2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes
Theater - Performance
by Prof. Dan Curley, Classics
In many respects the modern experience of theater-going bears small resemblance to the experience in ancient Greece. Performances were held only during the day, and in the open air; the audience was as much aware of itself as the action onstage. The theater was constructed of wood and, later, stone, materials chosen more for withstanding the elements than for the comfort of spectators. The performers, who were all male, wore masks, which rendered their faces invisible and (contrary to popular belief) did nothing to amplify their voices. There was musical accompaniment, typically from reed instruments, but the musicians themselves were few and generally situated offstage, out of the audience’s view. Remove the darkened enclosure of the modern theater, with its comfortable chairs, sound and lighting effects, orchestras, and actors of both genders skilled in facial expression — only then can we begin to understand the Athenian conception of theater in the fifth century BCE.
Also crucial to any understanding of Athenian theater is the agonistic, or competitive, context in which it flourished. The city of Athens oversaw performances of comedies and tragedy at twice-yearly public festivals. The greater of these, held at the end of the Athenian calendar year, was the City Dionysia, which entailed a weeklong celebration of the god Dionysus through competitions of song and dance. Preparations began earlier in the year, when the chief magistrate selected from among aspiring and established playwrights three tragedians and five comedians, eight in all, to compete in the festival. The magistrate also appointed eight prominent, wealthy citizens to assemble and costume the choruses required in every production. During the festival each tragedian presented a tetralogy, four plays consisting of three tragedies and one satyr play; a satyr play was a kind of mythological burlesque involving choruses of satyrs, who were half-man and half-goat, usually drunk, and easily aroused.
Dionysus: Attic Red-figure
amphora, Kleophrades Painter,
c. 500-490 BCE, from Vulci,
Italy (Antikensammlung, Munich:
Skidmore Visual Resources)
The element of ancient theater most consistently puzzling to modern audiences is the chorus, the twelve or fifteen performers whose primary function is to sing and dance at various points in any given play. Choral performers are not characters per se; although they had identities appropriate to the dramatic circumstances and partook of the action to a limited extent, their function was distinct from that of the actors, who were typically three in number and handled what we would call the dialogue. Whereas the actors in the Antigone played the parts of Creon, Antigone, Ismene, and the other characters, the chorus played a group of Theban elders (which was also its role in Oedipus the King). The general dynamic of Greek drama, then, is one of speech alternating with song: the actors engaged in spoken episodes and advanced the plot, while the chorus sang and danced odes in between these episodes. (Note, however, that all lines of a Greek play, whether speech or song, are in verse.) Choral odes allowed playwrights to explore themes and imagery outside the somewhat rigid conventions of expository dialogue. Nevertheless, because odes often seem tangential, it is all too easy for modern audiences to dismiss them — particularly readers, for whom the singing, dancing, and music are left to the imagination. Even in print, however, choral odes can be poignant and beautiful. The second song of the Antigone, known as the “Ode to Man,” is one of the most celebrated passages in all of Greek poetry. We must imagine that the Sophoclean audience not only enjoyed this and other odes, but also regarded them as indispensable to the drama. This is a testament both to the omnipresence of singing and dancing in everyday Greek life as well as to role of the chorus in the origins of comedy and tragedy. From Aristotle’s Poetics we learn that choruses were the original performers of ancient drama; actors were, in fact, a later addition. Whereas a play without actors is for us hardly conceivable, actors were still a relatively recent innovation for Greeks of the fifth century.
As noted earlier, each tragedian in the Dionysia presented a tetralogy; the three tragedies in this group are collectively referred to as a trilogy. As one might suspect, the tetralogy format enabled tragedians to explore a single myth over the course of three dramas; a useful analogy lies in the popularization of trilogies in modern cinema (in the Star Wars and Matrix series, for example). Our lone surviving tragic trilogy, the Oresteia of Aeschlyus, follows this model, tracing events in the life of the Argive hero, Orestes. The first play, Agamemnon, depicts the murder of Orestes’ father at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra; The Libation Bearers, in turn, has Orestes avenging Agamemnon by killing Clytemnestra; The Eumenides caps the trilogy with Orestes’ escape from the Furies, who seek retribution for his mother’s death. Antigone, along with Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, are often called Sophocles’ “Theban Trilogy,” but are not a true trilogy in the strict sense. Although the three plays encompass a close series of events in the saga of Thebes, and can be (and have been) performed in a single sitting, the playwright composed them at different points in his career. Oedipus the King, which is mythologically the first play, probably belongs to Sophocles’ middle period (ca. 428 BCE), while its sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, is his latest work (produced posthumously in 401 BCE); Antigone, although mythologically the last play, is actually the earliest of the three (ca. 441 BCE). Being composed at different times, these tragedies lack some consistency among themselves, most notably in the character of Creon, whose demeanor and attitude toward political power vary from one play to the next. In fact, we ought to be surprised that the Theban plays are as consistent as they are. Although Sophocles had no obligation to tell a single, unified story, he chose to do it all the same. That he succeeded is remarkable in itself.