The Origins of Tragedy

A.     ‘Drama’ is an ancient Dorian word meaning ‘doing’ or ‘action’. Drama is a mode of artistic expression that works through action (praxis), not narration as in the other forms of poetry: epic (like Homer’s Odyssey) and lyric (like the choral odes in Oedipus Rex). Drama is more closely related to ritual than the other poetic modes. Action or plot is at the heart of its purpose. You should think of action not simply as special effects or martial arts spectacles, like in an ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’ movie. The plot of a story drives its action. A good plot has fascinating twists and turns, sudden surprises and, hopefully, an ending that devastates you. That’s pretty hard to do, especially if everyone in the audience knows the story, as was the case in Oedipus Rex.  Aristotle, the great Athenian philosopher, defined action as a movement of the spirit through a whole community. If you have been in the audience at the end of a terrific play or movie, you know what that means. In a great work of art action moves to a catharsis, a moment of sympathy yet terror, what Aristotle defined as the simultaneous evocation of pity and fear.

B.     Religion of Dionysus: Drama, and in particular the art form of tragedy, grew out of the worship of the god Dionysus. His cult spread throughout the Mediterranean during the eighth or ninth centuries BC with the cultivation of the grape and the discovery of its special properties when distilled into wine. Dramatic plays developed as part of the worship of Dionysus. Other religions also had festivals, contests, sacrifices, processions and music, but the religion of Dionysus had certain peculiarities that gave rise to the art form of drama.

1)      The cult became popular in Greece after the epic and lyric forms of poetry had fully formed and could thus be used in drama.

2)      Dionysus’ story, as you have learned, is very diversified in content. There are many stories to tell. The dithyramb or hymn to Dionysus could take many forms. (Dithyramb literally means ‘double birth’.)

3)      The religion was ecstatic in nature. The celebrants believed that when they drank wine, the spirit of Dionusus possessed them and made them, for a brief time, divine. Dionysus had transformed them into the thiasus or sacred herd. The thiasus would dance to the sound of flutes, clappers and drums; they dressed in masks and skins and tails. The men became satyrs, the women bacchae. Here we have the beginning of the practice of representing someone or something other than oneself, the mimetic art of acting.

Tragedy:         Tragos literally means ‘goat’. A member of the parade of costumed animals became known as a tragedian. Tragedy literally means ‘goat-song’. That is a pretty grim idea if one realizes that first human, then animal sacrifices climaxed the celebration of the Dionysian revels. Eating the flesh of the goat and wearing its skin allowed the participant to become the animal itself. In its origins, tragedy enacted this bloody, intoxicated rite. The teaching of Dionysus was experienced not learned. There was no study of a sacred text, no guidance from a priest. Dionysus’ wisdom was communicated through participation in the ecstatic experience: direct union with the divine. Orphism was a feature of many ancient religions: “Thou shalt be a god, not a mortal.”

Attic Tragedy

The bloody rituals of the Dionysian revels evolved into the high art of Attic Tragedy. The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides developed out of a religion featuring orgiastic ritual ceremonies that enacted the myths of Dionysus.  Even though intoxication and sacrifice ceased to play a part in the actual performance, tragedy remained a sacred ritual enacted to conjure the spirit of the god Dionysus himself, and blood is still shed, even if symbolically, in every tragedy.      

Tragedy made use of literature, particularly the characters and stories from after Homer’s great epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. The form of Attic tragedy developed from the dithyramb: a spectacle in which the thiasus gathered on a large field and performed hymns in honor of Dionysus. (See Bacchylides, "The Theseus Dithyramb" (476 BC)) Dithyrambs combined singing, dancing, music and poetry, in some ways  like a half-time spectacle at a football game. The exarchontes (leaders of the dithyramb) were the poets who wrote the hymns to Dionysus and the choreographers who led the dances that accompanied these songs. A typical performance might include an enactment of the story of Dionysus crossing the sea, how he was taken prisoner by pirates and then freed by the satyrs. The pirates are thrown into the sea and transformed into dolphins. Then the satyrs rejoice with Dionysus as he arrives in Greece- just as he does each spring.

The festival of Dionysus at Athens became the site for theatrical innovations that created the art form of tragedy. In the sixth century BCE, an exarchonte named Thespis separated a performer from the thiasus, or chorus, of singers and dancers of the dithyramb. Thespis named this performer the hypocrites (answerer). His function was to engage in dialogue with the chorus leader. These dialogues took place between the song and dance numbers and eventually developed into little scenes or epeisodion. In essence, Thespis had invented the modern actor as we know it; he had also invented the art of playwriting.

In 534 BCE Thespis brought his traveling troupe of performers to Athens to participate in the local Festival of Dionysus held on the Acropolis. You can imagine the procession: a float, on top of which stands a huge statue of Dionysus, is drawn by a herd of flute playing satyrs and bacchae to the holy precinct where performances take place. Eventually this flat site next to the Acropolis became the site of the great Theatre of Dionysus that stands to this day. Thespis’ avant-garde innovation, interspersing scenes of dialogue in between the great choral dithyrambs, caught on quickly, and within the next fifty years, Aeschylus and Sophocles had refined tragedy into a timeless art form. It all happened that quickly!

