Classical Drama and Theatre
SECTION 2: CLASSICAL GREEK TRAGEDY AND THEATRE
Chapter 6: Early Classical Theatre
I. Introduction: An Overview of Classical Greek Drama
Let's begin by overviewing what we'll cover in the next two sections of the class: Classical Greek Tragedy (Section 2) and Greek Comedy (Section 3).
According to Aristotle, the Athenians developed tragedy first, with comedy following a generation or so later. While this assessment is essentially correct, the truth seems to have been somewhat more complicated. Comic dramas as opposed to comedy itself—that is, humorous plays versus the formal genre of "comedy"—appear to have evolved alongside their tragic counterpart, perhaps even before it. The satyr play, in particular, a farcical rendition of myths more often treated seriously which featured a chorus of rowdy, irreverent satyrs (half-human half-animal spirits of the wilderness notorious for their lust and gluttony), emerged early in the tradition of Greek theatre, though exactly how early is not clear. Nevertheless, the historical sources for theatrical performances in the Classical Age focus largely on tragedy as the hub of early dramatic activity, even if its pre-eminence probably looks clearer in hindsight than it seemed in the day.
Three tragedians emerge from the fifth century BCE as the principal practitioners of classical Greek tragic drama: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Theirs are the only tragedies preserved whole. First and foremost, Aeschylus lived a generation earlier than the other two so his work provides our first hard look at Greek drama. If to modern viewers his plays seem static and slow-moving, there can be little doubt they were exciting and controversial in their day.
The elder of the later pair, Sophocles is often seen as the best playwright of the three—in the general estimation of many in the scholarly community, Sophocles remains the finest exponent of tragic arts ever—and certainly his polished dramas were very well-respected in the Classical Age, as they have been for the most part ever since. It is somewhat ironic to note, then, that interest in his drama in performance seems to have waned fairly soon after his lifetime.
Conversely, Euripides, while alienating his contemporaries and considered by many a distant second to Sophocles when the two of them were alive, left behind a body of drama which commanded the stage after the Classical Age. There can be little doubt why: Euripides had a knack for putting on stage eye-catching situations and creating memorable characters with extreme personality disorders. Accordingly, theatrical records show that his works were very frequently produced in later ages, outstripping both Sophocles and Aeschylus.
No Greek tragedy from the fourth century or later (the Post-Classical Age) has been preserved intact, making it hard to determine the course of tragic drama in Greece after the lifetime of Sophocles and Euripides (note). We can, however, follow the evolution of its close kin, comedy, in later Greek theatre.
The presentation of humorous material has deep roots in ancient Greece, perhaps as old as tragedy itself, but because comedy was seen as a lesser art form until quite late in the evolution of Western Civilization, the evidence for this genre of drama is scant. Historical records make it clear skits designed to provoke laughter were being written throughout and even before the Classical Age—comedy officially premiered at the Dionysia at some point during the 480's BCE, between the Persian Wars—and this type of theatre, now termed "Old Comedy," gained popularity steadily across the fifth century. In particular, it began to attract widespread attention during the Peloponnesian War when productions of comedy provided the Athenians much needed relief from the anxiety and sorrow of their conflict against Sparta.
While the names of several exponents of this genre in the fifth century are preserved, and in some cases fragments of their work as well, the plays of only one Old Comedy playwright, Aristophanes, have come down to us complete. His drama—and presumably that of his predecessors and contemporaries, too—was primarily built around current events and issues. Indeed, all indications point to political and social satire as the hallmark of Old Comedy, especially toward the end of the Classical Age.
Later, however, after the end of the Peloponnesian War, as Greece moved into the Post-Classical period, comedy underwent a major transformation. From ridiculing celebrities and the regime in power to focusing on the lives and lifestyles of less prominent people, comic drama evolved toward the end of the fourth century (the 300's BCE) into a new and very different-looking type of entertainment. Out of the ashes of civil war and Alexander's conquests and the many desperations of the upper-middle class was born the "sit-com."
The master of this "New Comedy" was Menander, heralded by at least one ancient critic as an author unsurpassed in quality. However, for reasons having nothing to do with his brilliant stagecraft, his work did not survive the Middle Ages. Fortunately, the sands of Egypt have rendered up several of his plays, albeit in "rags and patches" but well enough preserved for us to see what his drama looked like. Character-driven, highly stylized pieces with recurring characters and inclined toward subtle rather than broad humor, Menandrean New Comedy in more ways than one marks the beginning of modern drama.
