Among the unusual (or different) features of Greek theatre is the fact that plays were not written to be played in commercial theatres. Nor were they written in the hope that they would break a record for the run of the performance. It was not every day that one could go to the theatre for an afternoon's or evening's entertainment. All the plays we have were written (in Athens, by Athenians) for single performances and for dramatic festivals, held only on specific days of the year. These festivals were held each year and dedicated to the god Dionysos. The most important festival was the Great Dionysia, held in the spring of the year. The Greeks of classical times were a competitive people (more or less than ourselves is a question for consideration) and the dramas were put on in competition. Each playwright would submit his work to the archons (rulers, chief administrative officers) in a group of three tragedies with a satyr play (a play in tragic diction but using satyrs as the chorus; satyrs are comic figures with horse tails and goat feet who are associated with Dionysos; it is thought that this lighter play would provide a relief from the intensity of tragedy; only one satyr play has survived intact and this is the Cyclops of Euripides, which is the story of the blinding of Polyphemus — not so funny, perhaps, to us or to them). The work of only three playwrights would be chosen for the competition, so that everyone who entered started out as winner of at least the third prize (and possibly it is our own "winner take all" attitude that says only the first prize counts and puts Euripides with his fewer prizes, among the losers). You see, then, that each festival included the three tragedies of three playwrights plus a satyr play by each, making twelve plays in all, four on each day. About the middle of the fifth century B.C. comedies were also added to the celebration (although there were still other festivals primarily for comedies), so that there were fifteen plays, all to be performed in three days. A trip to the theatre was an intense experience in those days. A lot of seat time on the hard, cool stone.
The god for whom these plays were put on is Dionysos, also called Bacchus. We know him most familiarly as the god of wine, but that is not all he was, nor probably his most important aspect. He was the god of drama and dance (dithyramb), the god of symposium and wine, the god of mysteries which promised a better after-life to those who were initiated into them. The rites of Dionysos are called orgia which becomes "orgies" in English, but the term "orgy" with its connotation of decadence and promiscuity does not really translate the Greek term which meant acts of devotion and communion with the god (and is related to the Greek word erga, "works"). Of course the association of music, wine and drunkenness with the rites of Dionysos contributes to the modern, degraded sense of the word. The picture we get of Dionysos is ambiguous: he is powerful and masculine, but also pretty and effeminate; he is both the hunter and the hunted; the smiling god and a god of primitive violence; he is the liberating god, but also a god who can take such control of a man or woman that he robs that person of dignity and even identity. One of the most beautiful, wondrous, awesome, plays to have survived is the Bacchae of Euripides which is about Dionysos and his worship and what this unrestrained cult can do to human beings. In the play all the ambiguities of the god are present: this liberating force has compelled the women of Thebes to worship him. We see in the play, when its protagonist is ripped into shreds (and by his own mother and her sisters) what it can do to a man if he refuses to worship Dionysos, if he refuses to admit that this elemental, animal force is part of his nature.
As E.R.Dodds writes (in his edition of the Bacchae),

"[Dionysos'] domain is...the whole of hugra phusis (the principle of moisture, not only the liquid fire of the grape, but the sap thrusting in a young tree, the blood pounding in the veins of a young animal, all the mysterious and uncontrollable tides that ebb and flow in the life of nature."

His worshipers are liberated from the bondage of reason and social custom; they gain a new vitality as they merge their consciousness with that of the god and the group. The frightening part of this (which on the surface may seem beautiful) is that just below the surface violence is always just barely hidden. The Bacchae is the only surviving play that is about Dionysos and his worship and it is our primary source for that worship. What exactly does drama have to do with Dionysos? This is a good question and one that was asked by the ancients as well. What do all the aspects of Dionysos have in common? Mystery, Wine, and Drama: the ecstasy is common to all: the standing outside oneself, the giving up of individual identity. Although, if tragedy developed from the dance as many scholars suggest, the separation of the protagonist (first actor) from the group is a moving away from the Dionysiac spirit.

The Three Tragedians
When we speak of Greek tragedy we are talking about the plays of only three men ("dead white men") who lived and worked in Athens all in the fifth century B.C., Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Tragedy was added to the festival of the Great Dionysia around 500 B.C. so that the oldest of the three Athenian playwrights was in at the beginning, or very close to it. Of course there were more than just three men writing tragedies (the comedies were written by different authors), but the plays of only three have survived in playable, more or less complete (or to the pessimist, more or less lacunose). The very first named writer of tragedy was the semi-legendary Thespis (from his named we get the word thespian which means "actor"). He is called the inventor of tragedy and as the word thespian implies he also acted in his plays. The traditional account is that the genre originated in dance accompanied by choral song on a mythological theme and that Thespis "invented" the art of acting by stepping out of the chorus as a character of myth or as a messenger to hold dialogue with the chorus who would be the followers of a "hero" or the citizens hearing the "hero's" story and suffering. But many critics would make Aeschylus himself the real father of tragedy because he is credited with "inventing" the second actor. The presence of two actors allows the development of drama as we know it with dramatic conflict, several points of view, dialogue before an audience of interested participants.
Sophocles added a third actor and that was the end of that: each play thereafter was written so that it needed only three actors.

