Greek Tragedy: the Invention of Drama

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Drama as we know it began in ancient Greece. The first plays were religious affairs, with dancing and music. Then came a chorus, which eventually had a Leader, who was the first actor in the history of drama. Aeschylus, a playwright, invented what we now call drama when he wrote a play that featured two actors and a chorus, who symbolized the common people or sometimes the gods. Other important Greek playwrights were Sophocles and Euripides. Most of what they wrote is lost. Some plays survive, however.

Here is the story of the invention of drama, in the form of a Greek play:


Here is the story of the beginning of drama. We, the chorus, will be your guide through this history. Every word you are about to hear is true.


In the 5th century b.c. Greece had musical shows on wooden platforms. A chorus, like ours, would sing, and a leader, like me, would stand out and describe things. But it wasn't really drama. We didn't have plays. We didn't have theaters. We needed someone to give us direction. That person was Aeschylus.


I was the first of the great Greek playwrights. I introduced the second actor. With two actors on stage at one time, conflict between the two of them became possible. My most famous plays are a trilogy--three plays on the same theme. The first play, the most famous, is called Agamemnon and deals with the return of the conquering heroes from the Trojan War. In my plays, human beings have to deal with honor, responsibility, and duty to their city-state. They also have to suffer the whims and wrath of the gods. Why did my characters suffer greatly? It was their fate. Yet they struggled, in the hope that they could somehow avoid that fate.


You speak wisely, O Aeschylus, for the gods can be random and terrible in their thoughts and deeds. But you have changed our drama for the better. These two actors now wear masks and costumes. People now build theaters in which to watch your plays. You are the master, but you have many competitors.


Indeed, these plays were originally written to be presented at an annual festival called the City Dionysia. Every year in Athens, the drama festival presented three days of drama--five plays each day. The winner got a small sum of money. But Aeschylus didn't always win.


I, Sophocles, won the prize 18 times. My most famous plays include Oedipus the King and Antigone. I introduced the third actor. That's three actors on stage at the same time, all wearing masks, all interacting with one another. Aeschylus dealt with grand, sweeping themes. My plays were based on the character and psychology of the people involved. The consequences of their own actions brought my characters to ruin.


There is yet a third writer in our story, the last of the great ones. He, too, wrote of gods and fate and the downfall of great men and women.


Euripedes is my name. My most famous plays include Medea and Hippolytus. My characters didn't really have a destiny that they couldn't avoid; rather, they had choices to make and consequences of those choices to suffer. I alone had the courage to attack slavery as an evil, giving slaves in my plays the finest lines. I alone had the courage to give my women characters real problems and real solutions. Greed, cruelty, revenge, suffering--these are my themes, as realized by my characters' own actions and choices, not by the whims and wrath of the gods.


And so our story is at an end. The world has seen the invention of drama. From our mouths to your ears comes the history of ideas.

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