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Greek and Roman Mythology – Introduction to Tragedy


Introduction to Tragedy

Continuing my notes of lectures from Peter Stuck we move into tragedy and an entirely new genre in which myths are conveyed in antiquity. We saw epic poetry and some of the Homeric hymns which were long narrative poems and used the dactylic hexameter form. Tragedy is another way of presenting mythic material that has its own constraints and possibilities, which are very different.

Credit : kmop.gr

Tragic poets deal with shorter time frames. The stage performance represents the same amount of time that we sit and view it. There’s more pressure in that particular smaller time frame, to tell the full story, so we have a lot of, more elusive, references to broader mythological traditions. Typically they focus on very small window of time and, at a crux moment, something pivotal happens in a larger mythic strand. What happens before and after this crux moment unfolds as background.

In Tragedy what happens on stage is happening supposedly in the present, and the audience is taken back to some earlier time that is meant to be unfolding right in front of our eyes. The people on stage are real people that ‘inhabit’ characters and act like other people. Contrast this with an epic poet who stands up and recites and tells you all the things in the third person that some other group of people did. These poets stand up and speak in the first person, represent themselves as if they are Agamemnon or as if they are Clytemnestra etc. There’s a sense of make believe. The strangeness of people walking around pretending to be other people is by now completely lost on us; we’re used to this genre. But at the time the Greeks were really inventing a whole genre of tragedy it was surely something that was striking and noteworthy. Bringing to life these ancient characters and the figures up on stage was something that would have had a bit of a magical resonance to it.

Joseph Haworth, as Viola in. Twelfth Night josephhaworth.com

The male actors portrayed male and female characters, and they wore masks of different kinds so we didn’t see their facial expressions. Instead, there was the stylized sense, that’s brought into make believe, that they, in their own persona, were being covered up by an exterior masks, which was often, typically very rudimentary. It was just a way of hiding the normal person’s face and putting a tragic mask on the outside of it.

We still see males playing female roles today in pantomime for example where the principle part are played by men. In Cinderella, for example, the two sisters are played by men.  When Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed all the parts would be played by men. So in the Twelfth Night the part of  Viola would be a boy playing a girl who disguised herself as a boy.

Tragedies start in the sixth century BCE when they started to appear in ancient Athens. They come to a full fruition in the fifth century BCE which is where the most important of our tragedians showed up and we have a major threesome that survives from antiquity of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Shortly after they appeared they were embraced widely as the greatest of all these tragic poets from antiquity. They also happened to survive in a little more detail than others. There are more plays, but these are the three greats recognized in their own time as such: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

The context for a tragedy is quite a bit different than what we’ve seen with our versions of epic poetry. Homer or Hesiod epics were sung in the context of aristocrats having a dinner party and maybe wanting to have some entertainment after the dinner party. The Homeric hymns were performed in a festival context and the hymns were sung in honor of gods at these festivals that were given in the gods’ honor. Tragedy is different. People  came to outdoor theaters, spaces like the one we see here, a Roman version of one of these, that we see in a beautiful form preserved, in Sicily;

Credit : soleblusicilia.it

They would be more primitive then what we see here. These big stone versions of theaters are mainly Roman. The Greek versions would have been less monumental with wooden benches or maybe just a grassy hill. The, large stone buildings that we see around the theaters, would not have been there in Greek times.

Dionysus was the patron god of the theater, and he was drawn out, often explicitly as being the focus of what was happening in the theater. It was meant as a festival in his honor. The most important of these festivals happened in Athens, specifically centered on Dionysus. Dionysus comes up at a couple of points when we deal with the tragedies in particular The Bacchae (Ancient Greek: Βάκχαι, Bakchai; also known as The Bacchantes) where Dionysus is a character on the stage.

Large groups of people went to watch these performances. The theatres were places where many 100s could sit around and watch. There would be a very plain stage up front, only a couple of meters off the ground. The stage would have plain, sparse scenery hung behind it. There was a door in the middle of the back of the stage and usually there would be things happening behind that door. At some point in the play characters disappeared behind the door or the door might just burst open and the audience would find out what had happened back there behind the door.

Credit : cnr.edu

The actors were up on stage with masks on and not very elaborate costumes and they recited lines, imitating, make believe, delivering direct lines in the first person of the characters that they were representing. In front of the actors was a chorus. The chorus had a role in between the audience and the actors up on stage. There would have been a large space in front of the stage where the chorus moved around. This was a group of people engaged in the tragedy; they provided a collective commentary on what was happening up on stage. The actors had dialog back and forth, and then, the chorus might jump in and say: are you sure you’ve remembered everything about the story that you’re telling this other character? Perhaps you can elaborate on that. They’d speak as a group and the actor would respond. The chorus would also address the audience, typically worrying about what was happening up on stage. They’d turn around to the people on stage. Don’t you guys realize what’s happening? Then they’d turn to us and say, they don’t seem to realize what’s happening. They have a collectivity to them that mirrors the audience but they have an individual, oftentimes, individually expressed reaction to things that they express in a single voice. So they have all these roles as mediating between us and the people up on stage.

This communication with actors and the audience can still be still be seen today again through pantomime. Mummers plays often include a fool of some description who ‘warms up’ the audience and interrelates between the players and the audience.

Tragic choristers (Picture credit : usu.edu)

The chorus also sings songs. Choral odes are an important part of tragedy. Often what came out in these odes was really important narrative background. As the actors were up on stage having some disagreement or fight about some consequential piece the chorus would jump in and start to sing the song that tells us why they were so upset with each other. Those odes are sometimes tricky to read. They are dense and very illusive; the tragic poets assume that the audience has seen a lot of this stuff already. In the same way as if we see a film that is a sequel it is assumed that you have seen the others. They assumed that they were dealing with a highly literate audience in the sense of having seen lots of tragedies and having a sense of the tradition. The poets might mention a few proper names or specific places. As modern readers we need to make sure that we’re up to speed on the traditions that they are referencing.

As well as being compressed in time tragedies were also compressed in terms of the people involved. There were only a few people up on stage and something really intense that happens to them, as if in a pressure cooker or a vice. The atmosphere in a tragedy is dense, almost too much. Epic poetry might be described as being centrifugal, or pushing to the very edges of the earth. Tragedy is very much centripetal, it moves towards the middle and people get confined and sucked into spaces that they might otherwise have wished to escape, but escape is not  be possible.

The fantastic elements that are possible in epic, marvelous voyages across vast spans of time, meeting strange people on one side of the world to another, going to the underworld and back, are not possible in tragedy. Instead, what we have is dialogue, one person speaking, and another person answering, in that back and forth of human to human interconnection. It was these connections that the tragenians worked and reworked and dove into. It was a world characterized by intimacy, sometimes wonderfully supportive and nurturing, sometimes nasty and mean.


1 Comment

  1. […] There’s a very rich and complex tradition that lies behind that story. As mentioned in the previous post tragic poets assumed that the audience has seen a lot of this stuff already. The oldest part […]

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