  • Aeschylus
Aeschylus, the oldest of the three was born about 525 B.C. and died in 456 in Sicily. He was born at Eleusis in Attica, the site of the most famous of the mysteries, the Eleusinian mysteries, where people were initiated in order to gain a better life both in this world and the next. [When we read the Hippolytus we will notice that the title character goes to Athens to be initiated into these mysteries, which stress purity of mind and body, and that while he is there his step-mother sees him and falls hopelessly in love with him.] Aeschylus fought in the battles of Marathon (490) and Salamis (480). His first victory in tragedy was in 484 B.C. In all he wrote eighty-two plays, but only seven have survived, of which the trilogy Oresteia counts as three. His extant plays are Persians (472 B.C.), Seven against Thebes (467), the Suppliant Women (produced in competition with Sophocles) and the Oresteia (a trilogy or three plays 458) and the Prometheus (date unknown, thought by many not to be the work of Aeschylus and, therefore, of someone else so that we would have tragic works by four playwrights). All the playwrights wrote a series of three plays for the competitions, but only Aeschylus wrote connected trilogies, that is his three often present the development of a single story. Only the Oresteia trilogy has survived intact, but there is evidence, from titles and fragments, and from references within the plays that Suppliants and Prometheus were the first parts of connected trilogies and that the Seven against Thebes was the last play in such a series. His earliest play Persians, incidentally the only surviving play about a recent historical event (the battle of Salamis and retreat of the Persian invaders led by Xerxes) which had taken place only eight years before the play was produced — this play is not part of a connected trilogy. Although not the most magnificent of the plays, the Persians is interesting to read because it gives us the feeling of having been written for a time and place, as all the plays were. All the other plays call upon myth and legend for their plots, but we must not forget that they always address contemporary issues (whether moral, intellectual, social, political, or religious); all have to do with living in the city of Athens. We should also bear in mind that the legends were considered history by the ancient Greeks, though much more distant history than the Persian Wars. The end of the Oresteia, for example, celebrates the jury system for criminal justice at Athens, though of course its vision is much vaster than this rather mundane but important social custom, which Aeschylus endows with mythical, even cosmic, meaning.
Aeschylus' grand vision makes his plays very impressive on the stage. He was apparently fond of the spectacular, an aspect of his art that is often underplayed, probably because Aristotle turns up his nose at opsis ("spectacle"), saying that it belongs to the producer's art rather than to the art of writing plays, as if he had forgotten that in the earliest days the dramatists themselves were the producers, directors, and chief actors in their plays. This is not the only place where Aristotle was wrong, though he was in many other ways a brilliant critic. After all theatre (Greek, theatron) means viewing place, not listening place and how a play looks is a large part of it. If we could only see the shield scene in the Seven against Thebes, I think it would add another dimension to our understanding of the play. In that scene we hear of the seven attackers of the city. Eteocles, the king of Thebes, sends out one of his men to defend each of the seven towers of the city against the attacker. The shields of each of the attackers are described in detail. Perhaps only at the original performance was it known what was on the shield of the defender. One by one the first six men are sent to their posts. We know that the seventh attacker is Eteocles' own brother and so does he know it. As each defender is sent to his post we know that the inevitable is closing in on Eteocles. Finally only he is left and there is only one choice. But it is the choice he wanted; the "fate" to meet and fight his brother, to kill and be killed by him (each kills the other) is the fate he has chosen. And he accepts it and recognizes it is right:

  • I myself will fight him, brother against brother
  • ruler against ruler, hater against hater
  • who else more justly?

How effectively this scene would be presented to the eye as well as the ear.
The Oresteia is the most magnificent and spectacular of all Aeschylus' dramas. The figure of Clytemnestra dominating every scene in the first play, the Agamemnon, the arrival home of Agamemnon in his chariot and with his retinue, the mad scene of the prophetic Cassandra, the murders behind the scenes; in the second play, Libation Bearers there is less spectacle, but enough for chilling effect: the scene at the tomb of Agamemnon, with the chorus in black robes, with their masks streaked with blood, where they have scratched their faces in mourning; two more cries and murders behind the scenes; Orestes driven offstage by unseen furies. But the last play, Eumenides is the most spectacular of all. In the biography of Aeschylus we are told that when the furies (which are hideous monsters from the lower world) made their entrance in this play, children fainted and women suffered miscarriages, they were so horrible. In the play (Eumenides), we hear about them before we see them. The furies are asleep inside the temple of Apollo at Delphi and the priestess of Apollo sees them and rushes out of the temple in horror:

  • But there in a ring around the man, an amazing company--
  • women, sleeping, nestling against the benches...
  • women? No,
  • Gorgons I'd call them; but then with Gorgons
  • you'd see the grim, inhuman...
  • I saw a picture
  • years ago, the creatures tearing the feast away from Phineus
  • These have no wings,
  • I looked. But black they are, and so repulsive.
  • Their heavy, rasping breathing makes me cringe.
  • And their eyes ooze a discharge, sickening,
  • and what they wear--to flaunt that at the gods,
  • the idols, sacrilege! even in the homes of men.

