NOTES ON GREEK TRAGEDY

INTRODUCTION

In the twenty-four hundred years of their existence, the tragedies written in Athens between 500 and 400 B.C. have proved to be the most vital form of theatre ever composed, vital both in their continuing hold on people in the theatre which causes them to be acted and seen today all over the world, and vital also in the impetus they have given to playwrights challenged by their themes and fascinated by their approach to the problems of presenting human experience on the stage. The object of these notes on Greek Tragedy is to present something of this unique form of theatre and to draw out of it some of the themes for argument and topics for enquiry that it holds.

The topic covered and the questions raised are intended to provide the material for roughly an hour of classroom time or a double period. Probably nothing is so likely to vary from one school to another, or even from one group to another within a single school, as the amount of discussion and enquiry which stem from a given amount of material, so that the division into units should only be regarded as the roughest of guides.

The purpose of these notes is not to try and make experts in the field of Greek tragedy, nor, on the other hand, is it to treat the tragic drama of the Greek theatre as merely a springboard for a wide ranging discussion of very general topics, without regard to the real nature of Greek drama itself. An attempt has been made throughout to strike a balance between informing and provoking, since it is in the nature of Greek tragedy that it both stimulates curiosity about itself and incites thought about the world we live in and about the ways in which we present to others our understanding of that world.

 

TOPIC 1: Tragedy and the Precariousness of Existence

The fifth century B.C. in Athens was a period of greatly increased prosperity and security, and of growing self-confidence. The threat of Persian invasion and of a decline to the status of satellite of a huge empire had been twice repelled, and Athenian strength and influence outside her own frontiers was steadily increasing. By the middle of the century radical democracy meant mass participation in political and legal decisions and in the development, physical and culture, of their city on a 'scale unknown in any other Greek community and scarcely paralleled since. In all things, Athenians, if anyone, might feel that they controlled the determining issues of their lives.

And yet they of all people were most directly aware of the precariousness of their existence. This precariousness was partly economic, partly technological, and the total effect was to make it a matter of uncommon folly for a man to assert that he would outlive the year. For the number of Athenian citizens whose economic activities produced a surplus over and above the bare needs of subsistence was relatively small. Perhaps a third or slightly more owned land or other property which produced an income above the level of mere subsistence and could afford to possess the helmet, shield, greaves and breastplate that were the basic equipment of a foot-soldier; not more than three per cent were of the wealthiest class and owned a horse as well, to be classed as 'cavalry'. (The basic economic divisions of Athenian society were expressed in terms of military capability.) More than half (60-65 per cent) were wholly occupied in the grinding business of keeping themselves alive, either as the peasantry of an unpromising countryside or (because they owned no land at all) as labourers and craftsmen in the city itself. The land-holdings of, the peasantry were very small (five acres or less). The security of their livelihood was constantly at risk, both from natural causes and from the consequences of human action, such as war, and there was little or no margin of wealth or produce set aside to fall back on. The economic activity of the peasantry at least was absolutely dependent on climatic and other uncontrolled variables. Technology, in agriculture and elsewhere, was rudimentary: the ancient plough was a crude implement, and plant-yields and animal breeding were subjects not understood or even considered at all. The capture of a town or the defeat of a community in war was commonly followed by massacre and by the mass enslavement of women and children.

Over all this looms the problem of disease. When plague struck Athens soon after the outbreak of the great war with Sparta, perhaps a third of the population died in two years, and many who survived were crippled or blinded. The fifth-century medical work, Epidemics, meticulously recounts the day-by-day course of forty-two cases of sickness, and more than half of those recorded end in death. Expectation of life was certainly short (a recent calculation suggests that of a hundred males who reached the age of twenty, eighty would be dead before reaching the age of sixty) and in a society which put the strongest emphasis on the self-assertive qualities of a man the waning physical capacities of old age and the consequent decline of prestige and status meant that even a long life, if it should befall one, was not something to be looked forward to as a fulfillment.

