An Introduction to Greek Tragedy Stephen Wood - TCCC
A Genre for All Ages • One of the most important and influential genres from the ancient world was a type of drama that flourished in Athens in the 5th century BC. Greek tragedy is one of the most persistent genres, with the ancient plays of men like Sophocles and Eurpides still being performed today.
Important Names in the History of Greek Tragedy • Dionysus • Pisistratus • Thespis • Aeschylus • Sophocles • Euripides • Aristotle
Dionysus Tragedy developed from religious festivals honoring Dionysus, the god of wine and the grape vine. These festivals celebrated Dionysus as the sacrificial bleeding god who is slaughtered and then is magically reborn.
Cycle of Life • These festivals were a celebration of the cycle of life-death-rebirth. Just as the grape vine is cut back to insure next year’s harvest, these festivals came to celebrate sacrifice and rebirth. • Dionysus was also associated with goats, some believing that the term “dithyramb,” the hymn honoring Dionysus, originally meant “goat-song.”
Pisistratus An Athenian tyrant, Pisistratus first seized power in 561; in 546 he gained firm control over Athens. A benevolent ruler for the most part (to the Greeks, a tyrant was a man who seized power, no matter how fairly or unfairly he wielded that power), Pisistratus instituted the festivals honoring Dionysus and eventually began the dramatic contests that produced the surviving Greek tragedies.
Pisistratus Recent evidence suggests that Pisistratus actually co-opted existing matriarchal fertility rituals into the patriarchal Dionysian festivals that developed. These festivals eventually developed into dramatic contests where playwrights produced trilogy of tragedies, followed by a satyr play (an extended form of sexual humor). Thus, the trilogy marked the sacrificial part (Life, then death) and the satyr play the fertility aspect (Rebirth).
Thespis According to legend, the first dramatic competition was won by the first actor. In 534 BC, Thespis stepped out of the chorus (the nucleus from which tragedy developed) and began to act out the story being told. Thus, narrative (telling a story) became drama (enacting a story) for the first time.
Thespis The term for this first actor was “protagonist.” Thespis, of course, is where we get the term “thespian.” According to some, Thespis became a ghost upon his death and continues to haunt dramatic productions, imparting lessons of humility to actors and directors.
Aeschylus 525 Aeschylus is born 490 Aeschylus fights at the Battle of Marathon 484 Aeschylus wins his first dramatic competition 458 The Orestia is performed 456 Aeschylus dies in a horrible turtle accident
Aeschylus Known for: 1. Being the first great tragic playwright. 2. Adding the second actor (deuteragonist) to expand dramatic possibilities 3. Writing the only complete surviving trilogy (the Orestia)
Sophocles 496 Sophocles is born 468 Sophocles beats Aeschylus to win his first dramatic prize 440 Antigone is performed 424 Oedipus Rex is performed 406 Sophocles dies
Sophocles Known for: 1. Being the greatest of the tragic playwrights 2. Adding a third actor to expand the dramatic possibilities 3. Creating the best known and, perhaps, most perfect tragedy, Oedipus Rex
Euripides 480 Euripides is born 455 Euripides enters the dramatic competition for the first time 441 Euripides wins competition for the first time (only won four times total) 431 Medea performed 407 Euripides leaves Athens 407 Euripides dies in Macedonia in a tragic dog-related accident
Euripides Known for: 1. Being the third great tragic playwright 2. Using contemporary themes 3. Providing social commentary 4. Creating strong, interesting female characters
Aristotle 384 Aristotle is born in Macedonia. 367 Aristotle travels to Athens to study under Plato 347 Aristotle leaves Athens after Plato’s death 342 Aristotle becomes the tutor of Alexander (who was 13 at the time, not yet Alexander the Great) 335 Aristotle returns to Athens after Alexander becomes king 323 Alexander dies; the Athenians accuse Aristotle of impiety; Aristotle flees 322 Aristotle dies
Aristotle Most of what we know about the structure, conventions, and history of Greek tragedy, we know because of Aristotle. In his Poetics (from around 330 BC), Aristotle analyzed the major literary forms in his day, including tragedy. This first work of literary criticism in the western world is still the foremost guide to tragedy.
Aristotle From the Poetics: 1. Tragedy is a mimetic art (an imitation of an action). 2. Tragedy has three stages: peripeteia (the reversal of fortune), anagnorisis (recognition of truth) and pathos (scene of suffering). 3. Tragedy should involve a protagonist (the tragic hero) who is mostly heroic, but who possesses a flaw (hamartia) that causes the misfortune in the play.
Aristotle From the Poetics: 4. The final cause of a tragedy is catharsis. In other words, a properly constructed tragedy creates a purging of emotions. As noble protagonists suffer due to their hamartia, the audience experiences pity, fear, horror and other emotions. These negative emotions are purged (or purified), and the audience is left better off for their dramatic experience.