Aristotle on Greek Tragedy
The word tragedy literally means "goat song," probably referring to the practice of giving a goat as a sacrifice or a prize at the religious festivals in honor of the god Dionysos. Whatever its origins, tragedy came to signify a dramatic presentation of high seriousness and noble character which examines the major questions of human existence: Why are we here? How can we know the will of the gods? What meaning does life have in the face of death? In tragedy people are tested by great suffering and must face decisions of ultimate consequence. Some meet the challenge with deeds of despicable cruelty, while others demonstrate their ability to confront and surpass adversity, winning our admiration and proving the greatness of human potential. Background information on Greek Theater
Ancient writers give us tantalizing glimpses of the possible origins of Greek theater. The fifth century historian Herodotus notes that in some cities the worship of Dionysos, god of wine and fertility, replaced earlier hero cults which had memorialized the hero's sufferings with tragic choruses. In his Poetics (1449a) Aristotle records that tragedy developed from improvisations on dithyrambs, a type of choral poetry celebrating mythological subjects. The Latin author Horace adds that Thespis invented tragedy, apparently being the first actor to portray the legendary characters of myth instead of narrating their exploits in song. The earliest definite record we have of dramatic contests in Athens occurred in 501 BC (the typical date of 534 is based on an unreliable medieval text. The majority of evidence about Greek theater comes from the literature and performance records of the fifth century. This "Golden Age" witnessed major military encounters both with foreign invaders and fellow countrymen. A league of small city-states led by Athens defeated the Persian empire in two key battles at Marathon (490) and Salamis (480). The annual festival held at the Theater of Dionysos, which lies on the hill beneath the Parthenon, brought visitors from miles around to see the dramatic contests and experience the glories of the city. Most of our extant plays come from this dark period: Euripides' Trojan Women depicts the horrors of war for the innocent victims left behind, while Aristophanes offers an unusual comic solution for ending the war: a sex-strike by the women of both sides, in Lysistrata [correctly ronounced Ly-SIS-tra-ta]. The themes of Greek tragedy and comedy reflect the political and social concerns of these exciting and troubled times. Each spring Athens held a festival at which the contests for best tragedy (and comedy after 486) held a central part. Tragic playwrights submitted three serious dramas and a mythological spoof called a satyr play, often on a similar theme. Each playwright had a sponsor (choregos) who hired the three actors and the chorus of 12-15 performers. The playwright probably rehearsed his own cast much like a director would today. Actors wore masks which covered their entire heads like a helmet. These could be exchanged backstage to allow the same actor to play different characters; thus, only three actors were needed for all the parts in one play. The lead actor was called the protagonist, meaning first contestant. The chorus often portrayed the people of the city, responding to the protagonist as an ideal audience. During the choral odes their singing and dancing provided variety and spectacle, allowing time for the actors to change into other costumes for the next scene. Plays were performed outdoors, often on a hillside which provided a natural seating area for the spectators. Benches of wood or stone surrounded an open circle of ground called the orchestra, or dancing space. The seating area, known as the theatron (literally "viewing space"), has given us our word for theater. Some ancient theaters could seat as many as 15,000 people. Excellent acoustics permitted such large audiences to...
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