Even though the absence of any comprehensive statistics, indeed the scarcity of reliable figures of any kind, makes it very difficult to produce a clear statement of the position, backed by numerical argument, it is safe to say that even in fifth-century Athens confidence in the ability to control one's environment was a very fragile thing and that a lurking fear of the ever present threat of destruction will have been very close to most men. It is this fear which permeates much of Greek tragedy.

Offsetting it is another note, the note of an absolute refusal to bend or be cowed by the forces of darkness and destruction, and an unblinding clarity in looking at the darker and crueler aspects of the world as it was seen by the Greeks. The refusal to admit defeat is, of course, bound up with the self-assertiveness which was dominant in the Greek conception of the admirable man which we have already seen. A man who wished to have any self-satisfaction had to be able to feel himself as capable of asserting his will and maintaining his rights in any situation. And recognition by others of one's rights and status was perhaps the most important objective of human effort. Acceptance of defeat necessarily destroyed all that was most valued: humiliation was perhaps worse than defeat itself, since it implied the abandonment of all claims of recognition, and the struggle against humiliation is one of the recurring themes of Greek literature. It is this tension between awareness of the forces of destruction and of the fragility of human existence on the one hand, and human strength and the assertion of the values that went with being a man on the other that gives Greek literature, and Greek tragedy in particular, that 'heroic' note that is so striking in it, and that gave powerful sense of the relevance of literature to fifth-century Greek audiences.

But it seems obvious that circumstances are now so completely changed that the present day relevance of Greek literature must be almost nil. The enormous rise in the standard of living, the development of technology and the very much greater complexity of society have changed everything. Expectation of life is vastly increased, security of livelihood is assured and it would be generally felt today that men genuinely do have some measure of control over their environment and their destinies. Moreover, we do not generally think of ourselves as so preoccupied with the claims of status and recognition that the competitive struggle to maintain these, both in the face of other men and in the teeth of the challenge of forces outside us that may threaten to sweep us away, is the overriding objective of our efforts. The very word 'heroism' may seem to have dwindled away to the status of a very marginal quality, not really relevant outside the context of war. A different world, it seems, and a different outlook on it.

But is it so? Quite apart from the swings and surges of the economic tide, which may at any time destroy the livelihood, temporarily at least, of large numbers of people, and apart from the fact that the underdeveloped world would hardly recognise the description of things given above, what of the threat of nuclear or conventional war? What of the widespread sense that the very mechanisms that men have invented to control their environment seem themselves to be becoming uncontrollable? Are we so sure that we, as individuals, do really control our destinies and have we a solid conviction of security? Lastly, though patterns of behaviour and the rules that govern our capacities for self-assertion have certainly changed, do we readily admit defeat and feel nothing for the contempt of others (which is the essence of humiliation) and no distress at all at the limits of our capacity to be what we would like to be and what we would like others to think of us as being? Is 'heroism' dead? How precarious is our existence?

 

TOPIC 2: Part A People and Plays

People as they are presented to us in plays are not altogether comparable with people as we meet them in real life. To begin with, they do not exist outside the play: they have no before and after. It is no good, for example, trying to explain, Hamlet's behaviour in Shakespeare's play (as it might well be if Hamlet were the name of a real person) by trying' to find out what his childhood and infancy had been like, how his parents treated him when he was a baby, and so n; the Hamlet of Shakespeare's play has no childhood or infancy, because it is not in the play. In the same way, the famous question 'how many children had Lady Macbeth?' (you remember that she talks about 'giving suck' to a baby) has no answer, and raises a puzzle about Shakespeare's character that, so far from helping us to understand the play, actually creates difficulties, difficulties that arise because Shakespeare writes lines for her to speak which seem to tell us something about lady Macbeth 'before the play' (they certainly would, again, if Lady Macbeth were a real person that we had met: either she had had children or she was lying, we would have to say), but which in fact are there only to bring home to us the quality of Lady Macbeth's single-mindedness and ruthlessness. So we must remember all the time that people in plays only say and do the things that the playwright makes them say and do and that unlike real people they have no past and no future that is not shown us in the play, and no secret, mysterious 'mind' or 'personality' that is not made clear by what the playwright puts into his play.

