No Business Like Show Business: The Greeks and the Invention of Western Theatre

ὑπολεπτολόγος, γνωμιδιώτης, εὐριπιδαριστοφανίζων (“[You have become] a quibbler of words, a maker of maxims, a Euripidaristophaniser”) — Cratinus on Aristophanes 

As case numbers for the delta variant in the US continue to rise, and what would have been the summer concert season draws ignobly to a close, I’ve been feeling nostalgic for live theater, one of the current casualties of the pandemic. Especially now as we’ve entered August, which for several years was the time of year my mother and I would spend a long weekend up at the Stratford Festival of Canada, arguably North America’s premier Shakespeare festival. Our trip in 2019 was already a bit of a possible last hurrah, as my parents were moving south from Western New York and we were losing our base from which to make the drive to Stratford less than a six to eight-hour marathon into the hinterland of Southern Ontario. We were able to see Othello and a rarer production of Henry VIII, not to mention having the excellent timing to catch an outdoor production of Love’s Labour’s Lost from the equally venerable Shakespeare in Delaware Park once we got back to Buffalo, giving us a tragedy-history-comedy trifecta.

But the Stratford Festival has pretty much from the start been more than just Shakespeare. For most years, that means the other productions staged are Gilbert & Sullivan, or Rogers & Hammerstein musicals, but in 2012, I convinced my mom to see a staging of Sophocles’ Elektra, which was the first time I’d ever had the opportunity to see a Greek play the way it had meant to be seen — as a live theater production — rather than words on a page. It was a lot of fun (and even my mom had a good time), so with that in the old memory bank today, I thought I’d walk us through a brief history of Greek theater.

Like many things in the ancient world, the Greeks came to theater through the sacred.  Live theater was born out of the Greek worship of Dionysus, who became the god of theater through his largest Athenian festival, the City Dionysia (Dionysia ta en Astei, Διονύσια τὰ ἐν Ἄστει) (to differentiate it from the smaller Rural Dionysia). The City Dionysia was held every year in March/April in celebration of the end of winter, but also as a ritual appeasement to the somewhat chaotically-tempered Dionysus. You see, the Athenians first encountered the Dionysia when the people of Eleutherae joined Athens’ city-state of Attica. The Eleuthereans brought their wooden cult statue of the god to Athens as a gift to the city, but the Athenians decided they didn’t want it.

[The Theatre of Delphi, which is typical of Greek amphitheaters— outdoor theaters built directly into Greece’s many hillsides, which naturally allowed for ideal stadium seating.]

This might sound like bad manners on the Athenians’ part, but religion in the polytheistic world was often a tricky business and communities were sometimes reluctant to accept new gods not because of bigotry towards a foreign deity, but because incorporating a new god into one’s pantheon always carried the risk of offending one’s preexisting deities. This seems especially true in the Greek world, where the Greek gods are frequently shown to be jealous of their status in their chosen cities. Athens’ patron goddess was, of course, Athena, who as the embodiment of chaste wisdom and rational warfare was pretty much everything Dionysus was not, and if Athens was seen by the goddess to be appearing too eager to embrace the foreign-based and hedonistic god of wine, she might decide to withdraw her favor from the city. So, it is likely that more than rejecting Dionysus, Athens was trying not to court the anger of Athena by turning away the Eleuthereans’ offering. Unfortunately for the Athenians, kowtowing to one’s preexisting deities also carried the risk of offending the god seeking admittance, and that’s what appeared to  have happened next.

In the Greek mythos, Dionysus was a relative newcomer to the pantheon, and this is emphasized in his mythology, much of which is concerned with not only his birth as with the other gods, but his journey towards acceptance as a god. As one of Zeus’ many sons born of a mortal woman (the Theban princess Semele), it was expected that Dionysus might become a semi-divine hero, like Theseus or (initially) Heracles, but little to suggest he would become a god. There is really not a specific explanation why Dionysus got to become an immortal god on his own when many of his half-brothers didn’t, or had to get special dispensation for divinity to take root. Perhaps it is because after Semele’s immolation “births” Dionysus prematurely, Zeus sews the child up in his thigh and later gives “birth” to him a second time, this second birth directly from the most powerful of the gods rather than a mortal mother being the deciding factor. Anyway, more than the other gods, Dionysus had to prove his godhood to the Greeks, usually through a punishment displaying his powers to those who fail to believe in him.

