Festivals and Theaters

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Festivals and Theaters

The Fragments of Theatrical Creation.

Athens was not the only place where plays were written or performed, but after the establishment of the City Dionysia, where formal competitions of drama were held beginning in the late sixth century b.c.e., it was the center of dramatic production. Unfortunately, only a tiny portion of the theatrical output of this time survived. The names Choerilus, Pratinas, and Phrynichus, the first tragic playwright to include female characters in his dramas, in addition to Thespis as predecessors of Aeschylus are known, but all of their works are lost. Of the eighty or ninety plays Aeschylus wrote, only six survive. (The authorship of a possible seventh, the Prometheus Bound, is hotly contested; it has been attributed to Aeschylus but also to his son Euphorion, another tragedian.) Sophocles, in his remarkably productive career, wrote some 130 plays, of which only seven are accessible to modern readers. Ion of Chios and Achaeus of Eretria were his contemporaries. Euripides, the youngest of the three great tragedians whose works have survived, produced 92 plays, but only 19 of these made it to modern times. The titles of several other tragedies are known and some fragments from them exist. The names of other playwrights are also known, such as Critias, Plato's uncle and the leader of the notorious "Thirty Tyrants" who controlled Athens briefly after the Peloponnesian War, and Agathon, the host and one of the central figures of Plato's Symposium, whose victory at the Lenaia in 416 b.c.e. was the reason for the party.


introduction: Aeschylus' Oresteia, "The Orestes Saga," is the only extant dramatic trilogy remaining from antiquity. It was the venerable tragedian's last production before his death in 458 b.c.e. The satyr play, a farcical and lewd lampoon called Proteus which accompanied the trilogy, is lost, however. In these three majestic and powerful dramas, the curse on the house of Atreus, which began with the child-murder and cannibalism of their ancestor Pelops, is finally ended by the young Orestes, the troubled son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Queen Clytemnestra, with her lover, her husband's cousin Aigisthus, has been ruling Argos while Agamemnon was away at the Trojan War, and she is not willing to become submissive to Agamemnon's power again after his return. She is also furious that Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter and came home with a slave-woman, Cassandra, in tow. In this speech, at the end of the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra gloats over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, both of whom she has murdered with her "man-slaying axe." In this passage, the extraordinary imagery and the denseness of Aeschylus' rich poetic voice are on stunning display.

Clytemnestra: Since I said many things before to suit my own needs, I am not ashamed now to say just the opposite. For how could one person, planning hateful things for hated enemies who only seemed to be loved ones, build a fence around the nets of suffering so high that no one could jump over it? I had been thinking for a long time about this match to settle an old grudge, and it was a long time coming, but in time it finally came: I stand here where I struck them down, over the deeds I accomplished. In this way I did it, and I will not deny any of it—my husband did not escape nor did he ward off his doom. I threw a boundless net, like a net used to catch fish, around him, a dreadful mass of a garment. I struck him two times, and with two cries his limbs fell lax, and while he lay there in a heap, I struck him a third time as an offering to Zeus of the Underworld, the redeemer of the dead. And as he fell he released his spirit. Then he breathed out a sharp clot of blood and he sprayed me with a dark mist of bloody dew as I rejoiced just as much as the growing grain rejoices in the god-given sparkling rain when the buds are sprouting. That's the way things are, you elders of the Argives, so rejoice, if you would rejoice. I myself exult in my triumph! If it were appropriate to pour libations over the body, then these things would have been done justly, more than justly. Agamemnon filled the drinking cup of this house with so many curses and evils that he drank it dry when he came home.

Chorus: We are horror-struck at your tongue, at your harsh mouth, that glories like that over your husband!

Clytemnestra: You are treating me like I am some dimwitted woman! My heart has no fear, and I am speaking to those who know it well. Whether you want to praise me for what I did or censure me, it's all the same to me. Here is Agamemnon, my husband, a corpse, the act of this right hand, the act of a just craftsman. And that's the way it is.

source: Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in Aeschyli Septem Quae Supersunt Tragoedias. Ed. Denys Page (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972): lines 1372–1406. Translated by Lisa Rengo George.

Dramatic Festivals.

The most important theatrical festivals in Attica during the sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e. were the City or Great Dionysia, the Rural Dionysia, and the Lenaia. The Great Dionysia was held every year in the month of Elaphebolion, corresponding to March in the modern calendar. Pisistratus either founded or expanded the City Dionysia around 536 b.c.e. by introducing the cult of Dionysus of Eleutherae to the celebration. The Rural Dionysia took place in the month of Poseidon (December), and the Lenaia in the month of Gamelion, or January (in Ionian Greece, the month was known as Lenaion). A special archon (an elected Athenian official) oversaw all aspects of dramatic production at the Dionysia. This archon selected the three tragedians who would present a trilogy of tragedies, not necessarily connected by theme, along with a satyr play, a lighthearted farcical drama, during the days of competition. There were five days allotted for dramatic and choral competition except during the Peloponnesian War, when it was cut back to three days. On the first three days, a tragic trilogy and satyr play were performed, followed by a comedy (beginning in 486 b.c.e.). On the final two days, choral dithyrambs were followed by a comedy. In his Laws, Plato suggests that the playwrights read portions of their dramas to the archon who based his choice on these mini-performances. The archon was also responsible for lining up a choregos for each production. The choregos was a wealthy Athenian citizen who paid for the outfitting and rehearsal of the chorus—the polis or city-state of Athens supported the dramatic poets and the leading actors. Playwrights were known to act in their own dramas—Sophocles is said to have stopped acting when his voice became too weak—but as the festivals developed, professional actors were hired. Later, in 449 b.c.e., competitions were held for actors as well as dramatists. Before the theatrical productions proper began, a proagon or "pre-contest" was held in which the playwrights appeared with the casts of their plays to explain the sources and themes of their dramas. In a time before theatrical placards or programs, it would have been most useful to have some guidance along these lines from the playwright himself. Athens was divided into ten phylai or tribes, and one man was chosen as a judge from each one of the ten. The ivy wreath bestowed upon the first-prize winner signified the admiration and adulation of the entire Athenian populace.