This means, of course, that we must always ask what way the writer of the play thinks about his characters, and what way he means us to understand and interpret their behaviour (assuming, that is, that their behaviour is meant to be understood). Some playwrights tell us a lot about this sort of thing, either by writing long 'prefaces', like Shaw, or by writing complicated and detailed stage directions' to help the actor and producer. But the Greek playwrights did neither of these things (see Topic No.4 on 'Drama and Theatre'). Let us take an example: a real person may think and feel a lot more than he says, may indeed think things quite contrary to what he says, and we may be quite good at 'reading between the lines' of what is said to us, and working out to our own satisfaction what somebody we know 'really' thinks and feels. How far can we do this in a Greek play? In Sophocles' play 'King Oedipus', Oedipus is presented to us as a man uniquely able to spot the true answer to a mysterious riddle, and to get to the bottom of a dark and tangled problem, and also as a man permanently conscious of, even haunted by, a terrible threat that has hung over him since birth, and that he has known about (apparently) since he was a young man. Yet in the play he has often been thought to be quite remarkably stupid and blind in failing to see the obvious truth about the situation that confronts him when the play begins. His own words tell us that he is very slow to put together what he has long known and what he finds out as the play proceeds. What are we to make of his behaviour? Is he simply lying as some people have thought? Or is he (unconsciously) deceiving himself? Or does Sophocles imply something, not about Oedipus' character, but about the blindness and ignorance of us all?

Of course, people can be shown to us in the act of lying in a Greek play: Medea lies to Jason in Euripides' play 'Medea', when she tells him that she has realised how wrong her bitter hatred of him was. Euripides makes it quite clear to us that this speech is false from beginning to end. But can we guess that someone is lying, or blinded to the truth by some blockage of feeling or thought, when there is no clear statement of this in what the characters say in the play?

Another problem that comes up with people in plays is the problem of motive: why do people do and say what they do? Here again we must be careful to remember the differences between what we know to be true of 'real life' and what we are entitled to say about people in a play. People in plays often seem to act in ways that would make us stop and think quite hard if we met people acting like that in real life. The suddenness and completeness with which Othello falls victim to jealousy, or Iago's all-consuming desire to destroy another human being are things which, if they faced us in real life, would take a lot of explaining. How about Greek tragedy? Why does Medea kill her children? Why does Pentheus decide to go with the Stranger to see the women of Thebes on Mount Cithairon? (You will easily be able to add other questions of this sort). Do we know, and can we find out? Does it make sense to go backwards and forwards over the play with a microscope looking for tiny clues to the 'real' motives of people in Greek plays? And if it does not, what is the explanation? That Greek playwrights (and, presumably, their audiences) did not care? That they had very different sorts of explanation for why people did things from the ones that seem adequate to us? Or is it that people in plays simply do act in ways that in real life only occur when the doers of these things are very unusual, perhaps even mentally disturbed? And if that is the right explanation, what then? Are tragedies just written about sick or evil people?

Finally, you will often have been told that playwrights are especially interested in something called 'character', that the plays of Shakespeare, for example, are full of brilliantly drawn ,'characters'. What do we mean when we talk like this? And could the same thing be said about Greek plays? Are Agamemnon, in Aeschylus' play Agamemnon, or Phaedra and Hippolytus in Euripides' Hippolytus 'characters' in the sense that Hamlet or Ophelia or even Polonius can be said to be 'characters'?

 

TOPIC 2: Part B People and Plays

(a) It is often said that Euripides' greatest contribution to the development of Greek tragedy is that his plays are 'psychological' In a way that neither Aeschylus' or Sophocles' are, that his characters are more 'real'. From your reading of Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Euripides' Medea, do you think this is true? Do we know more about Medea than we do about Clytaemnestra? And if so, what sort of 'more', what sort of thing can we say about Medea that we cannot say about Clytaemnestra? Do you think that Euripides' play is different, in any important sense, from Aeschylus' in the way in which it centres on the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of a single character?

