I’ve read through all the complete plays of Aeschylus and the complete plays of Sophocles — there are lots of fragments of others that I have not bothered to read — and now am deep into the plays of Euripides. During this time I have intended to read some outside sources about Greek tragedy and Greek culture but have just kept putting it off. Well, I finally stopped putting it off the other day and launched into reading An Introduction to Greek Tragedy by Ruth Scodel. Scodel is a professor of Greek and Latin studies at the University of Michigan. It is written for the student so is intended to explain things and not to make academic arguments (that is not to say that Scobel does not acknowledge scholarly disagreement).
The book is broken up into two parts. The first part lays out all the historical stuff and the second part looks at eight plays. I am glad I have read as many plays as I have before reading Scobel because I know what she is talking about when she refers to a number of plays and scenes in those plays. At the same time, I wish I had read this before reading even one play because there is information it would have been nice to have. New knowledge works in hindsight too and I still have quite a few Euripides plays yet to read.
When we read, study and even teach Greek tragedy we often end up doing it through a screen of assumptions that we have made both about the nature of Greek tragedy and also about ancient Greek culture. Aristotle, it turns out, has tended to mess us up. His outline in Poetics about what constitutes a perfect tragedy is what we usually go off of in reading ancient plays. But Aristotle was not describing the tradition of Greek tragedy, he was a critic putting forth his ideas of a good play. To read Greek tragedy through the lens of Aristotle is to distort much of what Greek tragedy was for Aristotle had no interest in spectacle or music — large and important pieces of tragedy. His interest was mostly in plot and defending his ideas against Plato.
Because of Aristotle we tend to think of Aeschylus as artistically primitive, pious and patriotic; Sophocles as the pinnacle of perfection; Euripides as experimental and innovative. Going along with this keeps us from seeing that Aeschylus can have complexity, Sophocles was innovative and a bit strange sometimes, and Euripides can sometimes be conventional. It also puts a higher value on Sophocles’ plays than on the plays of the other two, leading us down the path of thinking that they are somehow not as good because they are not by Sophocles. Scobel suggests that reading Greek tragedy through Aristotle is like declaring Anna Karenina the best novel ever and evaluating all novels by how closely they resemble Anna K.
The reality of Greek tragedy is that the plays rarely meet any or all of Aristotle’s precepts, yet we read them as if they do and when they swerve from Aristotle we either ignore it or mark it as a fault. Tragedians were not so much interested in tragic flaws (hubris anyone?), unity of time and place, or a particular structure of error, catastrophe, and lament. That’s all made up by Aristotle. Tragedians were interested in “human choices and actions” and when misfortune happened for which the characters had no responsibility — a frequent occurrence — then what matters is how the character responds to the misfortune.
Very broadly, Greek tragedy is defined as a form of drama invented in the territory of Athens in the sixth century BCE. Almost all the surviving plays and play fragments were created for performance at Athenian festivals of Dionysus, particularly City Dionysia. There are a few that were produced elsewhere but they all follow the Athenian model. A tragedy was usually based on a traditional legend and set in the past though events of distant and recent history could also serve (Aeschylus’ Persians for instance).
Tragedy was performed by no more than three actors and a chorus of twelve to fifteen who sang and danced. The actors spoke in verse, iambic trimeter, but might sometimes sing. The language was a “high” diction, no vulgar language or colloquialisms allowed. To veer from this pushed the play into the area of comedy. This bit of information made me recall several translations of plays I have read that, no doubt in an attempt to make the play seem up to date, used English slang galore and sometimes obscenities. The fact that the Greek does not use everyday language might explain why I found the plays translated as more formal verse more interesting and moving. The chorus always sang but the chorus leader might sometimes speak on behalf of the group. The actors and chorus were exclusively male though both sometimes played women. They were decked out in elaborate costumes and wore masks that covered the entire head.
We have only 32 complete surviving tragedies and lots of fragments. Those complete plays are all by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. One of the biggest problems, with the complete plays especially, is we only know them through a long transmission of copying by hand. None of them come to us in the original. Errors creep into the text. Sometimes the copy goes back to a text based on a performance that made changes to the original. Many scholars believe that the end of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and the end of Euripides’ Phoenician Women are later additions. There are pieces of Dionysius’ final speech in Euripides’ Bacchae that are missing. And, most scholars now think that Prometheus Bound, credited to Aeschylus is actually by his son Euphorion.
Fascinating stuff, eh? Yeah, my post title is a bit over-the-top, but it got your attention, right? There is still more I’d like to share about the history of Greek tragedy and theatre but I will save that for another post.