The Theatre In Greece - Aeschylus And Classical Tragedy

( Originally Published 1902 )

Religious character of the Classical Drama—Aeschylus : his Trilogies—The Tetralogy—The first stage properly so-called—First theatrical appliances—Early scenery—Poetical competitions and the Dionysia—Various formalities—Choral contests—Divisions of the Drama — Function of the chorus—Characters—Scenery—Stage-entries—The 'periaktos'—The actors in Tragedy—Costumes—Masks—The actors in Satyric Drama—Their costume—Costume of chorus—Singers in Tragedy and Satyric Drama.

THE Classical Drama was glorified by illustration from the genius of the three greatest poets of antiquity : Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

It is important to note that at this period, and during the greater part of the fourth century (more particularly in Athens), the character assumed by Tragedy was that of an act of homage paid by the city to one of its divinities. For this reason, in-deed, the performances were given year by year only at the stated time of the festivals of Dionysus.

Aeschylus (born 525 B.C.) was the son of a priest of Eleusis, and a valiant soldier. To this double circumstance we doubtless owe the essentially patriotic and religious character of his tragedies. These have as theme the most lugubrious legends of Greece, and they deal with the gravest problems of sovereign justice. The theatre of Aeschylus was designed to convey moral as well as political lessons : The Suppliant Women inculcates hospitality as a religious duty ; The Seven against Thebes, wisdom ; The Persians exalts devotion to the mother-country ; the Agamemnon treats of the limits of individual responsibility and the unknown influence of fate ; The Eumenides represents the conflict of opposing principles of justice.

Most of the plays of Aeschylus formed part of a Trilogy. This title was given by the Greeks to a sequence of three tragedies following one upon the other, and drawn from the same legend, which were brought forward by the poets in competition for the prize. Only one complete trilogy of Aeschylus remains : the Oresteia. But it has been established as a fact, that the trilogy of The Persians consisted of the Phineus, The Persians, and Glaucus.

Nor can we doubt that The Suppliant Women formed part of a trilogy entitled The Danads. Finally, The Eumenides must be regarded as the third part of a trilogy, which also comprised the Agamemnon and the Choëphori. There is no evidence that all the plays of Aeschylus were written as trilogies. And, if others existed beyond those already enumerated, it is doubtful whether they were as harmonious in construction as the Oresteia. This group may in fact be regarded as the greatest poetical work of Greece, after the Iliad. It is the most tragic of the trilogies of the Greek theatre, as evidenced by the fact that, at its first performance, the entire audience began to tremble, and the women fainted.

The German critic Schlegel acknowledges that `the tragic style of Aeschylus is grand,' but reproaches him with being ` severe, and not infrequently hard.

Aeschylus wrote a number of satyric dramas, the most famous of which is The Sphinx.

The Satyric Drama, as we have seen, was often joined to the Trilogy, which was then entitled a Tetralogy. In this connection it should be re-marked, that down to 472 B.C. the satyric drama formed part of the group of the tetralogy, and was related to it by its subject. After this date, however (when Aeschylus produced a tetralogy in which the satyric play Prometheus was distinct in subject from any of the tragedies), the subject of the satyric drama was no longer necessarily connected with that of the three other plays.

To Aeschylus we must attribute the organisation of the first stage, properly so-called. Horace tells us that it differed from the primitive platform in being permanent. Instead of a table or wagon, a, platform was erected several feet above the orchestra, from which the actors descended by steps. To the same period belongs the first use of mechanical appliances for the requisitions of the stage. Foremost among these is the ekkyklêma. This was a kind of car upon wheels, and by its means certain things could be placed under the eyes of the spectators, which, in virtue of their realism, could not form part of the mise-en-scène, or be shown in performance. In this way it was possible after a crime to exhibit the victim, who was rolled in the car to the front of the theatre. Among other appliances was that by which the sound of thunder was imitated, traps whence the supernatural characters rose from beneath the ground, and a machine called the méchane, a sort of pulley set up behind the stage, by which the fantastic figures were raised into the air, among them the deus-ex-machina, at the close of the piece.

Before Aeschylus, and during the first years of his dramatic career, scene-painting was a thing unknown. The back of the theatre was merely a blank wall, and the only attempt at decoration was the placing on the stage of certain objects, harmonising in character with the subject of the piece. Thus in The Suppliant Women the only decoration was a wooden altar ; in Prometheus Vinctus there was a lump of rock. Towards the middle of the fifth century, however, the art of decoration became perfectly well defined. The wall at the back was replaced by a painting of a palace or temple ; and the Oresteia saw the application of this improvement. To Aeschylus has been sometimes attributed the invention of the periaktoi or revolving triangular prisms, which served to change the scenery of the wings. But the greatest service rendered to the theatre by Aeschylus was the introduction of a second actor, and the substitution of professional comedians for the poets.

