Religious Ceremonies in Theatre

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Nicole Jarrell
Intro to Theatre
Ms. Elizabeth Taheri
October 10, 2000
Theatre as a Religious Ceremony
"The drama in Greece was inextricably bound up with religious feeling and religious observance." (Cheney 33) The citizens of the Greek states were the first European communities to raise dramatic performances to the level of an art. Furthermore, the Greek playwrights still exercise a potent creative force, and many modern dramatists find strong relationships between these legendary themes and modern conditions. The Greek's religion is wholly responsible for the creation of all facets of early Greek theatre; whether it is the content of the plays, or the immense size of the theaters required to accommodate the attendance of the city's men.

Although much is speculated about the origins of early Greek theater, it may be stated that the "source of tragedy is to be found in choric dithyrambs sung in honor of the god Dionysus" (Nicoll 9). The performance took place in an open-air theater. The word tragedy is derived from the term "tragedia" or "goat-song", named for the goat skins the chorus wore in the performance. Originally these songs were improvised and rhapsodical as time passed by they were "poetized or rendered literary" (Nicoll 9). The word "chorus" meant "dance or "dancing ground", which was how dance evolved into the drama. Members of the chorus were characters in the play that commented on the action. They drew the audience into the play and reflected the audience's reactions. The change from freelance song to theatre was obtained at the hands of a Greek named Thespis. He turned what was originally a song leader, or priest, into an actor whose words were answered by a chanting chorus. Thespis also "changed the subject matter of theatre events, expanding them to deal not solely on stories of Dionysus" (Nicoll 9). In the sixth century B.C., drama had been born in Greece and with the introduction of a second actor and later a third, this art form was ready to mature at the hands of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

These festivals grew in size and complexity, especially in Athens, where the largest of these festivals were held and only the premier playwrights released their plays. These prestigious and elaborate plays were performed at dramatic festivals. The two main festivals were the Feast of the Winepress in January and the City Dionysia at the end of March. The Proceeding began with the procession of choruses and actors of the three competing poets. A herald then announced the poet's names and the titles of their plays. On this day it was likely that the image of Dionysus was "taken in a procession from his temple beside the theater to a point near the road he had once taken to reach Athens from the north, then it was brought back by torch light, amid a carnival celebration to the theater itself" (Lucas 315). This is where his priest occupied the central seat of honor during the performances. "Regarded as community event, not commercial enterprises, responsibility was taken by state officials on behalf of the citizens and visitors from neighboring districts and states for the production of the plays" (Wickham 39). Hence, the production of these plays required a great deal of public thought and energy before the performance actually took the stage.

Surely farmers, traders, shopkeepers, hostelries and the manufacturers of souvenirs came to these events attempting to reap the benefits of such large number of consumers. This, however, is insignificant compared to the purpose of these events. Even in the fifth century B.C., purpose was rooted in the religious calendar of Attic Life (Wickham 39). Participation in the festival for authors, actors and spectators was regarded as a civic duty and only secondary as entertainment. However, this precedent eventually reversed. As a result these events were heavily subsidized without any attempt to cover all the cost with admission prices, which...
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