Ancient History & Civilisation

5. The Beginnings of the Drama

The sixth century, already distinguished in so many fields and lands, crowned its accomplishments by laying the foundations of the drama. It was one of the creative moments in history; never before, so far as we know, had men passed from pantomime or ritual to the spoken and secular play.

Comedy, says Aristotle,91 developed “out of those who led the phallic procession.” A company of people carrying sacred phalli, and singing dithyrambs to Dionysus, or hymns to some other vegetation god, constituted, in Greek terminology, a komos, or revel. Sex was essential, for the culmination of the ritual was a symbolic marriage aimed at the magic stimulation of the soil;92 hence in early Greek comedy, as in most modern comedies and novels, marriage and presumptive procreation form the proper ending of the tale. The comic drama of Greece remained till Menander obscene because its origin was frankly phallic; it was in its beginnings a joyous celebration of reproductive powers, and sexual restraints were in some measure removed. It was a day’s moratorium on morals; free speech (parrhasia) was then particularly free;93 and many of the paraders, dressed in Dionysian satyr style, wore a goat’s tail and a large artificial phallus of red leather as part of their costume. This garb became traditional on the comic stage; it was a matter of sacred custom, religiously observed in Aristophanes; indeed, the phallus continued to be the inseparable emblem of the clown until the fifth century of our era in the West, and the last century of the Byzantine Empire in the East.94 Along with the phallus, in the Old Comedy, went the licentious kordax dance.95

Strange to say, it was in Sicily that the rustic vegetation revel was first transformed into the comic drama. About 560 one Susarion of Megara Hyblaea, near Syracuse, developed the processional mirth into brief plays of rough satire and comedy.96 From Sicily the new art passed into the Peloponnesus and then into Attica; comedies were performed in the villages by traveling players or local amateurs. A century passed before the authorities—to quote Aristotle’s phrase97—treated the comic drama seriously enough to give it (465 B.C.) a chorus for representation at an official festival.

Tragedy—tragoidia, or the goat song—arose in like manner from the mimic representations, in dancing and singing, of satyrlike Dionysian revelers dressed in the costume of goats.98 These satyr plays remained till Euripides an essential part of the Dionysian drama; each composer of a tragic trilogy was expected to make a concession to ancient custom by offering, as the fourth part of his presentation, a satyr play in honor of Dionysus. “Being a development of the satyr play,” says Aristotle,99 “it was quite late before tragedy rose from short plots and comic diction to its full dignity.” Doubtless other seeds matured in the birth of tragedy; perhaps it took something from the ritual worship and appeasement of the dead.100 But essentially its source lay in mimetic religious ceremonies like the representation, in Crete, of the birth of Zeus, or, in Argos and Samos, his symbolic marriage with Hera, or, in Eleusis and elsewhere, the sacred mysteries of Demeter and Persephone, or, above all, in the Peloponnesus and Attica, the mourning and rejoicing over the death and resurrection of Dionysus. Such representations were called dromena—things performed;drama is a kindred word, and means, as it should, an action. At Sicyon tragic choruses, till the days of the dictator Cleisthenes, commemorated, we are told, the “sufferings of Adrastus,” the ancient king. At Icaria, where Thespis grew up, a goat was sacrificed to Dionysus; perhaps the “goat song” from which tragedy derived its name was a chant sung over the dismembered symbol or embodiment of the drunken god.101 The Greek drama, like ours, grew out of religious ritual.

Hence the Athenian drama, tragic and comic, was performed as part of the festival of Dionysus, under the presidency of his priests, in a theater named after him, by players called “the Dionysian artists.” The statue of Dionysus was brought to the theater and so placed before the stage that he might enjoy the spectacle. The performance was preceded by the sacrifice of an animal to the god. The theater was endowed with the sanctity of a temple, and offenses committed there were punished severely as sacrileges rather than as merely crimes. Just as tragedy held the place of honor on the stage at the City Dionysia, so comedy held the foreground at the festival of the Lenaea; but this festival too was Dionysian. Perhaps originally the theme, as in the drama of the Mass, was the passion and death of the god; gradually the poets were allowed to substitute the sufferings and death of a hero in Greek myth. It may even be that in its early forms the drama was a magic ritual, designed to avert the tragedies it portrayed, and to purge the audience of evils, in a more than Aristotelian sense, by representing these as borne and finished with by proxy.102 In part it was this religious basis that kept Greek tragedy on a higher plane than that of the Elizabethan stage.

The chorus as developed for mimetic action by Arion and others became the foundation of dramatic structure, and remained an essential part of Greek tragedy until the later plays of Euripides. The earlier dramatists were called dancers because they made their plays chiefly a matter of choral dancing, and were actually teachers of dancing.103 Only one thing was needed to turn these choral representations into dramas, and that was the opposition of an actor, in dialogue and action, to the chorus. This inspiration came to one of these dancing instructors and chorus trainers, Thespis of Icaria—a town close to the Peloponnesian Megara, where the rites of Dionysus were popular, and not far from Eleusis, where the ritual drama of Demeter, Persephone, and Dionysus Zagreus was annually performed. Helped no doubt by the egoism that propels the world, Thespis separated himself from the chorus, gave himself individual recitative lines, developed the notion of opposition and conflict, and offered the drama in its stricter sense to history. He played various roles with such verisimilitude that when his troupe performed at Athens, Solon was shocked at what seemed to him a kind of public deceit, and denounced this newfangled art as immoral104—a charge that it has heard in every century. Peisistratus was more imaginative, and encouraged the competitive performance of dramas at the Dionysian festival. In 534 Thespis won the victory in such a contest. The new form developed so rapidly that Choerilus, only a generation later, produced 160 plays. When, fifty years after Thespis, Aeschylus and Athens returned victorious from the battle of Salamis, the stage was set for the great age in the history of the Greek drama.

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