Episode 26: Ancient Greek Theater

Masks. Choruses. Huge prosthetic penises. Before you read Sophocles, Euripides, and company, it’s a good idea to know a bit about Ancient Greek theater.

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An Introduction to the City Dionysia of Ancient Athens

parthenon overlooking ancient greek theater

The Parthenon on a cloudy day. The temple, first constructed between 447 and 432 BCE, is one of the most famous landmarks in the world and figures prominently into Episode 30: Two Legs in the Afternoon. Photo by Daniele Piazza.

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 26: Ancient Greek Theater. This show is an introduction – the first of twelve episodes – on the most famous plays of Ancient Greece – the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and the later comedic playwright Menander. The works of these celebrated dramatists span multiple centuries and generations, but the vast bulk of them were produced during the middle and later parts of the 400s BCE, in the city of Athens. And that’s great news for us. With the previous show on Archaic Greek poetry, we were hopping all around the Aegean. With the ten before that on the Old Testament we were somersaulting through multiple centuries and world empires. But as we move into the most famous and influential plays of Ancient Greece, we will be hanging out in one town, over the course of one century – Athens, a city strategically located in the southeast of mainland Greece, and, again, the 400s BCE. [music]

The extraordinary history of this city during this century is the key to understanding the dramatic works that were produced there. And we’re going to learn this history slowly, as we move through the plays. Through the plays of Aeschylus, we’ll learn about the city’s struggles with the Persian Empire, and its treatment of women, and the changes in its judiciary system. Through the plays of Sophocles, we’ll learn about the beginning and end of the Peloponnesian War, and the philosophical feuds that involved Socrates, Protagoras, and many others. Through Euripides, we’ll learn about the Athenian Empire, the naturalization of citizens, and the religions and cults of Ancient Greece. And through Aristophanes, we’ll learn about Athens’ culture of social and political satire – a culture that reached a boiling point during the Peloponnesian War. By the time this sequence of episodes is finished, you’ll know the major plays of Ancient Greece, and have a good sense of the culture and history of what we call Golden Age Athens, or fifth-century BCE Athens.

Athens and the Remarkable 400s BCE

But let’s back up for a second. I don’t want to make any assumptions about what you know in terms of Ancient Greek history. So I’m going to give you the landmark events of what, again, we call Golden Age Athens – let’s say, 508 to 404 BCE, in about two minutes. I want you to picture something kind of funny. A bell. Only it’s not like a normal bell – it’s kind of – melting a little. A melty bell. Yeah – it’s melting over to the right, so that the slope that leads up to its top on the left hand side is a lot longer than the slope that leads down to its right hand side. If it were a hill that led from left to right, you’d spend seven minutes climbing it and then just three descending it. This melty bell.

That bell is the history of Golden Age Athens from 508 to 404. At the left hand side of it is the inception of Athenian Democracy in 508, and then very shortly afterwards, the Greco-Persian Wars. The Persian Empire, led by Darius, and then Xerxes, tried to take Greece under its mantle for decades, but found the country disparate, difficult to navigate, and culturally unintelligible. The Greco-Persian wars lasted until the summer of 479. And after 479, Athens used the powerful navy that it built to fight the Persians in order to create an empire in the Aegean Sea, and beyond. The spread of the Athenian Empire, and the wealth that flowed into Athens as a result – that’s the reason we can conceive of Golden Age Athens’ history as a bell curve with a slow, steady ascent, until Athens had reached a pinnacle of wealth, power, and military agility. But what about the quicker downward slope? This steeper slope – the fall of Golden Age Athens, was caused by a conflict called the Peloponnesian War. In this war, a confederation of largely western Greeks, led by Sparta, fought Athens and its maritime Empire for twenty-seven bloody, atrocious years. And Athens lost. So that’s Golden Age Athens. A melty, right leaning bell that starts with democracy and the Persian Wars, climaxes with the Aegean Empire, and then falls to pieces with the Peloponnesian War. The next ten plays we will read were all written somewhere within this framework. But like I said a minute ago, we’ll get into the history slowly, and we’ll get there through the plays themselves.

In today’s episode, we’re not going to worry too much about the grand span of ancient history. In fact, we are only concerned with one, single day – let’s say, April 2nd, 458 BCE, during the slow upward climb of the melty bell we talked about earlier. And even within this single day, we’re only concerned with the passage of twenty minutes. Twenty minutes, on April 2nd, 458 BCE. Here’s what we’re going to do during these twenty minutes. You and I are going to pretend that we’re Athenians. It’s a little before nine in the morning, and we’re smack dab in the middle of what’s called the City Dionysia – the most important theater festival of Classical Athens. So, we’re citizens of Athens. And it’s 8:45 AM on April 2nd, 458 BCE. And we’ve just been having some wheat bread and cheese at the agora, or open air marketplace, talking politics, and maybe having a laugh about that crazy satyr play that we watched yesterday evening. But we know that it’s about time to leave the marketplace and get over to the theater of Dionysus. We’re running late, actually, because we’ve got to head down to the Acropolis, walk all the way around it, and then make our way into the theater and find seats. The chorus is already warming up. The newly painted scenes are stretched taut behind the stage.

By spending these twenty minutes together in Athens, beginning at 8:45 AM on April 2nd, 458 BCE, we’re going to see a lot, and learn a lot. And one of the most amazing things about the Classical Greek plays that have come down to us is that in almost every case, they were produced for the Dionysian festival we’re about to attend, and performed on the southern slope of the acropolis, where we’re about to start walking. The world famous plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were performed in one place, during the lives of just a few generations of people, for the sake of one annually reoccurring springtime festival. Ancient literature isn’t usually so easy to pin down. So finish up that chunk of goat cheese, take a swig of that Greek barley wine, and straighten up your tunic, my fellow Athenian. Because we’re going to a play.[music]

Piraeus and Athenian Shipbuilding

8:45 AM

Alright, so up we go, finishing up our drinks, and heading past market stalls. And you stop to buy a little bag of olives for the show. Nice one. I’m going to bum some of those off of you later. Now, we’re heading south. It’s a sunny spring day, and there’s a light breeze coming in from the southwest, up through the Piraeus shipyards, carrying with it the scents of fresh cut pine and resinous wood, wood from conifers being burned for pitch. Ah, the shipyards. Naturally, a city world renowned for its navy has some pretty impressive shipyards. The Piraeus shipyards are Athens’ main harbor. They’re a couple miles southwest of the center of the city. The neosoikoi, or ship houses there, are producing slender, multi-decked vessels called triremes. Every single Athenian, and every person in the Aegean world, knows what triremes are. Because the generation of our fathers, at the great battles of Artemsium and Salamis, used triremes to beat the forces of Persia. Even the scent of the fresh cut wood and cooking pitch makes us look at one another proudly, because down in our harbor, our fellow citizens are using saws and adzes and carving tools to help maintain something that we call the “wooden wall” – the barricade of Athenian ships that patrols and protects our expanding empire. Ships, splashing through the oceans, propelled by oars – this is the apotheosis of who we are. A giant, swift moving wooden wrecking ball – that’s our fleet, and our greatest weapon.

