This article was originally published in The Attic Theatre. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898. pp. 1-6.
THE ancient Athenian drama was in many respects unlike any kind of dramatic performance that we are accustomed to in modern times. The difference extended not only to the character of the plays themselves, and the manner in which they were presented upon the stage, but also to the circumstances under which the production took place. In order to form an accurate conception of the external features of the old Greek drama it will be necessary to dismiss from the mind many of the associations with which the modern stage is connected. In the first place, the luxury of having theatrical entertainments at every season of the year was a thing never heard of among the ancient Athenians. The dramatic performances at Athens, instead of being spread over the whole year, were confined within very limited periods. They were practically restricted to the two great festivals of Dionysus, the Lenaea and the City Dionysia. It is true that at these festivals the number of plays exhibited was large enough to satisfy the most enthusiastic playgoer. Several days in succession were devoted entirely to the drama, and on each day tragedies and comedies followed one another without intermission from morning till evening. But with the exception of these two festivals, and certain contests in acting at the Anthesteria, there was no other occasion on which plays were performed in the Athenian theatre. There were dramatic exhibitions in the various townships of Attica during the Rural Dionysia; but in Athens itself the drama was restricted to the periods already mentioned. In fact, as far as regards the time and duration of the performances, the ancient drama had much in common with the modern musical festival, in which at certain fixed seasons several days in succession are given up entirely to music.
Another vital point of difference lay in the fact that the ancient drama was managed wholly by the state. To provide for the amusement of the people was considered to be one of the regular duties of the government. In England theatres are simply private enterprises. In some foreign countries certain theatres receive subventions from the state, and are subject to a code of rules; but for practical purposes their connection with the state is only a slight one. But in Athens the superintendence of the annual dramatic performances was just as much a part of the public administration of affairs as was the repair of the dockyards, the equipment of fleets, or the dispatch of armies. Poets and actors were both selected by the state. The cost of the performance was a tax upon the richer classes. Every wealthy citizen had in his turn to defray the expenses of a tragedy or a comedy, just as he had to pay for one of the ships of the fleet, or perform any other of the state burdens. The theatre was a public institution for the benefit of the whole people. Every Athenian citizen of whatever degree was entitled to be present at the annual dramatic performances; and if he was too poor to pay the entrance fee, he received the price of admission from the state.
The audience consisted practically of the whole body of the people. In a modern theatre, owing to its limited dimensions, the spectators are few in number, and have no representative character about them. But the theatre of Dionysus at Athens was capable of containing nearly twenty thousand people. Every Athenian attended the performances at the Dionysia as a matter of course. The audience therefore to which the Athenian dramatic poet addressed himself was in reality a gathering of the whole body of his fellow-countrymen. In those days books were not plentiful, and their use was confined to a limited class. The ordinary Athenian depended for his literary pleasures upon the various public performances and recitations of poetical compositions. The drama was therefore much more to him than to a modern playgoer. At the present day, when continual supplies of fresh literature are accessible to everyone, it is hard to realise the excitement and expectancy with which an Athenian looked forward to the annual exhibition of dramas at the Dionysia. It was here that his taste for novelty in literature was gratified. It was here that he found an equivalent for the books, magazines, and newspapers of modern civilization. Hence he was able to sit day after day, from morning to evening, listening to tragedy and comedy, without any feeling of satiety. The enthusiasm with which the drama was generally regarded, and the direct manner in which the author was brought into contact with the whole body of his countrymen, contributed to make the vocation of the dramatic writer one of the very greatest importance. The leading tragic poets especially are known to have exercised a most profound influence upon the national mind and character. They were spoken of as the teachers of the people. Their writings were invested with a sort of Homeric sanctity, and appealed to as authorities upon questions of science and morality. Maxims and quotations from their plays were upon everyone's lips. Many passages in Plato and Aristophanes prove the enormous influence for good and evil which was exercised by the Greek tragic poets, and there is probably no other instance in history of a drama which was so thoroughly popular, and formed such an essential part of the national life.
