Types of Greek Drama

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Types of Greek Drama

Tragedy Takes Shape.

During the sixth century b.c.e., as Greece awoke from the dark years of illiteracy and cultural deterioration, tragedy as a dramatic form began to take shape. In a performance space that consisted of a central location, known as the skene ("tent"), a half-circle called the "orchestra" in front for the chorus, and entrances on either side, tragic drama was first performed. In Poetics Aristotle describes how Thespis added an actor to the chorus who would deliver a prologue relating the content of the play and speeches separate from the choral songs. Aeschylus is said to have added a second actor, thereby allowing an exchange of dialogue between two characters, despite the fact that in some of his surviving plays, the main actor, or "protagonist," still speaks primarily to the chorus. Aeschylus' younger contemporary, Sophocles, added a third actor and painted scenery and expanded the chorus from twelve men to fifteen. The movement of the tragic form can thus be seen as the growth of choral song and dance to a series of choral songs relating to spoken interludes of dialogic narration of a story delivered by two or even three actors. The Greek word for actor is hypocrites, meaning "interpreter" or "responder," which suggests that the actor's earliest role may have been to explicate the cryptic and elusive odes performed by the chorus. In its fully developed form, tragedy followed a generic form. There were two basic styles of communication in a tragedy: the choral ode in poetic meter with musical accompaniment; and spoken dialogue, also in meter, but without music. An actor could perform a solo song, or monody, set to music. Exchanges between an actor and the chorus were also written in special meters. A tragedy usually began with a prologue, spoken by one or two actors, which described the setting and the circumstances of the play. The chorus then entered, singing and dancing, and it remained in the orchestra for the entire drama. Then a series of "episodes," sometimes culminating in a central agon, or debate between irrevocably opposed sides, followed. The chorus divided the episodes with songs called stasima (the plural of stasimon, meaning "standing in one place"). Sometimes the choral songs were obscure and had only the most arcane connections to the plot of the play, but at other times the chorus sang plaintively about the troubles that swirled around them or rejoiced, ironically, in the peace and happiness that can be foreseen, but which will not materialize. After the last stasimon came the exodus or final scene and exit, during which the action of the drama was summed up or its results were delineated. Some standard features of tragedy, which appear in some but not all of surviving tragedies, and sometimes in altered forms, are as follows: a chorus of powerless individuals (the elderly, foreigners, women, even slaves); violent action that takes place offstage and is described in detail by a hurried minor character, perhaps a messenger or household member; and a number of silent supernumeraries on stage, such as heralds, guards, servants, children, and other non-speaking roles as necessary.

Tragic Plots.

Most tragedies drew on a fund of shared lore that bound Greek-speaking peoples together. We refer to these stories as "myths" and "legends." Stories of the creation of the cosmos and the battles for control of it; the Olympian gods and the formation of their cults; the many children of the gods, both mortal and immortal; and their numerous tales of daring and adventure, love and conquest, great journeys, the Trojan war and its aftermath all resurfaced in tragedy as settings for the great fifth century b.c.e. tragedians to dramatize the problems facing their city and the eternal questions of human life. The heroes of mythology were called upon to face danger and repel threats by dint of physical force and mental acuity: they literally voyaged to the ends of the earth and even into the Underworld itself to face down monsters and restore order to their society. In comparison, the heroes of tragedy must still confront danger and take perilous journeys, but these are often represented by the internal struggles of the hero as he or she ruthlessly seeks the truth and determines to find answers. The tragic hero, like the hero of myth, takes the ills of his or her society, often represented by the family unit, upon himself and works tirelessly to bring resolution. Human beings must face the horrors of life: the cruelty of divine will; the greed, lust, and brutality of human interaction; the desire for revenge or power; and the senseless suffering people undergo and inflict on each other. In most tragedies, a terrible deed or event is the catalyst, and we watch as the characters face ultimate catastrophe or, in attempting to thwart it, create new misfortune for themselves. Tragedies did not depend on suspense, since audiences knew well the plots of the stories treated by the playwrights. The excitement and power of the tragedy lay instead in the manner in which the story unfolded, the language employed, and the inevitable realizations of the characters. The Athenian audience would also have felt very deeply the associations the playwright drew between the adversity of the noble family on the stage and their own pressing issues. When Sophocles' audience was presented with the specter of the plague threatening Thebes at the beginning of Oedipus the King, they would have shuddered in acknowledgment, since a horrendous plague struck Athens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, during the time period this tragedy would have been performed. Matters of individual rights, tyranny, the possibility of justice, and the right way to live were the subjects treated by Athens' philosophers, politicians, and historians as well as their playwrights. For the ancient Greeks, divisions of genre were not that strict: tragedy was meant to educate, to pose difficult questions, and to offer potential solutions as well as to entertain.