(b) In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus, at the end of the play, seems to be regarded as a kind of saint, in the sense that his tomb is to be a holy place, from which miraculous powers may emanate, and he himself is almost a kind of 'relic': even his act of dying is accompanied by miraculous signs. Yet Oedipus does not seem to have become a holy man in the sense of a good, kindly or gentle figure. What do you think is the relationship between the things that Oedipus does and says, the terrible things that he has done and suffered, and the miraculous status which he attains at the end of the play?

(c) Antigone, in Sophocles' play, defies Creon and buries Polyneices because of 'the unwritten, unalterable laws of God and heaven which require her to bury her dead brother, apparently both because it is right that the dead should be buried, and because Polyneices is her brother (that is, because he is her kin, her own flesh and blood). But, later in the play, just before she is led away to her death, she tells the world that she would not have buried Polyneices if he had been her husband or her son. Critics have often been puzzled by this contradiction, and some have even argued that Sophocles did not write the lines which contain the second statement. Do you think that we can make psychological sense of what Antigone is made to say, and if not , can you think of any reasons why Sophocles might have written the second passage?

 

TOPIC 3: Part A Myth and Play

The plots of all the Greek tragedies that we possess are based on traditional tales, what we generally call legend or myth. We know from the evidence of Aristotle (who was born some twenty years after the death of Euripides) that some plays did have invented plots, made up by the playwright, but we know nothing about such plays. As far as we are concerned, the Greek tragedians made their plays out of traditional material, which had existed for hundreds of years before the plays came to be written They did not think inventing new plots to be any of their business, any more than Shakespeare did.

What were these traditional tales and what gave them their continued life? We first come across these traditional stories in the epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey. These poems are themselves several hundreds of years older than the Greek tragedies, but the stories we find in them are older still, and already they show us how Greek poetry characteristically makes its subject matter out of combining very different kinds of tales, just as the Old Testament does. The traditional tales represent quite different strands of storytelling that we can roughly distinguish as saga, folk-tale and sacred myth.

The story of Agamemnon, for example, is part of the saga-tale of the Trojan War, and like all saga is thought of as rescuing from oblivion great deeds of the past, the triumphs and disasters of human beings like ourselves but somehow larger in scale and more significant. Saga claims to remember the real past and its stories take place in a 'real world' where the 'rules of the game', the limits of what is possible and what impossible are recognisably the same (questions of scale apart) as they are in our own experience. But like much of saga, Agamemnon owes a great deal of its hold on the imagination of Greeks to the fact that it focuses on a point of tension in the whole cultural tradition of the Greeks. Revenge is a moral obligation in the Greek cultural tradition: a man must revenge himself on whoever takes the life of one of his kindred, the closer the ties of kinship the stronger the moral obligation. If he fails in revenge, he is himself condemned, and becomes an outcast. On the other hand, to take the life of a blood relative was a monstrous act, absolutely condemned as the most horrifying thing a man could do. What then if the killer of a close relative is himself or (more appalling still in Greek eyes) herself a near relative? This, of course, is the theme of Agamemnon (Agamemnon is killed by his wife, Clytaemnestra and his first cousin, Aegisthus: his son, Orestes, must avenge his killing) and of the two plays that carry the story on through the revenge and its consequences: its force is evident in a culture whose rules operated as the Greek rules did.

But clearly there is a problem here for us: what significance can a story that reflects the tensions of a particular culture that is not our own, and whose rules were very different from those we accept as binding, have for us? Can a play like Agamemnon speak to us and move us across the gap between one culture and another? Can it help us, as literature often does and perhaps should do, to interpret the world and our situation in it?

We ought perhaps to bear in mind that the problem is not just one one of distance in time, though it is true that Agamemnon was written two thousand three hundred years ago and more. After all, there are cultures today where the duty of revenge for the killing of a relative is as strong as it was for the Greeks of the ancient world. Nor is it just one of distance in space, though it is true that Aeschylus was a Greek and we are British. Many of Shakespeare's plays focus on cultural tensions real in Elizabethan times but not part of our present-day culture. For example, plays like Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear, which turned for Shakespeare's audiences in great part on the tension between the idea of the king as a divinely appointed and divinely protected being, whose life was sacred and inviolate, and the obvious facts of the struggle for power and status which stemmed from the self-assertive needs of men in the competitive culture of England at the end of the Middle Ages. Is the killing or humiliation of a king any longer for us an act of quite especial horror? And if it is not, are Macbeth or Lear any nearer to our central concerns and problems than Agamemnon? Why indeed, are any of them still felt to be great and significant plays?