A bit later Apollo (a character in the play, along with the gods Hermes and Athene) calls them "gray ancient children," a frightening description, as if they were children suddenly grown old (as one sees in the faces of street children, victims of war or poverty). All this is preparation, before we see them. And good writing isn't it: in horror stories the preparation is (or used to be) always more terrifying than the actual monsters.
None of the vase paintings makes them as ugly as that: in fact they are quite beautiful (who would want ugly, scary creatures on a punch bowl?). The ending of the play gives us a feeling of great civic festivity, which is easy to miss unless you can visualize it. There are at least two gods on stage, the furies transformed into the "kindly ones" as the regular chorus, wearing bright red robes as a symbol of their transformation and migration to the city, another group of twelve (or more) men representing the citizen body who have just voted as a jury for the first time, and yet a third procession representing the women of the city. It is a spectacular pageant.
Aeschylus worked on a grand scale. He is known, too, as the most religious and optimistic of the three playwrights, but that is something to be decided after you have read more of the plays.
Another characteristic of Aeschylus' writing is the visualization of images: in Agamemnon you will find furies mentioned many times somewhat vaguely; the image of the hunt and the net are prominent: in the last play of the trilogy we see it all in horrible fullness: the furies are there, they are the hunters, and their prey is the blood of a man.

  • Sophocles
The second of the great Athenian playwrights was Sophocles. He was born at Colonus (a suburb of Athens and the setting of his last play) in 496 B.C. and he died at the age of 90 in or around 406. The three playwrights were connected in the ancient tradition by a relationship to the battle of Salamis: this is a good device for remembering their relative ages. Aeschylus, who was in the prime of his life fought in the battle; Sophocles would have been a boy of about 16 and he is said to have led the choral hymn of victory after the battle; and Euripides was, according to this tradition, born on the very day of the battle and his family had estates on the island of Salamis. Sophocles won his first victory as a tragic poet in 468 B.C. and he defeated Aeschylus. Like his predecessor he sang and acted in his own plays, but early in his career he lost his voice and introduced the use of a professional protagonist (or lead actor).
Sophocles was a prominent citizen, involved in the politics of his day. He was elected to the board of generals at least twice and was a colleague in office of the greatest Athenian statesman of the day, Pericles. After the Sicilian disaster (when the Athenians escalated the war by sending their fleet to Sicily and were defeated), Sophocles was appointed to the committee in charge of dealing with the disaster. He was also a priest in the healing cults. He wrote a treatise On the chorus.
Sophocles wrote 123 plays and won first prize 24 times (that is 96 of his plays won). Otherwise he was second and never came in third. It is interesting that his most famous play (Oedipus Tyrannus) came in second. Of course we do not have the play that beat it. Seven plays of Sophocles survive: the three Theban plays (which were written years apart and are not a trilogy), Ajax, Electra, Trachiniae, Philoktetes.
Sophocles' treatment of the material differs from Aeschylus' in concentrating more on the characters than on the mythical grandeur of the stories. His heroes often are on the grand scale with grand passions or deeds. He is also the master of the perfectly made play (Oedipus the King has been used since Aristotle's time as the Greek tragedy par excellance) and of tragic irony.
We may think of Sophocles and Euripides as having been rivals and surely they often competed against one another at the Great Dionysia, but clearly they admired one another's work. When news came to Athens that Euripides had died in 406 B.C., Sophocles dressed his chorus in mourning for his colleague's death.

  • Euripides
Euripides, the youngest of the three, was born at Phlya, a town east of Mt. Hymettus, according to tradition in 480 on the day of the great battle (of Salamis). Other evidence dates his birth to 485 B.C. He was an innovator in music and dramaturgy and not as popular (or not as favored by the people who counted) in his own time as the other two. But after his death his plays became the ones most frequently revived and represented on vases. He is said to have been a recluse and to have composed his plays in a cave on Salamis: this may simply reflect the fact that he was not as active in Athenian politics as Sophocles, nor a soldier like Aeschylus. Although he was not politically prominent he did go on an embassy to Syracuse. Evidence points to his having been of a middle class, respectable family, although the comic poet Aristophanes mocks him for being the son of a greengrocer and represents his mother as selling water-cress in the public market.
Euripides, in fact figures prominently in several plays of Aristophanes, a favorite butt of the comedian's jokes. He was accused, for example, of being a misogynist because of his treatment of women in his tragedies. Most modern critics find him sympathetic to both women and women's issues. It is true he frequently shows women as unhappy, but he does not deny them intelligence nor potency. Because of the depiction of women, his biography includes the information that he was married twice, and was miserable with both wives. In the play Thesmophoriazusae, Aristophanes presents Euripides trying to get the younger poet Agathon to dress in women's clothing to attend a festival for women to defend Euripides because the women

plan to kill me today during the Thesmophoria, because I have dared to speak ill of them.

