The Power Of Tragedy
The ancient Greeks took their entertainment very seriously and used drama as a way of investigating the world they lived in and what it meant to be human. Needless to say the dramatists were held in the pedestal next to the almighty in ancient Greece. Although three genres of drama were in vogue, tragedy occupied the front seat. Tragedy dealt with the big themes of love, loss, pride and abuse of power, and the fraught relationship between men and the God.
Typically, the main protagonist of a tragedy commits some terrible crimes without realising. Then through the process of several events, as unfolded in the drama, he realises his errors and the world around him crumbles. The tragedies/dramas became a tool of social revolution and evolution.
Playwrights enjoyed a special status in the ancient Greek society. So, when Sophecles – one of the trio of the three ancient Greek tragedians – read out the script of his latest play inside the courtroom during a trial which was initiated by his legitimate son to question his mental condition in connection to the division of property between the legitimate son and the son born out of love outside wedlock, the courtroom turned into an arena of fight (or entertainment). The inevitable question arose: did justice prevailed or was it declared subservient to the antics of the great Greek tragedian?
For the ancient Greeks, play or drama was not just a form of art. In fact, the theatre competitions were a career of social and cultural values. The more the titles won by the playwrights, the more elevated their social status was. Sophocles competed in 30 competitions, won 24 and was never judged lower than second place!
Thespis was the winner of the first theatrical contest in 534 BC. Thespis – the first person ever to appear on stage as an actor – was a singer of dithyrambs (songs about stories from mythology with choric refrains). He is credited with introducing a new style in which one singer or actor performed the words of individual characters in the stories, distinguishing between the characters with the aid of different masks, and the new style was called tragedy. Later, this particular style gave birth to stalwarts, like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – the Trio of Greek Tragedians. Aeschylus, often described as the father of tragedy, is the starting point of the tragic plays. One hallmark of Aeschylean dramaturgy was to write connected trilogy which drew upon stories derived from myths.
Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides
The theatre competition used to take place at the top of Mount Olympus…..the highest mountain in Greece. The event was popularly known as Dionysia, a festival in honour of Dionysus, the God of the grape harvest, wine-making and wine, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy in ancient Greek religion and myth. The event allowed around 15,000 people to enjoy various plays for a week. As fight was the only item of entertainment in the war-loving Athenian society, the people enjoyed the theatre-war on Mount Olympus a lot. Within a few years, this competition became one of the indicators of social change. The performance during the Dionysia determined the status of a playwright. Sometimes, 1,200-1,500 tragedies were performed during the event.
According to Aristotle (commonly known as the greatest drama critic of all time), tragedy is the most classical form of drama. The ancient Greek plays used to deal mainly with the consequences of personal and social behaviour of some of the highly respectable characters. Aristotle argued that tragedy cleansed the heart through pity and terror, purging us of our petty concerns and worries by making us aware that there could be nobility in suffering. He called this experience catharsis. Basically, Dionysia was a tragedy competition, as the main task of the judges was to select the best tragedian.
Euripides, the talented youngster, was well versed in almost all the disciplines and he earned the respect from contemporary Greek intellectuals. However, a victory at the top of the Mount Olympus was important for Euripides to stamp his authority on the cultural field. Finally, Euripides tasted his first victory in 411 BC. The year is very important as far as the history of play (or drama) is concerned. Aeschylus had already left the world. Although Euripides won the theatre competition a total of five times, the famous playwright had to go through a turbulent period before his first victory.
The preparation for the first round of the theatrical contest used to begin six months before the main event and judges used to select 5-10 playwrights for the main competition. Once, Aristotle claimed that ‘Oedipus the King’ failed to secure the top position, as Sophocles finished second that year. The competition helps us realise the importance of culture in war-ravaged ancient Greece. The competition got a new look in 480 BC when the Persians defeated the Greeks and destroyed Athens. Later, the Greeks re-built their capital and also restructured the amphitheatres.
This period is popularly known as the golden age of Greek drama. Dionysia completed 100 years by that time, and comedy or satire also became popular in the south-eastern European country. The three great tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – were born this period. However, they became famous not only because of their quality, but also because of their compatriots who were not interested in documenting their views or emotions. The ancient Greek people believed in conversations, and not in preservation. Once a drama was presented in Athens, it was not possible to represent the piece. In other words, preservation of plays was not important for the Greeks.
Although thousands of plays were performed during the Dionysia Festival, not a single manuscript has been preserved at the Greek National Archive. We can trace only few of them thanks to the Spartans. It is to be noted that Sparta was the principal enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War between 431 BC and 404 BC. After facing defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the Greeks started preserving their culture. The Hellenistic Society of Greece, influenced by Sparta, did the job. So, some Greek plays managed to survive! Although there were a number of great tragedians in ancient Greece, most of their works were not preserved properly.
Yet those, which are still available, make Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and their works immortal. Others failed to secure their places in history. This is……. the power of tragedy!
This article has been co-authored by Koushik Das and Teesha Roy
Teesha Roy (born on May 22, 1975 in Kolkata) is a teacher with a teaching experience of different age groups and a career span of twelve years. Living in the Indian capital of New Delhi, Teesha is vastly interested in travelling and documenting travel experiences. A wanderer in heart, she finds interest in visiting new places, mingling with local people and understanding their cultural and social ethos. She is Masters in Political Science and also in English, with a first division distinction in B.Ed. Apart from teaching and travelling, she takes keen interest in reading.
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