Why is dialogue such an essential component of tragedy? Why not just stick to the thiasus' ecstatic songs and dances mixed with spectacular special scenic effects (like the pirate attack)? The answer goes to the heart of what tragedy is all about. First, the early playwrights discovered that plot holds an audience more powerfully than any spectacle can. The story of a great character marching inexorably toward a terrible climax transfixed the audience. Dialogue advances the action of tragedy towards a great moment: a revelation about the truth of its central character. The truth revealed by catharsis is deeply ironic. The truth reveals the nature of what it means to be human in this mysterious and violent world.

Tragedy looks at the deepest and most disturbing facts of human life and discovers in them mysterious double meanings. Why must we die? Whazt makes us capable of inflicting such cruelty on one another? Are we in control of our fates or are we toys for the gods who personify the immutable facts of life? Does justice exist? The heroes of Greek tragedy, endowed with our best qualities- intelligence, strength, courage, perseverance and dedication to principle (or honor)- are placed in situations beyond the limits of their understanding or control. Their protective covering is stripped from them, and the true nature of humanity is exposed.

Typically, the climax of a tragedy is terrifying and horrible; catharsis always involves blood. However, there is another equally important aspect of catharsis that cannot be extricated from the horror: awe at an insight achieved into the truth. Tragedy is deeply ironic. It celebrates the facts of life and allows the actors and audience to participate open-eyed in the horror and splendor of our animal existence.

Tragedy is a ritual in honor of the great god Dionysus. As in the earliest ecstatic ceremonies, the revels of tragedy climax with blood, but the spilling of the blood nourishes the earth and makes the approaching harvest possible. At the climax of Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus enters blinded and bloody, yet finally in possession of the truth, we too participate in catharsis, and for a moment, we too are gods, truly alive.

Aeschylus and Sophocles

Three of the four greatest tragedians of all time were contemporaries, living in the same city, competing in the same dramatic festivals. Euripides, who we don’t have time to discuss, was the third great Athenian tragedian. Only Shakespeare surpassed their artistic achievement..

Aeschylus (525-456 BC) was a general at Marathon, the great victory of the Greeks over the Persians that ushered in the golden age of Athens. His greatest cycle of tragedies, The Oresteia, tells a story familiar to you from Homer. Remember Agamemnon’s greeting when he returned home from Troy? In Homer, Clytemnestra’s lover Aegisthus murdered him. In Aeschylus’ version of the myth, Agamemnon, it is Clytemnestra herself who does the dirty deed, and she is given a much more palatable motivation for murdering her husband: vengeance. Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to free the Greek fleet from off shore winds so that the Achaean warriors could sail for Troy. Clytemnestra waited ten long years to avenge her daughter’s death. In the second tragedy of the trilogy, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra returns home and meets with his sister Electra. When Orestes finds out about the murder of his father, he and his sister plot vengeance against their mother. Orestes has no problem killing Aegisthus, but the prospect of taking his mother’s life torments him. After a great confrontation with her, Orestes does the deed and is immediately assailed by three supernatural spirits, the Furies, who pursue him and torture him as he wanders aimlessly to and fro. In the final play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, Orestes seeks refuge in Athens still suffering from the Furies who will not allow him to forgive himself for the murder of his mother. Orestes pleads his case before Athena herself. He claims that he has been taught by his suffering and misery that no crime, even his mother’s, even his own, is beyond atonement. The Furies demand Orestes's death, but he claims that he has been cleansed of his guilt. Athena accepts his plea and persuades the Furies to forgive him as well. With this new law of mercy established (and the precedent of the justice of legal trial not blood vengeance), Athena transforms the Furies into the Eumenides, protectors of all suppliants. The cycle of vengeance has been broken, and the instituion of trial by jury has been established.

In Aeschylus’ tragic vision, a profound religious experience subsumes human evil and Orestes’ terrible fate. Compare this catharsis to the one that occurs at the end of Oedipus Rex. Aeschylus was the true creator of Greek tragedy. He elevated the theatre from its origins in satyr dances and orgiastic rituals into a profound philosophical experience without losing the ecstatic impact of the ritual’s cathartic experience. He joined thought and emotion into a deeply significant ceremonial experience.  

Aeschylus’ introduced a second actor into the action to join Thespis’ hypokrites. Consequently, dialogue developed much more freely and became the central focus of the action. He reduced the size of the chorus and began to withdraw it from the center of the spectacle.

Sophocles (496-406 BC) built on Aeschylus’ model (a far easier job than Aeschylus’ feat of creating an art form from a pagan tradition.) Sophocles competed with Aeschylus in several festivals and won the prize in 468 BCE

His career spanned the period of Athens’ greatest political and cultural achievements. He was a friend of Pericles, Herodotus and Phidias; he served as Treasurer in the government and as a general in the Peloponnesian Wars. He was one of the three commissioners who governed Athens after she was defeated by Sparta and as the great golden age of Athens drew to a close.    

Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex in 425 BCE, after Athens had been defeated in war and while plague was raging in the city. The great Athenian experiment in democracy was drawing to an inglorious end.

In his plays, Sophocles introduced a third actor and reduced the chorus even further in size (to twelve). This innovation forced the hero to shoulder an even greater burden of the action. The hero’s response to a destiny determined by the gods becomes the focus of the action.

Sophocles created the five-act play. The great philosopher Aristotle saw Oedipus Rex and declared the play the model tragedy in his Poetics. Nearly two thousand years later, during the Renaissance in Europe, Oedipus Rex remained the model tragedy. Shakespeare studied the Classics, and he wrote his great tragedies in response to Aeschylus and Sophocles.