Agathon: and how can I help you?

Euripides: in every way. mix secretly with the women by making yourself pass as a woman; then with your own lips plead my cause and I am saved. Only you can defend me as I deserve.

Aristophanes manages to make fun of both playwrights at once. Euripides for his portrayal of women and for his manner of argumentation; Agathon who is brought out dressed as a woman (because he is writing a female part for one of his plays) is represented as effete and effeminate by the comic playwright.
Euripides is said to have been prosecuted for impiety (a serious offence; it was for impiety that Socrates was tried and sentenced to death). The charge was brought against Euripides because Hippolytus says in his play: "my tongue swore, but my heart remains unsworn". This was taken as a subtle way of telling people that it was all right to break an oath. It is a very silly accusation because in the play, the character is in fact ready to die rather than break the oath, an oath that was taken from him unawares, before he knew what he was swearing to. Euripides was acquitted. He did leave Athens around 408 B.C. and moved to Macedonia, to the court of king Archelaus, where he died. The story began to circulate that he died in a most bizarre way, being torn to shreds by the royal hounds. Clearly this story came about because such an incident was mentioned in one of his last plays.
Nineteen of his plays have survived: 10 preserved as school texts and nine in an alphabetical group which is probably part of a complete set of his plays. These survived by chance and we have a more random sample of his plays than of the others' whose plays were consciously selected for the school edition.
Euripides won first prize only four times during his lifetime and once after his death with his last plays which may have been produced by his son. He is known for his portrayal of women, and especially for his unheroic heroes. He tends to have his characters speak and act like his contemporaries and this makes them seem more modern to us. He was interested in the philosophical movements of his day and often puts the arguments used and the questions asked by them into his plays.