[Like the time he literally let his own cousin be torn limb from limb…]
[…or turned his Lyft drivers into dolphins…]

In short, despite being the official God of Good Times, Dionysus was very touchy about people not giving him his due. After the Athenians refuse the Eleutherean Dionysus, the city was struck by a plague that specifically affected male genitalia. Which admittedly is about a big a sign from the god of ecstatic sexuality as one is likely to get. As you might imagine, this got the entirely masculine government of Athens in line faster than a Spartan invasion, and the Eleutherean Dionysus was welcomed into the city with frantically open arms. Dionysus lifted the plague from the city and Athens threw the biggest Dionysia it could forever after, complete with a full parade for the Eleutherean Dionysus and the traditional phalloi, ithyphallic penis sculptures common to many ancient cultures as symbols of strength and fertility.

The processions for the Dionysia were accompanied by wine offerings and bull sacrifices to the god, as well as a compositional hymn competition of song and dance to Dionysus, the dithyrambs(διθύραμβος). Dithyrambos (Διθύραμβος) was one of Dionysus’ epithets, used to refer to the god’s original premature birth from Semele. For while Dionysus expected his divinity to be respected, that didn’t mean that he foreswore his human mother. In fact, Dionysus was also seen as a chthonic deity because he was one of the few above-world gods to travel into the underworld to rescue the shade of Semele from death. Once she is taken out of the underworld, Semele is transformed into a new goddess herself, Thyone, the personification of the divine frenzy her son’s worship instilled amongst his followers. This elevation of a mortal mother by a divine son is in part why Dionysus’ worship was subsumed into many early Christian communities in the Mediterranean, with Jesus and Mary taking on the already familiar forms of Dionysus and Thyone, complete with sacred wine ceremonies.

Like the god they celebrated, the dithyrambs were considered wild and unorganized compared to other traditional Greek poetic forms. They would be sung by choruses of up to fifty men or boys, who would dance together in a circle, sometimes dressed as satyrs, accompanied by an aulete. Usually the dithyrambs would recount episodes from the life of Dionysus, but more generic hymns to wine and fertility were also acceptable. The different Athenian tribal groups would enter these choruses into competition, with one group of men and boys each being declared the winner during the festival.

Despite what you might think coming from the hedonistic Dionysus, many of the dithyrambs could actually be somewhat melancholic in character, traditionally (as much as the dithyrambs operates on tradition). Their musical scores were on the classic Greek Phrygian scale, generally producing a flat, reedy tone from the aulos, and using antistrophe in its poetic meter. The Phrygian scale was thought by the Greeks to evoke the ecstatic, desolate wilds the Phrygian people were thought to inhabit it, and antistrophe was often used by a chorus to balance out the poetic strophe, which was generally more positive. In a Dionysian dithyramb, that might look something like below:

Strophe: High-favored Semele, glory of Cadmus’ line/ Claims thundering Zeus above all mortal women/ Thrice-fair consort of the lord of heaven/ Her love is all light, as she touches the divine

Antistrophe: But ox-eyed Hera, watchful queen/ Knows when her lightning-browed lord strays from her throne/ And secrets herself in the Theban maid’s happy home/ To press her rival’s mind with doubts unseen

[Depiction of a cult mask of Dionysus, with a somewhat unusual beard, as the god is more commonly shown as clean-shaven.]

But outside of these very basic guidelines, the unorthodox nature of the dithyrambic competition made it a fertile ground for artistic experimentation in a way that was alien to other poetry recitations that focused on very orderly formats like the paean. By the 5th century BC, the Dionysian dithyrambs were a favorite venue for poets and musicians to try out new poetic forms and more “modern” music. And it was through this fiddling with form that a new art slowly began to emerge during this same century— the tragedy, possibly first seen as a single singer engaging in a call and response with a chorus (trading strophes and antistrophes).

Tragedy was the culmination of a number of artistic genre mashes occurring in the early 6th century BC, where poets began to combine the freer format of the dithyrambs with oral heroic epic and Doric choral lyrics to form a narrative, ballad-like structure. Because while it’s not how we tend to think of them, Greek plays were sung and accompanied by music. There’s a reason why the responding collective of a Greek play is referred to as a “chorus”: because their lines were at least tonally recited as opposed to simply spoken.

Often the inventor of this new art form, theatre, is given as a dithyramb singer named Thespis (ca. 6th century BC), said to be the first singer to assume the voice of a character, rather than simply singing as himself (he’s where we get our word “thespian”). But like most things, it was likely closer to a full cultural effort that evolved this new form of sacred entertainment; for example, the Athenian statesman Solon is credited with being the first person to write a poem in character around the same time, so clearly some kind of artistic shift was occurring across the board in Greece. And it is theatre’s evolution from the sacred dithyrambs that is probably why serious tragedies made their appearance a full century before comedies arrived on the scene, for it took a while before we figured out how to politely poke fun at the gods. Our word “tragedy” comes from the Greek tragoidia (τραγῳδία), a compound of tragos (goat) and aeidein (song, or to sing), which is believed to come from goats being an award given to the dithyrambos singers; goats, like satyrs, being among things sacred to Dionysus.

