An Overview of Greek Tragedy
Greek Tragedy Defined
The few surviving works of the Greek tragic playwrights have remained influential for thousands of years. In fact, drama as we know it – in television shows, plays, and feature films – could not exist if not for the inventiveness of the ancient Greeks. This article explores the origin, the content, the history, and the legacy of Greek tragedy.
Despite the modern connotations of the word, “tragedy” did not necessarily refer to a production that was inherently sad (although many were). In fifth-century dialect, “tragedy” would be more closely associated with our use of the word “play” or “theater”. Instead of representing subject matter, in actuality, the word “tragedy” was a formal term which represented the form of the art and the circumstances of its performance. The performances themselves were dedicated to the god Dionysus, who was the god of revelry and wine, and they were set up as a competition so that each year three playwrights would be selected to compete against each other for winner of “best playwright”.
The origin of what we would call tragic theatre can be traced back to Athens during the 6th century B.C.E. Tragedy probably developed from choral (group) performances of rhythmic poetry which had been a popular form of entertainment for centuries. Tradition has it that the playwright Thespis invented drama by creating a part specifically for an actor to speak alongside the chorus- thereby removing the focus from the chorus and placing it on the actor. It was common practice for the playwrights to also work as an actor in their own play; but in order to keep the competition fair, there was a limit placed on the number of actors allowed in any tragedy, and each playwright had to abide by this limit.
With one notable exception, “the Persians” by Aeschylus, every surviving Greek tragedy dealt with subjects derived from Greek mythology. Of course, to the Greeks, mythology was not a removed and far-away system of thought, but a living and historical example of truth- part of a “remote past” with very close ties to religious sentiment. This meant that the audience of the play would already know the basic outline of the story. The playwright's job, given the restrictive nature of the plot, was to shift the focus of the myth to highlight the theme he was trying to convey. Authors weren't afraid to take liberties with the traditional details of the myths, nor were they afraid to invent new details- as long as the details suited their theme. The typical focus of tragedies was personal or familial conflicts, and how those related to the grander schemes of society. Some popular themes include justice, public versus private duty, and the balance of power between sexes (very similar to many of the themes we find today!)
For the ancient Greeks, the 5th century BC was an incredibly fertile period and showcased extraordinary developments in art, science, and politics. This was the century when Democracy was first invented, when the notion of “History” was developed, and it was also an era of great building and infrastructure improvements undertaken by the most famous Athenian statesman, Pericles. The impetus for this fertile period was the final Athenian victory over the Persians in 480 B.C.E. In historical terms, the defeat of the Persians was one of the greatest military “upsets” of all time: the expansion of the vast Persian Empire, which held command over the world's largest army, was halted by the small city-state of Athens and her allies. This victory brought a new sense of pride, power, and confidence to the Greek world and, when combined with the development of Democracy, this special zeitgeist helped give birth to the three great tragedians that we remember today- Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides.
The first of the great tragedians, born in 525, was Aeschylus. There is not much known about the life of Aeschylus, except that he fought at the battle of Marathon (490), and that his plays won a total of 13 victories during his lifetime. According to Aristotle, it was Aeschylus who added the second actor to tragedy; this might signify that Aeschylus was the true inventor of the dramatic arts. Sophocles, the next oldest tragedian, was born in 496 and legend has it that he added the third actor (there wouldn't be any more added after that); it is also believed that Sophocles invented the art of stage-painting and was the first to add scenery to his plays. Euripides, the youngest of the tragedians, was born in 480; he was the least-successful and the least-popular of the three great playwrights and was often criticized in his own time for bringing too much “realism” into his plays.
Despite the fame and enduring appeal of the three great tragedians, it's surprising for many to note how few of their plays actually survived until the present day: only 7 for Aeschylus, 7 for Sophocles, and 18 for Euripides. This number, 32 plays in total, represents the entire catalogue of existing Greek tragedies. This dearth of material has created many problems for scholars over the centuries and has lead to many arguments about the true nature of Greek tragedy as a whole. Nevertheless, these 32 plays have been scrutinized and studied perhaps more times than all other sources of literature combined and many great philosophers, thinkers, and artists began their career as classicists. These plays, though not extensive in themselves, represent an diverse range of human emotion and human complexity. The birth of this new art-form was like an explosion of understanding: for the first time, difficult questions of life and the meaning of human existence was being questioned upon a stage. These plays also spawned the creation of literary theory, and they are still read today by those who still seek to understand issues as difficult as life, happiness, loss, and meaning.