The Myths of Tragedy
The myths of many of the plays will be familiar: at least the characters are the same as the characters in Homer. The most common legendary material is that concerned with the Trojan War and its aftermath (Oresteia, Electras, Orestes, Cyclops (a satyr play), Rhesus, Helen, Iphigeneias, Trojan Women, Hecabe and Andromache, Philoktetes). Although it is rare that a play deals with an incident from the Iliad or Odyssey, this does not mean that the tragedians avoided going over the Homeric ground, for we know that Aeschylus wrote a play about Achilleus (The Myrmidons) and Sophocles wrote a Nausikaa complete with ball game. The Rhesus (which is thought by most scholars not to be by Euripides, giving us a work of a fifth tragic playwright) takes its plot from an incident in the Iliad (book 10) and the satyric Cyclops is about the blinding of Polyphemus. Rather it is likely that one of the criteria for selecting the plays for the school edition was that the subject matter filled in rather than repeated myths and legends. Another popular theme is the Theban cycle. Oedipus, Antigone, Seven against Thebes, Phoenissae, Suppliants deal with the house of Laius, son of Labdakos, and father of Oedipus.
The story is that Laios, king of Thebes was warned by the oracle not to have any children, but if he did, his son would murder him. Not only that, but it was also predicted of him that he would become the husband of his own mother. Laios was careless and his wife bore a son. It was too late, but one point of stories which feature oracles is that human beings try to cheat them and go along for years thinking they have succeeded. Laios and his wife (Jocasta) tried to avoid the oracle by binding the feet of their baby and leaving him on a mountain side to be eaten by wild animals. The exposure of children was a fact of Greek life: girls especially were unwanted and were "returned to the gods" or sold. But although it may have been the usual fate of these babies to perish, when they get into a story, they survive. Laios and Jocasta were not careful enough, for they entrusted the baby to a servant who felt sorry for him and instead of leaving him to die of exposure or mangling, he gave him to a servant from another city (Corinth) and he was brought up far from his parents and, it would seem, safe from the oracle. But such stories do not end that way. The baby was called Oedipus and he grew up to manhood, but one evening he overheard a man say in his cups something about Oedipus' not being the legitimate son of his parents. He brooded over this and finally set out to ask the oracle who his parents were. In the meantime, Laios, for some reason, whether he had bad dreams, or something else made him uneasy, set out to ask the oracle whether he had escaped that terrible warning of years ago. It was pure coincidence, but the kind of coincidence that makes men believe that there is a higher power overseeing their affairs: Oedipus is heading away from the oracle, having heard a terrible thing, not the answer to his question, but a warning "You will kill your father, you will lie with your mother!" He is terribly upset and eager to get as far from Corinth and his family as fast as possible. Laios is hurrying toward the oracle, more and more anxious to find out. The road is narrow. Laios from his royal carriage tries to push Oedipus out of the way; but Oedipus is young and strong. He hits the old man with his staff and kills all the attendants. He has killed his father, not quite an accident, though to kill one's father even by accident would be a terrible thing. And he did kill these people on purpose. What would you do? He continues along his way, putting his past behind him. Now it happened that at this time there was a terrible monster plaguing the city of Thebes. It was a sphinx (a death monster) which asked a riddle of the passersby and killed those who could not answer. So far that had been everyone. Of course Oedipus met the Sphinx and of course he was asked the riddle. "What moves on four legs in the morning, two at midday and three at night?" The answer came to him, "man" (who crawls as a baby, strides upright in the prime of his life, and walks with a cane when he is old). The Sphinx killed herself and he strode on. Here we have a new variation of the hero ridding the world of a destructive monster, for Oedipus uses intelligence to kill the Sphinx. He is welcomed into Thebes as a hero, and since there is a vacancy on the throne, he is made king and given the queen, Jocasta as his wife. She may be older than he, but basking in his victory, this man without a country cannot resist the good fortune that to his future suffering is now being heaped upon him. It is at the prime of his life when he has been king for many years that the play (Oedipus Tyrannus) opens. It is not a play about doing the terrible things that he has done, but about finding out that he has done them. Oedipus and his mother had four children, two sons and two daughters. When Oedipus goes into exile, his brother-in-law rules until the boys are of age. But these two boys, Eteocles and Polyneices, are unable to live in harmony as joint rulers. So they decide that they will rule by turns, Eteocles first, and that Polyneices will go into temporary exile for one year until it is his turn. But Eteocles finds that he likes being king and refuses to give up the throne when his year is out. Of course his brother is unwilling to yield his birthright and gathers up an army of foreigners at Argos and sets out to attack his native city, a great impiety, even though he was the one who suffered the first wrong. This is the story told in the Seven against Thebes (of Aeschylus). The two brothers kill each other, saving the city, but leaving a vacuum on the throne. This is filled by Creon, brother of Jocasta. His first act as king is to decree that Eteocles is to be honored as a hero with a state funeral, but Polyneices is to be left unburied, to rot or be mangled by the dogs, a terrible thing to do to a man's body, but not unknown in the Greek world, both legendary and historical. Polyneices, the son of Oedipus, is to be treated as a traitor. Creon makes this proclamation for political reasons, to discourage plots against authority. The punishment for anyone who attempts to honor the body of Polyneices is death by stoning. But Oedipus left two daughters as well as two sons, and for them the defilement of their brother's body is too terrible to endure. The story of one of these girls is told in Antigone, an early play of Sophocles. The generations of the house of Laios is a story as powerful as that of the house of Atreus. The order in which the plays described above were written is: Seven , Antigone, Oedipus They are all independent of each other. Events in one are not transferable to another.
Other popular legends are those concerning Argos (as the stories of Herakles, the Suppliants of Aeschylus) and those concerning Athens (Hippolytus). Often the legends of other cities are connected with Athens, which was known as a place of refuge for those displaced from many cities: thus Medea is brought to Athens after she has committed horrible crimes, Herakles is received in Athens, as is Oedipus, both becoming heroes and protectors of the land. Euripides' two plays about suppliants connect Athens with the legendary histories of both Argos and Thebes. Now it may look as if these legendary stories, of heroes contemporary with the Trojan War or even earlier, are far removed from the life of fifth century Athens. But in fact contemporary issues are treated through the heroic figures: a dialogue is carried on with the past. Stories of family quarrels, of the individual against the state, or state interference in private matters, of men and women are universal. But there was an incident in the Peloponnesian War (the Greek civil war) of the Thebans refusing burial to the bodies of the fallen enemy, considered an act of barbarism. The plague at the beginning of Oedipus is often referred to the plague at Athens in the second year of the Peloponnesian War which more than decimated the population. Some of the ideas voiced by Phaedra and her Nurse are clearly related to the topics discussed heatedly by the sophists and even by Socrates. Some plays celebrate recently made treaties, others deplore current policy (Trojan Women, for example). As Michael Walton says, "In no era was the relationship between the theatre and public life so marked as it was in fifth century Athens." Now we have television.
In Aristophanes' Frogs, a play about playwrights, which takes place after the death of Euripides and Sophocles, Dionysos goes down to Hades to bring back one of the playwrights. In order to decide which one would be best for the city, a contest is staged between Aeschylus and Euripides. It is very funny, especially in the parts which parody the styles of the two writers. But at one point Aeschylus asks Euripides "for what is a poet admired?" And the answer is, "For wise counsels which make the citizens better." This, I think, we can take seriously. The poets were teachers; in fact the word for "produced a play" is taught the play. Euripides' claim (in the comedy) is that he taught his fellow citizens how to think:

...I taught my audience how to judge, by introducing the art of reasoning and considering into tragedy. Thanks to me, they understand everything, discern all things, conduct their households better and ask themselves, "what is to be thought of this? where is that? Who has taken the other thing?"

Aeschylus, on the other hand, claims to have made the citizens braver and better soldiers, "by composing a drama full of Ares" and by producing the Persae (Persians) to have "taught them how to conquer their enemies," and further, never "to have placed an amorous woman on the stage."
The question of the moral worth of literature is not a new one and even in democratic Athens, censorship was not unknown.

