The Enduring Legacy of Ancient Greek Drama
- Friday, January 25, 2013
Credit the ancient Greeks with the invention of democracy, columned temples, and splendid sculptures. While you’re at it don’t forget to say thanks for all the drama—not the kind our kids invent when asked to mow the yard or wash the dishes but the kind of drama that brings you to tears of deepest sympathy.
The Athenian Greeks began experimenting with the performing arts at the end of the sixth century B.C., and within a few years they were writing sophisticated plays that are still performed on modern stages today. Speaking of stages, don’t forget that the Greeks invented those, as well as theaters, which they built so well that top-row spectators could clearly hear a coin dropped on stage.
Aristotle tells us in his Poetics that Greek drama started as religious poetry set to music. The first dramatic subjects came from epic tales about bitter wars and misguided heroes. The Greeks applied the term tragedy to these plays but not because they were sad. The term tragedy originally meant “he-goat song” in Greek. The term would eventually lose its goat associations. We use it to mean “disaster” in today’s jargon.
The first tragic story songs were performed by a chorus. Early playwrights added a hypocrite (or “answerer”) to make the drama a dialogue between a single actor (protagonist) and the chorus. Later they added more hypocrites with a second man and eventually topped out with a total of three actors plus the chorus. Jesus would repurpose the term hypocrite in the New Testament when He warned us not to perform melodramas of false piety like an actor on a stage.
Aristotle observed that the main character of Greek tragedies often had a hamartia. This term was originally a sports term to describe what occurred when an archer would miss his target (hamartanein). Several hundred years later, in the New Testament, the word would be used to describe sin.
Many modern theatrical terms come from the production of fifth-century Greek tragedies. I’ve already mentioned actor, chorus, theater, tragedy, protagonist, and hypocrite, but now I’ll add thespian (after the first playwright Thespis), scene, orchestra (literally, “a place for dancing”), prologue, monologue, dialogue, audience, antagonist, episode, and more.
While Hollywood has done as much evil as good with what now passes as entertainment, think about the stories from stage and screen that speak to you most deeply. All well-written dramas compel you to experience life through the eyes of another. The Greeks coined a word for this: ekstatikos, from which we get the word ecstatic, a term we now use to describe a state of joy, though the word literally means “to stand outside yourself.”
The opportunity to view life through another person’s eyes is an important gift of Greek drama. Aristotle summed it up like this: “Tragedy, then, is the representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude . . . it represents men in action . . . and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions” (Poetics 4.1449).
From the safety of our seats we can explore what types of decisions we might make if we lost everyone we loved, as in Euripides’ Hecuba. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex we might discover firsthand how our human perspective is incurably limited. In The Oresteia, Aeschylus teaches us about the destructive and ever-increasing consequences of revenge and how law may break the cycle of vendetta.
Ancient audiences experiencing powerful emotions felt an introspective calm after the play would end. Aristotle coined a term for this paradox: catharsis or “emotional cleansing.” Modern audiences still crave catharsis as they watch movies like Gone with the Wind or Marley & Me.
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