The physical remains of Greek theatre from the Classical Age are pitifully few, making it a treacherous enterprise to reconstruct the theatre spaces, sets, costumes, music or any of the material features of theatre in the great age which fostered Greek tragedy (the 400's BCE). Thus, what is known about theatre in the century before that, the 500's BCE, the age when drama itself first emerged, is a veritable blank. Most Greek theatres visible today around the Mediterranean basin were constructed after the Classical Age, while those few which belong to the earliest periods of theatre evolution have almost universally been renovated in later periods of antiquity, leaving them dubious sources of information about classical theatre. That is, they constitute "secondary sources," for the most part.
Our data concerning classical stage practices, such as acting styles, costumes, musical accompaniment and the like, are in general equally unclear. Though some historical sources seem to provide reliable information about the performance of classical tragedy, the modern appreciation of these data still relies heavily on the fifth-century dramas that happen to have survived. To make matters worse, ancient theatre was in its customs and practices a rather fluid enterprise, and what rules applied to one period—or even one decade!—may not necessarily have applied to another. As a consequence, the discussion below is an attempt to review the highlights of an issue clouded by mystery and delve into a few of the better attested theatre practices of the Classical and Post-Classical period.
A. Festivals and the Nature of Ancient Performance
For some time—until the first half of the fifth century, at least (ca. 450 BCE)—all drama appears to have been presented at the City Dionysia, the annual Athenian festival held each spring in honor of the god Dionysus. While it's clear that there was a competition held there among dramatists in which the work of one of them was awarded "first place," much else is uncertain, such as the number of tragedians each year who wrote how many plays distributed over how long a festival. The figures seem to have varied over the course of the century. That tragedies would later be packaged into trilogies—that is, groups of three plays connected by plot or theme (or both)—with a comic satyr play appended afterwards has led some scholars to retroject this tradition back to the earliest days, but the validity of that supposition is impossible to determine given the paucity of information within our grasp.
What is clear is that among the ancient Athenians interest in theatre as an art form rose precipitously from the end of the Pre-Classical Age (ca. 500 BCE) and continued to grow steadily over the course of the fifth century. For instance, in the 440's BCE another competition among tragic and comic dramatists was instituted at a subsidiary festival held in honor of Dionysus, the Lenaea, a strictly intra-Athenian affair occurring in mid-winter (late January). By the post-classical period (after 400 BCE), all sorts of festivals had started to incorporate drama into their festivities whether they had a natural connection with theatre or not. Clearly, the popularity of theatre made it attractive to a wide range of cults as a way of catering to the public. It comes as no surprise, then, that Greek plays began in this age to be exported all over the ancient world, laying the foundation for not only theatre as a key feature of ancient Western Civilization but also Greek as the "common" (koine) language of international commerce in this region.
The performance spaces of classical antiquity are enormous by today's standards, closer in size to modern sports stadiums than the sorts of theatres with which we are most familiar. Outdoors and most often situated on steep slopes that curve around the playing area, many ancient theatres were capable of housing thousands of spectators. These theatra (the plural of theatron)—the Greek word originally referred only to the seating area in a theatre, as was noted in Chapter 1—call for a certain style of performance. In order to be heard, for instance, the ancient actor had to have a strong voice. Likewise, costumes, sets and movement also needed to be visible from and intelligible at great distances. Unlike modern realistic plays which for the most part call for intimate, indoor theatre spaces with controlled lighting, ancient drama had more the feel we associate with large-scale athletic events.
Actually, if the ancient Greeks had compared drama to anything in their day, it would probably have been courtroom trials. Lawyers back then were seen as "actors" of a sort inasmuch as they provided some of the more sensational and theatrical moments in Greek history. Often pleading cases before thousands of people and hardly shy about dramatizing their appearance in court, orators in antiquity rarely hesitated to allude to drama during litigation, one at least even going so far as to quote tragedy at some length as if he were an actor. In fact, the ancient Athenians fairly often used their large, centrally located acting venue, the Theatre of Dionysus, as the site of important trials. So, if theatre seemed like anything to the ancient Greeks, it was most likely a lawsuit and, as such, Greek drama imports at times a distinctly litigious atmosphere where characters appear to prosecute each other, appealing on occasion to the audience as if it were a jury. Nor is this at all out of line with reality since most of the Athenian spectators would have served as jury-members at some point during their lives, some watching the play from the very same seats in which they had sat as jurors.
In that light, the ancient Greeks saw little reason for maintaining an invisible "fourth wall" or building characters with interiority (i.e. psychological subtlety effected through subtext), features conventional in modern theatre. Instead, presentationalism and overt grandeur typify Greek theatre and drama. Like the trials and public spectacles which Greek drama so often resembles—and which it surely shaped, in turn—ancient theatre in Greece had little choice but to meet the enormity of the arena it played in. And so it did, in high style, especially in the hands of its greatest exponents. Thus, it is safe to conclude that the ancient theatron and its close kin, the courtroom, shared a long-standing tradition of showmanship. In other words, the ancient Greeks would have felt right at home watching any of the sensational trials televised today, especially the prosecution of celebrities, and would probably have watched Senate hearings on CSPAN in far greater numbers than we do.