Conventions of the Theatre
We often hear of the ancient Greek theatre as being a theatre of convention rather than a theatre of illusion, and such truisms are true, but not true enough. Their conventions were different from ours, and the plays, in some ways, present reality, though not (often) everyday life. Think about some conventions we must accept even before we can take even the most realistic modern plays as a "slice of life": we sit in a darkened auditorium, with one end lighted, watching people in a room of which one wall has been removed. We accept them as people talking in loud (or at least carrying) voices about the most intimate details of their lives. We accept people giving speeches to themselves and call it soliloquy. We know that these people are paid (or get credit, or at least a line on the resume) to say what they are saying and that they said it last night and will say it tomorrow night, but are not bothered by that. In musicals we do not mind characters bursting into song and dance and then as if nothing had happened going back to their spoken lines. In short, we accept on the stage behavior which in real life we would consider quite mad. And we would be quite annoyed if a naive person in our audience took for real the actions on stage (though when watching TV we may ourselves be guilty of just such behavior).
The conventions of the Greek theatre were different from ours. First of all, all dramas took place in the daytime without artificial lighting. Time of day can be indicated only by verbal reference to it or by torches which might be used to suggest that it is night. The dramas were staged in large outdoor theatres and the action is represented as taking place out of doors. There was a building (probably temporary at first, but later of stone) in front of which the actors played their scenes. This building usually represents the palace of a king or a temple (although it may also be a military hut or even a cave or cliff face). The Greeks were an outdoor people more than we; much of their business was conducted out of doors. Dramas that concern the public as do many dramas concerning the fate of kings with a chorus of the citizens, elders, or counselors, are not unrealistically played out of doors. But intimate scenes of family life may need more explanation. In the Antigone for example, the pathos of the two small figures of the sisters, meeting before dawn to discuss their families, the deaths of their brothers, the brave decision of one of these girls to defy the law and bury her brother: this scene gains in pathos by the very fact of the two girls being dwarfed by the vast setting. In the Hippolytus, the entrance of Phaedra and of the chorus of women has to be explained, because women are less an outdoor people in classical Greece than men. Therefore the chorus has to explain why they have come and the Nurse has to explain why she is bringing her mistress outside.
It helps in reading the plays to try to visualize them as they would have been seen and heard by the first audience.
1. Verse: all the Greek dramas are poetic dramas. The characters speak in verse; this is true of both dialogue and choral song. The dialogue parts are mostly in iambics (iambic trimeter in dipodic units = 6 iambs), which is the meter closest to conversational speech. In fact we are told by one of the ancient critics that "many people speak in iambics without realizing it." It sounds something like this:
  • [sound to be added later]
Oedipus, in a rage, mocks the blind prophet Teiresias with the words: "You are blind in your ears, your mind and your eyes."
The choral passages were sung and accompanied by dance. The presence of a chorus is certainly a feature that is uncommon in modern plays. But we know that it was a constant feature in Greek plays and if you wonder sometimes what it is doing there, remember that it may be the original feature of the plays. Besides, the theatre is built around the dance floor, called the orchestra. This circular area is believed to be the origin of the theatre and the only necessary part: seats for the audience, a stage building are later developments.
2. The chorus:
Every tragedy has a chorus, although in some of the later plays its part is curtailed. Even though the chorus is a necessary part of the plays, it is legitimate to ask what it does, what it adds to the plays. The chorus sings and dances between episodes. The terms strophe and antistrophe simply mean stanza and matching stanza, that is, each has the same metrical pattern and perhaps the chorus did the same steps or dance pattern twice, now on one side, now on the other. Usually there is a short scene between two actors, or a monologue before the entrance of the chorus, although some plays begin with the chorus filing on stage. Any part before the entrance of the chorus is called the prologue; the entrance song of the chorus is called the parodos. The passages on the sides of the orchestra between the dance floor and the skene or stage building are also called the parodoi, leading us to suppose that the chorus entered by these routes.
What are some of the things the chorus does? It may comment on the action. For example, in the Agamemnon the chorus is quite outspoken in its disapproval of the war led by Agamemnon for the sake of a woman who ran away with another man. But they are also outspoken in their disapproval of the actions taken against Agamemnon. In the second play of the Oresteia the chorus is part of the conspiracy to kill Clytemnestra. In the third play the chorus is at the very center of the action. In the Antigone the chorus of elders is there to give the play its political theme. It is interesting to note that for whatever reason this chorus remains for a very long time on the side of Creon. The chorus may also provide background material as in the Agamemnon again, the parodos reviews the beginning of the war, going back to the gathering at Aulis, making us share in the terrible decision Agamemnon made there. The chorus in Antigone enters singing of the victory over the attackers, showing us that this is more than a family drama, letting us know what the victory means to the citizens. In the Hippolytus the chorus tells us about Phaedra's sickness, increasing our sympathy for her. The chorus serves as both another actor and as narrator.
