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To continue from yesterday with things I have learned from An Introduction to Greek Tragedy by Ruth Scodel.

The history of Greek tragedy is not so very clear. We know that tragedies were performed as part of a religious festival but were not in themselves religious or promoting religion. And, while tragedies were connected to the God Dionysus, the plays themselves really had nothing to do with him and Dionysus makes an appearance in only a very few. During the classical period there were four kinds of performances during a festival, circular chorus, tragedy, satyr play, and comedy. Greece has a very long choral tradition and it is thought that tragedy came from this tradition.

The first tragedian is thought to be Thespis sometime between 540 and 520 BCE. The prize for the winning play at the time was a billy goat. The Greek word tragoidos, “performer in a tragedy,” apparently literally means “one who sings in connection with a billy goat.” Thespis’ invention was to combine a spoken verse — an actor — with choral song — the chorus. That is about all we know and even that is open to speculation.

The first tragedian we know anything about is Phrynichus. He was well regarded enough that Aristophanes, who was only a small boy when Phrynichus produced his plays and unlikely to have seen them, was an admirer and mentions Phrynichus in his comedy Wasps. Apparently audiences liked to memorize lines and songs from the plays and some songs were still being sung when Aristophanes was an adult.

No one is certain when tragedy became part of the the City Dionysia. We do know that tragedy was added to the winter festival of Dionysus, Lenaia, in 442 BCE, but some scholars suspect it was part of the City Dionysia as early as 502 BCE.

Tragedies were produced in competition with each other. A tragedian had to apply to the magistrate in charge of the festival. We don’t know how they were chosen, but only three were lucky enough to have their plays produced during the City Dionysia. The magistrate would then appoint the “chorus leader,” the person whose responsibility it was to pay for the chorus. The chorus leader was a rich Athenian who often found that lavish production spending could buy him goodwill and prestige. The two to three actors as well as the playwright were paid by the city.

When it came to judging the competition, judges were nominated by the ten tribes into which the citizen body was divided. Lots were drawn and then sealed in jars that were opened in the theatre just before the performance began. Judges voted only for the winner and cast their ballots into an urn. The first five ballots were publicly drawn and read. If any of the plays had three or more votes, it won. If not, then two more ballots were drawn and so on until there was a winner. This method meant that sometimes the winner was not the play that received the most votes.

The theater of Dionysus was built on the southeast slope of the Acropolis sometime between 500 and 496 BCE and could hold about 2,000 people. Before that, the plays were held in the agora. Nobody really knows what shape the theater of Dionysus had or what the stage looked liked. All we know is there was an area for dancing, a place where actors could go and change their masks and costumes, there was, perhaps, a low stage with a building or tent behind it. We do know there were props and scenery and the ever so popular mêchanê, the “machine,” a crane that was used to allow gods to appear in the air, thus the origin of deus ex machina.

I tend to think of Greek plays as being just about a legend or event — Heracles or the Battle of Salamis — but they are also infused with Greek politics and social thought and science. But of course they are! Why wouldn’t they be? But it never dawned on me until Scobel pointed it out.

In the fifth century BCE sophist thinking was on the rise and caused conflict between the elites who thought you were born with aretê, all-around excellence or “virtue,” and those who were not elites but had money enough to send their children to school. The sophists, believed, you see, that aretê could be taught. Sophists are taught to argue and question and debate and many worried about falling victim to their clever speaking. And of course these thoughts and anxieties made their way into tragedies.

Sophistic thought taught myths were allegories or rationalizations. In tragedy, problems of religious belief frequently arise. Characters in Aeschylus may bemoan their fate but the gods are the only explanation of events. In Sophocles, characters may question the justice of the gods who tend to be cruel and inscrutable. In Euripides, the gods are often criticized as not listening, not caring about humans, and sometimes as being neither wise nor moral.

Even though there were other tragedians besides The Big Three — Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides — even for the Greeks these three were canonical. We tend to think of them as one following the other but this is not the case. Euripides’ first production was in 455 BCE, just a few years after Aeschylus’ last production in 458 BCE. Sophocles and Euripides have a large period of overlap.

The most interesting and amazing thing though is that the tragedies are still relevant today. As Scobel points out, while the crises of fifth century Athens were different, they still had the same worries and conflicts as our own between “tradition and modernity, religious belief and scientific inquiry, global power and its limits.” I’m very glad I have read this book because I feel like I have a new admiration and appreciation for the plays and I look forward to what new things I might notice in Euripides as I continue to read his work. And who, knows? Maybe sometime I will reread a few of the plays I have already read.