1784 Bocage Map of the City of Athens in Ancient Greece - Geographicus - AthensPlan2-white-1793

Piraeus and Athens, from an eighteenth-century map. The great port was a marvel of ancient urban planning. The Long Walls were built during the careers of Aeschylus and Sophocles.

And as we start our walk and smell that whiff of pine and pitch and salty sea air, it’s not just ships that we think of. We think of the harbor itself. The harbor – again, called Piraeus, is a sort of industrial suburb of Athens, where our ships are made. Now we don’t know this, but in future generations, our harbor will be conceived of as the first major feat of urban planning. An architect called Hippodamus was brought in to design the whole thing, and the result is an orderly and magnificent example of Athenian democracy at work. The design of the harbor town seems to exude democracy – the Piraeus neighborhoods are designed in blocks with eight dwellings each, with each family receiving equally sized lodgings, water storage containers and outdoor ovens. The organization of the dwelling places and ship houses may not be as spectacular as things we’ll soon see. But the harbor of Piraeus, with its superb order, and spellbinding efficiency, to you and I, are the main emblems, or one of the main emblems, of what we as Athenians can do when we put our minds to it. Like our harbor, we are organized, disciplined, and efficient. We don’t rely on brawn, or try to steamroll over our foes. We use our minds, and apply something we call sophrosyne, or self control – living and ruling with moderation and strategic regulation – our lives as carefully modulated and organized as our shipyards.1 At least – uh – when it’s not the Dionysia Festival. During the Dionysia Festival, we take our moderation in moderation.

So we can see our countrymen pouring into the central city from the southwest, as though borne in by the wind. We can see them in throngs – shipwrights, carpenters, and sailors. The Dionysia festival is a lax time. Workdays start late, or not at all, and foremen and captains themselves often don’t bother to punch in their timecards. And so as workmen and rowers head toward the city center, they look around, half apprehensively, thinking that their superiors will see them and fault them for shirking their duties. But there’s little danger of this. Because Dionysia is celebration time. Dionysia, and a few other holidays, are what we as Athenians work for – its public joys and spectacles are our prizes for our having kept the apparatus of democracy running for over a generation.2

We pause for a moment at the edge of the marketplace. I have to stop and tie my – I mean buckle my sandal. You know. And as I do this, you look south, toward the Piraeus shipyards, and think of what that seaport southwest of the city is – it’s a lifeline to the outside world, capable of withstanding even the most protracted siege. Because once you leave the city gates that lead to the harbor – the Piraean gates, as they’re called – the gates to our shipyard – you know that a massive construction project is going on, a project that will be called the Long Walls. These walls will be two sixteen foot thick barriers that lead almost four miles from Athens all the way down to the harbor. The Long Walls, once they’re complete, will ensure that our city, even in the event of a land invasion, and a siege, will always have a connection to the life giving ocean. You think of those walls, and you smile. Because you know that although foot soldiers – like those of the ever violent Sparta to the west – although foot soldiers might outnumber ours, on the sea, we are the most powerful force on the planet. If our city is besieged, our amphibious invasion forces can strike at the heart of enemy territory with impunity. And the threats to our city are real and pressing. A long, multi-year skirmish the forces of the island of Aegina to the southwest and Corinth to the west – a war that’s just wound up – has made us even more conscious of the need to create robust defensive fortifications. But you know, and I know, that in a year or two, our city will have a unique, and impregnable defense, and the speediest, most dangerous strike force in the Mediterranean. Our ships can do ten knots an hour, and appear and disappear like smoke anywhere there’s navigable water. And as far as we’re concerned, we do not, like the Spartans to our west, rely on the brute force of physical conditioning and ancestral weapons training. We are Athenians, and we rely on our minds. We’re Odysseuses, and not Achilleses. Looking down toward Piraeus, toward the shipyards, this is what those walls coming up makes you think of.[music]

Memories and Scars of the Greco-Persian Wars

8:47 AM

Now, I’ve just finished buckling my sandal. An old man walks by clutching a colored potsherd, or fragment of pottery. This makes both of us smile. A ruler named Pericles has recently implemented a novel scheme of getting theater tickets out to commoners. This old Athenian holding his fragment of pottery looks proud. Whatever his background – worker, sailor, farmer, likely all three – he is the generation who defeated the Persians and made our city into what it is today. He looks at us with a sagacious nod, a little bemused – possibly already a little buzzed – and asks us how to get to the Dionysian theater. We tell him. You’ve gone too far north, father, we say. He laughs and says he came up to the agora for staititēs, or wheat pancakes topped with sesame and honey. We direct him around the western edge of the acropolis. It’s not too hard. Half the people in the city seem to be heading that way.

But as he turns, our smiles fade. We see a huge scar across his right shoulder blade that vanishes beneath his tunic. The old man has seen war. Everyone of his generation has. He ambles, carefree, into the shade of trees that line the foot of the acropolis, but the scar, in the distance, is a terrible sight. He might have acquired it in any number of battles. At the Battle of Marathon, thirty-two years ago, where our land armies first met the Persians in combat, and beat them. At the Battle of Artemisium, ten years later, where luck and skillful maneuvering helped our outnumbered fleet win the day against the confederated Persians. At extraordinary Battle of Salamis that same year, in which, led by Xerxes’ nemesis, Themistocles, we defeated the immense Persian fleet. Or, the following year, just twenty-one years ago, at the Battle of Plataea, when our soldiers joined those of Sparta, Corinth, and Megara, faced Xerxes’ general Mardonius, killed him, and drove the Persians out of our homeland for good. The old man might have received his terrible scar on any of these occasions, but we don’t ask. This mid spring day, and the songs of birds, the bustle of the town, and the excited hum of theatergoers, reminds us that as Athenians, we will never forget our wars. Because from these wars have come our sunshine, and our sweet, tasty pancakes.[music]

The Areopagus and Midcentury Legal Reforms

8:49 AM


The Acropolis and the top of the Areopagus. This enormous rock outcrop to the west of the Acropolis figures prominently into Aeschylus’ play The Eumenides, which we cover in Episode 29: The Mound and the Furies. Photo by Χρήστης Templar52 at el.wikipedia.

So we walk south for another minute or two, taking the same path that we directed the old soldier to take. The sun remains high, and the smell of cooking food from the Agora mingles with the cooking pitch smell from the shipyards, and the dry scent of small coniferous shrubs. Central Athens is, as any Athenian can tell you, a district with some remarkable geographical features; specifically, with some gigantic natural landforms that are more distinct than any building could ever be. On our right rises the vast rock called the Aeropagus. It means the “large rock” of “Ares” or the “Erinyes,” the furies, the deities who judge the deeds of men. This rock, which towers above the southwestern end of the city, has long been associated with Athens’ leadership and legislators. Centuries ago, the great rock was where all wealthy city elders congregated to make decisions. The Aeropagus remains the name of a group of powerful leaders. But as times have changed in Athens, and citizenship has been extended to far more people, the Aeropagus and the powerful elders associated with it have lost most of their significance. In 458, as we pass by this rock, we pause to think of a person. See, when what we call Athenian democracy began just before 500 BCE, it wasn’t as though someone flipped on a switch, and all of a sudden everyone was receiving voter information pamphlets and filing absentee ballots. No – the implementation of democracy has been a slow, messy process. And while many in the previous generation died to protect our fledgling democracy from Persian rule, we are still fighting for it. Within the walls that encircle our city, reformers continue to protect the interests of the common citizen from elites who wish to restrict legislative and judicial power to a small cadre of powerful aristocrats. And one man – one man in particular – has recently been assassinated due to his campaigns against these blue bloods.