If we look at the place of the chorus, we see another of its roles: it stands between the audience and the actors, showing how the doings of kings affects the people. At the end of the Agamemnon the chorus is threatened by Aegisthus for speaking its mind: we are shown the effect of the action on the political situation, the political chaos at the end of the drama and the rise of tyrannical government: we know that the action is not finished. If the affairs of princes and kings and heroes are removed from the lives of ordinary people, the chorus can make them a concern of the people. Of course in the Oedipus, the action starts out as one affecting the people very closely for there is a plague blighting the land. We learn that it is caused by the unsolved murder of the former king and his murderer's going unpunished. Imperceptibly the focus changes to the search for the origin of Oedipus himself and we watch the chorus move from admiration for their present king who saved them in ages past, to horror and withdrawal as they find out what he has done.
The chorus provides what may be called lyrical relief: a song may relieve the tension of a highly emotional episode. For example after Phaedra (in Hippolytus) has gone into the house to hang herself after two overwrought episodes in which we have felt strongly for her pain, the chorus sings what is called the "escape ode" in which they wish they could be in lands far away or transformed into birds. What this does is emotionally write Phaedra out of the play. The play, after all, must get on without her, but we have been concentrating on her part for so long that it is hard to be nearly so involved with the other characters. Again in the Oedipus, just before he finds out the horrible truth, there is a moment when he has no idea who he is. He knows that he is not the son of the Corinthian couple who reared him, and he is delighted to think of himself as fortune's child, a man who came from nowhere and became king of two cities. At this point the chorus sings a short song in a joyous meter to match Oedipus' high spirits. This is typical of Sophoclean irony: the fate of a man at the very height of his success and happiness: the chorus gives him the added boost to make the fall greater.
The songs, the music of the chorus also provides a guide to our emotions. For example, in the Antigone after a chilly scene between Creon and his son Haemon who is also Antigone's fianc� in which Haemon tries to persuade Creon not to kill Antigone on political grounds (the people are against it, a ruler should be flexible, a ruler owes something to his citizens), the chorus sings of the power of love. Haemon had not said a word about his love for Antigone and his father had referred to it only in the crudest (but typically male, typically Greek) of terms. But we need to know for the subsequent action that Haemon does love Antigone and the choral ode fills in that gap. In the Agamemnon the chorus seems to be constantly carried back to earlier crimes of the house of Atreus, because we need to see the pattern of crime and kindred bloodshed in order to understand the crime that is being committed in the play.
You might think of the chorus as being something like the sound track in a movie: it tells us how to feel, scared, sentimental, angry. If we were not familiar with the convention of a sound track in movies which the characters do not hear it could seem very odd indeed. And sometimes it does.
3. Acting and masks
The use of masks for both actors and chorus was a constant feature of the classical theatre. Thespis is reported to have whitened his face and Aeschylus to have been the first to add color and to have used frightening masks. But grotesque masks are much older than either figure. Terra cotta masks from the seventh century have been found at Corinth and Sparta from sanctuaries of Hera and Ortheia. These are life sized masks believed to have been used in ceremonies to the goddess in which the goddess and her attendants were personified. Actually the terra cotta examples were probably the moulds on which the masks used by the celebrants or performers were formed (probably of linen). The moulds were later painted and dedicated to the goddess. One theory of the purpose of frightening masks is to chase away evil spirits who could spoil the work of fertility. Or possibly they could have represented the evil spirits being beaten back by the forces of good (like RAID chasing out the dirty forces of vermin). The masks used in the tragic theatre covered the entire face and had a wig attached. They were made of linen soaked in plaster and then sewn to a cap for the wig. The mouth was slightly open: the distortions we see in representations of tragedy and comedy do not come until later, with the high peak of hair in front and the wide open mouth.
The use of masks means that detailed facial expressions cannot be shown. In fact the huge distances between actors and audience effect the same result. On the other hand the clear outlines of the masks make the features of the character more easily discernible. And different expressions can be shown by shifting the tilt of the head. Of course emotions can be shown equally well by body movements and postures and of course by the sounds of sorrow or joy or anger. Certain postures and gestures are associated with certain feelings and attitudes (as we know from vase paintings). An actor needed versatility in voice and gesture, especially since actors very often had to play several roles in the same play. We speak of the rule of three actors, meaning that only three actors were available to each playwright for his trilogy. To put this another way all the plays we have have been written in such a way that they can be performed by a maximum of three actors. The use of masks makes the swift change of roles practicable. A change of head and face is a change of person. Both mask and character have the same name in Greek (prosopon, as they do in Latin, persona).