B. The Theatre in the Classical Age
The primary and primordial performance space in ancient Athens and the home of the City Dionysia was the Theatre of Dionysus. Built into the slopes of the Acropolis where it could utilize the natural terrain to create seating, this "instrument for viewing" is, if not the actual birthplace, certainly the cradle of Western drama. But its exact structure in the Classical Age is impossible to determine. It was substantially refurbished twice in antiquity, once in the later fourth century (300's BCE) and once again in Roman times, making it unlikely that a single stone visible in the theatre today was there in the Classical Age. Thus, it is improbable any of the classical tragedians would recognize much of the theatre we see now other than its location.
For instance, the orchestra—"dancing place" (literally, "instrument for dance")—of the Theatre of Dionysus, the flat area at the bottom of the theatre where the chorus sang and danced, is today circular. In the fifth century BCE, however, it was more likely rectangular. This assertion is based on two, albeit scanty, pieces of information. First, ancient choral dances were "rectangular," which a rectangular space would suit better.
Second, the only known theatre which has remained unchanged from that day, the Theatre at Thorikos—Thorikos was an Athenian deme ("district, borough")—has a rectangular orchestra with only its corners rounded. Nevertheless, it is not certain that the Theatre at Thorikos was used as a space for performing drama, or just a public meeting ground. In sum, it is hard to speak definitively about the physical nature of the Theatre of Dionysus as it existed in the Classical Age, except to say that it was a large structure capable of housing crowds which were huge even by modern standards.
1. The Skene
Still, it is possible to make a few conclusions. For instance, from the very dawn of Greek drama there was probably a backstage area of some sort, into which the actors could retire during a show and change costume. There is no ancient theatre extant which does not preserve or have room for the remains of a "backstage" of some sort. The Greeks referred to this part of the theatre as the skene ("tent"), recalling, no doubt, its origins as a temporary structure, perhaps even an actual tent into which the first actors of antiquity withdrew during performance.
The situation is not that simple, however. For instance, Aeschylus' earliest plays (Persae, Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes) were produced in the Theatre of Dionysus—they are the oldest Greek tragedies preserved entire—but they do not call for any permanent structure on stage. Thus, it is not clear that the Theatre of Dionysus prior to the 460's BCE had any building as such on stage; in that case, the skene could have been merely a "tent." So, we can be certain that the Theatre of Dionysus had a permanent skene building only after the first decades of the Classical Age.
On the other hand, mask and costume changes which all of Aeschylus' dramas entail require some sort of structure into which the actor can briefly retire out the audience's sight during performance. That Aeschylus' later plays do indeed call for a skene building with a roof strong enough to hold an actor standing on top of it, as in the opening scene of Aeschylus' Agamemnon (the first play of the Oresteia trilogy), shows that by at least 458 BCE there must have been some type of skene building in the Theatre of Dionysus. However, its architectural style and specific dimensions lie outside of our understanding at present.
Other dramas preserved from the Classical Age shed a bit more light on the nature of the skene building in the Classical Age. For instance, they show that it must have had at least one door, because several fifth-century tragedies call for actors to enter from a building or for the chorus to pass from the orchestra into the skene building. Therefore, there was not only a backstage structure of some sort but relatively easy access between it and the area where the chorus danced. Furthermore, as noted above, the roof of the skene building must have been flat and strong enough to support at least one actor's weight—and two or more by the end of the Classical Age—so it follows that there had to have been stairs or a ladder inside the skene leading up to the roof.
But, unfortunately, this is really all we can said with certainty about the ancient skene. That surviving classical dramas do not refer to it often or call for its extensive utilization argues it was not particularly complex in its design or application. If true, perhaps, of the Classical Age, the same did not apply to the post-classical Greek world. By that time the "tent" was being used to depict a play's setting through a process the Greeks called skenographia ("tent-drawing," implying some sort of painted backdrop) from which comes our word "scene" in the sense of scenery. So, even if the skene started out as a weak presence in classical theatre, it grew later, in the fourth century BCE, into an elaborate structure and, without doubt, represents the beginnings of set design.
C. Special Effects
Other requirements of the theatre called for in classical drama shed further light on the nature of the Theatre of Dionysus in the fifth century BCE. Several classical tragedies, for instance, require that the skene building open up and reveal an interior scene. The device used for this was called by the Greeks the ekkyklema ("roll-out"), presumably a wheeled platform on which an interior scene could be set and then "rolled out" from the skene building through the main door into the audience's view. Because Aeschylus' Agamemnon (458 BCE) appears to call for such a revelation, the ekkyklema probably came into use during the first half of the fifth century BCE, which makes it one of the earliest special effects on record.