His name was Ephialtes. And just three years ago, Ephialtes was murdered by conservative opponents of widespread democracy. Ephialtes spearheaded reforms that helped purge Athens’ legislature of lingering corruption and plutocracy. Along with the wars against far off empires and neighboring cities, the strife between ruthless oligarchs and common citizens has continued unabated, and will continue throughout our lifetimes. But as you and I stand there, looking at the great rock called the Aeropagus, we know it’s a symbol of victory for the average Athenian. Because Ephialtes took away almost all of the judicial power of the Aeropagus council, and placed that judicial power in the hands of the vast jury system called the Heliaia. And so while the Aeropagus rock remains a symbol of maladministration, injustice and cronyism, it’s also a symbol of hope. If we as Athenians can overcome such deeply rooted political elites in our hometown while also fighting wars abroad, then, it seems, we are our parents’ children, and we can do anything.[music]

The Rising Acropolis

8:50 AM

The Aeropagus is northwest of our destination, and so we continue our path south from the marketplace, until we see the Acropolis. In 458 BCE just as it will be two and a half thousand years later, the Acropolis is the historical heart of Athens. The Athenian Acropolis is a natural rocky mesa that rises high above the surrounding city, and forms an elevated promontory over seven acres in size. Around it, trees and shrubs clamber up the uneven boulders. Locals, along with foreign tourists who have come to witness the Dionysia, walk along the outer perimeter of the mesa, shading their eyes and peering out over rooftops, watching the morning sun hang over the ocean to the southwest.

Once, the Acropolis was home to a large temple to Athena. But the shattered stone on a vast limestone foundation is another scar on our way to the theater – a scar that all of us share as Athenians. Persians, we know, were once within the walls of our city. Just twenty-two years ago – we’re old enough to remember this – just twenty-two years ago, they sacked Athens and destroyed our Acropolis. Our generation will live to see another one completed, twenty-six years from now, and the years between this moment, at 8:50 AM on April 2nd, 458 and the completion of that new and final Parthenon, will be the high water mark of the great Athenian Empire.

So the Acropolis, as we look at it in 458 BCE, doesn’t have its iconic Parthenon yet, nor the extraordinary statue to Athena that will crown it, nor the lofty Erectheum, which our children will see go up. The money that will come in from our naval ventures, which has already greatly increased the wellbeing of the common Athenian citizen, will flood into our town in even greater rivers, and these structures will rise over the coming decades. As of 458, though, the lofty Acropolis is comparatively barren, home to an old temple to our goddess Athena and an altar to her, an ancient fountain house, and a sanctuary to Pandion, one of the two original kings of Athens.

We go past the pathway that leads up to the top of the Acropolis, and we see a curious sight. A singularly ugly boy – ten or twelve, is talking vociferously to some of his peers. The other children are looking at one another in puzzlement. But the ugly boy continues his disquisition, undeterred by their skepticism. His nose is small and pudgy, his eyes large and bulging, and he has the appearance of a small, startled dog. The other youngsters lose interest in the homely boy’s blathering, and wander toward the theater along with everyone else. We don’t know this, but the ugly boy’s name is Socrates. And he is, perhaps, at this very moment, beginning to understand that asking people questions, rather than lecturing to them, can be a very compelling way to make an argument. [music]

The Pompē and Comus Parades

8:53 AM

As we skirt the steep southwestern slope of the Acropolis, the City Dionysia seems to be in full force. Now, we’ve seen many spectacles over the past handful of days. And the one that kicked off the festival was maybe the craziest of all. Just a couple of days ago, you and I were actually sitting up – right here – right on the southern slope of the Acropolis, and sharing a jar of wine. We were sitting up here – or just a stone’s throw up the slope to our left, and we watched the pompē, or procession, that paraded beneath the Acropolis. This procession carried a great wooden statue of Dionysus, the god of wine, madness, and ecstasy. And alongside the Dionysus statue, foreigners and Athenians alike paraded with baskets of fresh food, water, and wine. Those in the procession also carried hundreds of large wooden and bronze penis sculptures, in celebration of an old story about the God of Wine. As Athenians, we believe that we didn’t always honor Dionysus. In fact initially, long ago, we rejected Dionysus, who punished all the city’s males by maiming their penises. And so, even today, we begin the festival of Dionysus with a parade that celebrates our continued – uh – genital health under the auspices of Dionysus.

A Dedication to Bacchus parade before ancient greek theater

The Comus parade, which kicked off the main part of each year’s City Dionysia, would have been a riot. Notice the aulos player in the back right. The painting is Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s A Dedication to Bacchus (1889).

This initial parade that we watched carried more than oversized phallus sculptures. The pompē procession also carried gigantic weapons, and far off spectacles of our achievements in war and exploration. Its chief superintendents were the chorēgoi, or “sponsors” or “chorus leaders,” and these men, dressed in the height of Athenian fashion, led the parade to the theater. Along with them came a contingent of livestock, bulls bearing garlands to be sacrificed in order to formally consecrate the beginning of the festival. And so the procession, as you and I watched it pass, headed into the Theater of Dionysus on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis. There, competitions in poetry and musicianship were observed by throngs of fans and curious outlanders. You and I, sitting up on the hillside two days before, didn’t see this, but we heard the cheers in the distance, cheers that rose to an even higher pitch when the bulls were sacrificed. Then, as the smells of cooking meat pervaded the central part of the city, another parade began. This parade was called the Comus. And you and I staggered down the Acropolis and participated in this parade.

Oh, the Comus, or secondary parade. Now, Comus is the cupbearer of Dionysus. And komos in our language means “revel.” And so this secondary parade was our opportunity to get boisterous, goof off, and do all manner of inappropriate things. We don’t really remember it very well. We started off with the vague purpose of getting some food at the theater, but don’t recollect making it there. At some point, the names of the plays got announced – they rippled back through the ranks of the secondary parade in a game of inebriated telephone. As we heard it two days ago, there’s going to be a play about the Homeric Greek king Agamemnon coming home from the Trojan War. Or maybe it was Menelaus? Wait, or was it about Poseidon falling in love with a seahorse? Or was it the Trojan Seahorse? We can’t remember. During the secondary parade – the Comus, we overdid it a bit.

