Describe the evolution of Greek tragedy from its origins in ritual and religious singing. Make reference to AT LEAST one scene from the Oresteia trilogy in which the religious beliefs of the Ancient Greeks are crucial to the drama
Tragedy within Greek drama was a complex reflection of life within their society and both portrayed and enforced the intricate religious and mythological roots which played an important part in the daily lives of every Greek.
Greek drama began as religious festivals in honour of their many Gods. One such God was the god of fertility, wine and ecstasy, named Dionysus. In Athens, four festivals were organized in honour of Dionysus. The festivals would co-inside with the seasons, with the biggest festival being the Great or City Dionysia. It was held when winter was at an end and spring was on its way. The Populous would celebrate the passing of the winter and welcome in the spring with sacrifices, dancing and singing in the hope that Dionysus would make the farm land fertile. These songs and dances, known as a Dithyramb would be performed by a chorus of men and boys who would sing and dance a poetic composition in honour of Dionysus. The lyrics of these songs were often inspired by the life of Dionysus and his adventures. There would also be a blood sacrifice of a Goat in honour of his name with a lamentable song being sung as part of the ritual. This ritual and song is where the word tragedy may derive from; ‘Tragos’ meaning goat and ‘Ode’ meaning hymn or lamentation.
As Greek life became more civilised, these rituals and dances grew and started to attract audiences, so much so that specially constructed buildings were created to hold the events. It was at this time that the dithyramb became more sophisticated as one member of the chorus stepped away from the rest and started to respond to the choral hymns. This was the birth of theatre and the origins of today’s modern theatrical performance. This progression led to playwrights preparing a trilogy of tragedies, based on mythical stories, to be shown at the festival with actors being added to the action as well as the chorus. Religious ritual was still prominent in these more theatrical celebrations as to open the festival; there would be a procession of the statue of Dionysus through the streets of Athens to the theatre, creating a connection between something that was considered sacred and the theatre.
Aeschylus was one such playwright of these tragic plays and his ‘Oresteia Trilogy’ is the only surviving tragic trilogy. The tragic plays would deal, ‘with the fall from power of a figure in high position because of mistaken judgement, the tragic flaw.’ (Chambers, 2002, p. 781) Aeschylus was also the first playwright to introduce a second actor into the action of the play, creating dialogue between characters and allowing the characters and plot to grow through their desires, actions and conflicts. There was also a moral story to be gained by the audience in that ‘Human Beings must learn to acknowledge their humanity if they are to enjoy the fruits of peace and prosperity.’ (Wickham, 1992, p. 36) Ultimately the Greeks wanted to live in an ordered life and therefore needed to accept responsibility for their actions in order to live a successful life.
Within these plays, the chorus played a big part of representing the populous and maintain a sense of ceremony and ritual. Sacrifice, ritual offerings and ceremonies were key components within the plays as they were an inaugural part of Greek life. Within the first book of the Oresteia, the character of Agamemnon struggles with a decision to ritually sacrifice his daughter in order to gain favour with the Goddess Artemis and win the war against Troy. The decision to sacrifice his daughter ultimately led to the death of Agamemnon and a destructive chain of events that unfold throughout the rest of the trilogy. Informing the audience of key components to plot development the Elders tell us of Agamemnon’s plight:
Chorus:‘If I obey the Goddess, my own daughter
Has to die
If I deny the goddess, this army
Has to dissolve’ (Hughes, 2000, p. 14)
This struggle that Agamemnon faces show the audience that Agamemnon’s belief in the Gods and in religious sacrifice, persuade him to kill his daughter in order to save an entire army.
Another example of the religious beliefs of the Greeks which is shown through drama in the Oresteia is taken from the second book ‘Choephori’. Here Electra is sent by Clytemnestra to pour oil and wine over Agamemnon’s grave to honour the earth goddess, Gaia, or Great Mother. The chorus is represented by a group of slave women and again they inform the audience of the backstory and provide key information to the plot:
Chorus:‘So the Queen, detested
By the gods and the dead,
Sent us at first light
To pour out the oil and wine
Into the earth’s lap –
All to appease the Great Mother’ (Hughes, 2000, p. 92)
This pouring of liquid, also known as a Libation, is seen as an offering to the Gods and highlights Clytemnestra’s belief in the influence of the Gods in her everyday life. She views the offering as a way of pleasing the Gods in the hope that her curse would be lifted.
The final book of the Oresteia trilogy tells of judgement and shows the progression throughout the trilogy of a primitive nation moving towards a civilised society. This mirrors the development of early Greek life as the Greeks moved away from archaic religious and ritualistic ceremonies and using theatre as a means of catharsis and reflection upon the experiences of the past. ‘Greek theatre was born of the same need to imitate life, to tell stories, and to support religious ceremony, as has been the case with all early dramatic art.’ (Fraser, 2004, p. 7)
To conclude, Greek Tragedy arose from the religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks, where sacrifice and ritual played an important part of life. The plays were a commentary on social values which enabled the Greeks to learn and evolve, giving the society a certainty and a future.
Chambers, C., 2002. The Continuum companion to twentieth century theatre. New York: Continuum. Pp 781 Wickham, G., 1992. A History of the Theatre. London: Phaidon Press Limited. Pp 36 Hughes, T., 2000. Aescylus The Oresteia. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Pp 14 Hughes, T., 2000. Aescylus The Oresteia. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Pp 92 Fraser, N., 2004. Theatre History Explained. Marlborough: The Crowood Press Ltd. Pp 7
Banks, R., 1991. Drama and Theatre Arts. Sevenoaks: Hodder & Stoughton. Chambers, C., 2002. The Continuum companion to twentieth century theatre. New York: Continuum. Database, T., 2011. The Origins of Tragedy. [Online]
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Easterling, P., 2004. The Cambridge companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University press. Fraser, N., 2004. Theatre History Explained. Marlborough: The Crowood Press Ltd. Hughes, T., 2000. Aescylus The Oresteia. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Press, U., 2008. Ancient Greek Theatre. [Online]
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Wickham, G., 1992. A History of the Theatre. London: Phaidon Press Limited.