Some scholars would connect the limitation in the number of actors to the Greek preference for violence offstage rather than in front of the audience: for example, in the Oresteia all the murders (there are four altogether) take place in the palace. We hear their cries but do not see them (pretend to) die. In the Oedipus, Antigone, Hippolytus the scenes of violence all take place offstage, although the death of Hippolytus is in view of all and the result of the action is displayed for us. It has been suggested that no one could die on stage early in a play because the actor was needed for another role later. (For example it is likely that the actor who played Agamemnon also played Aegisthus, a possibility that I find very appealing: the two are closely related, first cousins; they are defined by their relationship to the more potent Clytemnestra; both are caught, by their own choice, in the pattern of kindred bloodshed that is their heritage). Another reason for the lack of too much violence is that they were technically incapable of the necessary special effects, although there was an actor nicknamed "the leaper" because of his ability to commit suicide on stage in Sophocles' Aias (= Ajax). It is possible also that they believed that violence was more effective unseen, with the screams heard behind the scenes, and the results shown in the bloodied mask of Oedipus for example, or the mask, representing the head of Pentheus after he is torn apart, and his pieces brought back under a cloth: these are more deeply moving than the grotesque doings that we are told about. The offstage violence is necessarily connected to the messenger speech. In Oedipus, Antigone, Hippolytus we have a messenger who reports what happened offstage, deaths and self-mutilation, and mangling. In Agamemnon we have Cassandra whose role is in part to be a messenger before the action: as a prophet she knows what is going to happen to her, and after her speeches, we do not need any detailed messenger speech. Now the truth is that these messenger speeches often contain some of the most brilliant and exciting writing in their plays. Could it be that as poets, the tragedians preferred to write these messenger parts to simply staging some piece of stage business? If, as some scholars believe, tragedy developed not only from choral songs but also from the epic recitations, there is an added reason for the messenger's speeches which are the closest thing in tragedy to epic narrative.
4. Stage, devices, levels of the acting area
The plays were performed outdoors in the daytime. They probably started in the morning. Each day of the festival included ceremonies. On every day of the three days devoted to plays the audience had to sit through four or five plays with only short intervals for the chorus to change costumes. This may seem like a Heraclean labor for the audience, but individual Greek plays are much shorter than modern plays and it has been estimated that the five plays could have been performed in about six hours.
The original theatre consisted of a round, smooth area, called the orchestra in which the chorus sang and danced. Nearly all the theatres have been altered and the orchestra cut down to a semi-circle, because the chorus had lost its central role. The theatre at Epidaurus is the only one I have seen with the full circle left intact for the chorus. There was an altar somewhere in this area (it plays a role in the Oedipus at the beginning and later in the play when Jocasta comes out to make sacrifice, in all the suppliant plays, in Persians for calling up Darius, in the Electra plays for the tomb of Agamemnon, though it may be an off-stage memory in the later plays). This may have been all that was necessary before Aeschylus. But as tragedy became more dramatic some kind of building was necessary. At the back of the orchestra, facing across the orchestra to the audience was a building, called the skene (or hut, tent, whence comes our word scene). Here the actors dressed. To and from this the actors made their exits and entrances and here too they changed their masks to become other characters. It is possible that there was also a slightly raised stage in front of the building separating the actors from the chorus, but not raised so much as to prevent interaction between the two. It is not certain but likely that there was also moveable painted scenery. In the Poetics, Aristotle says that Sophocles ‘invented" scene painting. This sounds clear enough, but the word for scene-painting (skenographia) is also the word for painting in perspective. In any case a moveable painted scene could have been placed in front of the stage-building. There may also have been pinakes or plaques to suggest details of scenery which could have been turned for changes in scene (which are rare in Greek plays). There was a third level of action (besides stage and orchestra) and this is the top of the scene building. The Agamemnon opens dramatically with a watchman on the top of the roof. Probably he was hidden from view and we would naturally be watching the door of the stage building when— all of a sudden— a voice from the roof cries o theoi ("o gods!") and gets our attention. In this play the building is a center of attention. Reread Cassandra's speech, watch Clytemnestra's movements if you have any doubts. From the top of the stage building the gods also made their appearances: certainly Artemis appears there at the end of the Hippolytus. She is unseen by Hippolytus and his father and would not be likely to come down from the roof. There was a device for lifting actors playing gods from the roof to the stage. This was the famous mechane or flying machine (as in the expression deus ex machina, which is a Latin translation of theos apo mechanes, "the god from the machine"). This was apparently a crane with counterweight that could be used to fly in gods at the ends of the plays. It is not needed in many of the plays, but would be effective in Euripides' Medea for the heroine's exit on a chariot drawn by flying serpents. It would have been used in the Herakles when the spirit of madness appears on the roof of the hero's house, but then descends to enter the house and drive him mad. It must have been used more extensively in comedy. There was also another device, of greater usefulness, the eccyclema, or thing rolled out. This was used for showing the result of action that had taken place in the house and could simply have been a platform on wheels rolled out through the central door. The bodies of Cassandra and Agamemnon were probably wheeled out on it. Clytemnestra speaks of her husband as if he were there when she says:

this is Agamemnon, my husband, but a corpse...

The bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus were probably shown on it in the Libation Bearers after Orestes has killed them, when he holds up the cloth used as a net to snare his father. In the Eumenides, the eccyclema could have been used for the entrance of a few members of the chorus, who are sleeping in the stage building which in that play represents the temple of Apollo at Delphi. It may have been used in the Hippolytus to wheel out Phaedra who is lying sick in bed and is or pretends to be unable to walk on her own.