Another prominent characteristic of the Attic stage, which distinguishes it from that of modern times, was the fact that almost every dramatic performance took the form of a contest. In the best period of the Greek drama the production of a play by itself, as a mere exhibition, was a thing unknown. In later times celebrated plays by the great dramatists were sometimes exhibited alone. But in the period covered by the names of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, the only mode of exhibiting plays was by competing in the dramatic contests at the festivals of Dionysus. Prizes were offered by the state. A limited number of poets, after careful selection by the state, were allowed to take part in the competition. The result was decided by a jury publicly appointed. It is curious to notice how strongly implanted in the Greek nature was this passion for anything in the shape of a contest. It is seen in the case of most branches of poetry and music. Dithyrambs were generally produced in competitions at festivals between rival poets and choruses. Recitations of the old epic poems took the form of contests between rhapsodists. Public performances on flute and harp were mostly of the same character. There can be no doubt that the stimulus of rivalry and competition had a considerable effect upon the genius of the poets. It is remarkable in how many instances the Athenian dramatic writers retained the full vigour of their intellect even in extreme old age. For example, the tragedies composed in their latest years by the three great tragic poets show not the slightest symptoms of decaying power. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, one of the most splendid products of the Greek drama, was brought out shortly before the poet's death. The Oedipus Coloneus of Sophocles and the Bacchae of Euripides were both written very late in life. This extraordinary vitality was no doubt partly due to the excitement caused by the public competitions in the theatre, which acted as a stimulus to the mind, and prevented that decay of power which usually accompanies old age.
But the most conspicuous difference between the ancient and modern drama lay in the essentially religious character of the former. The Athenian drama was not only an amusement for the people: it was also part of a great religious celebration. Throughout its history it never ceased to be closely connected with the religion of the state. It was developed originally out of the songs and hymns in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine. In later times its range was widened, and its tone sexularised; but it continued to be performed solely at the festivals of Dionysus. Together with the other contests and ceremonials it was regarded as a celebration in honour of the god. The spectator who sat watching a tragedy or a comedy was not merely providing for his own amusement, but was also joining in an act of worship. Many facts tend to show the sacred character of the festivals of Dionysus, and the performances which accompanied them. The festivals themselves were not mere human institutions, but were established in obedience to the direct commands of the oracle. On these occasions the whole city gave itself up to pleasure, and to the worship of the genial wine-god. For the time being there was an end of business and litigation. Peace and harmony were supposed to prevail universally, and nothing was allowed to disturb the general enjoyment. Distraints for debt were forbidden by law during the continuance of the festival. Prisoners were temporarily released from gaol, to enable them to join in the worship of the god. Assaults and outrages, if committed during the Dionysia, were regarded as offences against religion, and were punished with the utmost severity. The ordinary course of law was not considered sufficient, and they were dealt with under an exceptional process at a special meeting of the Assembly. As a proof of the indignation which was aroused by such violations of the harmony of the festival it is recorded that on one occasion a certain Ctesicles was put to death for merely striking a personal enemy during the procession. To preserve the sanctity of the festival from contamination, no person suffering from civil disability was allowed to take part in a chorus at the Dionysia, or even to superintend the training of it. The performances in the theatre, being the most conspicuous part of the proceedings at the festival, were equally sacred in character. The god Dionysus was supposed to be present in person to witness and enjoy them; and this belief was symbolised by the curious custom of placing his statue in the orchestra, where it remained throughout the whole of the festal period. Most of the front seats in the theatre were given up to the priests of the different deities. In the center of the front row, and in the best seat of all, sat the priest of Dionysus, presiding over the celebrations in honour of the god. The theatre itself was regarded as a temple of Dionysus, and possessed all the sanctity attaching to such a place. Any form of insult committed there during the Dionysia was doubly criminal. Merely to eject a man from a seat he had taken wrongfully was a piece of sacrilege punishable with death. The people who took part in the different contests, the poets, choregi, actors, and singers, were regarded as ministers of the god Dionysus. Their persons and dresses were sacred. To strike a choregus in the theatre, as Meidias struck Demosthenes, was an offence against religion and the gods. In order to understand the outward character and surroundings of the old Greek drama it is most essential to realise the fact that the whole proceedings were part of a religious celebration, and were intended to be an act of homage to the god, as well as an amusement for the people.
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