The following essay was originally published in Manual of Greek Literature from the Earliest Authentic Periods to the Close of the Byzantine Era. Charles Anthon. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1853.
The Tragedy of the ancient Greeks, as well as their Comedy, confessedly originated in the worship of Dionysus or Bacchus. This worship was of a two-fold character, corresponding to the different conceptions which were anciently entertained of Dionysus, as the changeable god of flourishing, decaying, or renovated nature, and the various fortunes to which in that character he was considered to be subject at the different seasons of the year.
Hence the festivals of Dionysus at Athens and elsewhere were all solemnized in the months nearest to the shortest day, coincidently with the changes going on in the course of nature, and by which his worshippers conceived the god himself to be affected. His mournful or joyous fortunes, his mystical death, symbolizing the death of all vegetation in the winter, and his birth indicating the renovation of all nature in the spring, and his struggles in passing from one state to another, were not only represented and sympathized in by the dithyrambic singers and dancers, but they also carried their enthusiasm so far as to fancy themselves under the influence of the same events as the god himself, and, in their attempts to identify themselves with him and his fortunes, assumed the character of the subordinate divinities, the Satyrs, Nymphs, and Panes, who formed the mythological train of the god.
Hence arose the custom of the disguise of satyrs being taken by the worshippers at the festivals of Dionysus; from the choral songs and dances of whom the Grecian tragedy originated, being from its commencement connected with the public rejoicings and ceremonies of Dionysus in cities, while comedy was more a sport and merriment of the country festivals. In fact, the very name of Tragedy, far from signifying any thing mournful or pathetic, is most probably derived from the goat-like appearance of the satyrs, who sang or acted with mimetic gesticulations the old Bacchic songs, with Silenus, the constant companion of Dionysus, for their leader. From their resemblances in dress and action to goats ... their song [was sometimes called] "the goat-song." According to another opinion ... the word was first coined from the goat that was the prize for the best ode or song in honor of Dionysus. This derivation, however, as well as another, connecting it with the goat offered on the altar of the god, around which the chorus sang, is not equally supported by either the etymological principles of the language or the analogous instance of [another term meaning] "the revel-song."
But the Dionysian dithyrambs were not always of a gay and joyous character: they were capable of expressing the extremes of sadness and wild lamentation, as well as the enthusiasm of joy; and it was from the dithyrambic songs of a mournful cast, probably sung originally in the winter months, that the stately and solemn tragedy of the Greeks arose. It must be borne in mind, however, that in the most ancient times the dithyrambic song was not executed by a regular chorus. A crowd of worshippers, under the influence of wine, danced up to and around a blazing altar, led probably by a flute-player, the subject of the song being, as already remarked, the birth and adventures of Dionysus. It is a reasonable conjecture that the coryphaeus, or leader of this irregular chorus, occasionally assumed the character of the god himself, while the rest of the train or comus represented his noisy band of thyrsus-bearing followers.
The first improvement in the mode of performing the dithyramb was introduced by ARION, a celebrated citharoedus of Methymna in Lesbos, who flourished in the days of Stesichorus and Periander.... He is generally admitted to have been the inventor of the Cyclic chorus, in which the dithyramb was danced, after a more regular fashion, around the blazing altar by a band of fifty men or boys, to a lyric accompaniment. The idea seems to have been borrowed by him from the Dorian choral odes, with their regular lyric movements, since Arion travelled extensively in the Dorian states of Hellas, and has ample opportunities of observing the varieties of choral worship, and of introducing any improvement which he might wish to make in it.
Previous to the time of Arion, the leaders of the wild, irregular comus, which danced the dithyramb, bewailed the sorrows of Bacchus, or commemorated his wonderful birth in spontaneous effusions, accompanied by suitable action, for which they trusted to the inspiration of the wine-cup. This is the meaning of Aristotle's assertion, that this primitive Tragedy was "extemporaneous". Arion, however, by composing regular poems to be sung to the lyre, at once raised the dithyramb to a literary position, and laid the foundations of the stately superstructure which was afterward erected. He turned the comus also, or moving crowd of worshippers, into a standing chorus, of the same kind as that which gave Stesichorus his surname. He was the inventor, also, of the tragic style, that is, he introduced a style of music or harmony adapted to and intended for a chorus of Satyrs.
Next in order was Thespis, the celebrated contemporary of Pisistratus, to whom the invention of Greek tragedy has been generally ascribed. He was born at Icarius, an Attic deme, at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. His birth-place derived its name, according to tradition, from the father of Erigone; it had always been a seat of the religion of Bacchus, and the origin of Athenian tragedy and comedy has been confidently referred to the drunken festivals of the place; indeed, it is not improbable that the name itself may point to the old mimetic exhibitions which were common there.
Thespis is said to have introduced an actor for the sake of affording an interval of rest to the Dionysian chorus. The actor was called [a name which meant] "to answer," because he answered, as it were, the songs of the chorus. This actor was generally, perhaps always, the poet himself. He invented a disguise for the face by means of a pigment, prepared from the herb purslain; and afterward constructed a linen mask, in order, probably, that he might be able to sustain more than one character. He is also said to have introduced some important alterations into the dances of the chorus, and his figures were known in the days of Aristophanes. He did not, however, as an actor, confine his speech to mere narration; he addressed it to the chorus, which carried on with him, by means of its leaders, a sort of dialogue. The chorus, when not dancing, stood upon the steps of the _thymële_, or altar of Bacchus; and in order that he might address them from an equal elevation, he was placed upon a table, which was thus the predecessor of the stage, between which and the thymele, in later times, there was always an intervening space. The wagon of Thespis, of which Horace writes, must have arisen from some confusion between this standing-place for the actor and the wagon of Susarion.
The custom introduced by Thespis was continued by Phrynichus. But as it was clear that, if the chorus took an active and independent part in such a play, it would have been obliged to leave its original and characteristic sphere, Aeschylus, in consequence, added a second actor, so that the action and the dialogue became now independent of the chorus, and the dramatist, at the same time, had an opportunity of showing two persons in contrast with each other on the stage. A third actor was added by Sophocles; and it is said that Cratinus was the first to make this addition in comedy. A fourth actor, except, perhaps, in the Oedipus Coloneus, was never added; but if a fourth character had to be introduced, one of the three present on the stage retired, and came in again personifying this fourth one. Any number of mutes, however, might appear upon the stage.
The three regular actors were distinguished by technical names ... which indicated the more or less prominent part which an actor had to perform in the drama. Certain conventional means were also devised, by which the spectators, at the moment an actor appeared on the stage, were enabled to judge which part he was going to perform. Thus the protagonistes always came on the stage from a door in the centre, the deuteragonistes from one on the right, and the tritagonistes from a door on the left hand side. The protagonistes was the principal hero or heroine of a play, in whom all the power and energy of the drama were concentrated; and whenever a Greek play is called after the name of its characters, it is always the name of the character sustained by the protagonistes. The female characters of a play were always performed by young men.
Back to Ancient Theatre