Athenian Dramatic Festivals: Tragedy


Take a look at the theater in Epidaurus

I. History of Athenian tragedy

The historical development outlined below owes mainly to Aristotle; its accuracy is debated.
  • The tragedies and comedies we are about to read were written to be performed one time. They were performed in Athens during a FESTIVAL OF DIONYSOS called the CITY DIONYSIA.
  • Dionysos, the god honored in the dramatic competition, is god of wine, god of the irrational, god of paradoxes
  • Cults to the gods generally featured a CULT HYMN (singing to music accompanied by dancing); a popular hymn to the god Dionysos was called a DITHYRAMB (genre, not the name of a particular song). A dithyramb was sung and danced by a CHORUS and led by a CHORUS LEADER.
  • TRAGEDY and the SATYR PLAY developed out of the cult hymn: the connection of the Satyr play to Dionysos seems apparent, since Satyrs are goat or horse like creatures who are wanton followers of Dionysos. But tragedies have "nothing to do with Dionysos"; they are about heroes. How did this happen?
  • Greece also had CULTS TO HEROES, and cult songs were sung for the heroes too.
  • Somehow (how nobody knows) the stories of these heroes' tragic deaths came to be sung in the cult of Dionysos.
  • Summary:
    • tragedy developed out of choral songs in 6th century Greece.
    • These songs were sung as part of the worship of the god of the irrational, the god of possession, Dionysos.
    • The songs chiefly concerned the tragic fate of heroes.
  • The CHORUS was the original focus of the tragedy; it is often said that the actors developed out of the role of the leader of the chorus. The chorus faded more and more into the background and the actors took on increasing importance.

II. Athenian dramatic festivals: the city Dionysia

  • The festival dates to around 534 BCE.
  • Each poet in the competition wrote and produced a set of three tragedies and one satyr play.
  • All the actors and chorus members were male
    • the various characters were represented by costumes and masks
    • the chorus sang and danced in the orchestra (see diagram) and usually made its entrance and exit along the parados.
  • Though the dramatic festival definitely had religious and entertainment aspects, it was preeminently a civic institution that was fundamentally and essentially a festival of the democratic polis. Analogous to funeral orations, the festival of the city Dionysia was a projection of Athens' self image, a way of DEFINING CIVIC IDENTITY AND ATHENIAN CULTURE.

Ceremony in the theater preceding the production of the tragedies:

  • The ten generals, highest military authority in the city, poured libations to open the dramatic competition.
  • The tribute from Athens' subject allies was brought into the theater and displayed on the orchestra (this can only have been instituted after 454 BCE when the treasury of the Delian League was moved to Athens)
  • The city publicly honored those citizens who had benefited the city (asserts a tie between the individual and the polis).
  • The (male) war orphans who were of age for military service paraded across the stage in full HOPLITE PANOPLY.

III. For further thought. . .

  • Reading Greek tragedy as civic discourse by Athens about Athens is NOT the most popular way of reading the plays. Popular approaches tend to take a psychological approach to the inner conflict of the tragic hero as a timeless/universal experience or message. The longevity of the plays attests to their capacity to be meaningful to people far distant in time and place from ancient Athens. In this class, we will try to reap the benefit of both ways of reading tragedy, but we will concentrate on the plays in their social-historical settings.
  • "Medea is poetry, not politics; passion, not current events!" Do you agree with Kostas? Why or why not?
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