The Satyr Play.

After an audience at the Great Dionysia had experienced several hours of the intense performance of tragedies, they were eased back into daily reality by means of a "satyr play," a coarse and farcical play that followed the formula of tragedy. The same playwright


introduction: Sophocles presented the trilogy that contained Oedipus the King in 430 b.c.e. when Athens was in the throes of a devastating plague. In the second year of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, all the residents of rural Attica around the city of Athens were forced to abandon their homes and farms and to crowd into the city. The poor sanitation allowed this plague to spread quickly and thousands died. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Sophocles presents the ancient city of Thebes in his play as overwhelmed by plague as well. Many scholars consider Oedipus the King to be nearly perfect in its structure, its dramatic irony, and its presentation of the tragic hero, whose very strengths—his relentless pursuit of truth and justice, his strength of will, and his refusal to compromise—bring about his tragic downfall. Oedipus was left to die on a hillside as a baby because of a prophecy that foretold he would kill his father and marry his mother. In this scene, Oedipus confronts the servant who rescued him and the messenger who raised him, and finally realizes the awful truth: he is the cause of the plague—his father's murderer and his mother's husband!

Messenger: Come on now, do you recognize a certain child you gave me to raise as my own son?

Servant: What? Why are you asking about that?

Messenger: This man here is the one, friend, who was a young child then.

Servant: May ruin destroy you! Why won't you be quiet?

Oedipus: Ah, don't rebuke him, old man, since your words need to be upbraided more than his do.

Servant: What am I doing wrong, best of masters?

Oedipus: You are not acknowledging the child, the one he inquires about.

Servant: He doesn't know what he's talking about. He's on the wrong track.

Oedipus: If you won't talk as a favor, then you will talk while in pain!

Servant: Please, by the gods, don't hurt an old man like me.

Oedipus: Will someone pull his arms behind his back?

Servant: Oh no, don't! What do you want to find out?

Oedipus: Did you give the child to this man who is asking questions?

Servant: Yes, I did. I wish I had died on that very day.

Oedipus: You will get there unless you tell the truth.

Servant: Things will be much worse if I do talk.

Oedipus: It seems that this man is looking for a delay.

Servant: Not, I, sir, I just said that I gave him the child a long time ago.

Oedipus: Where did you get this child? In your household or from somewhere else?

Servant: It didn't belong to me—I got it from someone else.

Oedipus: From which one of these citizens and from what household?

Servant: Oh by the gods, master, please don't ask me any more.

Oedipus: You will die if I have to ask you this again!

Servant: He was one of the household of Laius.

Oedipus: A slave, or a relative of his?

Servant: Ah! I am about to say a dreadful thing!

Oedipus: And I'm about to hear something dreadful. But it must be heard.

Servant: He was said to be Laius' child. Really, Jocasta inside could tell best what the situation is.

Oedipus: Did she give him to you?

Servant: Yes, my lord.

Oedipus: Why?

Servant: So I could kill him.

Oedipus: The wretched woman who bore him?

Servant: She was afraid of the evil prophecy.

Oedipus: What prophecy?

Servant: That the child would kill his own father.

Oedipus: How did you happen to give him to this old man?

Servant: I pitied the baby, master, and I thought he would carry him away to another land, where he himself was from. But he saved him for the worst fate. If you are the man he's talking about, you were born cursed.

