge from the number of extant play titles accredited to him—he wrote at least seventy dramas constituting a minimum of seventeen separate tetralogies (three tragedies plus a satyr play)—Aeschylus’ career almost certainly had to have begun earlier than 484 BCE. It would have been infeasible for him to enter the competition at the Dionysia often enough between 484 and his death in 456 to generate that many plays. Thus, for at least some portion of his early career he must have gone without winning at the Dionysia. In other words, his popularity was ultimately very great but probably came neither quickly nor easily.





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