Yet other classical plays call for an even more spectacular effect, for actors to "fly" into the theatre. Ancient sources report that this was done using a device called the mechane ("machine"), a crane which could lift actors over the skene building and suspend them up in the air by a rope. But the history of the mechane is more problematical than that of the ekkyklema and raises several important questions which are unfortunately unanswerable. When was the mechane first used? How did the actor suspended in the air keep from twisting around on the rope? Was the mechane's arm (the crane itself) hidden when it was not in use, or did the ancients even care if it was kept out of general sight? In either case, where was it placed? Finally, how was it weighted so that it was manageable? There are no clear answers to any of these questions, though we can make some educated guesses.
First, the mechane was probably introduced fairly late in the Classical Age, since no extant play dating before the late 420's BCE absolutely requires it. The late 430's BCE would be a safe guess. Second, there are simple ways to keep an actor from spinning around on the rope—for instance, by tying another rope to his back—but this is pure speculation. The last two questions—could the audience see the mechane when it was not in use? and how did the crew manage it?—are crucial because they pertain to another issue central in theatre history: how illusionistic was the classical Greek theatre? That is, did the Athenian audience see the action on stage as realistic, or was it to them a stylized presentation whose art and merit were not bound up in how natural and real-looking the dramatic vision appeared? There are no immediate or easy answers to these questions, but if we had greater knowledge of the mechane, it would certainly help to illuminate this and other fundamental issues about the evolution of ancient drama.
D. What Greek Tragedy Looked Like: The Finale of Euripides' Orestes
What is more certain and what we can see for ourselves is how classical playwrights utilized the mechane and other devices, and also the Theater of Dionysus as a whole. Their dramas, at least, give our speculations a guiding framework and become a laboratory of sorts for our reconstructions. A good example is Euripides' Orestes, his most frequently revived play in post-classical antiquity—so we are told in the ancient notes appended to this play—and a case study in extreme behaviors, psychotic personalities and theatrical brilliance. The finale of this tragedy shows how a master dramatist can utilize the stage tools at his disposal to create an gripping, panoramic crescendo of action in the classical theatre.
The play deals with the aftermath of Orestes' murder of his mother Clytemnestra, a famous saga in Greek myth. In the course of Euripides' play, Orestes is driven to despair because no one will help defend him, including the god Apollo who had originally ordered the young man to commit matricide, or so Orestes claims. When even his uncle Menelaus refuses assistance, Orestes at last goes insane, seizes Menelaus' wife, the beautiful Helen who had caused the Trojan War, and kills her—or seems to, because the report of her death is inconclusive—and then, to ensure his own safety, Orestes kidnaps Menelaus' daughter Hermione, his cousin, and holds her hostage. [Click here for a fuller explication of this play.]
The end of the play is a study in the possibilities for producing spectacle in the Theatre of Dionysus. Euripides gradually fills the stage with characters one level at a time, literally from bottom to top. Eventually every possible acting space and virtually every resource at the disposal of a playwright in that day is in use.
The finale begins with the chorus alone on stage, singing and dancing in the orchestra at the bottom of the theatre. Next, Menelaus enters with his army, a secondary silent chorus. He—and they, too, presumably—stand on the main level of the stage before the door of the skene building. He demands that Orestes open the gates of the palace, but Orestes appears instead on its roof with several other characters: his sister Electra, his friend Pylades and Menelaus' daughter Hermione whom Orestes threatens to kill if her father tries to force his way into the palace. They quarrel and Menelaus gives the signal to attack. In response, Orestes orders his friends to torch the palace and kill Hermione.
Primordial chaos seems ready for its climactic close-up, when in flies the god Apollo on the mechane, soaring above the din and smoke. This solar deity—the divine personification of light, reason and, in this case, "better late than never"—does not, however, hover over Argos alone but has the not-dead-yet Helen, flying beside him in first class. He had just recently rescued her from Orestes' assault and turned her into a goddess so she can live with him.
The Greek stage is now packed as full as can be, with speaking characters on every level, in order from bottom to top: the chorus in the orchestra, Menelaus and his troops at the door of the skene, Orestes and his gang of kidnappers above them on the roof of the skene, and the gods, both new and old, swinging on the mechane over all of it. It is a very craftily orchestrated and deliberate sequence of action designed to lead to a visually stunning spectacle of pessimistic, or at least ironic, grandeur! And, if one counts the sun—which it is a safe guess was shining that day, or any day when there were plays being presented at the City Dionysia—there are, in fact, five levels of action, with the "star of stars," Apollo's ensign, beaming down impassively on all of this feeble human madness. [We will return to this tragedy later. It is too theatrical and well-written to pass without a second glance.]
