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Truth and Drama in Greece

by Richard H. Armstrong

The theater is a profoundly psychological medium; but this means more than just exposing psychic truths to light. Theater also tells the truth about our dishonesty; think how many plays are about intrigues, plots, and deceptions. Or how many are about self-deception and illusion. Playwright David Mamet says, "Drama ... is about discovering the truth that had previously been obscured by lies, and about our persistence in accepting lies." So truth and drama stand in a tense relationship.

In the beginning, all actors were hypocrites. You see, "Hypocrite" comes from the Greek word for actor, hupokritês, which literally means "responder." There is no documentary history of early Greek drama, but the story goes that in the beginning, there was the chorus, not the actor. The Greeks excelled at the difficult art of marshalling a group of people into performing both poetry and dance. These choruses celebrated the god Dionysus, god of the vine; in his honor, festivals were held that became the occasion for performances of mythic episodes. At some point, the chorus developed a soloist, a "responder," who in standing out from the group became the first actor. According to tradition, the first one to do this was Thespis, and actors are called Thespians to this day.

Tragedy was the first dramatic form, and tragic poets were a hard working lot. You see, plays were only put on during the festivals for Dionysus, and they were competitions. You had to run your play ideas by an official, who would decide if you were allowed to enter the contest. If that went well, then a wealthy citizen would assist you as you put the play together — plays, actually — since you had to write three tragedies for this annual competition.

So you found a story from a vast store of myth, worked up an angle on that story, and wrote the poetry and songs that became the tragedy; you taught it to the cast, acting in it if you could. And you had one chance to get this right: there were at first no repeat performances. The whole thing rose or fell with that one "opening" night.

And what an audience! The theater could hold some 14,000 people, and this was a major national holiday, so everyone was there: all the major politicians and generals; the priests; the scoundrels, wags, and rabble-rousers; your personal enemies; your friends and family. Well, the men at least. There's little evidence that women were in attendance, and there were no women on the stage. Greek tragedy has a great many female roles — Medea, Clytaemnestra, Phaedra, Electra -- but they were all made famous by men playing to an audience of men. And another large sector of society was missing in that audience: the slaves, and there were thousands of them in Athens.

The theater audience was made up of male Athenian citizens — though at the most important festival, foreign dignitaries were also present. This means that a theater performance was not unlike a political assembly; in this ancient democracy, there were a lot of assemblies. People used to sitting and listening to legal and political speeches for hours could easily sit to watch tragedy after tragedy unfold over the course of a festival. And this accounts for the "speechiness" of Greek drama. Greek characters contend with one another in debate as if in a court room, and the audience loved it. That's why on average, the drama festivals were better attended than the political rallies.

The Greek theater itself was not constructed on our modern principles. The playing area was not an "interior" space. When you look at a modern play, the stage often represents an interior room, set up like a scene box or diorama, with an invisible fourth wall. The Greek stage was always an exterior: a facade with a set or two of doors, which would be defined as the play developed. Perhaps we stand before a palace, or a city wall, or even a cave — the actors will tell you soon enough. Actors emerge from the doors or offstage to explain themselves to a vast and visible crowd. This seems less voyeuristic than peeking into someone's private life.

Before this facade is a circular space, the "dancing ground" or orchestra. Here the chorus comes to take up its place; after the opening scene, they make their entrance, and once they've hit their mark, they never leave — another thing that makes Greek theater so different. With no black outs or curtains for changing scenes, the intervals are marked by the chorus' singing and dancing, moving us from point-to-point in the action.

The play unfolds under the unblinking eye of the Greek sun; from the back seats, you can see all the way to the sea. The power of this drama comes not from the set, but the cascades of poetry that bring it to your mind's eye.

The modern theater leaves us in the dark, staring at a lit stage that arises like a magical illusion. We are anonymous in the dark, hardly present to each other, hardly visible from the stage. This helps to create a feeling of intimacy; but the intimacy of the Athenian stage was different. It was a conscious, civic intimacy, one as tied up with the nation's religion and politics as with the action of the stage.

And that's what made Athenian comedy so peculiar. Comedy came onto the scene later than tragedy; it was from the outset, quite parasitic on its older cousin. Greek comedies love to poke fun at tragedy and its ridiculous conventions. Famous actors, who brought the audience to tears in their tragic female roles, could be openly lampooned for their effeminacy in comedy. Successful playwrights like Euripides could be ruthlessly parodied, or even brought on as characters. The device known as the mechane, a crane used to bring on a god at the climax of a tragedy, could be satirized for the ridiculous contraption that it was. In the morning, the Greeks would enjoy their tragic theater; in the afternoon, they would enjoy seeing all its strings and illusions exposed in comic metatheater.

But comedy was much more than mere parody of tragedy; it was very deeply political. Tragedies were rarely about contemporary events; they drew their plots instead from old tales of aristocratic families, whose members killed, raped, and ate each other. Comedies, on the other hand, were always about contemporary events; not only could the latest policies be criticized, but the real sponsors of those policies could be pointed out in the audience and subjected to comic abuse.

Unpopular people, like the ever-quizzical Socrates, could be sent up in comedies that travestied their actual ideas quite unfairly. Even in the midst of a terrible war, the comic poet could fantasize about making a separate peace, and his comic hero could enjoy all the fruits of peaceful commerce while the leading general is dismissed as a war-mongering buffoon. For an equivalent to the ancient comedian Aristophanes, you'd have to look to Jon Stuart or Stephen Colbert today. Then as now, comedy is the pursuit of democracy by other means.

[Lienhard] And with comedy also comes exaggeration.

[Armstrong] And absurdity — truth attained by reduction to absurdity. It's amazing how serious problems can be transformed into pleasure through a kind of comic alchemy!

[Lienhard] And that takes us to alchemy and theater in Shakespeare's time. Let's go there next:


D. Mamet, Theatre, (New York: Faber and Faber, 2010): Citation from page 69.