But actually, that’s kind of appropriate. Dionysus is the god of this festival, after all. And if you look at old black figure pottery or surviving stonework of Dionysus and his followers, you see intertwined limbs and robes, vegetal shapes of plants and vines growing together, wine and juice gushing from amphoras – I mean everybody is dancing, and comingling, in such a way that you can hardly tell who’s who, in this ancient artwork. And it’s fitting. The great twentieth-century classicist Bernard Knox reminds us that “Dionysus is a god whose worship can produce states of ecstatic possession, a loss of individual identity in the communal dance.”3

And that, you know, is what the Great Dionysia festival is all about – a state of ecstatic togetherness, in which individual identity is subsumed by the collective assembled at the theater. Wine and theater have been historical partners for a long time. Plays, after all, require people to transcend their own consciousness – an actor has to leave himself or herself and take on the voice and identity of another person – the audience has to drift forward from where they are motionlessly sitting and imagine themselves in the world of the characters onstage. That ecstasy, and celebration, and comingling and – well yeah, again, literal intoxication – these were all important components of the City Dionysia festival. And so by getting totally blitzed at the Comus parade that inaugurated the festival, we were only doing our civic and religious duty. [music]

The Scope and Attendees of the City Dionysia and Ancient Greek Theater

8:57 AM

Anyway, we learned our lesson, and two days later, at 8:57 AM on April 2nd, 458 BCE, we’re heading to the Theater of Dionysus in a comparatively more dignified fashion. Which isn’t saying much. So we continue making our way along the foot of the Acropolis. Flower pedals and spilt wine litter the processional way. Someone has lost a sandal, and someone else a chunk of bread, which some seagulls are eating. And finally, we arrive at the center of the City Dionysia festival – the grand Theater of Dionysus.

We have to wait in a bit of a line, along with all the other latecomers, in order to get in. And as we do, we take a look up at the theater, and into the stands. The Theater of Dionysus is cut into a hillside, and the semicircular rows of seating there are what Ancient Greeks call the theatron, our word for “watching place.” We already had a gigantic, smoothly sloping semicircular hill in our city center. It was definitely a good place for a large open air theater. As we crane our necks to look around, we see thousands of spectators gathered in the stands already, talking, drinking, arguing, laughing, flirting, and engaging in all sorts of shenanigans. As of 458 BCE, the theater seating consists largely of wooden benches dug into the hillside, although stone seating is available to those who sit in the front tanks, around the spot where the actors perform. In future years, the entire theater will be built in stone, and hold over 14,000 spectators, but even as it stands in 458, the theater is an impressive sight. Although you can’t actually sit on stone benches in the top rows, the neatly carved wooden seats are nothing to be put off by. We’re Athenians, after all, and our masterworks in carpentry are what make us supreme in the Aegean world, so we’re proud to sit on smooth pine planks. Besides, as you sit on those wooden benches, you can pluck up little grass pods and stems and knit them into little rings and bracelets, or throw them down into the ranks of other theatergoers.

Marbles and bronzes; fifty plates from selected subjects in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1914) (14779575844)

Pericles (c. 495-429), at the helm of Athens during its golden age, would have been front and center for the premieres of the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Anyway, let’s consider the demographics of the people in attendance. That old man – the laborer and former soldier – whom we saw earlier – that old timer had been given a special ticket for admittance. But make no mistake, and let’s not romanticize Classical Athens’ Dionysia. As we look up into the stands and see who’s sitting on those well-carved wooden benches, the faces are mostly male. There are almost no slaves, and far fewer women. There are foreigners from the Eastern Aegean and elsewhere, and guests of all sorts from neighboring cities, but attendance is predominantly for citizens, and citizens are male and free. And of those free male citizens, the preponderance are men of means who are already used to congregating in the city center for public assemblies, weighing in their own opinions, and listening to the disputations of others.

So when we look up from the entry line, we see thousands of other Athenians in the stands already, and wave to some friends and coworkers. For the most part, this is a gathering for the sake of entertainment, as I’ve emphasized from the beginning. But it’s also a way to see the who’s who of Athenian’s power players – almost all of them gathered around the orchestra area. What’s about to happen will be more than just a public performance to be enjoyed and digested. It is also a competition – a competition that can be highly political in nature.

The Dionysia festival, which as of April 2nd, 458 BCE at 8:58 AM, we’re smack dab in the middle of, involves somewhere between fifteen and seventeen plays. By the time it’s over – two days from now – three tragic playwrights will have offered four plays each, and three to five comic writers will also have offered a play. The grand prize of the whole thing goes to the tragedian who takes first prize – we Athenians consider comedy to be lighter fare. And so those influential statesmen and city leaders sitting up front aren’t just there for entertainment. They’re also interested in who will take home victory laurels for the best tragic works. Our city is a democratic one, but it is also an intensely competitive and dynamic one – one in which leading officials have to remain apprised of breaking news and sudden trends, or be left behind in the dust. So naturally, our politicians and lawmakers are here, in the front of the theater, waiting to see how the competition will play out. Pun intended.

As Athenians, then, we are exceptionally comfortable with public assembly, with listening carefully to open air public orations, with weighing and analyzing long pieces of rhetoric. In fact, our attention spans for the consumption of persuasive speechifying are, within the historical record, impressively long. And while all of us in attendance have a great capacity to learn from and engage with oral disputation, only a few of us will be allowed to officially judge the results of the great Dionysia competition. So who will judge this competition? In fact, considering that there are thousands of people here, in attendance, just to make this one magic moment happen – look up – the spring sun is bright now – 9:00 AM on April 2nd, 458! – anyway, considering the complexity of everything here in front of us as the line moves sluggishly forward, who set all this up? Who’s paying all the actors, and choreographers? Who made all the costumes? How was all of this arranged? Let’s talk about that. [music]

The Administration of the Dionysia Festival and Ancient Greek Theater

9:00 AM

Six months ago an administrator for this year’s City Dionysia was voted in. This figure is called the archon, and he has had the particularly important job of deciding which fifteen to seventeen plays are going to be staged. The archon, needless to say, six months later, would certainly be front and center at the production, wanting to see the fruits of all his administrative work. Six months ago, once playwrights were accepted for the City Dionysia, each playwright was set up with a choregoi, a sort of producer figure, usually a theatrically minded aristocrat. While for each City Dionysia, the Athenian treasury footed the bill for the actors, the choregoi for each playwright commissioned the wardrobe and preparations of the chorus.4

So we lucky Athenians who show up at the festival get to enjoy the fruits of six months of preparations and hard work that have already been taking place. Next to the archon who superintended the whole theater festival, as we walk into the theater, we also see the wealthy choregoi who have commissioned specific plays and playwrights. This elite little group is the epicenter of the festival, and of course, specific choregoi want their choruses, their plays, and their playwrights to win the first place laurels.

So who decides the winners and losers? In this answer lies some of the magic of Athenian theater. Because as we finally cross the threshold past the orchestra where the actors are warming up, we know that it’s largely up to us to judge the plays we’re about to see. After a play, we will be invited to offer our cheers and jeers to a panel of ten judges, who sit up with the archon, the choregoi, and various politicians and aristocrats. And these ten judges, with pressure from the public, will in turn distill what they hear into a vote for one of the three tragedians. To minimize corruption, only five out of these ten judges will be randomly selected to offer a final vote, so that a three way tie will be impossible, and then, after a run off, a two way tie will be impossible.