Although the institution of poetical contests dates back to the sixth century, to the time of Pisistratus, our knowledge of this important function is not very definite before the era of Aeschylus. It is known that these contests were the chief ornament of the Dionysiac festivals, and they gave an admirable opportunity to poets seeking fame as dramatic authors.

The contests were two in kind : at the Lenaean and at the Dionysiac gatherings. The Dionysia, which were by far the most important, took place (like the Lenaea) in the hallowed sanctuary of Dionysus, on the south side of the Acropolis. They began towards March 25 or 26 of our calendar, and ended about the 30th. I t was the time of year when visitors from all parts of the world flocked into the city. In that month, too, the allies came to pay their tribute. The Athenians, who were glad to profit by this circumstance to impress the strangers, gave an unparalleled splendour to the ceremony. On the eve of the festival, the statue of the god Dionysus was carried by torch-light from the temple to the theatre, where it was then placed in the orchestra. The Dionysia were subsequently inaugurated by a procession in honour of the god. This procession consisted of a number of chorus-singers—women, children, and young girls—clad in splendid costumes, and many of them wearing masks. Some of those who took part were in chariots, others followed on foot, and the immense procession thus passed through all the streets of the city, and halted in the marketplace, where the chorus danced and sang before the statues of the twelve gods. The dramatic performances did not usually begin until the second day. The number of poets entered for competition was three, and each had to present three tragedies and a satyric drama. The candidates were bound before all else to demand from the archon (whose duty it was to superintend the arrangements of the Dionysia) a chorus, the concession or refusal of which was the first judgment on the value of the plays. Before the performance, the sums representing the tribute paid by the allies were solemnly deposited in the orchestra. Next, those orphans (sons of the soldiers slain in battle, and brought up at the expense of the State) who had now attained their majority appeared on the scene, splendidly caparisoned. A herald related what the State had done for them, and declared them henceforward free of its control, authorising them to take their place among the other citizens. The performance then began : the order in which the plays appeared was drawn by lot ; the herald summoned each poet by name, and invited him to proceed to the representation of his works. It is believed that the tragic contest lasted for three days. On the morning of each day the three tragedies and the satyric drama of one of the competitors were acted in succession. In the evening, comedies were performed.

In addition to these dramatic spectacles, there were at this epoch choral contests, which consisted in the rendering of dithyrambs with the accompaniment of the flute. Here the choruses were twofold : a chorus of boys, and a chorus of men, each composed of fifty members.

When the contest was over, the archon drew up a report to be deposited in the archives. These reports formed a series of documents, containing all the principal facts of the history of the Drama, and Aristotle derived much of his information from them.

It is probable that there were also Lenaean con-tests by the time of Aeschylus, but as their existence seems absolutely certain only from the end of the fifth century, we shall consider them later on.

Since the characteristics of Tragedy, from the double point of view of its composition and of its staging, varied little as a whole in Athens after the close of the career of Aeschylus, what is said of the theatre in relation to this poet will as a general rule apply to his successors.

The Drama at that time consisted of a prologue, which took the place of the first scene, and of a considerable number of principal parts or episodes. The episodes were presented under the form of dialogues spoken between the actors ; of lyrical dialogues between the latter and the chorus ; of duets, and even of solos. These different parts were disposed around the choric songs, or stasima. The choruses served either to mark divisions in the action or to suspend it. It was thus that the members of the chorus (under Aeschylus, twelve in number) were summoned to converse with the actors, and put questions to them. They had, moreover, to sympathise with their sorrows, and in chanting to transfer their emotions to the breasts of the spectators. The chorus included declamation and song ; the recitations being the special function of the coryphaeus, or leader. The lyrical parts were sometimes (though very rarely) chanted by independent voices, generally sung by the chorus in unison, the singers at the same time dancing to the sound of instruments.

By dancing was then understood a series of characteristic motions of the arms, legs, and upper part of the body.

Certain of the Greek rites could only be per-formed by women, and for this reason among others, choruses of women are frequent in Greek Drama.

