The Origins of Tragedy

A.     ‘Drama’ is an ancient Dorian word meaning ‘doing’ or ‘action’. Drama is a mode of literary and performance 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 spectacles, like in a space explosion movie. Instead, the plot of the story drives the action. A good plot has fascinating twists and turns, sudden surprises and, hopefully, an ending that devastates you. That’s pretty hard to pull off, especially if everyone in the audience already 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. You know what that means if you have been in the audience at the end of a terrific play or movie. In a great work of art action moves to a catharsis, a moment of sympathy mixed with terror, what Aristotle defines 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 BCE with the cultivation of the grape and the discovery of its intoxicating properties when distilled into wine. Over time, the drunken and bloody sacrifices which climaxed the Dionysian revels evolved into dramatic plays. Instead of enacting the mysterious union of sex and death, the plays would contemplate the mystery of human suffering. 

      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 Homer (8th. c. BCE), so 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’ or ‘resurrection’.)

3)      The religion was ecstatic in nature. The celebrants believed that wine infuses mortals with the spirit of the god in a form of possession. They believed that they were changed into the thiasus or sacred herd of Dionysus. The thiasus would dance, dressed in masks and skins and tails, to the sound of flutes, clappers and drums. The men were transformed into satyrs, the women into bacchae or maenads. Here we have the beginning of the art of acting: the practice of representing someone or something other than oneself,


Tragos literally means ‘goat’. One who dressed up and performed as a follower of Dionysus in the herd of Dionysus became known as a tragedian. Tragedy literally means ‘goat-song’. That is a pretty grim idea when you realize 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, through direct union with the divine. In the Dionysiam revel, the participant literally became the god:  Orphism was a feature of many ancient religions: “Thou shalt be a god, not a mortal.”

Attic Tragedy

During the centuries after Homer’s great epics were written, the bloody rituals of the Dionysian revels evolved into the high art form of Attic Tragedy. The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides developed out of a religion featuring ritual ceremonies which enacted the myths of Dionysus.  Eventually, intoxication and sacrifice ceased to play a part in the actual performance, but tragedy remained a sacred ritual enacted to conjure the spirit of the god Dionysus himself, and blood is still shed, even if symbolically, at the end of every tragedy.     

The form of Attic tragedy developed from the dithyramb: a spectacle involving singing, dancing, music and poetry combined, 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 satyr dances that accompanied these songs. A typical performance enacted the story of Dionysus crossing the sea, 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 BC an exarchonte named Thespis separated a performer from the thiasus, or chorus, of singers and dancers. 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 BC 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 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 a hill became the site of the great Theatre of Dionysus that stands to this day on the Acropolis. 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 ecstatic songs and dances and the 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 entertains an audience in the most powerful way. The spectacle of a character in motion toward a terrible climax transfixes an 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. That ironic truth reveals the nature of what it means to be human in our 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? Why are humans capable of inflicting such cruelty on one another? Are we in control of our fates or have they been written for us by the gods who personify the immutable facts of life? Where can we find justice in the world? The heroes of Greek tragedy are endowed with our best qualities: intelligence, strength, courage, perseverance and dedication to principle (or honor). They are placed in situations beyond the limits of their understanding or control. Their pride is stripped from them, and the true nature of humanity is exposed.

Typically, the climax of a tragedy is terrifying and horrible; blood is always shed at the moment of catharsis. However, there is another equally important aspect of catharsis that cannot be separated 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 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 become like gods, fully alive.

Aeschylus and Sophocles

Three of the four greatest tragedians of all time were contemporaries, living in Athens, competing in Dionysian drama festivals. 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 the greeting Agamemnon got when he returned home from Troy? In Homer, it was Clytemnestra’s lover Aegisthus who murdered him. In Aeschylus’ version of the myth, Agamemnon, it is Clytemnestra herself who does the dirty deed. She has a strong 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 part 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, this brother and 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 dirty deed and is immediately assailed by three supernatural ghouls, the Furies, who pursue him and torture him as he wanders aimlessly about the earth. 

In the final play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, Orestes arrives 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 accuse Orestes, 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.

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 profound 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 BC.

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 BC 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.

Some Interesting Websites Associated with Greek Tragedy: