USU 1320
Ancient Literature and Language
©Damen, 2004

A Guide to Writing in History and Classics


Click here for a copy of the slides and notes presented during the lecture in class


Chapter 6: An Introduction to Greek Tragedy

I. Introduction: The Sixth Century (600-500 BCE)

Lyric poetry proved to be an important gateway in Greek literature. Not only did it arise from earlier oral poetry as it came under the influence of the new ways of thinking and writing predominant in Greece during the last century of the pre-Classical Age (600-500 BCE), but also it paved the way for the even more radical changes in art and literature to come. Upon the advent of the Classical Age (500-400 BCE), the spirit of innovation in Greece built momentum, fostering among other things science, philosophy and democracy, in other words, the modern age. Among its most significant inventions, the sixth century also laid the groundwork for drama.

But drama wasn't the only art to blossom in pre-Classical Greece. This age also witnessed advancements in architecture, statuary and painting, in particular, the development of red-figure vases, an inspired inversion of the standard way of decorating a clay pot. Instead of painting black figures onto a red background—when fired, Greek clay naturally turns red because of a high iron content—the Athenians at some time around 530 BCE began painting the whole vase dark and then scratching off the black color to create the figures. In this way, the characters glow with a ruddy hue and stand out much more "dramatically."

At the same time, there were also significant changes taking place in Greek religion. For instance, the Greeks imported from Asia Minor a new god named Dionysus (see Dionysus in Chapter 3, An Introduction to Classical Mythology). The rites of this divinity were orgiastic—meaning the worship of Dionysus involved frenzied activity, though not necessarily sexual promiscuity—which was designed to promote the ecstatic union of devotee and god. Moreover, women played a central role in this cult, which in and of itself presented a stern challenge to the largely male-oriented world of classical antiquity in which females were, for the most part, little more than domestic servants.

Since orgiastic activities where women roamed at large were hardly regular features of traditional Hellenic society, the introduction of Dionysus invoked a strongly negative response among the Greeks, fomenting tension between religion and conventional morality. The ingenious solution the Athenians devised to meet this crisis was not to reject the god wholesale, but to reconfigure his rituals into something more palatable to their culture. Over the course of time, these reformed rites evolved into Greek drama which, in turn, shaped classical literature as much if not more than any other single art form in antiquity.

The exact path which led to the invention of drama is lost in the murky shadows of pre-Classical history. If the Greeks found inspiration for the creation of theatre outside of their own civilization—some scholars see the roots of Western theatre in ancient Egypt—there's little compelling evidence to that effect. By all fair standards of history, it was the Greeks on their own—and for the most part, the Athenians—who forged drama out of the artistic materials and literary resources around them.

The existing arts which were used to form the foundation of theatre were, indeed, a remarkably inventive concatenation. Combining Homeric epic with lyric poetry, choral dance and various religious rituals, early Athenian playwrights devised a thrilling new way of telling a story. All this occurred, we should note, as the Athenians were building a mercantile empire abroad, changing government from tyranny to democracy and fending off the Persians from their land no less than twice. For all their genius and artistic insight, we mustn't forget to admire the sheer physical stamina of those who inhabited this age.

Part of the credit, however, must also go to non-native Greeks in the day, many of whom had moved to Athens after the monarchical Persians invaded their homeland in Asia Minor. Just as many centuries later great scientists from Eastern Europe fled the spread of Nazi Germany and brought with them to the West the physics underlying modern atomic research, great philosophers and artists poured out Ionia (western Asia Minor) in the sixth century BCE, escaping the spread of oppressive theocracies in the East. Greece became an asylum and crucible for ideas new and old, native and foreign, and in a relatively short time the Greeks—and again the Athenians in particular—were thrust as never before into the limelight of the world stage. With unsurpassed brilliance they rose to the challenge of cultural preeminence, making the next few centuries their own.

II. Early Greek Theatre and Drama

A. The Birth of Tragedy

Tragedy was originally a term which designated a certain type of drama presented at a particular Athenian festival held in honor of the god Dionysus. Only later did the word tragedy come to have more general application, betokening a certain type of drama which relies heavily on irony, pathos (Greek for "suffering") and lyric expression and at the same time avoids comedy, melodrama and rapid convolutions in the plot. In the Classical Age, however, that meaning had not as yet evolved.

