"THE BIRTH OF ANCIENT DRAMA"In order to trace the origin of theatre one should look into the depths of the human soul and time, into the need of humans for expression and interpretation of the world, centuries ago. However, even if theatre is considered to be the result of a long-time evolution, lost in time, in the western world, its birth can be accurately determined in space and in time: Athens, 6th century B.C. Here, the dramatic poetry was born in the form of tragedy. It was an original creation with its own rules and characteristics but also a special form which expressed ideas, values and political preoccupations, by combining verse, music and myth. It is not easy to answer to how humans invented the dramatic poetry, as the information from the ancient sources may be ample but at the same time its pieces are brief and often quite dense. It is thus difficult to detect the conditions under which the ancient drama was born and developed 2,500 years ago. The questions are many. Are there answers to all of them?
Was the theatrical act born from imitation?
According to Aristotle imitation is the main cause for the creation of the first improvised spectacles that finally led to the birth of dramatic art.
Imitation is the driving force for the birth of the theatrical act. Already since the prehistoric societies people organized ritual dances of magical and religious character. By repeating these gestures, they reproduced stories and emotions. They thus tried to communicate with the divine powers and ensure their survival, power and luck, the blessing of giving birth to many children, the fertility of their land and the good health of their livestock.
Where and when do the first theatrical events take place in Greece?
In Minoan Crete. The Minoans organized cult ceremonies to honour their Great Goddess, who symbolized the fertility of nature and the power of life itself. The worshippers danced ecstatically trying to provoke the appearance of the Goddess. With circular dances, their hands above the head and their body leaning back, they invited the Great Goddess to appear before them.
Gold seal ring depicting four women. They seem to be dancing in ecstasy celebrating the appearance of the Great Goddess who is symbolized be the small figure on the top left part of the ring. Late Minoan Period I-II (1600 B.C. – 1400 B.C.), Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
How was drama born in ancient Greece?
In ancient Greece, the drama is rooted in the rituals and fairs in honour of Dionysus, god of fertility and vegetation. His believers were disguised, danced frantically and sang the cult song of the god, the dithyramb.
In the 6th century B.C., in Corinth, the poet Arion transformed the improvised dithyramb into an artistic composition and presented it to an audience.
In Attica, around the middle of the same century, Thespis brought another even more important change. As the leader of a dithyramb chorus, he separated himself from the others, and wearing a mask, he started conversing with them. Thus, a dialogue between the person and the group started and then evolved. The myths stopped being narrations of acts and became action, imitation, representation, theatrical act.
The new form of dithyramb spread immediately across Attica. In the middle of the 6th century B.C., the tyrant of Athens, Peisistratus, decided to reorganize the festival of the Great (or City) Dionysia, in order to be appreciated by the people. So, he added dithyramb competitions to the Great Dionysia, which became an institution in Athens, and later on turned into the most impressive celebration in honour of Dionysus, as well as the most impressive celebration of theatre.
Wine jug (chous, a type of oinochoe) depicting Dionysus and a Satyr (520-510 B.C.), National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
After the overthrow of the oligarchic and tyrannical regimes, the democratic regime is gradually established in Athens in the 5th century B.C. In the middle of the same century Athens was the most powerful of all the other Greek city-states, and its democratic organization also marked the course of the dramatic poetry. The theatre became one more space for preoccupation and confrontation, which contributed to the formation of political conscience of the Athenian citizens.
In the 5th century B.C., theatrical performances were organized almost exclusively in Athens. They formed part of the celebrations in honour of god Dionysus. The most important celebration, the Great or City Dionysia, included competitions of tragedy, satirical drama and comedy.
The citizens participated with great enthusiasm. Their celebration helped them bond with their city and with each other. It was a festival open to all, attended by official representatives of other city-states, by metoikoi (foreign residents), and by numerous visitors. It was a good opportunity to demonstrate the Athenian democracy and the supremacy of the city among allies and competitors. As regards women, we do not surely know whether they attended the theatrical performances or not.
The state assumed the responsibility for organizing the drama competitions. It assigned the expenses of the plays to wealthy citizens, the sponsors. To give the opportunity of watching the performances to the poorer Athenians, Pericles established the institution of the Theorica: part of the state funds was given to the poor to pay for their ticket. The state seemed to invite the citizens to the theatre in every way, because it considered it as a “school” of democracy.
Why do we talk about drama genres?
Drama acquired a specific form and character, then it evolved, and then it was divided in three genres: tragedy, comedy and satirical drama.
The Tragedy is the first drama genre. The word is formed by the words “tragos” (goat) +”ode” (hymn) and derives from the sacrifice of a goat by the worshippers of Dionysus in his honour, before they sang the dithyramb. Their song was a song for the goat, so the new poetic kind, which evolved from the dithyramb, was called tragedy.
The Comedy, according to Aristotle, derived from improvised songs of festive popular events, such as the “komos”. This was a festive procession of drunken people who walked through the streets of the city and danced, sang, teased the others and made jokes. So the comedy seems to derive from the words “komos” and “ode”, the song of the komos.
The satirical drama (satire) is briefer than the tragedy but evidently more associated with Dionysus. The members of the chorus imitated the mischievous and uninhibited Satyrs, who gave their name to this genre. The Satyrs with their drunk cheerful dancing and singing, and their uncontrollable lust for women created a Dionysian atmosphere in the theatre, promoting the cult character of the celebration. With their actions they created a cheerful and funny spectacle. The happy ending brings the satirical drama closer to the comedy, although it is written by the tragic poets.
Commemorative relief. According to some scholars, it was dedicated to god Dionysus by a group of tragedy actors, after a performance. The actors are standing next to the god Dionysus, holding tambourines and masks. Dionysus is holding a horn, one of the most characteristic symbols of him. (ca. 400 B.C.), National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
What inspired the dramatic poets?
The poets who wrote the tragedies, the tragedians as they are called, drew their subjects from the Greek mythological cycles. Besides, the myths narrate the adventures of heroes who experience extreme situations: wars, conflicts, family disputes, vengeance and honour, passion and ethical dilemmas, confrontation with one’s destiny.
They were inspired by the historic events of their time and the issues of the city. The conflicts between the Greeks and the Persians, the democratic regime, the decisions of the Assembly (Ecclesia of demos), the Peloponnesian war are hidden in the dramatic poetry and inspire it. The spectators identified themselves with the characters, and with them they suffered, they were concerned, they thought. Thus, the tragedy taught and educated the citizens. It addressed issues that exercised their judgment and formed their political conscience.
The Old Comedy (written between 486 and 400 B.C.) was basically a political comedy aiming at awakening the citizens for the welfare of the city. It dealt with the contemporary problems of the Athenians, it commented on situations, personalities, politicians and it satirized power. With the exception of Aristophanes, only some verses of other poets of the Old Comedy have survived. The poets of the subsequent Middle Comedy (400-320 B.C.) wrote about lighter subjects: family stories, love games, misunderstandings. In the late 4th century B.C., the New Comedy appeared (320-200 B.C.). The poets mainly dealt with human characters, while the comedy of morals flourished. Menander (342/1–291/0 B.C.) was the main representative of New Comedy, as well as the last important representative of the Attic drama.
The subjects of the satirical drama were also drawn from the Greek mythology, but the difference is that the poets here presented the myths in a funny way. The heroes devised cunning plans to overpower demons and monsters, there were miracles and magic, stories that reminded of popular tales.
Vessel for mixing wine with water (dinos). It depicts Dionysus with his troupe (420-410 B.C.), National Archaeological Museum of Athens.