 

TOPIC 3 Part B Myth and Play

As well as saga, the traditional stories of the Greek world that were used by playwrights for the subjects of their plays also included tales which are much closer to what we think of as fairy-stories, (though as fairies, goblins and the rest do not appear, it may be better to call them folk-tales). This is a quite different strand of storytelling, though it is already woven into saga-tales, for example, in the Odyssey of Homer. The characteristic feature of folk-tale is the recurrent theme or situation which occurs again and again in quite different contexts and in stories told of quite different heroes. Folk-tales characteristically deal in magic and the fantastic, in spells, curses and wishes (usually in threes), in astonishing transformations ('Beauty and the Beast), in giants, witches, ghosts, monsters and spirits, and in story-types like the king's son or daughter who is lost in the wild country (forest or mountain), looked after by animals (or by dwarfs) and eventually rediscovered to live happily ever after. Heroes are good and infinitely resourceful; heroines beautiful and ill-starred, and wicked characters keep cropping up in the same roles, for example, the wicked stepmother or the witch.

Moreover, the world of folk-tale is often nearer to dream and even to nightmare than to the world of our everyday experience: its happenings are not merely fantastic, they are often monstrous and outrageous, they tell of frightening possibilities. By comparison with the literature of our waking selves, they are often uncensored in their treatment of the more cruel and perverse of human inclinations. And they often operate with a crazy logic that is quite unlike the logic of behaviour as we are familiar with it in our ordinary lives.

Much of this world we can clearly see in the Odyssey (Odysseus' men changed into pigs by the witch Circe; the adventure with the one-eyed giant: Aeolus and the bag of winds), but it is not so obvious in Greek tragedy. This is partly because a great many plays which drew on folk-tale material are lost. We know that Euripides wrote a play about the children of Aeolus in which the sons married the daughters, after one of them had fallen in love with one of his sisters. (The distribution of daughters to sons was made in the play by drawing lots, and the son in love drew the wrong sister.) Sophocles wrote a play about the monstrous revenge of Agamemnon's father, Atreus, on his brother, Thyestes: Thyestes had seduced Atreus' wife and Atreus murdered his brother's children and fed them to him at a feast. Euripides, again, wrote a play about Meleager, the lover of Atalanta, who killed the Calydonian boar. Meleager's life depended on a magic piece of firewood that had been taken from the fire by the Fates (playing the role of the fairy godmother) when his birth was celebrated: so long as the wood was not burnt, Meleager would live for ever. (But Meleager killed his uncle in a quarrel and his mother burnt the wood in revenge.) So there were many plays with obviously folk-tale themes. But what of the plays we have? Medea is a fairly clear case if we look at it again: she is a witch, she can use spells and her vengeance on Jason is carried out by magic. At the end of the play she vanishes in a magic chariot. Hippolytus too has folk-tale elements. Phaedra is an interesting variation on the wicked stepmother theme. The thing that brings about Hippolytus' monstrous death looks human enough: the violent and tragic experience of falling in love. But Euripides reminds us (and his audience certainly remembered) that Phaedra's sister was Pasiphae, the mother of the Minotaur for whom the labyrinth was built, and she clearly comes from a folk-tale background. After Phaedra's death, Theseus' revenge is carried out on his son by the device of three wishes (a slightly awkward device as it happens: the wish should be irrevocable, and hence the last of the three, but Euripides wants it to be the first time the wishes have been used, and so uncertain in its effects: hence the 'wishes' have to become curses). And the answer to the wish is a terrifying monster-figure. And yet Theseus himself is clearly a saga-hero (the founder of Athens as a united city), but one who is also continually involved in folk-tale 'adventures'.