III. Actors and Acting in Ancient Greece
Thus, Euripides' Orestes ends with what has to be one of most breath-taking scenes in all of Greek theatre, employing every resource the Theatre of Dionysus in the Classical Age had to offer—certainly, it is hard to imagine a tragedian of this era calling for much else—still, hard as it may be to believe, Euripides has more up his sleeve than this tragedic traffic-jam. To understand what that is, one must take into account the full dynamics of Greek performance. What modern audiences overlook, though ancient audiences would not have, is that there is one speaking character, or set of characters, on each level of the stage, from top to bottom: Apollo (mechane), Orestes (roof of the skene), Menelaus (stage) and the chorus (orchestra).
A. The Three-Actor Rule
This demonstrates another important facet of the classical Greek theatre. Besides the chorus, only three actors performed all the speaking roles in tragedies produced at the Dionysia, although the authorities who oversaw these celebrations of Dionysus allowed on stage any number of mute actors. These non-speaking parts were probably played by young actors-in-training whose voices were not as yet fully matured and could not project well enough to be heard throughout the enormous arenas encompassed by classical theatres.
But all known tragedies include more than three speaking characters, which means actors must have taken more than one role in a play. While on the modern stage multiple-role-playing may sometimes entail difficulties—audiences today who sit relatively close to the stage will naturally expect a high level of realism which may be all but impossible for the actor playing more than one role to effect—the same was not true in ancient Greece. Role-changing was perfectly practicable on the Athenian stage, not only because the majority of the viewers sat some distance from the stage but, more important, because the actors wore masks and costumes facilitating their ability to play different parts. That is to say, within the scope of a single tragedy, an actor might portray as many as five different characters, sometimes very different ones, with relative ease since altering his façade through a change of mask and costume was a traditional element in Greek theatre.
Indeed, extant dramas prove that the ancient Greek actor was expected to be able to impersonate the full range of humanity, from young girls to old men, by adapting his voice and mannerisms, much as is still done in various types of Asian theatre. And, as in some performance genres found there, men played all parts, male and female (note). As a result, the art of ancient acting centered around a performer's flexibility carrried out with the help of the masks and costumes which hid his own face and form from the audience's view.
Furthermore, it is clear that three actors portrayed all the roles in any classical drama, a tendency today called the "three-actor rule." That this was, in fact, a restriction scrupulously enforced at the Dionysia is also certain, and not just because later historical sources like Aristotle allude to it, but because the surviving dramas of this period show this rule in action. In other words, the plays constitute "primary" evidence that three actors at most performed all the speaking roles in classical tragedy and satyr plays, for the simple reason that all such drama—even the surviving fragments!—require no more than three speaking characters on stage at once.
In addition, two other features of classical drama make it clear that there were only three actors playing all the roles. First, no extant tragedy staged before the end of the Peloponnesian War requires actors to share a part. That is, ancient Greek playwrights disposed the action in their dramas such that the characters assigned to any particular actor never converse on stage. That is, if one actor plays both Electra and Menelaus, those particular characters never meet and speak together in front of the audience. Second, the Greek tragedians invariably give actors a certain period of time off stage (usually the interval covered by about fifty lines of dialogue) to make mask and costume changes. That comfort margin, so to speak, along with the other aspects of Greek tragedy mentioned above seal the case for the "three-actor rule."
Less clear is why there were only three actors. Presumably, having performers play more than one role was a traditional component of the Greek theatre, perhaps from the very inception of Greek drama when there was but one actor and a chorus. Thus, ancient audiences, no doubt, expected a certain amount of multiple-role-playing in a drama. But the reason the evolution in the number of actors stopped at three is a question for which there will probably never be a fully satisfactory answer, nor must there be only one reason for this rule. One credible explanation which almost assuredly had some force in the creation and maintenance of this restriction involves the religious element in ancient theatre, whose conservatism surely resisted change on all fronts including adding more and more actors to the stage. Equally compelling is, no doubt, the jealousy of premier performers in competition with one another for a prestigious honor at the Dionysia during the later half of the Classical Age. This must also have encouraged holding the numbers of speaking performers down. Envy among rival actors is one of the few reliable constants in the world of entertainment.
