TRAGEDY IN ATHENS OF THE 5TH CENTURY BC

Most of the surviving plays were first staged at the religious festival of the God Dionysus, called the City Dionysia, in the early spring.

Four days were devoted to drama: three for tragedies and one for comedy.

Each of the three dramatists selected for production offered in a single day three tragedies and a satyr play.

These plays began in the morning and must have taken the better part of a full day for performance.

Men and women came not only from Athens and its environs but also from other cities of the Greek world.

For Athenians the festival was an occasion for civic pride and display.

The image of Dionysus occupied a seat of honor in the front row, public officials and priests of the god had choice seats and the general public filled the south slope of the Acropolis.

On three sides the theatre encloses the orchestra, a flat, unpaved, circular area perhaps sixty or seventy feet in diameter. Here the chorus, 12 or 15 men, took its place and remained throughout the play.

The drama is poetic. Actors and chorus wear masks and in some cases elaborate costumes.

The performers were all men and, initially two and later Sophocles made them three. They played all the parts between them.

Choral song and dance divide the scenes or episodes, when, for the most part, the actors have retired from the stage.

Analogies to modern opera come to mind but the differences are equally significant.

The poet had a very commanding role in the production. He composed the music as well as the text, both Aeschylus and Sophocles acted in some of their plays and directed his work although the state appointed a choregos to provide the funds needed for training the chorus.

 

AESCHYLUS (c. 525/4- 456 BC)

He was son of Euphorion of Eleusis, a member of a Eupatrid family.

He witnessed the end of tyranny at Athens in his youth and the growth of democracy throughout his life.

He fought at Marathon where his brother Cynegirus met a noble death and probably at Salamis.

His temperament was profoundly religious and intensely patriotic.

He wrote 70- 80 plays.

Seven of his plays survive to this day: Persae (472 BC), Septem contra Thebas (467 BC), the trilogy Oresteia (Agamemnon, Choephoroe, Eymenides/ 458 BC), Supplices (probably 463BC), Prometheus (probably one of his latest plays).

He paid two visits to Sicily, the first not many years after the foundation by Hierion in 476 of the new city of Aetna, the second after the performance of the Oresteia.

He died at Gela of Sicily in 556 BC.

The epitaph on his monument at Gela, in which his fighting at Marathon is mentioned but not his poetry may or may not have been composed by himself.

After his death the Athenians decreed that anyone desiring to produce the works of Aeschylus should be granted a chorus by the archon.

Aeschylus married and had two sons, Euphorion and Euaeon, both of whom became tragic poets. Euphorion won first prize in 431 BC in competition against both Sophocles and Euripides.  His nephew, Philocles (his sister’s son), was also a tragic poet, and won first prize in the competition against Sophocles‘ Oedipus Rex.

 

SOPHOCLES (c. 496- 406/5 BC)

He was born at Colonus, near Athens.

His father was Sophilus, a wealthy manufacturer of armour.

He was said to be handsome and skillful in music and dancing.

His early life coincided with the expansion of the Athenian empire and though he took no active part in politics he was twice elected strategos (general), first as a colleague of Pericles in 440. It was said that he owed his appointment to the success of Antigone.

After the failure of the Sicilian Expedition in 413 he was made one of the probouloi (commissioners) to deal with the crisis.

As well as writing tragedies he was the author of a prose treatise, “On the Chorus”.

He left two sons: by Nicostrate, Iophon the tragedian and by Theoris of Sicyon, Agathon, father of the younger Sophocles, also a tragedian.

He said to have composed 130 plays and to have won 24 dramatic competitions with his tetralogies. With the rest he came second, never third.

Seven tragedies are extant: Antigone (441 BC), Trachiniai and Ajax (probably earlier), Oedipus Tyranuus (soon after 430 BC), Electra (between 418- 416 BC), Philoctetes (409 BC), Oedipus Conoleus (406/5 BC produced posthumously in 401 by the younger Sophocles).

His characters were admired by Aristotle for being “like ourselves only nobler”.

The poet Shelley had a volume of Sophocles in his pocket when he was drowned in 1822.

 

EURIPIDES (c. 480- 406 BC)

He came from Phyla in Attica and was certainly of respectable birth.

No attention needs to be paid to the allegation of comic poets that his mother was a greengrocer. Most of the anecdotes concerning his life are equally unreliable.

He seems to have taken little part in public life.

In 407 or 408 he left Athens for the court of Archelaus, King of Macedon, and it was there that he died.

He is said to have produced 92 plays (we know the titles of about 80), but won first prize only four times in his life (and once after his death with plays that he had left unperformed).

Nineteen plays survive under his name. One of these, the melodramatic Rhesus, is generally reckoned to be spurious, the only extant example of 4th century tragedy.

