Words of Wisdom: Who were the Greek Tragedians?

Greek drama began as a religious observance in honor of the Greek god, Dionysus, who signified both spring and vintage. Greek drama was, in many ways, much simpler than modern drama, in that there were much fewer characters and only three speaking characters were allowed on the stage at any one time to tell only one story.

The chorus was very important in setting the atmosphere, hinting at the tragedy and singing a poetic song. The chorus also served as a reminder to the audience that, although the drama and tragedy might not be explained and depicted perfectly, that there was another, higher power operative in the universe, as well as in the affairs of men. The few actors wore very elaborate costumes and usually masks with very wide mouths and exaggerated expressions over their faces. This was done to convey a fuller sense of the significance of the drama to the audience.

Most often in the tragedy, the final catastrophe would not be presented by the actors on stage, but rather a messenger would appear to give the detailed account of what had happened. There was usually no curtain and no intermission, but the chorus might sing a song to provide an interlude.

The three greatest poets, who were masters of Greek tragedy, were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Aeschylus was born near Athens about 525 B.C. Legend has him dying about 455 B.C., when an eagle dropped a turtle on his head (talk about the height of tragedy). He is said to have produced more than 80 dramas, with only seven surviving to today.

The seven plays that have been handed down to us are “Agamemnon,” “The Eumenides,” “The Libation Bearers,” “The Persians,’ “Seven Against Thebes,” “The Supplicants,” and ‘Prometheus Bound.” The first three dramas compose the only surviving Greek Trilogy we have today, called “The Oresteia.”

Aeschylus is the first to introduce a second actor to the stage on a consistent basis. Before then, most tragedy utilized one actor only. This resulted in expanding the dialogue and reducing the lyrics. He often both acted in the drama itself and trained the chorus in dance and song. Aeschylus was also said to be a master of costume design and unique mask production.

Sophocles was born about 495 B.C. near Athens and is said to have lived to the ripe old age of 90. In addition to being a great tragedian, Sophocles held several positions of public office in Athenian government. Sophocle’s dramas often wove a very complex web of issues. At the age of only 28, he bested Aeschylus and received first prize at the festival for his dramatic achievement. He wrote more than 100 dramas and won either first or second prize at 24 of the festivals for which he produced a drama. As was the case with Aeschylus, only seven plays of Sophocles have survived to the present day.

The plays which have been handed down to us are “Ajax,” “Antigone,” “The Women Of Trachis,” “Oedipus The King,” “Electra,” “Philoctetes,” and “Oedipus at Colonus.” Where Aeschylus changed tradition in introducing a second speaking actor, Sophocles changed it as well, being the first to introduce a third actor and later, a fourth. He also enlarged the chorus from 12 to 15, but reduced its emphasis. On the other hand, he emphasized costumes by making them more elaborate.

Euripides was born near Athens about 485 B.C. and was the youngest of the trio of Tragedeans. He is the bad boy of Greek tragedy and the most controversial of the three. He was unorthodox and irreverent in the characterization of religion in his dramas and his tragedies were criticized as filled with too many ideas that were unrelated to the whole. He was often nontraditional and sometimes considered as heretical in his approach, as he was very critical of established institutions.

Euripides was a pioneer in tragicomedy and both a realist and a romanticist. He took many liberties with convention, as many of the lead roles in Euripides plays were female, and he introduced several new philosophical and psychological ideas into his dramas. Some of the more well-known dramas produced by Euripides were “The Bacchae,” “Medea,” “Hippolytus,” “Trojan Women,” “Helena” (which provided the basis for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and “Iphigenia in Aulus.” There remain 19 dramas in all produced by Euripides that have survived to today. Euripides was particularly influenced by the words of Socrates.

Comedy and spectacle were elements of the action in the drama that appear to have been heightened by Euripides. The Tragedian age immediately preceded the great philosopher Aristotle and he had some seemingly negative things to say concerning the introduction of comedy and the element of spectacle in drama in his “Philosophy of Poetics.” He maintained that spectacle was the least artistic element and made the least poetic contribution to the overall drama, and that comedy represented man as worse than he was, whereas tragedy, like the epic poetry of Homer before it, represented man as better than in actual life.

Many saw the dramas of Euripides as the beginning of the decline and end of Greek tragedy as a whole. Whether or not this was the case and the decline is directly attributed to Euripides is a legitimate question. However, it is given that the direction and the shape of Greek tragedy did change in the time of Euripides. Because he was so controversial a figure in his day, Euripides only won five prizes for dramas produced for the Greek festivals. He died about 405 B.C.

Life as we know it is still today filled with some form of tragedy, in the modern sense of that word. The tragedy can be the death of a loved one or friend, the loss of our health or our valued possessions, the destruction of our carefully laid plans or the ultimate dashing of all our hopes. Every now and then in our lives, there will be a painful event that we simply call a “tragedy.” When a tragedy occurs, some raise the question: “How can God allow such a thing to happen?”

But, God does not answer all our questions about all the tragedies that occur in our lives. On the other hand, He has revealed to us many truths about the tragic death of his son upon the cross some 2,000 years ago. That tragic event is still at the center of all Christian faith. The Roman cross has become a universal symbol of all Christianity and all tragedy. If we can find the faith to somehow believe what the Bible teaches us about the cross of Jesus Christ, then we will be better prepared to deal with the many tragedies that confront us in our own lives.

Michael Hickey is a local writer and poet who lives in Pelican Bay and Swampscott, Mass. His book, “Get Wisdom,” is published by Xlibris Div. Random House Publishing and is available at 1-888-795-4274, ext. 822, at www.Xlibris.com or your local bookstore. E-mail Mike Hickey at Mikehic@nii.net.

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