Origins: The First Act
What do Shakespeare, Ibsen and Hollywood have in common? An irredeemable debt to ancient Greek theater.
In 1872 the young Friedrich Nietzsche burst onto the German intellectual scene by publishing The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Others had speculated on the origins of ancient theater, starting with Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., but no one before Nietzsche had conceived of it as a “birth,” and a metaphysical one at that.
For Nietzsche, Greek tragedy was the child of a strange marriage between characteristics of the Greek gods Apollo (associated with singing, poetry and the arts) and Dionysus (the god of wine, capable of deep compassion and terrible cruelty). On the one side was the Apollonian spirit of distinct individual existence (the egoistic “dream” that each of us uniquely matters); on the other side was the Dionysian “ground-swell of Being” (those impersonal and irresistible currents of life and death, leading to oblivion). Frequently in ancient Greek tragedy, the hero dies but the chorus lives on—suggesting, to Nietzsche, the universal truth that the individual emerges only briefly, then sinks back into the all-consuming reality of the life-force, no longer capable of self-important dreams.
Whatever we think of this heady mixture of philosophy and metaphor, Nietzsche helps us admire the ancient Athenians for inventing an art form that confronts unpleasant truths head-on. Greek actors would play out such deadly myths as the Trojan War, the murders in the house of Atreus, Oedipus’s self-inflicted blindness, Medea’s slaughter of her children, and Pentheus’s dismemberment by his mother. In doing so, they created a genre that has come down to us today: Not only do we continue to attend performances of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and other Greek playwrights, but many of our theatrical forms and devices owe a direct debt to ancient drama.
The importance of the chorus in Greek plays points to the significant role played by music in the development of drama, as Nietzsche’s title announces. “Chorus” is Greek for dance, and “orchestra” literally means dancing place. The lyric form of choral poetry reminds us that much of Greek tragedy was sung and danced, accompanied by the music of the lyre (thus lyrical poetry).
Tragedy drew its music from daily life—songs at marriages and funerals, songs sung while spinning and weaving, drinking songs, work songs, specially commissioned odes for victors at athletic contests (like the Olympic games), music for gymnastic training and military drills, ritual shouts and incantations at sacrifices, and hymns invoking gods. Reworked and transformed, these elements provided an important strand in the complicated weave that gave rise to tragedy (and also comedy, a genre that developed a little later).
In the earliest known theater, these lyrical-musical elements were tied to a narrative provided by Greek myths—which, for the ancient Greeks, were familiar stories passed down by oral tradition. In the mid sixth-century B.C., Athens inaugurated a contest for reciting the most famous stories at the Pan-Athenaic festival. The Iliad, Odyssey and other epic poems attributed to Homer were performed by a series of “rhapsodes,” each of whom recited in sequence a section of the poem, accompanying himself on the lyre.
In a sense, rhapsodes were the first actors (roughly 60 percent of the Iliad is in direct speech), and these epic recitations provided an impetus for embodying characters fully in the new genre of theater. The addition of costumes and masks (all Greek dramatic performers wore masks) allowed actors to play several roles, eliminating the need for a narrator. For the first time, the fictional “people” of a story seemed to act out its events themselves, supplemented by a chorus (made up of citizens, household slaves or friends) caught up in the dramatic situation.
The first theatrical productions were probably also connected with the worship of the wine-god Dionysus. From paintings on vases (often wine vessels), we know that initiates in the Dionysiac cult sometimes danced around an image of the god attached to a tree or pole. These mask-like visages of Dionysus may have influenced the use of masks by actors and the chorus. Moreover, a sense of being other than, or outside of, oneself is an experience common to drinking wine and to acting a theatrical role.
The Greeks adopted Dionysus as the god of their theater, and tragic and comic performances took place at city-sponsored festivals held in his honor. The biggest festival, held at the City Dionysia (the sanctuary to Dionysus), took place every spring in Athens, where large audiences gathered over several days. The close link to Dionysus gives some support to a theory about drama’s origins popular earlier this century (a previous Origins column [Leonora Neville, “Fixing the Millennium,” January/February 2000] reminds us that our 21st century begins next year). Scholars thought that the drama of the death and rebirth of Dionysus—resembling the death and rebirth of crops in winter and spring—was acted out in the earliest tragedies. (Unfortunately, however, no extant tragedy corresponds to this pattern.)
The Theater of Dionysus lies on the south slope of the Acropolis, on whose heights rose Athens’s most sacred temples. Open to the sky, and looking down over the southern part of town, the theater belonged fully to the political and social world of its audience—unlike our indoor theaters (which cut off the outside world). The beginnings of Greek theater were associated with another radical invention of the ancient Athenians: democracy. Although we find obscure references to earlier dramatists, our first secure date for tragic performances at the City Dionysia comes shortly after the expulsion from Athens of the Pisistratids—a dynasty of tyrants who ruled the city in the sixth century B.C.—and the institution of democracy in 508/507 B.C.
The tragedies themselves are profoundly concerned with social and political problems. Even while dramatizing age-old myths, they raise important civic questions: What makes a good leader? Should citizens resist illegitimate authority? How can a society develop fair laws and administer justice equitably? How should society treat women, slaves (substitute “workers”) and immigrants? What can we learn from the excesses and failures of others?
We shouldn’t romanticize the ancient Greeks. Athenian democracy depended in part on slave labor, and the Athenians condemned Socrates to exile or death. But they also created a form of expression that still flourishes 2,500 years later—in a world utterly different from their own. And perhaps they can help us understand that theater—along with other arts—is more than mere entertainment; it is also a means by which we might learn to integrate our social, creative and all-too-mortal lives.Read about the astonishing discovery of a theater mask mosiac, dubbed the “Adonis of Dor,” in the November/December issue of BAR.
Rush Rehm is associate professor of Drama and Classics at Stanford University.
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