Oedipus: AH! Oh my god! Everything is clear now! O light of day, I am looking at you now for the last time!

source: Sophocles, Oedipus the King, in Sophoclis Fabulae. Ed. A. C. Pearson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924): lines 1142–1185. Translated by Lisa Rengo George.

who produced the tragic trilogy also produced this satyr drama, which may have echoed some of the themes raised in his tragedies. Aristotle believed that satyr drama was the genesis of tragedy, although others think that satyric drama arose as a separate theatrical form. The playwright Pratinas, a predecessor of Aeschylus, turned this ancient cult performance consisting of a group of satyrs who sang and danced in honor of their patron into a dramatic form, with a chorus comprised of actors dressed as men with horse ears and tails led by Silenus, the chief satyr. In the fourth century b.c.e., artists began to represent satyrs as half-goats rather than half-horses. The standard costume for the actors in a satyr play would have been quite obscene from a modern perspective: over a typical bodysuit, they wore short, rough pants with a very large and erect penis attached in front and a horsetail attached behind. Masks portrayed the "ugly" facial features of the uncivilized man-beast: balding, rounded foreheads with snub noses, pointy ears, and black hair and beards. Silenus, as their leader, wore a similar mask with older features and white hair. Although Pratinas wrote over thirty satyr plays, none survive. There are very few examples of this genre: Euripides' Cyclops, essentially the same story Homer tells in the Odyssey about Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus (with the addition of a chorus of satyrs), is the only complete satyr play to survive. Fragments from Aeschylus' Net-Men and Sophocles' Trackers also survive.

Origins of Greek Comedy.

In ancient Greece, a komos was a drunken parade of carousing revelers who staggered through the streets of their town dancing and singing bawdy and insulting songs. The same form can be seen in the Dionysiac processions that began the theatrical festivals. This familiar kind of inebriated group behavior gradually took shape as a genuine dramatic form, which followed many of the elements of the tragic genre: a chorus, a limited number of speaking parts for actors, the same theatrical structure, and the same modes of production. Comedy, however, as a latecomer to the dramatic competitions, had several unique characteristics as well. The level of invective and insult in comedy is related to the similarly-themed poetics of authors like Hipponax and Archilochus, who flourished during the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.e. during the diaspora from the mainland, as well as to the types of verbally abusive songs sung at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the secretive cult worship of the goddess Demeter, centered at Eleusis, a town south of Athens. Comedy was introduced to the City Dionysia around 487 b.c.e. and was performed after the tragic trilogy and the satyr play. At this time a comic poet named Magnes was on the rise, and for some time he alone remained prominent in the genre, winning a total of eleven first prizes at the City Dionysia. Magnes was particularly well known for the wonderful musical accompaniments to his plays as well as for his imitations of barnyard animals. In the middle of the century, other comedic poets began to gain prominence: Cratinus, held to be a great drinker; Crates, whom Aristotle said invented actual plots for his comedies rather than producing a series of caricatures; Pherecrates; and Eupolis. Aristophanes is the only comic playwright whose works have survived. Modern scholars know more than 32 titles of his plays, and eleven of them have survived along with some fragments. It is clear from the writings of Aristotle and other historians that playwrights did not write in both the comic and tragic genre.

The Structure of Old Comedy.

Modern scholars must rely on the plays of Aristophanes to determine the structure of ancient Greek comedy also known as "Old Comedy"—those plays written and produced between the mid-sixth century and late fifth century b.c.e. Most of Aristophanes' plays begin with a prologue spoken by an actor or the playwright himself. In the prologue the author could air grievances, talk about his audience or the government, and describe the circumstances of the comedy to follow. Next the 24-man comic chorus—rather than the twelve-or fifteen-man tragic chorus—entered singing and dancing, often dressed in wild and fantastical costumes. The chorus introduced the audience to the comedy proper and outlined the setting for the play. The chorus usually took sides, either for or against the hero of the play. The agon, as in a tragedy, was the centerpiece of the play, in which the two opposing sides argued for their cases, with additions by the chorus. The first speaker in the debate was almost always the loser. The word parabasis means "a stepping aside," and was the time in the play when the chorus, after the actors had exited the stage, held the theatrical space alone and, performing a special song and dance unconnected to the rest of the plot, addressed the audience directly. After this, a series of scenes called "episodes" took place, which illustrated the results of the central debate. Finally, the play ended with a rowdy celebration of marriage or reconciliation.