The Enactment of the Dionysiac Festival.

The City Dionysia began with a lengthy procession that reenacted the original journey of Dionysus from Eleutherae to Athens. The Athenians maintained an image of Dionysus within the ancient temple precinct of the god on the south slope of the Acropolis, where a permanent theater was constructed under Pisistratus in the sixth century b.c.e. A few days before the festival procession, this image was taken to a temple of Dionysus outside the city, and during the opening festivities, the Athenians carried it by torchlight back to its rightful home. The choregoi marched in fancy costume along with citizens who carried large phalluses, which signified the agricultural aspects of the god's character, to the temple precinct. There the ten generals, elected officials of the city, performed sacrifices and libations. Following the proagon, the five days of competition began.

The Structure of Theatrical Space.

The space for performance and the manner of performance were well-defined by the time tragedy reached its peak in Athens in the fifth century b.c.e. The structure of the Greek theater actually influenced the way actors performed the dramas. Originally, the performance space was probably little more than a flat semi-circular area where the chorus performed the dithyramb, next to a sloping hillside where spectators could sit with an unobstructed view of the show. The flat area for choral performance was called the orchestra, which derives from a Greek word for "dance" rather than the production of music. At the back of the orchestral space stood an altar to Dionysus, for whom the dithyramb was sung. On either side of the orchestra was a path, called a parodos. Both spectators and actors used these entranceways to enter and exit the theatrical space. As first one and then two and more actors were added, the skene, meaning simply "tent," was added on a small platform behind the orchestra. This simple hut served as a dressing and waiting room for the actors as well as the primary stage setting of the drama, whether a palace, temple, cave, or tomb was required. The skene soon transformed into a permanent building with a number of doors, which would open into the performance space. The skene could be painted to convey more vividly the location of the drama. Inside the skene was housed an important piece of equipment called the ekkyklema, a platform on runners that could be rolled out of the skene at critical moments, such as when the display of dead or dying characters murdered off stage was necessary. A crane-like device, called the mechane, was employed to display gods in the heavens or humans hovering above the stage, as when Medea makes her escape in Helios' chariot at the end of Euripides' Medea. The Latin phrase deus ex machina, literally "god from the machine," refers to the appearance of a god via the mechane who offers a divine solution to the human entanglements in the drama. Seating was erected in the hollowed out hillside for up to some 15,000 spectators at the Theater of Dionysus, with wooden benches for the common folk and specially reserved stone chairs for important officials. The acoustics of such an arrangement are excellent, and some of Greece's best preserved ancient theaters, such as the one at Epidaurus south of Athens, remain in use for modern performances. All theatrical performances took place in daylight, beginning at dawn and running until dusk. The thousands of theater-goers would have been perfectly visible to their neighbors, and would have had to eat, drink, talk to each other, and move around during the lengthy shows. This level of audience visibility would have created a much different atmosphere than the typically hushed and darkened theater in which modern viewers commonly watch dramatic spectacles.

Elements of Performance.

Because the structure of the Greek theater remained static, acting style conformed to the theatrical space and exploited its most attractive features. All actors were male, and some men and boys seem to have specialized in performing female roles although most would have had to play roles of both genders. Because there were only two and sometimes three actors, each would have had to take multiple roles. This was more easily accomplished by the use of theatrical masks and costumes that covered the body completely. The mask had a wig attached to it and a large opening at the mouth, perhaps to amplify the voice. The actors also wore a common lace-up boot called a cothurnos, to which high platforms were added in the Hellenistic period to provide greater visibility. Thus, acting style could not be subtle. No facial expressions or small gestures could be seen by the audience, and stage whispers or low voices would not have been heard. It must also be remembered that ancient theater was more like opera than a modern stage play, since the chorus and actors sang many of their parts, accompanied by dance, and even spoken dialogue was constructed in complex poetic rhythms called "meters" that influenced the method of delivery. Actors employed large gestures that became iconic. An actor's skills were expressed by the emotive qualities of his voice, and his rhetorical techniques, the same ones orators used in the government assembly and public forums. The plots of most tragedies were taken from the stories now known as "mythology." In fact, Plato in his Republic called Homer "the first tragic poet," not only because his subject matter was revisited in tragedy but because of the many dramatic interactions between major characters in the epic. Only a few plays that are known were not based on myth—Aeschylus' Persians, reflecting his experiences in the Persian War and produced in 472 b.c.e., is one of them.


P. E. Easterling and Edith Hall, eds., Greek and Roman Actors: Aspects of an Ancient Profession (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Arthur Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens (London: Oxford University Press, 1968).

Oliver Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978).

Peter Wilson, The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia: The Chorus, the City, and the Stage (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).