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It’s all Greek to me!.....all you ever wanted to know about Greek
theatre and tragedy but were afraid to ask…..
The Theatre
he theatre of Dionysus was, like all ancient Greek theatres, an open-air auditorium and,
due to the lack of adequate artificial lighting, performances took place during the day.
Scenes set at night had to be identified as such by the actors or the chorus; the audience,
upon receiving these verbal cues, had to use its imagination. In general, the action of
tragedy was well served by presentation in an open-air theatre since interior scenes,
which are common in our typically indoor theatres, are all but non-existent in tragedy.
The action of a tragedy normally takes place in front of palaces, temples and other
outdoor settings. This seemed natural to the ancient audience because Greek public
affairs, whether civic or religious, were conducted out of doors as was much of Greek
private life due to the relatively mild climate of the Aegean area.
The theatre of Dionysus in the earliest days of tragedy (late sixth - early fifth century)
must have consisted of only the most basic elements. All that was required was a circular
dancing area for the chorus (orchestra) at the base of a gently sloping hill, on which
spectators could sit and watch the performance (for drawing of theatre click on the
following: theatre). On the other side of the orchestra facing the spectators there probably
stood a tent in which the actors could change their costumes (one actor would play more
than one part). This is suggested by the word skene which means 'tent', and was used to
refer to a wooden wall having doors and painted to represent a palace, temple or whatever
setting was required. The wall, which eventually became a full-fledged stage building,
probably acquired this name because it replaced the original tent. The construction of the
wooden skene (cf. our theatrical terms "scene" and "scenery") and of a formal seating
area consisting of wooden benches on the slope, which had been hollowed out, probably
took place some time toward the middle of the fifth century. This was no doubt the form
of the theatre in which the later plays of Aeschylus and those of Sophocles and Euripides
were presented. The actors positioned themselves either in the orchestra with the chorus
or on the steps leading to the doors of the skene. The theatre of Dionysus as it survives
today with the remains of an elaborate stone skene, paved orchestra and marble seats was
built in the last third of the fourth century BC This stone theatre had a capacity of
approximately fifteen thousand spectators; the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and
Euripides in the earlier wooden theatre were viewed by audiences of comparable numbers.
Two mechanical devices which were part of the ancient Greek theatre deserve mention.
One device is the ekkyklema 'a wheeled-out thing', a platform on wheels rolled out
through one of the doors of the skene, on which a tableau was displayed representing the
result of an action indoors (e.g., a murder) and therefore was unseen by the audience. The
other device is called a mechane 'theatrical machine', a crane to which a cable with a
harness for an actor was attached. This device allowed an actor portraying a god or
goddess to arrive on scene in the most realistic way possible, from the sky. The mechane
deposited the actor on top of the skene so that he as a deity could address the human
characters from an appropriately higher level. This device was not exclusively limited to
ca grade 10 english
that's Greek for "It All Starts with Aristotle."
use by divine characters, but was employed whenever the plot required any character to
fly. On the other hand, not every god arrived on scene by means of this machine. The
Latin phrase deus ex machina, 'the god from the machine', is often used to refer to the
appearance of gods by means of the mechane in tragedy. This phrase is also employed in
a pejorative sense in modern literary criticism to refer to an improbable character or event
introduced by an author to resolve a difficult situation. This secondary meaning of deus
ex machina developed from the practice of inferior ancient dramatists who introduced a
god at the end of a play in order to untangle a badly snarled plot.
he actors in tragedy were hired and paid by the state and assigned to the tragic poets
probably by lot. By the middle of the fifth century three actors were required for the
performance of a tragedy. In descending order of importance of the roles they assumed
they were called the protagonist2 'first actor', (a term also applied in modern literary
criticism to the central character of a play), deuteragonist 'second actor' and tritagonist
'third actor'. The protagonist took the role of the most important character in the play
while the other two actors played the lesser roles. Since most plays have more than two
or three characters (although never more than three speaking actors in the same scene),
all three actors played multiple roles.
Since women were not allowed to take part in dramatic productions, male actors had to
play female roles. The playing of multiple roles, both male and female, was made
possible by the use of masks, which prevented the audience from identifying the face of
any actor with one specific character in the play and helped eliminate the physical
incongruity of men impersonating women. The masks with subtle variations also helped
the audience identify the sex, age, and social rank of the characters. The fact that the
chorus remained in the orchestra throughout the play and sang and danced choral songs
between the episodes allowed the actors to exit after an episode in order to change mask
and costume and assume a new role in the next episode without any illusion-destroying
interruption in the play.
The main duty of an actor was, of course, to speak the dialogue assigned to his characters.