B. Voices on Stage: Dialogue and Trialogue
Whatever the reason, the three-actor rule is visible at work in the tragedies of all three playwrights, even the earliest, Aeschylus. Although he rarely has all three speaking actors on stage at once, he does so often enough—in his later tragedies, at least—that it seems likely he regularly had three actors at his disposal, or two if he himself is counted as one of the performers himself (note). It is interesting to note, then, that his characters never engage in a trialogue—that is, all three actors conversing in a scene—even when there are three speaking actors on stage. So, for instance, during the confrontation between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, the actors portraying these two characters speak to each other. Though another actor is on stage dressed as Cassandra (Agamemnon's Trojan concubine and prisoner-of-war), that actor says not a word during this scene. Rather, he remains on stage silent for a long time and only finally speaks two scenes later. Thus, in the scene where Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have their dialogue, Aeschylus does, in fact, put three speaking actors together on stage, even if they do not all join in the same conversation and engage in a trialogue.
Why doesn't Aeschylus have all three actors speak together in that or any scene? Close examination of the nature of Attic theatre and the ramifications of its conventions pertaining to performance provides several good reasons for this. First and foremost, it is important to remember drama was a new art form in Aeschylus' day. It had most likely grown from a one-man show with a chorus as back-up—in the earliest recorded stages of tragedy, there is no mention of actors, only a playwright and a chorus, which supports the supposition that playwrights originally performed all the speaking character parts—to a two-performer and then a three-performer arena. From our perspective, this transition seems simple but in the day a play with so many actors on stage at the same time must have looked like a three-ring circus, especially to an audience accustomed to having only one "voice" present all the characters in a story, the way Homer and all epic poets did.
As a result, a conservative approach to dialogue is visible in Aeschylus' plays where, any time two characters have a dialogue, the situation is always carefully managed. For instance, the action leading up to a dialogue in an Aeschylean drama tends to proceed in the following manner: each of the speaking characters is brought in separately, they deliver discrete monologues (often punctuated by choral interjections), and only after some time do they at last exchange words back and forth. This cautious approach, as the playwright makes sure that the audience has heard both the actors' voices and understands the two characters' distinct points of view, confirms that in the early Classical Age the audience required some preparation before a conversation could take place on stage.
Historically, this makes sense as well. If we can believe Aristotle who claims the second actor was the invention of Aeschylus, dialogue of this sort did not exist until the 490's BCE at the earliest. Seen that way, playwrights in the earliest phases of Greek drama would have resembled the epic poets who dominated public performance in the Pre-Classical Age, except that these playwright-bards had a chorus behind them and dressed to fit the roles they were impersonating instead of merely narrating what happened or was said. Epic poets, after all, could not have performed dialogue the way it was done in tragedy since only one of them performed at a time. Nor could playwrights in the earliest phase of tragedy, until the day Aeschylus introduced the second performer and the first actor-to-actor dialogue.
Yet to have the capability of doing something in the theatre is one thing and to carry it off on stage is another. The audience must be able to follow what transpires on the stage and enjoy it, or what is the point? The glaring realism of a stage dialogue surely appeared quite startling to Aeschylus' audience, accustomed as they were to a solo poet supplying all the individual characters' voices in a performance. To have a pair of men doing this would have looked to an ancient audience like there were two epic poets performing at once, a wonderful notion but also a situation fraught with the possibility of confusing audience members about what exactly was unfolding before their eyes. That explains why Aeschylus is invariably circumspect in approaching dialogue. He must be careful not to lose his audience in the course of the performance, for instance, by having two characters walk on stage speaking in rapid exchange, something which would almost certainly have over-taxed his audience's ability to follow what was being said on stage and by whom.
Another aspect of tragic discourse supports the view that the spectators of early Greek theatre needed help in following any discourse significantly more complex than a simple exchange of speeches. As poetry, the rhythms of dialogue in tragedy were somewhat predictable to the audience, especially if changes of speaker occurred at breaks in the poetic meter, the way, in fact, they regularly do in classical tragedy. That is, typically one character speaks a single full line of meter, and the other says the next and then the first another and so on, in a type of interchange called stichomythy (in Greek, stichomythia, "line-talking"). This clear and predictable pattern of exchanges of dialogue line by line helped the ancient audience understand which character was talking at any given moment, because they knew in advance when one character would stop speaking and the next one would begin.
Stichomythy is also a natural product of the venue in which it played. The size of the theatres in which Greek dramas were presented put most spectators some distance from the action—add to that the fact that the actors were wearing masks so that, even if seated close to the stage, viewers could not see the performers' lips moving—thus it's easy to understand the need for such a stylized conversation device as stichomythy. Careful preparation before a dialogue and a predictable exchange of words would have greatly improved the audience's ability to follow a conversation on stage, especially when presented with masked actors who were playing in an immense arena. Given all that, most spectators would have benefitted greatly from any help determining which character was talking at each particular moment.
