Overview

Greek tragedy


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Tragedy, one of the most influential literary forms that originated in Greece, is esp. associated with Athens in the 5th cent. bc. All but one of the surviving plays date from the 5th cent., but these represent only a tiny sample of the vast body of material produced from the late 6th cent. onwards: thirteen new tragedies in a normal year in the latter part of the 5th cent. The popularity of the dramatic festivals at Athens attracted interest in other cities, with the result that performances of tragedy rapidly became common elsewhere, and what began as a medium reflecting the life of a particular community acquired universal appeal in the Greek‐speaking world. By the end of the 3rd cent., Roman translations and adaptations began to extend the range of its influence still further.

1(a). The Dramatic Festivals in the Fifth Century

It was in Attica that tragedy acquired its definitive form, and it is from Attica that we have almost everything that we know about it. From the end of the 6th cent., if not before, tragedies were performed in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysus Eleuthereus, the City Dionysia. This remained the main context for tragic performances, although they occurred also at the Rural Dionysia, and (probably in the 430s) a competition for two tragedians each with two tragedies was introduced into the Lenaea. In all these festivals the tragic performances were one feature of a programme of events which, at the City Dionysia, included processions, sacrifice, libations, the parade of war orphans, performances of dithyramb and comedy, and a final assembly to review the conduct of the festival.

At the City Dionysia three tragedians generally competed each with three tragedies and a satyr‐play. In charge of the festival was the archon (see archontes), who chose the three tragedians. He also appointed the three rich men who bore the expenses of training and costuming the choruses (see choregia). Originally the tragedian acted in his own play, but later we find tragedians employing actors, as well as the appointment of protagonists (see 1 (b) by the state. In a preliminary ceremony called the proagon it seems that each tragedian appeared with his actors on a platform to announce the themes of his plays. Ten judges were chosen, one from each of the tribes (see phylai), in a complex process involving an element of chance. The victorious poet was crowned with ivy in the theatre.

1(b). Form and Performance

Some features of the tragic performances are best understood if set in the context of Greek festival practice. The notion of performers in athletics and the arts competing in honour of the gods was familiar throughout the Greek world (see agones). Individuals entered for athletic events like running (see stadium) or boxing or for musical contests as solo instrumentalists, and groups participated in many forms of song and dance or in team activities such as relay races. In the City Dionysia the emphasis was on competition by choruses, whether for dithyramb, tragedy and satyr‐play, or comedy; thus despite the novelty of dramatic representation there was a strong element of continuity with established practice, and the competition for the best leading actor (prōtagōnistēs), introduced in the mid‐5th cent., can be compared with competitions among solo musicians or rhapsodes.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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