Cyclops is the only satyr play that survives in full, probably one of his later works.

The rest of his plays are: Alcestis (438 BC), Medea (431 BC), Heraclidae (430- 428 BC), Hippolytus (428 BC), Andromache (425 BC), Hecabe (424 BC), Suppliant women (423 BC), Electra (422- 416 BC), Heralces (close to 415 BC), Trojan women (415 BC), Iphigenia in Tauris (414 BC), Ion (413 BC), Helen (412 BC), Phoenician Women (409 BC), Orestes (408 BC), Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis (posthumously produced).

Euripides was not always greatly interested in organic plot- construction as Aristotle complains.

TRAGEDY IN ATHENS OF THE 5TH CENTURY BC

Most of the surviving plays were first staged at the religious festival of the God Dionysus, called the City Dionysia, in the early spring.

Four days were devoted to drama: three for tragedies and one for comedy.

Each of the three dramatists selected for production offered in a single day three tragedies and a satyr play.

These plays began in the morning and must have taken the better part of a full day for performance.

Men and women came not only from Athens and its environs but also from other cities of the Greek world.

For Athenians the festival was an occasion for civic pride and display.

The image of Dionysus occupied a seat of honor in the front row, public officials and priests of the god had choice seats and the general public filled the south slope of the Acropolis.

On three sides the theatre encloses the orchestra, a flat, unpaved, circular area perhaps sixty or seventy feet in diameter. Here the chorus, 12 or 15 men, took its place and remained throughout the play.

The drama is poetic. Actors and chorus wear masks and in some cases elaborate costumes.

The performers were all men and, initially two and later Sophocles made them three. They played all the parts between them.

Choral song and dance divide the scenes or episodes, when, for the most part, the actors have retired from the stage.

Analogies to modern opera come to mind but the differences are equally significant.

The poet had a very commanding role in the production. He composed the music as well as the text, both Aeschylus and Sophocles acted in some of their plays and directed his work although the state appointed a choregos to provide the funds needed for training the chorus.

AESCHYLUS (c. 525/4- 456 BC)

He was son of Euphorion of Eleusis, a member of a Eupatrid family.

He witnessed the end of tyranny at Athens in his youth and the growth of democracy throughout his life.

He fought at Marathon where his brother Cynegirus met a noble death and probably at Salamis.

His temperament was profoundly religious and intensely patriotic.

He wrote 70- 80 plays.

Seven of his plays survive to this day: Persae (472 BC), Septem contra Thebas (467 BC), the trilogy Oresteia (Agamemnon, Choephoroe, Eymenides/ 458 BC), Supplices (probably 463BC), Prometheus (probably one of his latest plays).

He paid two visits to Sicily, the first not many years after the foundation by Hierion in 476 of the new city of Aetna, the second after the performance of the Oresteia.

He died at Gela of Sicily in 556 BC.

The epitaph on his monument at Gela, in which his fighting at Marathon is mentioned but not his poetry may or may not have been composed by himself.

After his death the Athenians decreed that anyone desiring to produce the works of Aeschylus should be granted a chorus by the archon.

Aeschylus married and had two sons, Euphorion and Euaeon, both of whom became tragic poets. Euphorion won first prize in 431 BC in competition against both Sophocles and Euripides.  His nephew, Philocles (his sister’s son), was also a tragic poet, and won first prize in the competition against Sophocles‘ Oedipus Rex.

SOPHOCLES (c. 496- 406/5 BC)

He was born at Colonus, near Athens.

His father was Sophilus, a wealthy manufacturer of armour.

He was said to be handsome and skillful in music and dancing.

His early life coincided with the expansion of the Athenian empire and though he took no active part in politics he was twice elected strategos (general), first as a colleague of Pericles in 440. It was said that he owed his appointment to the success of Antigone.

After the failure of the Sicilian Expedition in 413 he was made one of the probouloi (commissioners) to deal with the crisis.

As well as writing tragedies he was the author of a prose treatise, “On the Chorus”.

He left two sons: by Nicostrate, Iophon the tragedian and by Theoris of Sicyon, Agathon, father of the younger Sophocles, also a tragedian.

He said to have composed 130 plays and to have won 24 dramatic competitions with his tetralogies. With the rest he came second, never third.

Seven tragedies are extant: Antigone (441 BC), Trachiniai and Ajax (probably earlier), Oedipus Tyranuus (soon after 430 BC), Electra (between 418- 416 BC), Philoctetes (409 BC), Oedipus Conoleus (406/5 BC produced posthumously in 401 by the younger Sophocles).

His characters were admired by Aristotle for being “like ourselves only nobler”.