One last example: Sophocles' King Oedipus. Oedipus is the king's son who is lost, and found again. But his restoration to his own family is a ghastly parody of the folk-tale motif, he kills his father while running away from the possibility of ever killing him, and marries his own mother. Discovery leads to self-blinding and the life of an outcast, not of 'happiness ever after'. And it was Oedipus who killed the Sphinx (nightmares again!), and Oedipus' ancestor was Cadmus who killed a dragon and sowed the dragon's teeth to produce a crop of men. Oedipus is clearly a folk-tale hero, resourceful and good, but the whole adventure goes sour and ends in nightmare.

So what are we to make of plays which draw their themes from the world of fairy-tale? Are fairy-tales just stories for small children, and if so, what becomes of the idea of serious literature made out of them? Or are folk-tales very stylized and apparently naive treatments of deeply serious themes, themes often too puzzling and potentially horrifying to be handled 'straight'? And does the fairy-tale aspect of Greek tragedy help us to understand some of the strange things that its characters say and do, and the strange tales that are told of them?

 

TOPIC 3: Part C Myth and Play

We have seen that Greek tragedy commonly draws its subject from traditional stories, and we are usually told that as a result the popular audiences were generally familiar with these stories before the play began. (As a matter of fact, this is far from certain: Aristotle talks of the traditional stories being known 'only to a few,' though the plays gave pleasure to all.) But if the stories were known it would seem to follow that Greek playwrights could not use the element of surprise and suspense in their plays at all, and that the audience's involvement in the play and the excitement that they got from seeing it performed did not depend in any way on 'wanting to know what happened next'. In any case, it would seem that a playwright who, like Euripides, uses a monologue to open his play, a monologue which tells the audience what the play is going to be about, could have very little room for creating suspense, even in those of his audience who had not known what to expect before the play began. In fact, we might think that in choosing to open his play with a speech which put as many dramatic 'cards' on the table as possible, Euripides was deliberately taking on the audience in the battle for their attention with one hand tied behind his back.

And yet the truth may be rather different. In the first place, the stories themselves were not fixed and unchangeable but fluid and various. There was not a story of Agamemnon, or Medea, which never altered at any point in its countless retellings, but,rather a legend about Agamemnon, some parts of which were certainly fixed and other parts equally certainly alterable and altered by each teller of the tale. Some parts of any story were naturally fixed (it would not have been possible to write a play in which Agamemnon returned from Troy to live happily ever after with his wife), and in some stories quite a lot was clearly unalterable. In the story of Oedipus, for example, the killing of his father, Laius, the solving of the Sphinx's riddle, his marriage with his mother and, his eventual discovery of the truth were 'given' points in the story. But even here there was 'room for change and experiment. In Sophocles' play, King Oedipus, Oedipus' blinding of himself when he discovers the truth is the climax of the play's horror. But we know that in Euripides' play on the same story (now almost entirely lost), Oedipus was blind when the play began, having lost his sight in the fight with his retinue after the killing of Laius. (For more details of this kind of fluidity in the traditional stories, see Richmond Lattimore, Story-patterns in Greek Tragedy, pp.2-6.)

Secondly, there was nothing to stop a playwright inventing new elements and adding them to the framework of a traditional tale, provided that they were not absolutely excluded by what was 'given' in the story. So Euripides seems to have invented the motif of Medea s killing of her own children as the final turn of the screw in her revenge on Jason. Medea's story was a good deal more fluid and less fixed, at least in its final phase when she came to Greece with Jason, than the tale of Oedipus. In some versions Medea's children were killed by the people of Corinth as their revenge on her for her killing of the king, Creon, and his daughter, in others they seem to have died after some piece of Medea's witchcraft failed to produce its intended result. At all events, it seems very unlikely that the audience in the theatre at Athens can have been certain what was going to happen to them in the play, supposing that they even know in advance of the first scene that they would figure in the play at all. And so the moment at which Medea declares her intention of killing them was most probably a moment of real dramatic shock.

Unless, of course, Euripides threw away the possibility of creating such a shock by the way in which he chose to open his play. As a matter of fact critics have argued at some length whether he did or not, and this is a question important enough to be worth discussing: do the end of the Nurse's opening scene, and the following scene with Medea screaming her anger and despair off stage, undermine any sense of theatrical shock that Medea's later explicit revelation would otherwise bring? In the event Medea kills her children to destroy Jason morally and emotionally, not because she hates the children: how far does this fact influence our answer to the first question?