Freedom of Speech and Obscenity in Old Comedy.

Just as the masks worn by comic actors were grotesquely exaggerated, and their costumes were excessively padded with comically enlarged genitalia, so also were the types of humor, both physical and verbal, garish and vulgar. Athenian democracy guaranteed liberty to its citizens (adult males only), which included freedom of speech (parrhesia in ancient Greek). This freedom to speak one's mind, whether in a public assembly or in a private gathering, naturally applied to Athenian playwrights as well. Therefore, the comic poets like Aristophanes were perfectly free to criticize or mock any aspect of their city-state: public figures, wars, laws, treaties, citizens' rights, intellectual movements—all could be, and frequently were, treated in satiric form on the comic stage. Even the gods and religious rituals could be parodied, though Aristophanes never presents the gods with serious skepticism. Excretive humor and obscenity were rampant in Old Comedy as well. Aristophanic comedy is all-inclusive and included elements that every level of the demos (the citizen population) could enjoy, from highest political satire to the most juvenile jokes about flatulence and bodily functions.



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Role of Women.

In ancient Greece, wealthy women led lives that would be considered restrictive by modern standards. It is likely that women in poorer families had more freedom, but unfortunately there is not much information about the lives of the poor. The vast majority of evidence about the lives of women in antiquity comes from sources, objects, and monuments created by men, from a male perspective. Young girls of noble heritage were educated mostly at home, in the arts of housekeeping, weaving, and food preparation and preservation. Young women remained in their fathers' households until their marriage, usually at the age of fourteen or so. Married women must have spent considerable amounts of time in the oikos or private family space, and lived in special secluded areas. This does not mean that women were never permitted to go about in public: women were active participants in religious rituals, and they undoubtedly visited friends and family, shopped for food and household necessities, and attended public events. But women did not have public lives as men did. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that female characters are featured so prominently in Greek tragedy and occupy center stage in some of Aristophanes' comedies. In order to understand this, it must be remembered that the creative setting of the theater was itself sacred space, within the temple precinct of Dionysus, and the performances reflected and commented upon Greek culture by artistically depicting events that could occur in real life. Tragedies borrowed their subject matter from mythology and utilized the family unit, at least in part, as a microcosm for the functioning city-state. Since women were central to family life, they could represent certain values on stage that women in society may not have been allowed to articulate. For instance, Antigone in Sophocles' play of the same name represents a strict religious view and upholds the duties of individual families rather than the laws of the state, in direct opposition to her uncle Creon, the male head not only of her own family but also of the state itself. In Euripides' play, Medea, a foreigner and suspected witch, eloquently expresses the hardship she has suffered at the hands of Jason, a Greek hero, and even gets away with multiple murders, including the killing of her own children. On the comic stage, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred, sometimes even non-existent. The requirements of the stage necessitated that all female roles be played by male actors. Aristophanes enjoyed playing with this convention by having male characters disguise themselves as women, as in the Women at the Thesmophoria, and by having female characters, already being played by men, disguise themselves as men to attend a political gathering in Assembly-Goers. Just as in tragedy, women were an accepted part of the polis, and could express political and social discontent through their behavior. In Lysistrata, the women of Athens and Sparta, in despair about the length of the Peloponnesian War and the absence of the menfolk, declare



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a sex strike in order to hasten a resolution to the conflict. The fantastical element of comedy can make allowances for such an event as a metaphor for the Athenians' dissatisfaction with their political leadership.


