Greek Tragedy: Definition & Explanation

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      By Greek tragedy, we refer to Athenian tragedy as the oldest surviving
form. In this culture, tragedy was conceived basically as a type of dance-drama that developed in about the 6th and 5th century BCE in Greece. Local governments supported such plays and the mood surrounding the presentation of these plays was that of a religious ceremony, since the entire community along with the grand priest attended the performances.

      The subject matter of the Greek tragedies was derived chiefly from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey which included misfortunes of heroes of history and religious mythology. The three prominent Greek dramatists were Aeschylus (525-456 BC), Sophocles (496-406 BC), and Euripides (480-406 BC).

      During the festival of Dionysus in late March or early April, the Athenian tragedies were annually staged for the entertainment of the people gathering for showing honor to the god of wine and fertility. The presentations took the form of a contest among three playwrights, who presented their works on three successive days. Each playwright offered a tetralogy consisting of three tragedies and a concluding comic piece called a satyr play. The four plays were sometimes featured as linked stories. Among those tetralogies, at least one survives as the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The Greek theatre was in open air on the side of a hill, and performances of a trilogy and satyr play probably lasted for most of the day. Performances were apparently open to all citizens, including women, but evidence is very little and not enough. The theatre of Dionysus at Athens could house around 12,000 people.

      The presence of chorus was one of the fundamental features of Greek tragedies. In them, chorus meant a homogeneous, non-individualized group of performers in the plays. The chorus of up to 50 men and boys comment in a collective voice on the dramatic action with the accompaniment of aulos, an ancient Greek wind instrument. They used to both sing and dance giving hints to the audiences about the condition and progress of situation presented on the stage. Chorus was divided into three sections: strophe (‘turning and circling’), antistrophe (‘counter-turning and counter-circling’) and epode (‘after-song’). The play as a whole was composed in various verse meters. The actors were all males who used to wear masks.

      Ekkyklema is a theatrical device, a hidden platform which could be introduced to display the aftermath of some event which had happened out of sight of the audience. This event was often a brutal murder of some sort, an act of violence which could not be effectively portrayed visually, but an action of which the other characters must see the effects, in order for it to have meaning and emotional resonance. A prime example of the use of the ekkyklema is after the murder of Agamemnon in the first play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, when the king’s butchered body is wheeled out in a grand display for all to see. Variations on the ekkyklema are used in tragedies and other forms till today, as writers still find it a useful and often powerful device for showing the consequences of extreme human actions. Another such device was a crane, the machine, which served to hoist a god or goddess on the stage when they were supposed to arrive at flying. This device gave origin to the phrase deux ex machina (‘god out of a machine’), that is, the surprise intervention of an unforeseen external factor that changes the outcome of an event.

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