The tragedies that we watch, then, will be carefully tailored to us, as Athenian citizens, and to what we are experiencing at this specific historical moment, around the vernal equinox of 458 BCE. The stories that they tell, and the philosophical musings they offer, will by necessity be culturally relevant to us, and intelligible by means of our recent experiences as citizens. All in all, at the annual Dionysia festival, Athenian Democracy was a tool not only used for statecraft. It was also a tool used for formal, collective aesthetic pronouncements. Art, for a week or so, was the focal point of the public deliberative body. And for this period, the public was expected to decree which art was best of all. [music]

The View from the Theater

9:02 AM

So, on that spring morning of April 2nd, 458, we hoof our way up the stands. We’re not really in the ranks of those wealthy graybeards sitting down around the podium. We’re certainly not part of those lucky cronies sitting down at the stage who know the songs that are going to be sung, and who have been a part of the plays’ production. We’re just normal old Athenian citizens. We take our seats about halfway up the hill, and look around.

Even if we weren’t about to see the premiere of one of the world’s most famous plays in one of world history’s most celebrated places and times, the southeastern slope of the Acropolis would still be a hell of a nice place to sit. Over thousands of rooftops we can see the Saronic Gulf to the southwest. As we trace our eyes along the mountains to the southeast, we can see Mount Hymettus and its surrounding range, where marble quarries bring our city material for sculptures and monuments. If we crane our necks to the left we can see what is perhaps our city’s most prominent eyesore. The Temple of Olympian Zeus was begun before the Persian Wars – a little over sixty years ago. And it’s unfinished. Its main phase of construction was begun by Hippias and Hipparchus, the sons of the famous tyrant Pisistratus, but when the long tyranny was overthrown and our present democracy started, work on the temple ceased. The original scope of its construction was awe inspiring, and its columns still stand there, higher than any of our city’s other monuments. But just as the Aeropagus rock is an emblem of outworn oligarchy, the Temple of Olympian Zeus on the far southeast of our town is a symbol of the tyrannies that we’ve overthrown. Great men, of course, want to build gargantuan stone temples to great gods and commit their names to time immemorial. But as Athenians, we believe that history is driven forward by many arms, rowing many ships, and many citizens, casting many votes. Our emblematic structure, as of 458 BCE, isn’t a massive columned temple, or a pyramid, or a ziggurat. It’s not a mausoleum, or a colossus. Oh, no. Our emblematic structure is the theater that sitting together in together, right now, at the high noon of our civilization, the crucible where the work of our greatest writers expresses our experiences, our sorrows, and our dreams.

Ancient Greek Theater Attendees: A Privileged Enclave

9:02 AM

Alright, so we’ve taken our walk across town, and seen some sites. And hopefully these sights, collectively, have helped give you a sense of the historical climate of Athens in 458 – the sense of civic pride, the faith that we have in demo kratos or power in the people, the way that our bonds have been, and continue to be forged in frequent wars, and the antipathy we feel toward tyranny and oligarchy. All that said, any classical historian can tell you that Golden Age Athens, however shining and civilized we view it in hindsight, would be considered a humanitarian crisis by modern standards. The city’s demotion of women to carefully safeguarded property, its plutocratic insider politics, and worst of all, of course, its unhesitating perpetuation of slavery, with all of slavery’s brutality and sex abuse, set it millennia apart from the world’s modern democracies. Nonetheless, as we took that walk from the Agora down to the theater, and felt that springtime excitement of the Dionysia festival, and that sense of pride in being Athenian citizens, I wanted you to get a sense of what it would have been like to be part of that special enclave of people who attended Athenian theater – people whom Athenian theater was intended to please. Revisionist history is important insofar as it leads us to picture the past as accurately as we can. And from the twenty-first century, we can see that although fifth-century Athenians were slaveholders – and they had wildly asymmetrical gender relations, as far as life in the fifth century BCE was concerned, Athens was a far more equitable and humanitarian place than average. Just fifty years in the future from our day at the theater, in 407 BCE, Athenians would surprise foes in the Peloponnesian War by freeing thousands of slaves, and having these liberated men row triremes into battle in exchange for citizenship. Granted, it was a measure taken in one of the darkest moments of a quarter century long conflict, but it was also an action that showed, exactly 100 years after the implementation of democracy, that Athenians could continue to be relentlessly progressive.

All of this is just to say that Athens in 458 BCE wasn’t by any means a paradise for everyone within the city walls. It was, like any other human culture, a civilization with hypocrisies and blind spots, prejudices and systems that institutionalized them. But amidst these faults, Classical Athens had some extraordinary virtues. One of these was its theatrical performances. So now that we’ve taken our seats, and looked out at the mountains and the ocean, the rooftops and the temple in the distance, and gazed down at the archon, choregoi, and panel of ten judges, the play begins to start. And in the last few minutes of our time together here in the spring of 458, let’s look down at the performing area, as the chorus begins to assemble, and an actor walks out onstage, and talk about what we see down there. [music]

The Chorus of Ancient Greek Theater

9:03 AM

A minute ago, I told you that when a playwright was picked to have his play staged at the City Dionysia, that playwright was given access to a figure called a choregoi. These choregoi were theater patrons who paid for the training of a group of singers and dancers who, in Greek drama, were called the “chorus.” Now, a lot of you folks have probably read some Greek drama, and so you know what a chorus is and what it does. Cool. But to get everyone on the same page, I want to quickly cover the main form and function of a chorus in Ancient Greek Theater, and offer a bit of history behind choruses.

Dionysius ancient greek theater

A depiction of the City Dionysia during Roman times. Though in 458 BCE the theater wasn’t built to this level of ostentatious size, it would have had the central orchestra area, where dancers and musicians performed the choruses. From an 1891 German encyclopedia.

In a sentence, the chorus is a group of around twenty singers who, together, alternately philosophize out loud, in songs, about the events onstage, and also often interact directly with the actors. That’s the chorus in a nutshell. Now, to modern theatergoers, the presence of the chorus is the single most perplexing feature of Ancient Greek Theater. The chorus, which sings songs in an often A, A, B, B, C structure, of course shatters the fourth wall. A long dialogue between two actors in Ancient Greek Theater might for a moment seem to us as culturally familiar as a modern play. We’re looking through an unseen window at the lives of the characters onstage. It’s like a movie. But then the illusion breaks. The Ancient Greek Chorus begins its song, a sort of intrusive blob of noise that begins interminably philosophizing about events on which we don’t, thank you very much, need any editorializing. That, at least, after teaching these plays to college English students, is the usual response insofar as I can tell – a very human, culturally understandable response. Over the next sequence of episodes on Ancient Greek drama, using details, of course, from specific plays, I hope to be able to show you some of the unique dramatic power and intellectual forcefulness that the chorus brought to the Ancient Greek Theater. But even now, before we open up any of these plays, I’ll give you a few fun and useful facts about the typical Greek chorus.

There are people in the world who don’t like musicals. There’s nothing wrong with this preference, of course – art is all about our specific tastes, and there are some art forms that please us more than others. But one of the common reasons people don’t like musicals is that they seem to flagrantly abandon realism for the sake of a bunch of singing and dancing. Why do those Jets and Sharks in West Side Story start crooning and tap dancing while looking out into the audience. For god’s sake, they’re having a damned knife fight! Could it be that their little song slightly interferes with the atmosphere of ethnic tension of the 1950s New York setting? Well, I understand this criticism of musical theater maybe unusually well. My Ph.D. dissertation was on nineteenth-century realism, a genre in which knife-wielding thugs do not pirouette, leapfrog over one another, or sing in vocal harmonies while wearing life-threateningly tight jeans. So believe me, I get it. But let’s back up a bit. In fact, let’s back way up into ancient history.