And then, to have yet a third speaker enter the conversation would, no doubt, make the situation all but hopelessly hard to follow, certainly for an audience as new to drama as Aeschylus'. It says something for their heirs that only a generation later Sophocles' audience was apparently able to follow a trialogue. That, however, may have had as much to do with the growing talents of the performers who helped viewers grasp which character was speaking—actors with distinctive voices would have facilitated the process greatly—as with the ancient Greek audience's increasing sophistication in following theatrical conventions. Moreover, the growing general interest in theatre surely also stimulated both actors and their public to look for ways of getting around these obstacles.
Playwrights, too, may not have entirely deplored the limits imposed on them by this situation. Aeschylus' plays, for instance, show more than just a mastery of this technical aspect of his medium. Clearly he also had fun in the process of creating drama which used a restricted number of actors—close examination of his plays suggests he may even have liked it!—because in the aforementioned sequence of scenes that include the confrontation between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, it appears that Aeschylus is playing with his audience's expectations about how many speaking actors are on stage, indeed taunting them with the very possibility of a "third" speaking actor, which was perhaps a novelty in that day.
In particular, he toys with his audience as to whether or not Cassandra will speak. At first, in the Agamemnon-Clytemnestra confrontation, her first appearance on stage, Cassandra does not say a word. Nor does she again in the next scene, when Clytemnestra attempts to speak with her one-on-one. Although Cassandra's silence is well-motivated by the plot—she is a prophetess and sees what is going to happen, that Clytemnestra is about to kill both her and Agamemnon!—her muteness plays on another level also. What Aeschylus appears to be doing, as Cassandra refuses to speak first in one scene and then again in the next, is baiting the audience into supposing that Cassandra is not being played by a speaking actor but only a mute. After such a prolonged silence and her pointed refusal to converse with Clytemnestra, many of those in Aeschylus' audience would, no doubt, have arrived at the conclusion she will never speak in this play because the role is not being played by a speaking actor.
But then just as this appears to be the case, Aeschylus has her at long last break into speech—actually song!—followed by an extended and moving scene on stage between her and the chorus. It is tempting to suppose some great actor-singer of the day has been hiding behind the mask and costume of Cassandra so that this character's long-delayed eruption into song is Aeschylus' ploy with which to surprise and dazzle the crowd.
This goes some way toward explaining the meaning of the verbless sentence in Aristotle's Poetics (4) that Sophocles, not Aeschylus, introduced the "third" actor to tragedy. If we assume, as noted above, that in glancing over Aeschylus' plays Aristotle saw that there were no overt trialogues and from that concluded Aeschylus did not use three actors, then it is easy to surmise he has failed to envision fully the action of Aeschylus' drama theatrically and has overlooked the presence of temporarily silent "speaking actors," a very different thing from true "mute actors" who portray characters that never speak on stage.
A detail found in an ancient biography of Sophocles may further corroborate the assertion that Aristotle has failed to assess the data correctly. Though replete with spurious assertions, this purported account of the great tragedian's life includes what seems to be at least one detail validated from other quarters. It suggests that the great tragedian did not act in his own plays because he suffered from microphonia ("small-voicedness"). Other sources, both documentary and artistic, support this general idea. For instance, Aristotle tells us that, when Sophocles acted in his own plays, he played only minor roles such as a lyre player, which makes sense if the playwright lacked a voice powerful enough to perform the great and demanding roles written for the Greek stage. In further support of Aristotle's assertion, we are also told that a famous painting in antiquity showed Sophocles playing the lyre. With such corroborating evidence there is some basis, then, for believing the biographical record is accurate about his microphonia. If so, it becomes easier to understand why Aristotle might credit Sophocles with introducing a third actor to the Greek stage, since in those days a man with a weak actor's voice—though it is hard to imagine anyone having a stronger playwright's voice!—would have to do something to compensate for such a fundamental deficiency.
So, if by "third actor" Aristotle means "third non-playwright performer," then his words can be seen as technically correct. Indeed Sophocles, because of his microphonia, may have been the first to bring a "third" actor on the stage, but that does not mean he inaugurated the tradition of having three speaking characters on stage at the same time. That, in fact, was Aeschylus' invention. Seen this way, the dramatic evidence can be brought into line with Aristotle's statement which is now valid, if needlessly terse and uncharacteristically confusing.
But there's more to Sophocles' situation than counting actors. In surrendering the stage entirely to "actors," i.e. men who performed words which others had written, he became the earliest known "modern" playwright, in the sense that he is the first dramatist we know of who watched his own plays from the theatron. This, in turn, goes some way toward explaining another feature of his drama, his eye for creating complex, multi-layered action on stage where silent or minor characters play important roles. This is surely the product of his being a script-writer who sat with the audience taking in the show like any other ticket-holder. That is, in imagining a play he watched it the way a spectator would, not from inside a mask as Aeschylus and all his predecessors had. So, if not an innovator in the actors' arena, Sophocles deserves credit for seeing drama from the audience's vantage point to which the compelling complexity of his stage action attests, where irony and characters in the background often comment on what's happening front and center, and sometimes even upstage it.