The poet Shelley had a volume of Sophocles in his pocket when he was drowned in 1822.

EURIPIDES (c. 480- 406 BC)

He came from Phyla in Attica and was certainly of respectable birth.

No attention needs to be paid to the allegation of comic poets that his mother was a greengrocer. Most of the anecdotes concerning his life are equally unreliable.

He seems to have taken little part in public life.

In 407 or 408 he left Athens for the court of Archelaus, King of Macedon, and it was there that he died.

He is said to have produced 92 plays (we know the titles of about 80), but won first prize only four times in his life (and once after his death with plays that he had left unperformed).

Nineteen plays survive under his name. One of these, the melodramatic Rhesus, is generally reckoned to be spurious, the only extant example of 4th century tragedy.

Cyclops is the only satyr play that survives in full, probably one of his later works.

The rest of his plays are: Alcestis (438 BC), Medea (431 BC), Heraclidae (430- 428 BC), Hippolytus (428 BC), Andromache (425 BC), Hecabe (424 BC), Suppliant women (423 BC), Electra (422- 416 BC), Heralces (close to 415 BC), Trojan women (415 BC), Iphigenia in Tauris (414 BC), Ion (413 BC), Helen (412 BC), Phoenician Women (409 BC), Orestes (408 BC), Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis (posthumously produced).

Euripides was not always greatly interested in organic plot- construction as Aristotle complains.

OLD ATTIC COMEDY

Old Comedy was an extraordinary creation- part drama, part revue sketch, part political lampoon, part Broadway musical.

The performers were all men and wore masks.

The male characters had padded buttocks and paunches and wore drooping leather phalluses which could be seen dangling below their short tunics.

The plays seem to share a common structure. After a prologue there were four set pieces- the first entry of the chorus, a direct address to the audience, a battle or quarrel of some kind and a grand finale.

There were 3 to 4 principal actors who played all the parts between them.

 

ARISTOPHANES (c. 447- 388 BC)

He was an Athenian citizen born in the deme of Kydathenaion (today the region of Plaka)

His father’s name was Phillipos.

In one of his plays he reveals that he has thin hair.

At least 40 plays were attributed to him in antiquity of which eleven have come down to us: Acharnians (425BC), Knights (424BC), Clouds (423BC), Wasps (422BC), Peace (421BC), Birds (414BC), Lystistrata (411BC), Women of the Thesmophoria (411BC), Frogs (405BC), Women at the Assembly (392BC), Wealth (388BC)

His plays are the only examples of Old Comedy that survive intact.

He is not a pioneer but an inheritor of many important comic writers like Magnes, Cratinus, Crates, Eupolis- none of whose works have survived.

For Aristophanes democracy was not something new and radical but simply a given. It was the politics of his parents’ generation.

His work was written against the background of the 27 year old war between Athens and Sparta.

He lived through the final collapse of Athenian power and the bitter conclusion to the war.

His three sons, Araros, Phillipos and either Philetairos or Nikostratos (the ancient commentators differ about the name of the third son) took up their fathers’ profession and became writers of comedy in their turn.

OLD ATTIC COMEDY

Old Comedy was an extraordinary creation- part drama, part revue sketch, part political lampoon, part Broadway musical.

The performers were all men and wore masks.

The male characters had padded buttocks and paunches and wore drooping leather phalluses which could be seen dangling below their short tunics.

The plays seem to share a common structure. After a prologue there were four set pieces- the first entry of the chorus, a direct address to the audience, a battle or quarrel of some kind and a grand finale.

There were 3 to 4 principal actors who played all the parts between them.

ARISTOPHANES (c. 447- 388 BC)

He was an Athenian citizen born in the deme of Kydathenaion (today the region of Plaka)

His father’s name was Phillipos.

In one of his plays he reveals that he has thin hair.

At least 40 plays were attributed to him in antiquity of which eleven have come down to us: Acharnians (425BC), Knights (424BC), Clouds (423BC), Wasps (422BC), Peace (421BC), Birds (414BC), Lystistrata (411BC), Women of the Thesmophoria (411BC), Frogs (405BC), Women at the Assembly (392BC), Wealth (388BC)

His plays are the only examples of Old Comedy that survive intact.

He is not a pioneer but an inheritor of many important comic writers like Magnes, Cratinus, Crates, Eupolis- none of whose works have survived.

For Aristophanes democracy was not something new and radical but simply a given. It was the politics of his parents’ generation.

His work was written against the background of the 27 year old war between Athens and Sparta.

He lived through the final collapse of Athenian power and the bitter conclusion to the war.

His three sons, Araros, Phillipos and either Philetairos or Nikostratos (the ancient commentators differ about the name of the third son) took up their fathers’ profession and became writers of comedy in their turn.

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