Chapter 4: The Origins of Greek Theatre, Part 2


All in all, what do we know about the origins of Greek drama and the environment in which it came into being? If theatre as such existed prior to the sixth century BCE, there is no clear evidence for it institutionally or autonomously, nor in any place outside of Athens. The gradualistic Darwinian model of evolution which calls for transitional forms and a slow development from older types of entertainment or performance-based rituals towards theatre imports unwarranted assumptions and leaves us with a sense that a huge and important body of data is missing, when it's not certain that it is.

Particularly, how theatre arose out of religious ceremonies or some other form of theatrical performance is unclear at present. Nor, evidently, was it clear to Aristotle whose theory that tragedy derived from dithyramb alludes little to ancient religious ceremony and seems weak on other grounds. All in all, several aspects of the received opinion about drama's origin have little to recommend them. Thespis, especially, is a mystery. There is much room to doubt he ever existed at all.

A better way to look at this puzzle is to adopt the view that drama arose suddenly, seemingly out of thin air, as, in fact, all credible evidence suggests. Drama need not have proceeded along gradualistic lines of evolution because it is a cultural, not a genetic, human artifact. Certainly, culture and its accouterments can at times develop slowly and purposefully to clear and coherent ends. But cultures can also make sudden, violent and seemingly inexplicable changes in form and expression that do not conform with traditional evolutionary models. In other words, theatre need not have followed a step-by-step process of development. It may have been created in a flash of insight—or two, or three—but no matter how many "big bangs" it took, all were undeniably the product of extraordinary genius.

Whose genius is the real question? Thespis' perhaps, but if so, end of discussion. Aeschylus' certainly, though it's important to remember that he inherited the art form from his tragic predecessors who, in fact, were not the first but second generation of dramatists in Athens. In other words, Aeschylus was a third-generation playwright, who had probably never met any of the original creators of the art.

The first generation of theatre practitioners lived at the very latest more than five decades before Aeschylus ever donned a mask. We know this because the tyrant Pisistratus had incorporated drama into his last great gift to Athens in 534 BCE, the City Dionysia festival where all significant tragedies premiered for centuries to come. The wily despot's reign—and probably his "genius" too—was without doubt central in the formation of this new and revolutionary art form.

The logic behind the shrewd tyrant's decision is not entirely unfathomable. Drama, even if it did not arise from or have any direct relation to Dionysian religion, certainly shared much in common with it. Both involved masks, dance, song, and "ecstatic" performance in which impersonation figured large. Albeit not the typical sort of worship called for in this god's rituals, drama could superficially pass for a Dionysian ceremony, if one chose to press the point, which is something tyrants typically do well.

Nor is it hard to see why Pisistratus felt the need to press this particular point and create a new type of "worship." The celebrations of the effeminate, eastern god Dionysus traditionally involved outlandish and extreme behaviors, at least in the eye of a typical Greek male in the day, arguably even more so to a man who had imposed himself as the ruler of a vibrant, restive people living during a time of great social upheaval. Indeed, traditional Dionysian worship would almost certainly have seemed to him an invitation for civil disorder.

Instead, a new brand of entertainment dressed up as a Dionysiac ceremony would surely have appealed to a tyrannos like Pisistratus as a means of channeling seditious thoughts away from revolution itself and soothing a potentially explosive mob. If people complained this had "nothing to do with Dionysus," it didn't. Let them complain. Complaining is better than unrest.

But surely Pisistratus did not invent the art form wholesale. It had to have been already in existence, though probably in its infancy. No doubt, he merely gave formal recognition and a strong financial boost to what was already there, a new way of narrating myth in which poets "became" the characters in a story right before their audience's eyes. That is, rather than simply telling a tale or just quoting the characters' words, this new type of artist brought his audience to the myth, instead of the myth to them. In other words, where Homer had only told us what Odysseus said—albeit with great realism, but a realism based on the use of the voice primarily—now people could see a "running poet" dress and act and move as well as speak like the real Odysseus of myth.