When we encounter the theater of Ancient Greece, it’s tempting to ask these same sorts of questions. Why would these otherwise brilliant Grecians of antique times do something so embarrassing as to slap distinctly un-catchy and stupefyingly prolonged songs in the midst of otherwise tightly written plays? And that, I think, leads us to a long and fascinating answer.

The word fifth-century Greeks used for an actor was hypocrite, which translates to “answerer.” The actor, in other words, answered the chorus’ songs. And so if you and I are tempted to ask, “When did those goofy Greeks start slapping songs into plays?” we need to remember. It was the other way around. Actors were a novel innovation – probably of the sixth century BCE. Their lines were, in the beginning, merely to serve as some color or punctuation between choral songs. In other words, musical theater is older than spoken theater. The classic translator E.F. Watling explains that “In common parlance a dramatic performance was as often called a ‘chorus’ as a ‘drama.’”5

So we need to remember that the realist play, the closet drama, and even actors themselves – these are all younger than Ancient Greek Theater. Over the vast majority of human history, theater – even high drama, even intellectually dense theatrical performances, have all involved extensive use of music. Ancient Greece was no exception. Speaking of such. [music]

The Structure of Ancient Greek Theater’s Language

9:03 AM

So now we’ve talked about how Classical Greek plays were produced, and a bit about the chorus. Let’s talk about the structure of the language of the plays we’re going to explore over the next ten episodes. Between unmetered prose, like the kind I’m using now to explain all of this to you, and carefully structured vocal music, there are many midway points. One of these midway points is unaccompanied verse, or poetry. Greek playwrights wrote their actors’ lines in verse, usually in iambic meter, a meter associated with common speech.6

An iamb is a metrical foot with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Like this. i AMB, i AMB, i AMB, i AMB. Some names are iambs. JosE, EuGENE, BerNARD, MiCHELLE, MarIE, NiCOLE etc. Or, in a poetic line I AMBs are COM mon IN the WOR ld’s POEMS. I AMBS they FILL up BOOKS in ALL our HOMES. There’s some iambs, anyway. So, modern translations, thank goodness, don’t try to replicate ancient meter, or even more weirdly, strangle Aeschylus or Sophocles within the lacework of Victorian rhyme schemes, which is something that early translators tried to do. But we do need to remember, even when we’re reading modern translations, in free verse or prose, that the Greeks who watched a play in the Dionysian theater on, say, April 2nd, 458 BCE, weren’t going to hear such a pronounced seesaw between the casual cadences of everyday speech on one hand, and the careful structure of musical compositions on the other. In their verbal composition, most of the Ancient Greek plays we’ll consider were never intended to capture the cadences of everyday speech, in the way that something by Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams is. Ancient Greek tragedies were written in formally structured language, from end to end.

So now that we understand that the Ancient Greek chorus served a vital intellectual and critical purpose, that the chorus was actually older than having actors onstage, and that both actors and choral songs used metered verse, there are a couple of other things I wanted to tell you about the chorus. We are talking about something musical here, and likely something that involved some dancing. Once, when I was a sophomore in college, we were reading Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. Now, this play involves a lot of lamentation on the part of the chorus. A lot of sadness and hand wringing, and the choral parts are magnificent. Anyway, one day the professor was gone – sick, or at a conference, or something, I can’t remember. So the TA put on a televised version of Oedipus the King. Now, I liked the play, but even at that age – twenty, or whatever, I was acutely conscious that the chorus did not sing. There were just these three guys with runny black eye makeup, looking dolefully into the camera, and reciting, you know, a page or two worth of lines at a stretch. They could have at least put some background music in there, if the guys didn’t want to do barbershop. Just a simple Dorian or Aeolian melody with a harp, to create a cadence underneath the lyrics. But there was no music, at all, and the lamentations of the chorus went on and on, and my classmates started to search for other sources of entertainment, like looking for interesting shapes in the wood grain on their desks.

So whoever puts these plays on has to face a dilemma. As I said in the previous episode, we have a good idea of what instruments were used in Ancient Greek music. In fact, musicians understand the seven modes of the major scale that Plato attempts to discuss in Book 3 of The Republic. None of this is particularly complicated. But we don’t have any melodies preserved. So the dilemma is this. Should we stick with the words we have on the page – the only reliable records we have of these ancient plays? Or should we try to imagine what kinds of musical accompaniment went along with these choruses, and accentuated them, or complicated them? There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches, and both, ultimately, are disingenuous. Reading and understanding Ancient Greek choruses as mere black and white words on a page to be analyzed in isolation – doing this ignores the way these choruses were originally written and encountered. But arbitrarily coming up with some modal musical accompaniment is just as reckless, for we’re liable to come up with something that would have sounded bizarre to ancient Athenian ears.

But oh, well. I’m going to put music to most of the choruses we’ll encounter. In this podcast I’ve performed a rap song about the Iliad, a western about Zeus having sex, a sea shanty about Odysseus being stuck on Calypso’s island, a bluegrass tune about the swineherd Eumaeus, and a duet starring Penelope and Odysseus upon his arrival back home. It’s a fun little component of this show, and I always appreciate you listening to them. In making up asinine little songs about these ancient epic figures, I’m doing a light and amateurish version of what great Greek tragedians and comedians were doing – I’m creating variations on a theme, and adding some music to revisit some famous characters and situations. To some listeners, I assume that Literature and History’s songs seem like an idiotic and self indulgent part of the podcast. And – well – yeah, they are – but making up songs about famous figures in literature, as you’ll see throughout this sequence of Ancient Greek plays, is definitely not something that I invented.

So these Greek chorus songs had melody and harmonic accompaniment, and also choreographed dance. If you like musicals, then, of course, you know how much someone like Stephen Sondheim can use music and choreography to underscore and counterpoint lyrics in interesting ways. And all that – the blocking of Ancient Greek theater – is also lost to us. Ancient Greece did have mimes – a famous one named Sophron is alive in the western city of Syracuse as we sit in our theater in 458, and so we can assume that the Greek chorus used a carefully crafted system of physical acting and blocking to develop the themes of their songs.7

It goes without saying, maybe, but twenty or more people moving in unison, or in counterpoint, is a compelling sight – compelling enough to keep a long choral song interesting. [song] “So in summation, Greek choruses sung their songs, they had musical accompaniment, and they danced, and it was really [bleep] awesome!” [bland recitation] Unlike three entirely motionless guys wearing black eye makeup and reciting lines in a passionless and unmetered fashion.[music]

Sets, Actors, and Masks in Ancient Greek Theater

9:04 AM

Hey, look, the two actors are on stage now! And the chorus is about to start. Whew, that nice breeze from the Saronic Gulf feels refreshing. And look at all these Athenians. The lyre player is starting his instrumental overture. Oh, man, this is it. The heart of the Dionysia. We’re about to see a brand new trilogy of tragic plays! This is going to be amazing. In our last minute together here in Athens, let’s look at three final things. We’ve had a good, long look at the Chorus, but now we need to take a gander at the set, and the actors.

