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Ancient Greek Drama
ORIGINS OF ANCIENT GREEK DRAMA
Theater was born in Attica, an Ionic region of Greece. It originated from the ceremonial orgies of Dionysos but soon enough its fields of interest spread to various myths along with historic facts. As ancient drama was an institution of Democracy, the great tragic poets Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides as well as the comedian Aristophanes elevated public debate and political criticism to a level of aesthetic achievement. Euripides and the ethologist Menandros, in the thriving years of Alexandria and later on during the Roman domination, reached a beau ideal level and through the Romans managed to form Western Theater, from Renascence and thereafter.
The plays were presented at festivals in honor of Dionysus, including the Great Dionysia at Athens, held in the spring the Rural Dionysia, held in the winter and the Lenaea, also held in the winter following the Rural Dionysia. The works of only three poets, selected in competition, were performed. In addition to three tragic plays (a trilogy) each poet had to present a satyr play - a farcical, often bawdy parody of the gods and their myths. Later, comedy, which developed in the mid-5th century BC, was also presented. The oldest extant comedies are by Aristophanes. They have a highly formal structure thought to be derived from ancient fertility rites. The humor consists of a mixture of satirical attacks on contemporary public figures, bawdy, scatological jokes, and seemingly sacrilegious parodies of the gods. By the 4th century BC comedy had supplanted tragedy as the dominant form.
The form of the Greek physical theater evolved over two centuries interestingly, the permanent stone theaters that survive today as ruins were not built until the 4th century BC - that is, after the classical period of playwriting. The open-air theaters may have consisted of an orchestra - a flat circular area used for choral dances-a raised stage behind it for actors, and a roughly semicircular seating area built into a hillside around the orchestra, although modern scholars debate the layout of particular theaters. These theaters held 15,000 to 20,000 spectators. As the importance of actors grew and that of the chorus diminished, the stage became higher and encroached on the orchestra space.
The actors - all men - wore theatricalized versions of everyday dress, but, most important, they wore larger-than-life masks, which aided visibility and indicated the nature of the character to the audience. In the vast theaters, subtle gestures and facial expressions, upon which modern actors depend, would have been lost. Movement was apparently stately and formal, and the greatest emphasis was on the voice. Music accompanied the dances. An ancient Greek production was probably more akin to opera than to modern drama.
In keeping with its religious function, the theater was state supported, admission was free or nominal to everyone, and actors were highly regarded. Working at the same time were the mimes - male and female popular entertainers who plied their trade wherever an audience would toss a few coins.
THEMES OF PLAYS
As Greek culture spread in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great, the topical, literary comedies and philosophical tragedies became inappropriate, and domestic comedy - called Middle and New Comedy - proliferated. Only one complete New Comedy survives the Dyskolos (The Curmudgeon or The Misanthrope, 317 BC) by Menander. These plays are similar in plot and style to the situation comedies on television today. The plot hinges on a complication or situation revolving around love, family problems, money, or the like. The characters are stock - identifiable, simplified social types, such as a miserly father or a nagging mother-in-law.
Greek tragedy flourished in the 5th century BC. Of the more than 1000 tragedies written during that century, only 31 remain, all by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Aeschylus lived between 525 BC and 456 BC. He was a Greek dramatist, the earliest of the great tragic poets of Athens. As the predecessor of Sophocles and Euripides, he is called the father of Greek tragedy. Aeschylus was born in Eleusis, near Athens.
He fought successfully against the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC, at Salamís in 480 BC, and possibly at Plataea in the following year. He made at least two trips, perhaps three, to Sicily. During his final visit he died at Gela, where a monument was later erected in his memory.
Aeschylus is said to have written about 90 plays. His tragedies, first performed about 500 BC, were presented as trilogies, or groups of three, usually bound together by a common theme, and each trilogy was followed by a satyr drama (low comedy involving a mythological hero, with a chorus of satyrs). The titles of 79 of his plays are known, but only 7 have survived. The earliest is The Suppliants, a drama with little action but many choral songs of great beauty it is believed to be the first play of a trilogy about the marriage of the 50 daughters of Danaüs, which included the plays The Egyptians and The Danaïds. The Persians, presented in 472 BC, is a historical tragedy about the Battle of Salamís, the scene being laid in Persia at the court of the mother of King Xerxes I.
The Seven Against Thebes, produced in 467 BC, is based on a Theban legend, the conflict between the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, for the throne of Thebes. It is believed to be the third play of a trilogy, the first two being Laius and Oedipus. Prometheus Bound, a work of uncertain date, portrays the punishment of the defiant Prometheus by Zeus. It is probably the first play of a Promethean trilogy, the others being Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer.
The remaining three plays, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides, produced in 458 BC, form the trilogy known as the Oresteia, or story of Orestes. In Agamemnon, one of the greatest works of dramatic literature, King Agamemnon returns home from Troy and is treacherously murdered by his faithless wife Clytemnestra. In the second play, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, returns to Argos and avenges the murder of his father by slaying his mother and her paramour Aegisthus. This act of matricide is punished by the avenging goddesses, the Erinyes.
In The Eumenides, the Erinyes pursue Orestes until he is cleansed of his blood guilt and set free by the ancient court of the Areopagus, through the intercession of Athena, goddess of wisdom.
By introducing a second actor into the play, Aeschylus created dramatic dialogue he also elaborated the staging of the drama, introducing costumes and scenery. The characteristics of his works are the profundity of theme and the grandeur of the poetry recited by the chorus. The Oresteia, probably his most mature work, provides an insight into his concepts of justice and mercy, and his belief in a divine will, with the aid of which humanity can achieve wisdom through suffering.
Sophocles lived from 496 BC to 406 BC. He was one of the greatest tragic dramatists of an
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