There can be little doubt that the more traditional members of the audience grumbled about how this new "drama" required no real imagination on the part of the audience, that it was not like in the old days of Homer and Sappho when people had to use their imaginations to "see" the story—much as some people today lament the passing of classic radio—but Pisistratus was a forward-thinking fellow. He brushed aside such conservative quibbling and embraced the new art. Young people are more likely to have the energy to revolt than older folk anyway, so an innovative art form that appeals to the young is more apt to distract the dangerous element in society. Giving the kids their "goat-song" and allowing them to enjoy it more than epic or lyric makes it look like they have a choice, when every tyrant worth his salt knows it is really just Coke or Pepsi.

There was probably one other attraction for Pisistratus in incorporating drama into his radical, new City Dionysia. As the festival was largely his invention, its timing was, no doubt, up to him. That is, he probably had a certain amount of freedom in situating it wherever he liked in the Athenian ceremonial calendar. And it seems doubtful his decisions were driven by any sort of "year-spirit" worship or the observance of seasons—while perfectly capable of using religion, he doesn't seem to have been beholden to it (note)—except perhaps in one respect.

To the best of our knowledge, the City Dionysia was from its very inception held in late March, a time with important resonances in the Greek economic, if not religious year. In particular, this month coincided with the opening of the annual trading season. In antiquity, the eastern Mediterranean Sea was generally too dangerous to sail in winter because of the violence of the storms that could erupt with little warning, so commerce by sea ceased in autumn each year, only to resume in spring after the threat of winter storms had passed.

Thus, theological reasons notwithstanding, financial interests, no doubt, contributed substantially to Pisistratus' decision to launch his new Dionysus festival in late March. The celebration of a god widely recognized in that part of the world would almost certainly draw an international crowd, and even more so if the ceremonies involved an exciting, new type of entertainment. Pisistratus could lure merchants from all over the eastern Mediterranean to Athens right at the very first of the trading season where they would have the opportunity to buy all sorts of Athenian goods—especially, Attic vases, olives and olive oil—to sell on their journeys throughout the rest of their travels during spring and summer.

With this, everybody won, except, of course, the rival trading cities in the area. Indeed, the historical records of Athens confirm that, as far back as we can tell, prominent foreigners and, among them, rich merchants, were given free admission to the Dionysia along with some of the best seats in the house. So, it seems safe to conclude that economic concerns played a role in Pisistratus' decision to include tragedy in his new festival, the City Dionysia. Why it wasn't dithyramb is anybody's guess, except that at that moment the sensationalism of seeing a myth come to life before one's eyes probably trumped the dignity and musical beauty of tragedy's most important early rival.

The result was that, by the late sixth century BCE, Western drama had set off on its rise to prominence and prestige. Out of a world seeking new boundaries and grappling with new ways of looking at life, tragedy was a means to express the revolution happening in the Athenians' lives. And what better symbol of their age than theatre, a new, fast-paced, eye-catching art form built on a core of traditional lore, all lyric and painting and spectacle on the surface with epic and traditional myth at its heart?

If we are still left with no clear "inventor" of theatre, no credible "Thespis" for historians to pin some name on its creation, perhaps there never was one. Or perhaps there was but it was not the sort of inventor we have been looking for, a founder instead of a discoverer, a George Washington rather than a Columbus. If so, the "father of drama" is clearly Pisistratus who sanctioned tragedy, adopted it as the "ward of Athens" and, wherever it originally came from, took it in and gave it a home, an oxygen-rich incubator in which to grow and thrive.

This old tyrant with a rebel's reflexes and the savvy to make people not just obey but work with him, saw in that particular type of cultural expression a vehicle for playing to several factions within his surging, restless, fractious city, a community only two decades away from inventing democracy. Tragedy gave something to those who wanted to import a new cult and those who wanted to hear and see a new type of story-telling, as well as those who just wanted to make a fast drachma. Surely, Pisistratus had no idea how far this drama business would go, but his instincts for what worked at the moment led him to open the door. And after that creation came the flood.