Origins of Greek Theatre
As we saw in our lecture on Greek myth and religion, the Greeks had no holy text of divine commandments to live by. Instead, the Greeks looked to the example of mythical heroes. These myths were not set in stone. Rather, each generation reinvented the old myths, telling the same old story from a new perspective or with a different emphasis. This constant reinterpretation kept the Greek myths fresh and relevant. In short, it brought myth to life. The Greeks called this process the theatre.
Theatre played a central role in Greek culture. Any polis worth living in held annual theatrical festivals in honor of Dionysus. Yet theatre would reach its apex in the Panathenaic Festival of Athens, in which the greatest playwrights competed to perform their works.
The Greeks divided their theatre into three genres: satyr plays, comedies and tragedies.
Location of Athens in Ancient Greece
Satyr plays are the oldest sort of play. Satyrs are goat men, drinking buddies of Dionysus and known for their promiscuous behavior. We know little about the early history of satyr plays besides that they were part of a ritual to Dionysus, and that they were generally lewd and low brow, a lot of codpieces and hitting people over the head with things. Imagine if The Three Stooges did a burlesque show, and you've got a pretty good idea of a satyr play. After the invention of tragedy and comedy, satyr plays continued to be performed during festivals to provide comic relief between the heavy tragedies.
For centuries, scholars struggled to find something similar to Greek comedy. Luckily for us, Matt Stone and Trey Parker created South Park. Despite nearly 3,000 years separating the two, South Park is almost identical to Greek comedy. At the heart of both is the lampoon. To lampoon means to criticize using ridicule or sarcasm.
Just as Matt and Trey mock celebrities they hate, like Bono and Tom Cruise, so the comedians of Ancient Greece poked fun at the celebrities of the day, making them look selfish, haughty, petty and stupid. We actually get the word lampoon from the statesman Lampon, who was viciously ridiculed in several plays by the Athenian comedian Aristophanes.
Like South Park, Greek comedians did not limit their lampooning to people. They also targeted ideas. Both used a method called reducto ad absurdum, literally, 'a reduction to absurdity'. We see the same pattern unfold in Aristophanes' The Birds and South Park's 'Margaritaville'.
Step 1: Take a common idea you find stupid.
The Birds: The gods eat the smoke of religious sacrifices
'Margaritaville': The economy is punishing us
Step 2: Break that idea down to its most basic concepts.
The Birds: You could starve the gods by blocking the smoke
'Margaritaville': The economy is a god of some sort
Step 3: Show how that basic idea becomes absurd if taken too seriously.
The Birds: Peisistratus convinces the birds to build a wall between heaven and earth and charge taxes on smoke
'Margaritaville': Stan's dad starts a cult of the economy, in which everyone wears sheets and plays with squirrels
Greek heroes have excessive pride, or hubris
In short, Greek comedy displayed the same irreverence, the same scathing criticism, the same subtle moralizing and even the same tendency toward toilet humor that characterizes South Park.
All this comedy might not sound very religious, but passing moral judgment on ideas and people is essentially a religious matter. In this way, comedy was the most current and up-to-date branch of Greek religion.
Yet some questions cannot be addressed so flippantly, some ideas are timeless and cannot be dismissed and some issues simply should not be laughed about. To address these deeper questions with the seriousness they deserved, the Greeks invented the most profound form of theatre, the tragedy.
Where Greek comedy is ridiculous, Greek tragedy is painfully serious. Tragedies examine mythical heroes from a moral perspective and find the heroes lacking. Despite all their virtues, every Greek hero suffers from the vice of hubris, or excessive pride. This pride leads them to believe things that are not true and to do things that they should not do.
Throughout the play, the chorus acts as the moral compass, telling the hero his beliefs are wrong, begging him to refrain from some disastrous action, yet they are ignored. At the climax of every tragedy, the misguided beliefs and actions of the hero lead him to catastrophe. As he bemoans his fate, the chorus sings, 'I told you so!' and hammers home the moral. The morals vary from play to play, but they mostly follow a basic formula:
Remember so-and-so? Remember how awesome he was? In his pride, he did such-and-such, and it destroyed him. Don't be like so-and-so. Don't do such-and-such.
