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Introducing Greek Tragedy: Performance art or reading matter?

Updated on March 10, 2015

Greek tragedies were produced in amphitheatres such as this one. Some of the larger Greek amphitheatres could hold up to 14,000 people!



Greek tragedy is the earliest type of drama known to the western world. We believe that the earliest Greek tragedy was the Persians by Aeschylus. This was produced in 472 BC. There are only 33 surviving Greek tragedies – seven by Aeschylus, seven by Sophocles and nineteen by Euripides – but this small body of work has exerted an enormous influence, from ancient times down to our own day.

What does the word "tragedy" actually mean?

Tragedy is a very powerful word. Its power has not weakened very time. We use the word to describe a vast range of things, from the early death of a loved one, or a fatal accident, through to such enormities as 9/11, the tsunami, the Holocaust or the World Wars. It comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that the original meaning of the word “tragedy” is “goat song”, from tragos, meaning “goat” and aoidē meaning “song”. There is a lot of scholarly disagreement about the origin of this word. Perhaps it simply refers to a song performed at the sacrifice of a goat. Maybe “song” refers to the musical elements of tragedy. But no one really knows for sure how or where goats come into the picture. As far as drama is concerned, “tragedy” is best understood simply as referring to a serious (i.e. non-comic) play. But note that not all tragedies have an unhappy ending. At the end of some tragedies (such as Euripides’ Alcestis or Helen) they all live happily ever after!

Dionysus surrounded by satyrs.


Who invented tragedy?

The question of the origin of tragedy has been a cause of endless scholarly dispute over the centuries. In the fourth chapter of his Poetics, Aristotle seems to suggest that tragedy somehow developed from something called the dithyramb. Dithyrambs were religious choruses, originally sung in honour of the god Dionysus. In dithyramb, the Chorus would have a leader. This allows the possibility of some rudimentary dialogue. There is a tradition that tragedy was invented by someone called Thespis, who added an actor to the original Chorus and Chorus-leader of the dithyramb. With a Chorus, a Chorus-leader and an actor who can come on and off as different characters we have the embryonic form of all later drama. This tradition is popular and widely accepted. This is the reason why, even today, actors are sometimes referred to as “Thespians”. But, of course, the actual truth of the matter is disputed.

According to Aristotle, sometime in the early 5th century BC, the tragedian Aeschylus added a second actor to the group of Chorus, Chorus-leader and actor. With two actors, a Chorus-leader and a Chorus you have all the resources you need to perform the earliest surviving tragedy, the Persians of Aeschylus. Then the tragedian Sophocles added a third actor. Now you have all you need to perform any Greek tragedy.

King Xerxes of Persia - the hero of the first surviving Greek tragedy


Tragedy and religion

Although tragedies were performed and produced elsewhere, tragedy remains associated with Athens. All surviving tragedies were written by Athenians. And, in Athens, tragedies were produced during a religious festival known as the City Dionysia. Three tragedies by three playwrights would be produced on three consecutive days. The tragedies were followed by short satyr plays, humorous or satirical plays which rounded things off on an upbeat note. The tragedians would compete against each other – 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes would be awarded.

In the earlier half of the 5th century BC some tragedies were produced together as trilogies, each play forming, as it were, a large act of a huge drama. The Oresteia of Aeschylus is the only surviving example of this type of dramatic trilogy. Most later plays are single, stand-alone dramas.

Bust of Aeschylus - the earliest surviving Greek playwright


Performance of tragedy

The typical chorus in tragedy would consist of between twelve and fifteen men. They would sing their lines and probably supplement their musical performance with dance and mime. The participants in tragedy would be masked. The significance of this, as with so much else, is disputed. Performers were accompanied by two wind instruments called “auloi”. These instruments seem more to resemble the mediaeval shaum than any more modern wind instrument. Like the shaum, they must have been able to create a loud and penetrating sound in order for the music to be heard over the large spaces of the open amphitheatre. They were also accompanied by an instrument called the cithara – a type of large lyre.

For performances of tragedy, amphitheatres were built around circular performing areas of anything up to sixty feet in diameter. Scenery would be minimal, at least in the earlier 5th century. It is believed that amphitheatres could hold as many as 14,000 audience members. In order to hear the performance and follow the drama, this huge audience would have had to sit in near silence. There were no microphones or amplifiers! By the standards of today, performances of Greek tragedies would have been very quiet occasions.

Sophocles. Cast of a bust in the Pushkin museum


The three Greek tragedians

The earliest surviving Greek playwright is Aeschylus. He was born around 525 BC and died in 456. Only seven of his plays survive. The three Oresteia plays form one huge drama but are usually counted as separate plays. Of the four remaining plays, the earliest, the Persians, is based upon an actual historical event, the defeat of the invading Persian forces at the Battle of Salamis in 480. Two others, the Suppliant Women and the Seven against Thebes are, like the Oresteia plays, parts of larger dramatic trilogies. Reading them is like reading a single act of a play from with the other acts are missing. The last play, Prometheus Unbound is now thought to have been written by someone other than Aeschylus, the identity of whom is unknown.

Next up is Sophocles. He was born in 496 BC and died in 406, the same year as his fellow playwright Euripides. He produced at least 125 plays, of which only seven survive. But those plays number among the very greatest plays ever produced by the human mind. His last play, Oedipus at Colonus, is thought to have been written when Sophocles was aged around 90. This guy certainly had staying power!

Finally, Euripides. He was probably younger than Sophocles, born sometime in the 480s. He wrote around 90 plays of which as many as 19 survive (this is including the possibly spurious Rhesus). Euripides’ plays seem to have been very popular with audiences, but less so with critics. He won first prize less frequently than his two older colleagues. And he remains a powerful, fascinating but controversial figure. A Euripides play is a disturbing experience, partly because of the way in which he manipulates the sympathies of his audience. In a modern drama – a play, a film, even a novel – you tend to get a very clear idea who are the good guys and who are the villains. But not in Euripides. You never really know where you stand with him.

Aulos player and a dancer.


Greek tragedy today

Producers and performers tend to shy away from Greek tragedy. These days it tends to be thought of as reading matter rather than performing art. That is a great pity. But the problems for the producer / performer should not be underestimated.

To begin with, tragedy is a musical genre but the original music (apart from a few scraps) has been lost. The chorus sang their part. But what does a modern producer do with the chorus? If they speak in unison they might not be clearly understood. If only one member of the chorus speaks at a time then the impact of the choruses is greatly diminished.

Tragedy is also a verse genre, and the modern trend for translating Greek tragedy into modern prose is regrettable. It may read OK but it just doesn’t work so well in performance. The poor Chorus can neither sing nor recite the verse written for it. It has to make do with speaking modern prose! And that has a big impact upon the effect which a tragedy has in performance. A Greek tragedy is similar in many ways to a modern musical. Take the music away from, say, West Side Story and you've done the work some considerable damage!

The issue of translation is an important one, and I don’t really have the space to discuss it here. But, like the tragedians themselves, I want to end on an upbeat note. So let me say that Greek tragedy represents one of the most exciting challenges for any producer or performer willing to take it on. The music is missing? OK – provide some yourself! Translations are a bit stuffy? OK – try making your own version. Even if you depart a little from the strict letter of the text, the drama itself will survive. If fact, it will not only survive – it will come alive and blow your mind!

This is what ancient Greek music might have sounded like. This is from Euripides' late play Orestes.


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