Throughout the history of ancient Rome and Greece

Throughout the history of ancient Rome and Greece drama remained a reflection of the nature of their contemporary society. “The function of the poet is to imitate, through the media appropriate to the given art (drama), not particular historical events, characters, emotions, but the universal aspects of life impressed on his mind by observations of real life. It is closer to reality than the concrete situation, since the universal is truer than the particular.

“-Aristotle. Aristotles poetics. Chapter 1. Greek drama originated in the 6th century b. c. n Attica, a region of Greece centred on Athens. It developed from worship rituals of the god Dionysus, youngest of the gods of the Greek pantheon. Dionysus was the god of wine, sex, song and general revelry but also represented fertility and the creative forces in life. – fig1- Thus he became very important to the common people who relied on the fertility of there livestock, crops etc.. and also loved to relish in the festivities of the harvest. The cult began to spread throughout Greece around 700 b. c. and with it spread the ritual worship called a Dithyramb.

A Dithyramb a choral lyric ung in praise of Dionysus in a circular “dancing place” named an Orchestra, around a Dionysian shrine. It was performed by a chorus of 50 men in animal dress, often goats as they were sacred to Dionysus. They represented Satyrs, companions of Dionysus -fig 2- (no women were allowed to participate in religious activities. Or much else for that matter). These rituals often entailed animal sacrifices (sometimes human) and ritualised orgies. Although information from this period is sketchy, it is apparent that a poet named Thespis -“Father of Drama”- (550-500 b. c. ) created an adaptation of the Dithyramb.

In this adaptation of the performance the poet would impersonate a character and engage in dialogue with the Chorus of singers, creating the first actor (hipokrites -literally- answerer). His idea was apparently very successful as many other poets adapted this style and it became known as tragedy. Derived from tragoedia (meaning “goat-song”). It is presumed by many sources to have been named thus because of the goat skins used by the chorus. In 534 the tragedy was officially recognised by the state cult of Dionysus, and an annual contest in tragedy was instituted at the Athenian festival of Dionysus. Gradually these plays became more and more apart of popular Athenian culture, and began to incorporate myths not related to Dionysus (in these cases the chorus was changed from satyrs to whatever fitted the context). The next century, (5th b. c. ) was known as the golden age of Athens.

The Persians had recently been defeated at Salamis and Boetia, Asia Minor was free and the Greeks were confident in their superiority. Greece experienced a massive surge of development in philosophy, mathematics, science and art. It boasted philosophers like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus and Democritus, the first known historians Thucydides and Herodotus, scientists and mathematicians like Thales, Hippocrates, Archimedes, and later Euclid (Euclidean geometry), Pythagoras (the Pythagorean theorem), Eratosthenes, Hero (the steam engine! ), Hipparchus and Ptolemy. Much of this development was centred around Athens, who after the Persian wars ended up with a massive fleet of war ships, with which they forged an empire, and for a time, dominated the other Greek states. Drama during this time also experienced a massive surge in development, centred around Athens.

The three main innovators in drama were, Sophocles Fig 4-, Aeschylus -Fig 3- and Euripides -Fig5-. All three were Athenians. The fact that our primary written sources are Athenian and that the drama contest was Athenian may account for there being no other playwrights given credit. Only 32 plays by survive completely intact, all by these three. Although it retained strong links with the Dionysian cult and festivals popular drama began to develop new meaning. The dramas reflected the social upheaval caused by the development of new ways of thinking and behaving, which sometimes clashed with the old ways.

Dramatists of comedy and tragedy egan integrating strong philosophical, political and moral messages into their drama. The tragedies were always based on the same ancient legends with the same Greek heroes festival after festival eg: Antigone (414bc Sophocles) Oresteia (458bc Aeschylus) Oedipus (441bc Sophocles). Each new drama simply reassessed the meaning of the legend and came up with new moral\philosophical thought behind it. Eg: in Sophocles’ “Ajax” Ajax is a metaphor for the old code of aristocratic nobility. He eventually destroys himself through an excess of pride, ambition and self-importance.

His ideal of living and dying nobly llowed for no compromise which would have been for the betterment of all. Through portraying the legend of Ajax in such a way Sophocles is expressing his own opinion on the matter. After the defeat of Athens during Peloponnesian war drama underwent another metamorphasis. Greece following the Peloponnesian war was in constant warfare until it was annexed by the Roman Empire. The environment of constant strife and fammin was lethal to the optimism crucial to the worship of Dionysus, with death becoming such a big part of life the people favored cults with emphasis on the hearafter.