[Dionysus and his consort, Ariadne, enjoy a Dionysia performance]

The plays that were staged during the Dionysia (historians suggest that there were five performance days during the festival, three for plays and two for the traditional dithyrambs) were part of a competition as much as the tribal dithyramb choruses were, and there was lots of rivalry between the great playwrights. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were all rough contemporaries of each other and always in a battle to see their productions awarded top honors. But while the tragedians were the serious poets, their younger up-and-coming comic colleagues lived to roast their supposedly stuffier fellow poets. Aristophanes was famous for inserting comic caricatures of Euripides in his plays, and his contemporary Cratinus in turn made fun of him when the latter thought Aristophanes was borrowing too many of Euripides’ methods along the way, as he is quoted in my flavor text above.

There was an old legend that Greek actors were only allowed to wear rags when they performed, but in reality, elaborate costumes were used, especially for royal characters or the gods. Costumes were a vital part of any performance, providing a quick visual shorthand to the audience regarding a character’s age, gender, and social status, that would also be able to be seen from any part of the large amphitheaters. But arguably the most important part of any actor’s costume was their mask.

Masks were a part of theatre from the beginning, in part because Dionysus himself was considered the god of masks, no doubt because of the carnivalesque nature of his worship that asked people to change their everyday clothes and behavior to merge with his divine essence. Greek theatrical masks were typically large, almost helmet-like pieces that covered the actor’s entire face with small openings for the eyes and mouth. Like most theatrical props of the time, they were usually made of light-weight, organic materials such as compressed linen, wood, or cork, with an accompanying wig piece made of human or animal hair. All masks had large, exaggerated facial features meant to both help the actors convey emotion and to be visible to audience members in the back rows. As Greek plays usually only allowed two or three actors on stage at any given time, this allowed small groups of actors to change between multiple roles in the same play without that being jarring to the audience. Art historians also credit the exaggerated facial expressions of the theatre masks with amplifying the audience’s natural reactions to character arrivals due to the human psyche’s unconscious attenuation to facial cues. A monstrous mask would produce a heightened sense of dread, etc.

Because of Greek theatre’s roots in the all-male dithyrambs, the earliest actors were all men. When women’s roles were called for, male actors would wear specifically female masks and a white-knit body stocking to give their skin a paler appearance, as well as two prosthetics under their long chitons and himations: the posterneda, a wooden piece meant to produce the illusion of breasts, and the progastreda over their stomachs to give them a more feminine body outline. Though in later centuries, it would become permissible for female slaves to become actors, eliminating the need for some of these embellishments, however masks would continue to be used.

Aside from costumes, plays became increasingly elaborate and stagecraft evolved alongside more complicated productions. The people responsible for making the elaborate masks were called skeuopoios — “maker of props”, or prop master, if you will — which implies that it fell to these artisans to solve any production requirements made by a play’s script and as time moved forward, ancient audiences, like their modern counterparts, began to demand more spectacle. These were the likely inventors of stage machines like the mechane (μηχανή), a wooden pulley crane used to hoist actors into the air so that they appeared to fly. Obviously, this was mostly used to show gods descending from the sky and is the origin of our phrase deus ex machina (literally, “the god from the machine”), and the intendant implication of divine intervention to tie up a loose plot point. But Euripides also famously used a mechane in his play Medea (first produced in 431 BC), where the titular princess of Colchis escapes in her famous chariot of winged snakes, marking a rare occasion where a human flies in a Greek play.

Another stage mechanic was the ekkyklêma (εκκύκλημα, literally, “roll-out machine”), which was a movable platform used to bring out dead characters. As we saw in my discussion of Racine and early modern French theatre, which adhered to classical staging rules, deaths of characters never occurred on stage, nor were serious injuries (like Oedipus’ blinding) shown. Death in a Greek play would happen off-stage and then the ekkyklêma would be rolled or turned out to reveal the tragic corpse, like in Euripides’ Hippolytus. However, the later comic playwrights like Aristophanes were masters of using the ekkyklêma for comic effect as well, wheeling out malingering characters for inversion laughs.

Originally, plays performed at the Dionysia were only meant to be seen once. It wouldn’t be until the Hellenistic period yet another century later (4th century BC) that it would become fashionable for repeat performances of favorite plays to really become a thing. The survival of any of the works of classical playwrights like Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, or Aristophanes is largely due to this fortuitous shift towards revivalism in Greece, as well as the personal tastes of Hellenistic librarians who oversaw the preservation of any textual copies of individual works. For example, we know the names of at least 120 Sophoclean plays, but have complete texts for seven of them and fragments of another handful. The other major playwrights’ oeuvres are in similar shape. Aaaaannnnd now we’re all back to crying about the library of Alexandria again…

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