We’ve been talking about the intellectual accomplishments of the ancient Greeks and unique contribution they made to the history of mankind. This creative capability existed in both the Dorian and Ionian races because we know that Sparta made a contribution to the arts before its militaristic political system cut off artistic expression. Still the majority of the output occurred in Athens where the people’s sense of freedom combined with the wonder they felt about life produced a wellspring for creativity.
Tragic drama is an interesting facet of the Greek cultural contribution because the body of work is monumental. Indeed, as scholars rate the great dramatic playwrights of all time, three out of the top four were Greeks from the golden age of Athens – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
The drama plays began as a part of the Festival of Dionysus in the sixth century B.C. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, inspirer of madness and ecstasy, and the god of theater. He was celebrated in a rural Dionysia in late fall and a city Dionysia in March. The Greeks loved to dance and sing so a festival honoring the wine god would certainly be a wonderful pretext for merriment. The Dionysia was a merging of religion and joy like no other. The first day of the festival featured a grand parade ending at the Theater of Dionysus. Included in the procession were sacrificial animals, sons of those who died in battle, and the political leadership of Athens.
On the second day, the schedule of dramatic plays was announced and judges were selected by lot. Three playwrights put on three of their own dramatic plays along with one satyr play. The satyr play featured a mythology-based plot in a burlesque style probably designed to be a break for the audience after the intensity of the dramas.
The dramas were designed to teach the public the important virtues of life, validate the political system of Athens, and criticize its enemies. All the public was invited including the poor who were given money to buy their tickets. Many times the comment has been made that the drama plays were more democratic than the democracy of Athens because the plots included groups, like women and slaves, who had no rights in the political system.
The plays were very structured: in meter with a specific format to the dialog. Each play featured a chorus that sang or provided an external view of the action. The number of actors was limited to three and they wore masks. There was also a chorus included which took the role of an external observer of the action.
Once a dramas were concluded, the judges voted and the winners were announced. Of the three giants of Greek drama, Aeschylus wrote 70-90 plays of which seven survive. All seven won first prize at the Dionysia. Sophocles wrote 123 plays of which seven survive. He won twenty-four times and never finished lower than second. Euripides wrote 91 plays of which eighteen survive. Euripides won first prize four times.
Aeschylus was considered the father of Greek drama. As a religious man and philosopher, his plays were more rough in structure as he developed the model. Sophocles brought the form to its highest level in terms of structure and balance between the story and the moral. Euripides, impatient with what came before him and overtly emotional, brought the inner thoughts and anxieties of his characters into his plays. His works represent a drop off in the traditional form. After Euripides, drama declined and it was replaced by comedy, most notably that of Aristophanes.
The great period of Greek drama spanned the period from 472 B.C, when Aeschylus’ The Persians was performed, to 401, when Sophocles Oedipus of Colonus was performed posthumously. The form had been created, reached perfection, and died in a century. Because art reflects the mood of a culture, the end of classical drama in Greece is not surprising when one considers the impact of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). Perhaps the Greeks found their dramas too depressing and needed comedies to help them deal with the occupation of the Spartans.