introduction: The life of Euripides, the youngest of the three greatest Athenian tragedians, spanned most of the fifth century b.c.e., a period of unequalled cultural production in literature, drama, art and architecture, and politics. Euripides was often accused of focusing on marginalized characters—women, foreigners, slaves—in his tragedies, to the exclusion of the noble people tragedy was supposed to portray as didactic examples to the Athenian people. But as a result of this, we can see Athenian attitudes and cultural problems of concern to the democracy, such as in his masterpiece, Medea. The story was part of mythology: the hero Jason must capture the Golden Fleece from the distant kingdom of Colchis on the Black Sea in order to regain his rightful kingship in Iolcos. In Colchis, the beautiful daughter of the king, Medea, is charmed by Aphrodite into falling in love with the dashing young hero, and she assists him in his quest. In some versions, she murders her own younger brother and chops his body into pieces, which she throws overboard as the Argonauts make their escape from Colchis. In this play, Euripides seems to ask the question, "What would happen to Medea, a spooky foreign woman, supposedly possessed of eerie magical powers, once she returned with her Greek husband to Greece?" During the fifth century in Athens, no Athenian citizen was allowed to marry a foreigner—if he did so, the marriage was not considered legal in Athens. In the following scene, the end of the play, Medea has killed the king of Corinth and his daughter, to whom Jason was betrothed, as well as her own children with Jason, as revenge for being cast out unceremoniously from Jason's life. Medea is speaking to Jason from the chariot of the Sun, provided for her escape, with the dead bodies of her children on board.

Jason: But may the Fury (a horrid female monster who pursues people who kill family members) and murderous Justice destroy you because of what you did to the children!

Medea: (gloating savagely) Which god or divine being will hear you, you oath-breaker and liar?

Jason: Oh my god, you disgusting child-murderer!

Medea: Go home and bury your "legal wife" [i.e. the king's daughter].

Jason: I'm going, deprived of both my children.

Medea: Don't grieve yet—wait until you're old.

Jason: O dearest children!

Medea: Dearest to their mother, not to you!

Jason: And you murdered them!

Medea: I did it to hurt you.

Jason: Ah, the pain! Oh wretched me, I long to kiss the soft mouths of my children!

Medea: Now you speak to them, now you show them affection—not so long ago you pushed them away.

Jason: In the name of the gods, allow me to touch just once more the gentle faces of my sons.

Medea: No! Your plea is cast on the wind!

Jason: O Zeus, do you hear these things, how I am driven away, how much I suffer at the hands of this horrible child-killing lioness? But no matter what, as much as it is possible and I am able, I will grieve for these things and I will call on the gods, making the divinities my witnesses, that after slaughtering my children, you are preventing me from touching their skin, and from giving their bodies a proper burial, bodies which I, their father, should never have had to see destroyed by you.

Chorus: Zeus, master of many gods on Olympus, the gods bring to pass many things unexpectedly! Justice was not done, but instead a god found the means of the unjust! In this way, this situation has been resolved.

source: Euripides, Medea, in Euripidis Fabulae. Ed. Gilbert Murray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902): lines 1386–1425. Translated by Lisa Rengo George.

Middle Comedy.

After the Peloponnesian War ended in 404 b.c.e., the zenith of Athenian creativity passed as well. As first the Spartans and then the Macedonians gained ascendancy, Athens continued its cultural production but on a lesser scale. A canon of tragedies was established and revivals of these plays were performed, but no new tragedies were written. As Athenian democracy faded, so did its civic freedoms, and the comic poets were compelled to tone down the overtly political content in their plays. This period defined the transition from "Old" Comedy to "Middle" Comedy, a term possibly coined by Aristophanes of Byzantium, the librarian at Alexandria, to describe the comedies created between 404 and 321 b.c.e. Some scholars have seen the beginnings of Middle Comedy in the romantic tragedies of Euripides, like Ion and Helen, and in the later comedies of Aristophanes, including the Assembly-Goers and Wealth. The material becomes less inherently political and much more broadly-based. The role of the chorus is diminished substantially; the parabasis is completely absent, and only occasional songs meant for the chorus are indicated. Most of the names of authors and fragments of so-called Middle Comedy that survive come from the work of one author: the Educated Dinner-Party, written by Athenaeus around 200 c.e., and no complete examples of Middle Comedy exist after Aristophanes. Hence assumptions must be made about the content of Middle Comedy based on the comments of ancient scholars and the titles and fragmentary remains, but even these extrapolations are telling. Although the political subject matter may be less explicit and the obscenity and scatological humor less evident, there still seems to have been a wider range of plot-types in Middle Comedy than there came to be in the last stage of ancient comedy known as "New" Comedy. Playwrights