With this basic formula, Greek tragedians built and refined the morality of their culture.
Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides: Great Tragedians
The Athenian playwrights Aeschylus and Sophocles
Equipped with this outline, let us look at the works of three great Athenian playwrights to see what kind of morals they tried to teach the people of Athens.
Aeschylus and The Oresteia
The first of the three great tragedians was Aeschylus. Aeschylus lived from 525 - 455 BCE. In that time he wrote over 70 plays, of which seven have survived. His most famous plays were part of a trilogy called The Oresteia.
So let us plug the heroes of The Oresteia into our formula. Agamemnon was king of Mycenae. In his pride, he sacrificed his own daughter to ensure safe passage to Troy. He returned from Troy victorious, only to have his wife, Clytemnestra, murder him.
Don't be like Agamemnon. Don't let ambition outweigh family.
Clytemnestra was queen of Mycenae. In her pride, she took justice into her own hands and murdered her husband. Orestes, her son, was heir to the Mycenaean throne. In his pride, he took justice into his own hands and avenged his father Agamemnon by murdering his mother Clytemnestra. Orestes was then chased from his home by the Furies, spirits of vengeance and vendetta.
Don't be like Clytemnestra and Orestes. Don't take justice into your own hands. Don't kill your own family.
The cycle of violence and vengeance was brought to a halt when the Athenians, guided by Athena, held a trial. In the course of the trial, the Furies transformed from spirits of vengeance to the Eumenides, good spirits of reason and democracy.
The moral: don't be like those barbaric Mycenaeans, always killing their family members and carrying on feuds. Be like the Athenians, who settle their conflicts through trial by jury. Thus we see Aeschylus identifying a problem in mythology: the cycle of vengeance. He shows how it brings about disaster by killing off the entire family, and he offers an Athenian solution to the problem: a trial by jury. Thus, Aeschylus refined the morality of the Athenians.
Sophocles and the Theban plays
Euripides wrote more than 90 plays in his lifetime
The next playwright in this succession is Sophocles. Sophocles lived from 497 - 406 BCE, writing a whopping 123 plays, of which seven survive. His most famous plays are the Theban plays. We could plug Oedipus into our formula, but I think we'll leave that to Freud. Best to focus on the last of the Theban plays, Antigone.
Let's look at our formula. Creon is king of Thebes. In his pride, he forbids Antigone to bury her brother, since he was a traitor. Unwilling to forsake her duty to her brother, Antigone buries him anyway. In his pride, Creon locks Antigone up. Antigone kills herself. Her fiancé, Creon's own son, kills himself out of grief. Creon valued the state over family and was left with no family at all. The moral: don't be like Creon. Don't try to put the law of the state above the laws of family.
Thus we see a further refinement. Aeschylus distinguished the justice of vengeance from the justice of law. Sophocles distinguished the laws of the state from the laws of family.
Euripides and The Bacchae
The final tragedian of the triad is Euripides. Euripides lived from 480 - 406 BCE. He wrote over 90 plays, of which 18 survive. These plays are so wonderful it is difficult to pick just one, but time is of the essence, so we will look at Euripides' last surviving play, The Bacchae.
Pentheus was king of Thebes. In his pride, he refused to recognize the new god, Dionysus. In his pride, he insults the mother of Dionysus. In his pride, he forbids his people to worship Dionysus because he finds the rites barbaric and uncivilized. In his pride, he attempts to capture the god. In his pride, he spies on the rites of Dionysus. And for his pride, Pentheus dies horribly, torn limb from limb by his own mother, who plays catch with balls of his flesh. Don't be like Pentheus. Don't deny new gods, and don't become so civilized that you forget you're an animal.
Athenian Theatre's Impact on Culture
Euripides' Bacchae marks the apex of civilization. Where Aeschylus was trying to civilize the Athenians, and Sophocles was trying to refine that civilization, Euripides has come full circle, calling into question the very nature of civilization itself.
Thus we've seen how Athenian theatre constantly redefined Athenian religion and culture. With tragedians busy creating new morals and comedians ridiculing outdated ones, Athenian culture stayed relevant and dynamic. Guided by the constantly updated morals of their theatre, the Athenians would go on to establish democracy and take philosophy to new vistas.