But in any case, the prologue of Medea is spoken by a human character, who in not supposed to know (though she may be able to guess) what other human characters are going to do. What happens when the prologue of a Euripidean play is given to a god, as in Hippolytus or Bacchae? A god may know what is to happen, if only because a god in a play is usually there (especially in revenge plays) because he or she is going to cause certain things to happen. And in such cases, as in Hippolytus and Bacchae, the god usually tells the audience what he or she means to do. The intended revenge of Aphrodite and of Dionysus is not left unmentioned to emerge little by little as the play proceeds, but is announced quite clearly and unmistakably in the play's opening moments. Is this not a case of demolishing the possibilities of dramatic surprise and suspense?

A closer look suggests that in fact Euripides is careful to leave himself more room for manoeuvre than might appear. Of course, Theseus must learn of Phaedra's accusation against Hippolytus, and both Phaedra and Hippolytus must die: any other outcome would contradict the given elements in the story. But how is Theseus going to learn, and how will Hippolytus die? Will Theseus and Phaedra, Theseus and Hippolytus meet face to face? How is Phaedra going to die without the shame of her crime against Hippolytus being known? (In Euripides' first play on the Hippolytus story and probably in Sophocles' play Phaedra she accused Hippolytus to Theseus' face, and died when the truth was-out.) Euripides' Aphrodite seems to tell all, but does she? Here is another question that needs a careful answer.

Finally, what is the importance of dramatic suspense in a play? Obviously, if it was a necessity in the theatre, a play would be ruined if we went to see it a second time and still remembered it from our first seeing. How is going to see a 'classic' of the theatre, such as one of Shakespeare's great plays, affected by the fact that we may easily know a lot, if not all, about what happens before the curtain goes up? And how about the joke we've heard before and which still makes us laugh? Or the Marx Brothers film that we've seen before? Does seeing what is coming spoil a work of art? If not, why not?

 

TOPIC 4: Drama and Theatre

Nowadays, as often as not, we first come across a play as something written in a book, headed by a cast list, divided into acts and equipped with stage directions, indicating the scene, the setting, the identity of speakers, their movements and (often) the tone of voice, the mood and thinking underlying the words that they have to speak. Moreover, if we are at all used to seeing plays performed in the theatre, we mentally refer what we read in the text of the play to the way in which we would expect it to be performed, judging by those performances that we have seen: we imagine stage sets, furniture and props, make-up, lighting, and the sounds and movements that we remember from the actors whose acting we are familiar with. In all these things, we need to ask how far Greek plays are comparable, how far we have to imagine performance in the theatre differently from what we may, almost without thinking, find ourselves imagining.

Most modern translations of Greek plays give us the text of the play as far as possible adapted to the form of those we know. In particular, translators supply us with the sort of stage directions that it is felt we cannot do without. But all these extra 'fitments', everything in fact except the actual words uttered by the players and the title of the play itself, are no more than the interpretation put upon the words uttered by modern translators and editors. The original texts of Greek plays, those that the contemporaries of Euripides, for example, could own and read contained no more than the 'script' of lines to be delivered: there were no stage directions, or other 'aids to the reader; indeed the only indication of which lines were spoken by which character were dashes in the margin or under the beginning of a line indicating that a new speaker began to speak, not identifying, the speaker at all! In fact, for a Greek of the fifth-century B.C., a play existed and presented itself as a performance in the theatre, and the play-text was more like a musical score or set of parts, read only by a tiny minority in comparison with the thousands who knew the work from performance.

That is why we have to be particularly searching in our efforts to imagine the performance in the theatre, and also why the texts of the plays themselves do not help us very far in trying to make the effort. From the things written (but often by people who lived a hundred or several hundred years later) about the performances of the great Greek tragedies, and from the pictures of actors, their costume and (to some extent) their movements, which survive, sometimes as the decoration of painted pottery, sometimes as little statuettes or models, we can form a general impression of how a Greek play looked and sounded, and we can add to this what we can discover from the Greek theatre buildings that still exist, though usually only as foundations and ground-plans, except for the seating. There is a good deal that we can never know and can only guess, but what we can know is important because it is so different from what is familiar to us from our own theatre-going.