The expense of these choruses was considerable, but it formed part of the obligatory duties levied from the wealthy, corresponding to some extent with the ` income-tax' of our own day.

At the time of Aeschylus, the actors chanted with the chorus, or alone, to the accompaniment of the flute. When they recited, their delivery was modulated and intoned, in contradistinction to that prevailing in the theatre of Sophocles.

Besides the heroes, who were the two principal actors, Aeschylus had secondary characters, who played the part of servants, guardians, and messengers. It was the duty of the messengers to relate events that had occurred at a distance, and in particular to announce the catastrophe of the last act.

It has already been pointed out that decorative scene-painting was fully established by the middle of the fifth century. From this epoch, moreover, date the treatises of Democritus and Anaxagoras on the art of perspective. In all Greek plays, the action took place in the open air ; the events usually occurred before some building, or in a desert place, as figured by a rock or cavern. The upper part of the scene represented the sky, the lower part was separated from it by a few inches only, and depicted a building or landscape as required by circumstances.

The stage usually presented three entries, made through the wall at the back; in addition, there were two side-entrances, one at the right, the other at the left. The openings at the bottom were reserved for persons who were supposed to enter from some cave or building. The right-hand entrance was for people of the neighbourhood ; strangers from a distance came in at the left.

With some few exceptions, changes of scene were unknown in Tragedy, and even in the Old and New Comedy. Scene-shifting was obviated by a mechanical device, the periaktos. This was an immense triangular prism with three faces, revolving on an axis. One was placed at either side of the stage, and communicated with the lateral decorations. Each face of the periaktos was covered with a coat of paint of the same colour as the canvas at the end, the subject of which was never altered. By shifting the two periaktoi simultaneously, an entire change of scene was effected, while the unity of the whole was pre-served by the permanent decoration at the back of the stage.

Statues, altars, obelisks, tombs, and even chariots drawn by horses and mules, were added to the scenery from time to time. Whether or no a curtain was employed in the theatre of the fifth, and even the sixth century, is a point about which we have no information.

There were two categories of actors in Greece. As we have seen, the two principal artists personified the heroes. Those who played the secondary parts (not dignified in Greece by the title of actors) were divided into three classes. In the first were those who had only a few words to pronounce, such as the messengers and servants ; these were generally boys. Next came the mutes, and thirdly, the supplementary chorus-singers, who chanted behind the scene. The chorus and the actors were absolutely independent of one another. The singers were paid by the choregus, and the comedians by the State. Later on we shall see that Sophocles created a third actor, but the number three was never exceeded, whether in Satyric Drama and Comedy, or in Tragedy. The number of actors was doubtless limited on account of the difficulty then found of procuring men whose voice was sufficiently clear and powerful to be heard by the entire audience.

In their costumes the Greeks were at no pains to ensure historical accuracy. For one thing, they were too much opposed to realism upon the stage to tolerate the use of work-a-day garments. The actors, therefore, adopted a full robe with long sleeves, more or less like the dress of the city, but more ample and imposing, over which was thrown a cloak of different colours. The chest and limbs were padded to give bulk to the body. The tunic of the actors who played the part of women was longer than that of the men, and had a kind of train. All the actors were shod with the cothurnus (or tragic buskin), a kind of boot with a wooden sole of enormous thickness, painted in different colours.

But the most important part of the disguise was the mask, by means of which the actor's countenance could be distinguished at a distance, and which made it possible for the same person to play different parts by making repeated changes. This device was particularly apt for men who had to play the part of women. The masks, from the time of Aeschylus, were intended to strike terror ; they were made of linen, and twenty-eight in number : six for old men, eight for the young, three for menials, eleven for women. They were distinguished from one another by the arrangement of the hair, colour of the face, and expression of the eyes : all points which enabled the spectators easily to identify the actors with their different parts at first sight.

The costumes of the actors in the Satyric Drama did not differ materially from those in Tragedy. The use of the cothurnus, however, was here unknown. The mask of old Silenus, the leader of the band, would incite mirth rather than terror, since t represented a drunkard's face. The tunic, instead of being ample as with the tragic actors, was generally tight, and came down to the knee.

The choric singers in Tragedy usually wore the costume of everyday life—the tunic. The features of their masks harmonised with the age and sex of the persons they represented. They were shod with white shoes, and the old men leaned on great sticks as they walked.

In the Satyric Drama the costume of the choric singers was reduced to a thick belt of goatskin, with a tail behind. The chorus also concealed their faces behind a mask with lascivious features, to which long hair was attached.

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