The play that we’re about to watch is going to be staged on a flat, circular space called the orchestra. Occasionally, throughout the play, the chorus will come and go along two side paths that lead up to the orchestra – we call these the parodoi and eisodoi. At the back of the orchestra space is something called a skene, a word that to us in 458 means “tent,” and to us in the twenty-first century has become the word “scene.” The skene or “tent” at the back of the orchestra, at one point, may have just been a wooden framed piece of fabric with a painting on it, used, of course, to evoke a sense of place.

Dionysus ancient Greek theater

The structure of the Dionysian theater. Graphic by Vol de Nuit.

By 458, though, set design in the City Dionysia has become more sophisticated. Certain sets include trees and boulders. The satyr play we watched last night was set in a cave – we noticed when we came in the theater that they’d changed the scene painting so that now we’re looking at the interior of a palace. For this particular play, there’s not only a large scene painting, but an entire improvised building, so that actors will be able to stand on the roof and come in through a lifelike door. There’s also been talk of something called a mechane – or a sort of crane – that actually hoists actors onto the orchestra floor as though they’re flying. We haven’t seen this working yet, but we know that it’s in production. Anything that involves carpentry – as shipbuilders, we Athenians are all over it. So again, as we look out over the stage, we see a palace scene, complete with a small structure in the rear specifically built for this trilogy of tragedies. If we look off to the right, we can see a secondary large painting, this one ready to be wheeled out during a scene change. This secondary painting sits on what’s called an ekkukelma, or a platform on wheels that could roll out a scene painting in front of another scene.

So that’s the stage – orchestra, background paintings, some props, and a secondary scene, ready to be mobilized. What lies in front of us in the spring of 458 BCE, actually, is a pretty elaborate set by the standards of the fifth century. Sets at the Dionysian festival, especially for tragedies, weren’t particularly known for being large or intricate. The focus in tragedy seemed to be on the choral song, the acting, and the interplay of ideas, rather than ornate set design work.

So that’s a bit about the scene. Now, onto the next subject. The actors. When we see a play today, unless we’re seeing a one person show, we expect that there will be multiple actors onstage. We may have fifth century BCE Greece to thank for this. Originally, there was only one hypocrite, or “answerer” to perform an interchange with the chorus. Ancient sources hold that the tragedian Aeschylus, who lived from around 525-456 BCE, was responsible for the innovation of a second actor onstage. And some of his plays, like the one we’re about to see today, actually have three actors. The presence of multiple actors onstage – particularly three, was still a novel innovation in 458 BCE. And we have to imagine that while as twenty-first century readers we might wish the chorus would stop interrupting the acting, the play’s original audience might have been wishing that the acting would stop interrupting the chorus.

Up onstage are about twenty chorus members, then, a musician or two, and a trio of actors who will perform the speaking parts. And there’s something else you have to remember about those actors and chorus members. All of them were men. Men playing male parts, men playing female parts, just like in the Elizabethan Globe theater of Shakespeare. Also, we presume, mostly men in the audience. The cross dressing and role reversals entailed, in tragedy at least, must have been accepted as par for the course, although in comedy, scholars imagine that men dressing up as women must have created some rich opportunities for humor. As attendees of a tragedy, as you and I sit in the Dionysian Theater in 458, you and I wouldn’t think twice about the gender exclusion being practiced onstage. “Of course they’re all guys,” we would think. “It’s a play!”

Not that we would be able to tell. This is the final anecdote I want to offer you. You may know this, but in the Dionysian festivals, all actors wore full masks. These masks were probably made of light materials, like wood, linen, or plaster, and had faces painted on them. So to a modern theatergoer, excepting those of us who love futurism and various strands of postmodernism – to a modern theatergoer, masks would look awfully strange. But in the Dionysian festival of 458 BCE, masks had some distinct advantages.

Arheologicheski-Masks ancient greek theater

Some Ancient Greek theater masks in the Archaeological Museum at Nicosia, Cyprus. While masks like these are one of the strangest and most alien parts of Ancient Greek Theater to us, to theater attendees in the ancient world these garishly painted masks would have been one of the most fun parts of the play. Photo by Молли.

Most obviously, a cast of, say, two or three characters could play far more than two or three roles. Mask changes were accompanied by costume changes, and theater historians believe ancient Greek costumes, along with masks, helped attendees quickly identify the gender, age, and social status of a figure onstage. So the first advantage of masks was that masks and attendant costumes allowed actors to quickly and unambiguously change roles. Another advantage was that the prominent, and often exaggerated facial features of theater masks allowed for attendees high up in the topmost ring of seats to see who was speaking. The blue mask might have meant Poseidon was saying something; the red mask Ares, and you could see things like this even from the nosebleed seats. In addition to offering quick role changes and prominent recognizability, the masks of Dionysian theater almost certainly served another, simpler purpose. They were interesting in and unto themselves.

Imagine the spectacle as we sit there that morning in early April, with the cream of Athens arrayed before us, and in front of us stands an assembly of twenty chorus members and three actors, all in beautiful, carefully made masks. Within the chorus, there were masks of the young, masks of the old, beautiful masks, strange, and frightening masks, familiar masks, exotic masks, masks in strange colors not commonly seen in our city – a whole array of artworks made just for this one performance. You could spend the whole performance just studying the masks!

The masks must have been part of the chorus’ unique interpretive power. Because choral songs were structured often something like modern music, with, say, verse A, a second verse A, then a verse B, and a second verse B – and the chorus could divide up and sing these respective parts in halves, with their masks signifying who was who. The women might sing a part, then men, or the old, and then the young, or the pious, and then the sacrilegious, all according to the demands of any given production and song. So these masks, far from being alien white plaster surfaces that created an effect of estrangement, would have been really familiar to us. We would have looked forward to them. And as the play finally begins, the masks might well be the first thing we’d look at. They were part of that unique magic of that premiere performance of that April day, in 458 BCE.[music]

What Ancient Greeks Expected in a Play

9:05 AM

Now, as the play begins, you and I have to remember something. There are many reasons Ancient Greek Theater seems unfamiliar and inaccessible to us – we’ve already talked about the scant number of actors, the role of the chorus, the metered verse, the music, and the masks. But there’s one more thing I want to add – and this is the most important thing of all – the first thing I’ve told any class I’ve taught that deals with Ancient Greek Theater. I’ve already told you that Golden Age Athens’ history is often the key to understanding puzzling aspects of specific plays. But there’s another thing – a simpler thing – that you need to understand as we move into this two thousand five hundred year old group of plays. Here it is.

If you and I were Athenians at midmorning on April 2nd, 458 BCE, we would not particularly be waiting to be entertained by plot. In other words, we wouldn’t be expecting cliffhangers, or unforeseeable revelations, or things like that. Because if we were watching a play – for instance about the egomaniacal Greek king Agamemnon, or his wife Clytemnestra, or the noble, doomed hero Oedipus, or the exotic eastern princess Medea, or the stern Theban king Pentheus – if we were watching a play about any of these legendary figures, we would already know the ending. We wouldn’t, in other words, be there to find out what happens, or who done it, or see the plot twist at the end, because we would know this stuff from the get go. So, why would we be there? How could you watch something that you knew the end of – that was based on old ancestral legends, and not real life?