By the middle of the century, actors were installed as a fixture in the Athenian theatre. At some point in the 440's BCE they started receiving their own awards at the Dionysia, a clear recognition of their growing role in theatre. That this began shortly after Sophocles separated playwriting and acting should come as no surprise. No longer the subordinates of a playwright who hired them so he could have a dialogue partner, actors were becoming their own independent artists, much as they are today, and without the playwright to outshine them on stage their prestige ballooned. Indeed, by the fourth century the best-known names in theatre, stars like Polos and Neoptolemos, belonged not to playwrights but actors.
Around that time, the theatre which has never been without its caste systems evolved a hierarchy of performers. Later—perhaps much later since we do not know the date—separate words were coined referring to the three different actors: protagonist, deuteragonist and tritagonist, meaning respectively "first competitor," "second competitor" and "third competitor." In post-classical Greece, these terms came to carry connotations of quality, too. So, for instance, tritagonist could imply "third-rate." But it is not clear if any of this was true in the Classical Age. Even so, we know that the discrimination among these performers goes back well into the fifth century BCE because, from the very outset of awarding actors a prize at the Dionysia, only the principal actor was granted an award, not his co-performers.
Finally, this attests to something else very important about the evolution of acting in the classical theatre. The fifth-century audience must have been able to distinguish different actors on stage even when those performers were wearing a mask on stage. In order to be able to recognize the work of an individual actor—and only him, not his colleagues!—his public had to have had the ability to follow him through his roles in drama. Furthermore, some classical actors were famous and well-known by name. If audiences could not distinguish them as they played a series of roles on stage, how could they come to respect and admire them? It could not have been by face or figure, the way modern actors are most often recognized, because an ancient actor's features were not visible on stage. Instead, the voice must have been the actor's principal tool, an absolute necessity in his artistic arsenal, so it must have been through their distinctive and powerful voices that Greek actors made their mark on the world, more like today's opera singers than movie stars.
C. Producers and Sponsorship
Last but not least, the organization and sponsorship of the Dionysia and the Lenaea, the principal dramatic festivals in Athens, evolved drastically over time. While it is hard to keep track of all the changes that took place in just the first two centuries of institutional theatre at this venue, there are some constants. Until the Hellenistic period (ca. 300 BCE), playwrights and their casts were sponsored by a producer of sorts, called a choregos (plural choregoi), literally "the chorus leader," who underwrote the funding that allowed a play to reach the stage. Usually a rich man who was required by law to perform some kind of public service, the choregos was a producer of sorts who was handed the duty of housing and feeding the chorus for the entire duration of rehearsal and production. He also bought the costumes, props, set pieces and anything else deemed necessary for the show. It could be a very expensive endeavor, but it could also reflect well on his civic-mindedness and sense of duty to state.
Moreover, even from the earliest days of the Dionysia a winning choregos' name was recorded on stone memorials set up in public places, which made the expense of production a potentially good advertising investment. Quite a few of these "angels" over time put on lavish spectacles and won widespread acclaim for doing so, with which came other advantages. For example, if he fell later into some sort of legal trouble and was taken to court, a former choregos could remind the jury, composed largely of men who had seen "his" show, that he had once hosted a great entertainment for the state. To judge from how often such things are mentioned in the records of ancient Greek law suits, the argument must have worked.
The exact nature of the selection process by which playwrights and choregoi were brought together is not clear. Nor are any of the administrative procedures surrounding the City Dionysia, including many things we would like to know, such as the exact methods used in awarding prizes to plays. To make matters even worse, the means of matching playwright and producer seems to have changed over time, though certain features of the process stand out throughout the fifth and fourth centuries. For instance, while the choregos funded the enterprise, it was the playwright who was in charge of the production for the most part in the Classical Age. From early on called a chorodidaskalos ("chorus teacher"), the playwright apparently "taught" the chorus its songs and dances and oversaw the rehearsal process in general, even if he did not pay for it out of his own pocket.
But by the fourth century BCE, as we noted above, the playwright's role in drama had diminished greatly and actors had become the principal attraction in Greek theatre. As such, they began to assert their will over productions. How the theatre evolved from there is even harder to reconstruct, but in general it seems safe to say that the material remains of ancient theatre and the historical sources relating to it, as well as the extant dramas themselves, show a living, evolving art form which, maddening as it is to pin down, was a vibrant and vital part of the ancient Greeks' world: an echo of their heartstrings, a mirror of their souls and a banquet for their minds..
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