The Theatre In Greece - The Early Tragedies And The Satyric Drama

( Originally Published 1902 )

Origins of Tragedy: the Festival of Dionysus—The Primitive Stage—Thespis and the first Tragedies—The Poet-Actors—The Lenaeum—Fifth century B.C.—Predecessors of Aeschylus—The Satyric Drama; its character—Pratinas, creator of the Tetralogy.

IN Greece, religion was the cradle of the drama. Among ancient peoples, the theatre was not only an amusement for the eyes, and a prime distraction for the mind, it had a more vital, more national function. Proceeding at once from patriotism and from the religious feeling, it derived its inspirations from the memory of the heroes who had fought in some noble cause, and from the traditions relating to the divinities who protected the city. Hence the custom which obtained from the seventh century B.C. in certain Greek cities, of placing every year, at a pre-determined time, upon the agora or marketplace, an altar destined to receive the sacrifices offered to the hero of the locality, while the choir of priests chanted a hymn, termed The Goat-Song or Tragedy. In the sixth century, the most popular of all the religious festivals was that of Dionysus, and the principal feature of this ceremony consisted in the chanting of an ode, or dithyramb, by a chorus of satyrs.' The chant was preceded by an account of the sufferings of the god, related by a poet-singer. The poet was called the Narrator, and his recital, in great part improvisation, was acted as well as sung, the chorus repeating some of his words, or taking up a known refrain.

Throughout this period the theatre was simply represented by a circular enclosure, or orchestra, in the centre of which stood the chorus. The spectators were placed round the circle. Little by little the dithyramb reached its perfection. The songs of the chorus became true lyric poems, and ended with a lament, resembling the climax. Other important modifications followed. The narrator becomes the actor, and henceforward plays the part of hero, of messenger, thus bringing to the chorus new subjects, which admit of variations in their chant. Improvisation in its turn gives place to action, imperfect it is true, but regular. Finally, dialogue comes into existence, as presented under the form of an alternate chant in which the actor and chorus respond, or exchange their plaints ; in some sort an analogy with the versicles and responses still used in the Catholic worship, or the lamentations which the people repeat after the priest in the ceremonies of Holy Week. From this era dates the first attempt at setting up a stage, properly so-called. Originally it was installed in the middle of the marketplace, on a table or car, whence the actor entered into relation with the chorus.

About the year 520 B.C., Thespis, the true creator of Tragedy, caused The Funeral Games of Pelias, The Young Men, The Priests, of which only a few insignificant fragments remain, to be played at Athens. In the tragedies by this author, the actor had to play several parts in succession, and a further innovation became necessary in the staging : this was the installation of a tent or shed in which the actor could change his costumes and masks. The primitive organisation of this tent suggested later on the erection of buildings behind the stage.

In the sixth century, and even during a part of the fifth, the poet united the function of actor with that of author. Thespis was the interpreter of his own works. He it was, moreover, who invented the use of white lead and paint for the ` make up.' The importance assumed by Tragedy soon compelled the actors to forsake the market-place, which was too narrow a stage for their performances, and they resorted for the most part to the Lenaeum or Sanctuary of the god. This enclosure was situated at the foot of a hill, the slope of which formed a natural amphitheatre capable of containing a large number of people. The first wooden benches were set up upon this slope, the orchestra being placed below, at the centre of the dance and other evolutions performed by the chorus. The circle was about thirteen yards in diameter, and in its midst was an altar erected to Dionysus.

The successors of Thespis, and also the immediate predecessors of Aeschylus, are Choerilus, Pratinas, Phrynichus, who represent the second generation of tragic poets. While no important modifications were introduced, Tragedy became in their hands a kind of public institution, and was submitted to open competition. Phrynichus (of Athens) was the author of the celebrated tragedies, The Capture of Miletus (written 494 B.C.), and The Phoenician Women, both taken from contemporary history, and relating to the struggle of the Greeks with the Persians.

The tragedies of Phrynichus have all the characteristics of elegy, and are full of the most humane sentiments, expressed in a particularly touching manner in the choruses of distracted women.

Pratinas, a native of Phlius, is especially famous as a writer of satyric dramas. The Satyric Drama was a mixture of the grotesque and heroic elements, and is distinguished from Tragedy by the note of extravagant gaiety which exists nowhere else in Greek poetry.

The chorus was composed of satyrs who emancipated themselves from all discipline, gesticulated, leapt, uttered wild cries, or sang, as the fancy took them. At the head of the band was a drunken greybeard called Silenus, whose every act was held to be instinct with majesty ; in his quality of companion to the young Dionysus, he even participated to some degree in the divine nature. Besides the ribald Silenus there were monsters—the Sphinx, the sea-god Glaucus, Cyclops, and others—all characters foreign to Tragedy. The satyric drama was usually curtailed to half the length of the tragedy, and as another feature inevitably presented a happy climax.

As in Classical Tragedy, the actors were always three, and the choruses included at first fifty, afterwards fifteen singers. But it is more especially in its heroes, properly so-called, that the Satyric Drama is linked with Tragedy, for we find in it a certain number of the divinities cherished by epic poetry.

The division of the Tragedy into five parts held good equally for the Satyric Drama. Pratinas, the organiser of this style, composed fifty dramas, thirty-two of which are satyric plays ; and he may be regarded as the inventor of the Tetralogy.

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