What follows is only a brief sketch, and you should read Peter Arnott's Introduction to the Greek Theatre. To begin with, all Greek plays were acted out of doors, in daylight, in open-air theatres which by our standards are enormous, the two best-preserved Greek theatres (at Athens and Epidaurus) held an audience of between 13,000 and 17,000 and the distance from the back row of the audience to the actors was more than 230' (a very big modern theatre might hold x000 and the distance from the back of the gallery to the stage might be 100'). There was no theatre lighting as we know it, nothing to enclose and focus the audience's' view, and no curtain behind which sets 'might be changed or characters go off or come on unseen. Then, all actors wore (it would seem) lavish embroidered costumes and masks. These masks covered the whole face and most of the head, were simple and unemphatic in expression, and allowed only the actor's mouth and eyes to be seen. Now, masks are almost always magical in origin: men put on masks to have the experience of being changed and of becoming something perhaps more powerful or more terrifying or more serene and majestic than any in their ordinary selves can be. Often, wearing a mask gives the man the feeling of no longer being even human, but a god or demon or monster. This is certainly the important point about Greek actors being masked: masks were not just a primitive form of make-up (perhaps we could say that make-up is a rather watered-down left-over from wearing a mask), nor just a convenient device for allowing one actor to 'be' several figures in a single play, though that certainly happened .It means that for a Greek to 'act a part was to be changed into another person, with all the strangeness that such a change involves. The chorus, too (twelve in the plays of Aeschylus, fifteen later) wore masks and as far as we know no one appeared before the audience in a Greek theatre with his ordinary human face not covered by a mask.

Moreover, apart from the chorus, what the Greek audience saw and listened to, in spite of the huge size of the theatre, was a small group of performers appearing in a largely undecorated 'acting area'. No Greek playwright ever had a band of more than three actors to perform his play, and there are never more than three players with speaking parts involved at the same time in acting a scene. Indeed, if you read carefully you will have noticed that if three players appear in a single scene (and this does not happen before the last plays of Aeschylus), the exchanges between them are usually a series of two-part dialogues: A talks to B, then (perhaps) B to C, then A to C. The effect is rather like a small chamber music or Jazz group with a series of solos and duets.

All Greek actors were male, and always apparently grown men: women's parts were acted by men (not boys, as in Shakespeare's theatre), and there is no reason to think that they tried to sound like women when they spoke. And, Greek playwrights acted in their own plays: Aeschylus did so, as far as we know, throughout his career, and Sophocles only gave up the practice in time because his voice did not have enough carrying-power, and because acting gradually became a special skill. Again we can compare the development of music: composers once were always their own performers and being a pianist or violinist only gradually became a special career in its own right. So the way in which nowadays a director or an actor can (and often does) put an interpretation on a play in performance quite different from what the playwright might have wanted is something absolutely unknown in the theatre for which Greek plays were written.

Lastly, large parts of a Greek tragedy were sung, not spoken: all the set-piece 'choruses', and quite a number of elaborate and often intense scenes between the chorus and an actor or actors. Every Greek play, as well as involving a chorus and one, two or three actors, was performed as well by an instrumentalist, usually called a flute-player, though the instrument he played was really more like an oboe. Unmasked, but wearing a splendid and elaborate full-length robe with long sleeves, he played his instrument in full view of the audience whenever a sung-passage was to be delivered. And, as well, there are a number of places in every Greek play where lines occur which most modern critics believe were uttered in a sort of sing-song, chanted or intoned like the 'recitatives' of a Mozart opera. So the sounds, as well as the appearance, of a Greek play, were, compared to the sort of theatre that we know, very strange and not very like the sounds and sights of ordinary Greek life and conversation. Often, these resources of speech and song were used to create elaborate and complicated effects that must have had an impact more like that of opera than what we expect when we go to see a play.