Our interest in the theater connects us intimately with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Nearly every Greek and Roman city of note had an open-air theater, the seats arranged in tiers with a lovely view of the surrounding landscape. Here the Greeks sat and watched the plays first of Aeschylus, Sophokles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, and of Menander and the later playwrights.
The Greek theater consisted essentially of the orchestra, the flat dancing floor of the chorus, and the theatron, the actual structure of the theater building. Since theaters in antiquity were frequently modified and rebuilt, the surviving remains offer little clear evidence of the nature of the theatrical space available to the Classical dramatists in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. There is no physical evidence for a circular orchestra earlier than that of the great theater at Epidauros dated to around 330 B.C. Most likely, the audience in fifth-century B.C. Athens was seated close to the stage in a rectilinear arrangement, such as appears at the well-preserved theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this early period in Greek drama, the stage and most probably the skene (stage building) were made of wood. Vase paintings depicting Greek comedy from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. suggest that the stage stood about a meter high with a flight of steps in the center. The actors entered from either side and from a central door in the skene, which also housed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform with sets of scenes. A mechane, or crane, located at the right end of the stage, was used to hoist gods and heroes through the air onto the stage. Greek dramatists surely made the most of the extreme contrasts between the gods up high and the actors on stage, and between the dark interior of the stage building and the bright daylight.
Little is known about the origins of Greek tragedy before Aeschylus (?525/24–456/55 B.C.), the most innovative of the Greek dramatists. His earliest surviving work is Persians, which was produced in 472 B.C. The roots of Greek tragedy, however, most likely are embedded in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysos Eleuthereios, which included processions, sacrifices in the theater, parades, and competitions between tragedians. Of the few surviving Greek tragedies, all but Aeschylus’ Persians draw from heroic myths. The protagonist and the chorus portrayed the heroes who were the object of cult in Attica in the fifth century B.C. Often, the dialogue between the actor and chorus served a didactic function, linking it as a form of public discourse with debates in the assembly. To this day, drama in all its forms still functions as a powerful medium of communication of ideas.
Unlike the Greek tragedy, the comic performances produced in Athens during the fifth century B.C., the so-called Old Comedy, ridiculed mythology and prominent members of Athenian society. There seems to have been no limit to speech or action in the comic exploitation of sex and other bodily functions. Terracotta figurines and vase paintings dated around and after the time of Aristophanes (?460/50–ca. 387 B.C.) show comic actors wearing grotesque masks and tights with padding on the rump and belly, as well as a leather phallus.
In the second half of the fourth century B.C., the so-called New Comedy of Menander (?344/43–292/91 B.C.) and his contemporaries gave fresh interpretations to familiar material. In many ways comedy became simpler and tamer, with very little obscenity. The grotesque padding and phallus of Old Comedy were abandoned in favor of more naturalistic costumes that reflected the playwrights’ new style. Subtle differentiation of masks worn by the actors paralleled the finer delineation of character in the texts of New Comedy, which dealt with private and family life, social tensions, and the triumph of love in a variety of contexts.
The Greek Theater
Paper #2 – due: Wednesday, March 19 (by 4 pm)
Choose one of the topics below and write a 5-7 page, double-spaced paper. Make sure to follow the style guidelines (available on Blackboard). The plays themselves and the archaeological record are still the primary sources for this paper and should remain your most important evidence, but you must also investigate secondary sources; some suggested bibliography is provided, but your are strongly encouraged to do additional research for your specific topic. You must use at least 4 sources (not counting the plays themselves). Make sure to include a works cited or bibliography page with your paper (not included in the page count).
The broader focus of this paper is to consider how we interpret the different types of primary sources available to the study of the ancient theater and what these sources tell us about Athenian, Sicilian, and/or Greek society, politics, and culture. As you write your paper, keep the following questions and problems in mind: How does understanding the historical context impact our reading of the plays? What is at stake in a “democratic” reading of tragedy? How does the intersection of religion and politics play out in the architecture of the theater and the content of the plays? Make sure to be clear about the particular context of your topic – don’t elide the Athenians with all of the Greeks, for instance, and think about chronology. When was the play performed, where was it performed, and what was happening around the same time and in the recent past?
1. Evaluate the figures of Theseus and Creon from Sophokles’ Oedipus plays. How does the characterization of these men map onto constructs of Athenian democracy, subvert democratic ideals, or reflect issues pertinent to Athenian democracy? For this topic, you may also consider the figure of Antigone.
Cartledge, P. 1997. “’Deep Plays’: Theater as Process in Greek Civic Life.” In The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. P.E. Easterling, Cambridge, pp. 3-35.
Goldhill, S. 1990. “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology.” In Nothing to do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in its Social Context, eds. J.J. Winkler and F.I. Zeitlin, Princeton, pp. 97-129.
2. Consider the place and impact of Greek – and specifically Athenian – theater in the Greek West (Southern Italy and Sicily). What is the function of theaters (architecturally speaking) and the performance of tragedy in the western cities? You may choose one particular city as a case study, or evaluate a broader corpus of examples.
Denard, H. 2007. “Lost Theater and Performance Traditions in Greece and Italy.” In The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theater, eds. M. McDonald and J.M. Walton, Cambridge, pp. 139-160.
various essays in: Bosher, K., ed. 2012. Theater Outside Athens: Drama in Greek Sicily and South Italy, Cambridge.
3. What is the role of the Homeric past in Greek tragedy? Consider how Athenian plays manipulate, build on, and deal with the issues of the Trojan War. For this paper, you can focus on the issue of xenia, nostos, general problems of warfare and destruction, or some combination thereof. You must consider more than one play, but do not feel that you need to address every play we have read so far. It helps to be familiar with the Iliad and Odyssey for this topic.
Anderson, M.J. 1997. The Fall of Troy in Early Greek Poetry and Art, Oxford.
Anderson, M.J. 2005. “Myth.” In The Blackwell Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. J. Gregory, Oxford, pp. 121-135.
4. The appearance of a divinity during the performance of a play is a somewhat common occurrence in both Aeschylos and Sophokles. Evaluate the effect of this use of the divine as a tragic figure, either in epiphanic moments or as a prominent character. Make sure to consider the religious content of the play(s) in terms of divine apparition, the setting of the sanctuary, and the overarching role of the City Dionysia festival.
Graf, F. 2007. “Religion and Drama.” In The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theater, eds. M. McDonald and J.M. Walton, Cambridge, pp. 55-71.
Mikalson, J.D. 1991. Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy, Chapel Hill.