This meant that Drama gradually lost all conections with Dionysus. With so much strife, the peoples desire for higher thinking and sence of duty to the state was replaced by an overriding individualism (concern only for ones self and ones family). This meant that people were no longer interested in the ethical messages inherent in previous drama, and simply wanted an escape from there worries. The chorus, up until this point the most important part of the play, was reduced to the role of a musical interlude, as it was traditionally a conduit for the playwrights message. -Fig 6-

Aristotle comments: “The chorus should be an integral part of the play, almost one of the actors, and not perform mere unessential musical interludes” chapter 18 Aristotles poetics. The result was “new comedy” a light drama based on simplistic plots (often the plight of lovers) all with happy endings. Beginnings of stock characters, which would influence the development of drama forever. The chief playwright of new comedy was Menander -Fig7-. The origins of Roman tragedy and comedy can be traced to Livius Andronicus. Who was probably a Greek slave from south Italy imported to enliven the

Roman civic-religious festivals (ludi) in 240b. c. The Dionysian origins of the drama had long since diminished, and Roman drama entered further into the realm of commercial entertainment. The Romans had native a form of drama called the Atellan farces, which was improvised by masked actors impersonating stock characters similar to those used by Menander. There were also exchanges of obscene dialogue at harvests festivals (Fescennine verses), perhaps similar in spirit to the Greek Dionysian festivals. These kinds of comedy, however, were primitive in comparison with Greek comedy.

When the Romans became acquainted with Greek culture in the third century BC, they were drawn to the New Comedies that were so popular in that era. New Comedy, which lacked the specific political and social references of Old Comedy translated well to Rome. As the political and ethical dictations of ancient Greek playwrights would certainly not be tolerated on a Roman stage. Roman playwrights began to adapt the Greek New Comedies for the Roman stage, they were called “Fabula palliata” or “plays in a Greek dress. The two most famous Roman comedians were Plautus (254-184 BC) and Terence (185-159 BC).

All surviving Roman comedies were written by these two authors. Terence’s plays weren’t much more than translations of the Greek originals. However Plautus was original in his adaptations, sometimes even combining two Greek plays into one Roman play a process named The “fabulae palliatae” had characters with Greek names in Greek settings, but the audience understood that the characters were essentially Roman. This practice allowed the playwright to have his characters behave in a manor completely contradictory to Roman morality. Without suggesting that a Roman would behave in such a manor.

Perhaps the most common inversion of Roman values in Roman comedy is the mockery of the father. In Roman society, the father’s power (patria potestas) was legally undisputed. A father had the power of life and death over his family and his household (especially slaves). In comedy, however, the son with the help of a brash slave regularly outwit the father and make a fool of him. In many plays, the slave is the central character who dominates the action -Fig 8-. The Greek setting of the plays and the Greek names of the characters made this situation palatable to Roman audiences and authorities. ic] [pic] Fig 1- Bust of Dionysus. Fig 2 – Example of animal dress, in this . case birds. [pic] Fig 3- Aeschylus c525 – 456 BC Around 484 BC there appeared on the Athenian theatre scene a playwright named Aeschylus. Aeschylus added a second actor (the antagonist) to interact with the first, introduced props and scenery and reduced the chorus from 50 to 12. Aeschylus’ Persians, written in 472 BC, is the earliest play in existence. [pic] Fig 4- Sophocles 496 – 406 BC In 468 BC, Aeschylus was defeated in the tragedy competition by Sophocles.

Sophocles ‘ contribution to drama was the addition of a third actor and an emphasis on drama between humans rather than between humans and gods. [pic] Fig 5- Euripides c480 – 406 BC Although far behind Sophocles in the medal count with a mere five, Euripides has since eclipsed both Sophocles and Aeschylus in popularity. The modern attraction to him stems largely from his point of view, which resembles today’s attitudes more than those of fifth-century BC. [pic] Fig 6- pot depicting Chorus. At this period the chorus was twelve in number, so here we have a half- chorus of six men probably representing warriors.

The reason for this incomplete representation may just be that the artist could only find room for six. Letters, which are not visible here and illegible on the vase, come out of their mouths as an indication that they were singing. [pic] Fig 7- Menander 342 – 291 BC Most of his plays are now lost, but parts found their way into plays by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence. (whom Julius Caesar called “a half- Menander”), Menander’s main contribution was to create a comedy model that greatly influenced later comedy. His characters were not celebrities but ordinary people


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