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still wrote political plays parodying public officials and intellectuals like Plato and the Pythagoreans. Mythological lampoons were still popular, especially when figures from mythology were placed in more contemporary settings. The riotous celebratory feasts featured at the end of many Old Comedy plays are found in Middle and New Comedy as well, and the theme of anagnorisis ("recognition") figured prominently in many Middle comedies. This type of "recognition" plot often involved a child separated from his or her parents at birth (sometimes by exposure), who is later recognized by the real parents by means of tokens, specific knowledge, or the child's name. Contemporary mores, characteristics, and manners were also satirized, according to some of the references to figures like the "criticizer," "lyre-player," "shoemaker," and the "lover of Thebes." Plays about daily family life (romantic entanglements, debts, conflicts between generations) as well as more alarming themes (such as scam artists, illegitimate children, and rapes) were popular in the New Comedy of Greece and later Rome; they are also recognizable in Middle Comedy, as were stock figures like the sycophant, the prostitute and the pimp, the crabby cook, the boastful soldier, grumpy old men, and amorous young men. Athenaeus mentions nearly sixty playwrights and over 800 plays belonging to the period of Middle Comedy; some of the most well-known authors were Alexis, Eubulus, and Anaxandrides.

New Comedy.

The period of "New" Comedy began in the fourth century b.c.e. but its peak was in the mid-third century b.c.e. The names of more than eighty playwrights who were writing in the late fourth and third centuries b.c.e. and an assortment of fragments survive, but many of them are unidentifiable. The best-known names of this era are Menander, Diphilus, Philemon, Posidippus, and Apollodorus. Although much of their work was lost during the Byzantine era (seventh–eighth centuries c.e.) because their Greek was considered inferior, in twentieth-century excavations in Egypt, archaeologists uncovered several significant fragments, and one nearly complete play of Menander, to whom the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence were indebted for many of their "adapted" plots. Plautus also named Diphilus and Philemon as sources for some of his plays. The themes of New Comedy are recognizable from Middle Comedy: the plots focus on family life and its daily complications, and include many of the stock characters that were fixed by the playwrights of Middle Comedy. The chorus, whose role was already diminishing in Middle Comedy, was reduced to providing musical intervals between the five acts of the play. New Comedy was originally written and performed in Athens, and its focus is the law and mores of Athens, particularly in regards to citizenship and marriage laws. One could not become a naturalized Athenian citizen: both parents had to be proven Athenian citizens in order to pass the privileges and duties of citizenship on to their children. New Comedy often addressed social problems like casual rape and resultant pregnancy, children separated from their parents and lost, and love between citizens and "foreigners," all of which ultimately arrived at the question of legal marriage. Lost children and victimized young women had to be revealed as real Athenian citizens by means of the "recognition" plot, possession of mementos, and other devices, in order to resolve the plot happily with a celebration of marriage. The topics treated in the comedies had broad enough appeal, however, that the plays were popular all over the Greek world despite their Athenian focus. In addition to plots about love, New Comedy treated fundamental social conflicts—between parents and children, rich and poor, neighbors, and city and rural folks. Menander was especially aware of problems of bigotry, misunderstanding, and lack of tolerance, as can been seen from the subjects found in surviving fragments. New Comedy remained popular for hundreds of years, as Plautus and Terence continued the tradition in their plays, which borrowed the Athenian plots but translated them into Roman plays.


K. J. Dover, Aristophanic Comedy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972).

Helene Foley, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001).

Susan Lape, Reproducing Athens: Menander's Comedy, Democratic Culture, and the Hellenistic City (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004).

Arthur Pickard-Cambridge, The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946).

Richard Seaford, Reciprocity and Ritual (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Erich Segal, Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus. 2nd ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Oliver Taplin, Comic Angels (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

George Thomson, Aeschylus and Athens: A Study in the Social Origins of Drama (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1967).

Jennifer Wise, Dionysus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998).