This, however, was not the only responsibility of the actor. He occasionally had to sing
songs solo or with the chorus or with other actors (e.g., a song of lament called a
kommos). The combination of acting and singing ability must have been as rare in the
ancient world as it is today.
or the modern reader the chorus is one of the more foreign elements of tragedy. The
chorus is not one of the conventions of modern tragedy. We associate the chorus with
such musical forms as opera, musical comedy and oratorio. But tragedy was not just
straight drama. It was interspersed with songs sung both by actors and chorus and also
with dancing by the chorus. The modern parallel for tragedy is actually opera (along with
its descendant, musical comedy), which is a dramatic form containing song and dance.
ca grade 10 english
that's Greek for "It All Starts with Aristotle."
The chorus, unlike the actors, were non-professionals who had a talent for singing and
dancing and were trained by the poet in preparation for the performance. The standard
number of members of a chorus was twelve throughout most of Aeschylus's career, but
was raised to fifteen by Sophocles. The chorus, like the actors, wore costumes and masks.
The first function of a tragic chorus was to chant an entrance song called a parodos as
they marched into the orchestra. The entrance song took its name from the two ramps
(parodoi) on either side of the orchestra which the chorus used as it made its way into the
orchestra. Once the chorus had taken its position in the orchestra, its duties were twofold.
It engaged in dialogue with characters through its leader, the Coryphaeus, who alone
spoke the lines of dialogue assigned to the chorus. The tragic chorus's most important
function was to sing and dance choral songs called stasima (singular = stasimon). The
modern reader of Greek Tragedy, whether in English or even in the original Greek, finds
it very difficult to appreciate the effect of these choral songs which are devoid of their
music and dance.
he basic structure of a Greek tragedy is fairly simple. After a prologue spoken by one or
more characters, the chorus enters, singing and dancing. Scenes then alternate between
spoken sections (dialogue between characters, and between characters and chorus) and
sung sections (during which the chorus danced). Here are the basic parts of a Greek
a. Prologue: Spoken by one or two characters before the chorus appears. The prologue
usually gives the mythological background necessary for understanding the events of the
b. Parodos: This is the song sung by the chorus as it first enters the orchestra and dances.
c. First Episode: This is the first of many "episodes", when the characters and chorus
d. First Stasimon: At the end of each episode, the other characters usually leave the
stage and the chorus dances and sings a stasimon, or choral ode. The ode usually reflects
on the things said and done in the episodes, and puts it into some kind of larger
mythological framework.
For the rest of the play, there is alternation between episodes and stasima, until the final
scene, called the...
e. Exodos: At the end of play, the chorus exits singing a processional song which usually
offers words of wisdom related to the actions and outcome of the play.
ca grade 10 english
that's Greek for "It All Starts with Aristotle."
Definition of tragedy according to Aristotle's Poetics
ristotle's ideas about tragedy were recorded in his book
of literary theory titled Poetics. In it, he has a great
deal to say about the structure, purpose, and intended
effect of tragedy. His ideas have been adopted,
disputed, expanded, and discussed for several centuries
The following is a summary of his basic ideas
regarding the tragic hero:
1. The tragic hero is a character of noble stature and
has greatness. This should be readily evident in the
play. The character must occupy a "high" status
position but must ALSO embody nobility and virtue as
part of his/her innate character.
2. Though the tragic hero is pre-eminently great, he/she is not perfect. Otherwise, the
rest of us--mere mortals--would be unable to identify with the tragic hero. We should see
in him or her someone who is essentially like us, although perhaps elevated to a higher
position in society.
3. The hero's downfall, therefore, is partially her/his own fault, the result of free choice,
not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate. In fact, the tragedy is
usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the
hero's lack of perfection noted above. This error of judgment or character flaw is known
as hamartia and is usually translated as "tragic flaw" (although some scholars argue that
this is a mistranslation). Often the character's hamartia involves hubris (which is
defined as a sort of arrogant pride or over-confidence).
4. The hero's misfortunate is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime.
5. The fall is not pure loss. There is some increase in awareness, some gain in selfknowledge, some discovery on the part of the tragic hero.
6. Though it arouses solemn emotion, tragedy does not leave its audience in a state of
depression. Aristotle argues that one function of tragedy is to arouse the "unhealthy"
emotions of pity and fear and through a catharsis (which comes from watching the tragic
hero's terrible fate) cleanse us of those emotions. It might be worth noting here that
Greek drama was not considered "entertainment," pure and simple; it had a communal
function--to contribute to the good health of the community. This is why dramatic
performances were a part of religious festivals and community celebrations.
ca grade 10 english
that's Greek for "It All Starts with Aristotle."