The answer, I think, is the single most important key to enjoying – not just understanding, but enjoying – Ancient Greek tragedy. The twentieth-century classicist H.D.F. Kitto writes – and listen really carefully, because this is critical – “[T]he Greek [play] is not trying to give a representative picture of life, but to express one conception, as forcibly and clearly as [it] can, [and] the form that [it] achieves is. . .logical and taut. . .[T]he result is a logical, beautiful, and powerful structure. All Greek plays are. . .built on a single conception, and nothing that does not directly contribute to it is admitted. . .It is not the event, but its inner meaning, that [Greek playwrights are] dramatizing.”8

So as you and I watch the opening seconds of the play we’ve come to see, we’re not really planning on being stunned by sudden turns of plot, or persuaded by the deep realism of the play at hand. What’s really important to us, as Classical Greeks, is that the plays – the three tragedies – we’re about to see are going to collectively hammer home one singular, powerful, blazing message. Every small detail – every minute of the play, will drive home this same message, like tiles in a mosaic. It might be complicated, and contemporary and political. And it might be a simple truism about human nature. But it will be one, incandescent message.

So, let me underscore the crucial thing – the amazing thing about the way that Ancient Greek drama works. You watch a Shakespearian comedy and forget the names of the characters four hours later – and the subtleties of the plot, the moments this person was dressed up as this person and all that kind of stuff – that goes away pretty quickly. Benedict and Beatrice and then Claudio and who was that other one? Juliet? Imogen? Perdita? Wait, which play are we talking about?

In contrast, if, as an Ancient Athenian, you sat through the plays that are about to be put on during April 2nd, 458 BCE, you would remember their central message with pristine clarity. You would remember it because it was sledge hammered throughout the theater in scene after scene, and song after song, and frequenttly, because it resonated with contemporary events in unmistakable ways. I have read all of the eleven plays that we’re going to cover in this podcast multiple times, and I’ve even have taught some of them. And if I’m away from them for a while, the names of the characters can get a little fuzzy, and the plots get out of focus. But all the same, with someone like Aeschylus – or any of the others – that scorching inner core of each play he wrote – that stays with me year in and year out. Because when each play has such a singular, driving, enduring meaning, that meaning stays with you more than whodunits and plot twists. Athenians knew that their spring Dionysia, and the forcefulness of their theatrical productions, were something special. And after years of reading these plays, I can say that I don’t think that Ancient Greek Theater was part of a literary canon. I think it was part of a literary missile launcher.

The Voice of the Polis in Ancient Greek Theater

So that, folks, is an introduction to what it might have been like to go to a City Dionysia festival during the heyday of Classical Athens. I think if you or I could hop into a time machine and do it, probably sitting way in the back so no one could see our weird future clothes, it would be a life changing experience.

And maybe, for us, most of all, the most amazing thing would be seeing the deliberative body of an entire political system coming together to make critical pronouncements about a play after it ended. We just don’t have something like that nowadays. The whole progression of a Greek tragedy, from the opening moment, to the continuous interplay between chorus and actors, to the final, momentous pronouncements of the audience and judges was a collective search for meaning, a quest for truths and resolutions that explained contemporary historical realities. The playwright in 458 BCE, if he won the first prize, was formally deemed the voice of his polis, the figure who had perfectly articulated collective experience and found a way to make sense of it, or a way to move forward. And so I saved the best part for last. As we hoofed it over to the Dionysian Theater in 458 BCE, we were looking for entertainment and spectacle, hob nobbing and probably, let’s be honest, drinking too much again. But we were also looking for something else. In the midst of our war torn century and our city’s scars, and the unfathomable instability of the ancient world, we were looking for a meaning in all of it. We were looking for hope. And in the City Dionysian festival, we knew we’d find all of that in one unforgettable day.

Next Time

Now if I were you, I’d be wondering – “What did we come to see?” “Why did you say April 2nd 458 BCE four hundred and fifty-eight times over the course of this episode?” “What play is getting staged?”

In the next episode, I’m going to tell you all about that. The earliest Greek tragedian whose works have survived was a war veteran named Aeschylus. He fought in the Persian Wars – supposedly the decisive battles of Marathon and Salamis. He was a widely admired citizen of Athens. And around the equinox of 458 BCE, just two years before his death, his masterpiece took first place at the Dionysia.

It was a trilogy of three plays. And like much ancient literature, the Orestian Trilogy is dark – a trio about hubris, revenge, and a cycle of bloodletting that threatens to tear a family apart. It’s about a curse on a family, and that family’s anguish beneath that curse, and its eleventh hour attempt to rescue itself from what seems to be an inevitable fate. As it nears its 2500th birthday, the Orestian Trilogy is the work that begins many anthologies of world drama, and many courses on Ancient Greek theater. Aeschylus’ most famous trilogy, at its core, asks one terrifying question. Can we change, or are we condemned to being who we are? Find out in Episode 27: The House of Atreus. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and if you want to hear a song, I’ve got one coming up. If not, happy trails!

Still here? So this song isn’t really an over-the-top comedy song like some of the others – it’s actually just kind of a history review song – a review of that melty bell curve of Golden Age Athens’ history that I mentioned earlier. Before we dive into the gigantic works of the four great fifth-century Athenian playwrights, I figured we could do a history review in a way that ancient Athenians would have approved – a chorus set to music. So this tune is called “The Rise and Fall of Golden Age Athens.” I hope it’s useful and – uh – not totally lame. Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next time.

1.^ See the Introduction to Euripides. Medea and Other Plays. Translated by Philip Vellacott. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition, pp. 7-8.

2.^ Of course Athenian sophrosyne had its critics. Demosthenes wrote “And yet, men of Athens, how do you account for the fact that the Panathenaic festival and the Dionysia are always held at the right date, whether experts or laymen are chosen by lot to manage them, that larger sums are lavished upon them than upon any one of your expeditions, that they are celebrated with bigger crowds and greater splendor than anything else of the kind in the world, whereas your expeditions invariably arrive too late?” Demosthenes 4.35, quoted from http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=GreekFeb2011&getid=1&query=Dem.%204.35.

3.^ Quoted in Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays. Translated by Robert Fagles and with an Introduction and Notes by Bernard Knox. New York: Penguin Classics, 1984, p. 19.

4.^ See Ley, Graham. A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater. Revised Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Kindle Edition, p. 9.

5.^ Quoted in Sophocles. The Theban Plays. Translated by E.F. Watling. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1974. Kindle Edition, p. 9.

6.^ See Graham. pp. 14-15.

7.^ See “Lesser Dramatic Performances at Athens” in Graham, note 4.

8.^ Kitto, H.D.F. The Greeks. Edinburgh: Penguin Books Ltd, 1951, pp. 184-6. I know Kitto is half a century out of vogue. But I remember finding this book tossed out of somebody’s office as an undergraduate, reading it down at the Berkeley marina, and thinking that I’d found a really helpful key to Greek drama – this quote is the one I remembered the most.