To the contrary, "tragedies" written in the fifth century often contain humorous scenes, melodramatic episodes and wild plot twists. So, readers today embarking on a study of classical drama must discard their preconceptions about what constitutes tragic drama, and especially the notion that Greek tragedy always entails a gloomy outlook on life, featuring long-winded old men wound up in sheets who wail at length about the evils of fortune and fate. It simply isn't so.

The origin of this art form is, unfortunately, not completely understood today, a fact exemplified by the term tragedy itself. In Greek, tragoidos ("tragedy") is a compound of two words: trag- meaning "goat" and -oidos meaning "song." It's unclear to us now why "goat-song" seemed to the ancient Greeks a good way of describing early drama—were goats prizes given to a successful playwright? were they some sort of special sacrifice to Dionysus?—but, since no goats ever caper across the stage in "goat-songs," the name remains a mystery.

Luckily, however, other features of early tragedy are easier to trace and define. For instance, like few other art forms, it's possible to pinpoint the date at which tragic drama first emerged. Late in his reign—most scholars would say in or about 534 BCEPisistratus, the great and sometimes benevolent tyrant of pre-Classical Athens, instituted the Dionysia, a state-sponsored festival celebrating the god Dionysus. It's at this moment in history that Athenian society first recognized drama as an art and an institution. So, even if not actually born in Athens around 534, there can be little doubt tragedy was baptized there and then.

We can also reconstruct to some extent the nature of early tragedy which doubtlessly would look rather strange to most of us today. Groomed as we are on cinema and television, we would surely see the fledgling efforts of early Greek playwrights as fairly slow-moving and crude, the way many early motion pictures seem now. But to understand the impact and novelty of art forms in their time, it's important to see them in their historical context and, by any sound assessment of that sort, early Greek tragedy was startlingly revolutionary, indeed to judge from the surviving evidence, wildly innovative and exciting to watch.

The following are some of the essential facts known about Greek tragedy and drama in the pre-Classical period:

1. Tragedy arose as a combination of different performance arts popular in the day, primarily:

(a) Homeric narrative, including many of the stories found in earlier epic;

(b) the performances of choruses, large groups of people who danced and sang in lyric modes involving a wide ranges of poetic meters;

(c) and finally, what was probably most startling of all at the time, the use of masks and costumes which allowed a performer to impersonate characters, an element the Greeks probably appropriated from Dionysiac worship.

2. Starting as far back as we can see, tragedies were for some reason presented in groups of three plays called trilogies. Why three is unknown, but the custom persisted well past the Classical Age.

3. Also from early on, the Dionysia included a playwriting competition in which the author of the best trilogy staged that year won a coveted first prize. Still surviving today are the remnants of ancient inscriptions—notices carved on marble and erected in public—with lists of victorious tragedians.

4. In the earliest dramas, it's likely only one performer played all the characters in a drama and, because he was seen to "answer" the chorus, this actor was called a hypocrites, literally an "answerer" or "interpreter." Our words hypocrite and hypocrisy, implying "feigned feelings, mere acting," come from this term.

5. In order to stage an entire story with many characters, the hypocrites had no choice but to play multiple roles within the same drama. His ability to don different masks and costumes several times over the course of a play facilitated this role-changing. In fact, multiple role-playing is one of the reasons masks and costumes continued to be features of ancient drama throughout antiquity. Besides that, multiple role-playing also offered the advantage that audiences could see within the scope of a single play the range of an actor's talents as he performed a number of different roles, the same sort of demonstration of a performer's versatility that we relish today when an actor plays his character's "evil twin."

6. To sustain the dramatic illusion, the hypocrites then needed a place where he could change mask and costume out of sight of the audience. Thus, as far back as we can see in Greek theatre, there was a structure behind the playing area called the skene ("tent"). Though in Classical times it was a permanent building—with a roof strong enough that actors could walk on it—the name "tent" suggests that it was originally a mobile structure of some sort, the very thing a traveling actor would need in performing masked drama. This, too, gave us words like scene, scenic and scenery, because at some point during classical antiquity it became customary to paint the setting of the play on the skene.

7. Finally, the chorus, too, served an important role in the ability of an actor to perform multiple roles, since one of their main purposes was to entertain the viewers by singing choral songs called odes while the actor was off stage changing mask and costume. This need to cover the actor's offstage time gave rise to a convention in which tragedies regularly moved back and forth several times over the course of a play between choral odes and scenes with actors on stage called episodes. The rhythmic interchange of ode and episode underlies all known Greek tragedies.

In sum, early Greek drama featured a hypocrites who narrated a story much as epic poets did, except that he impersonated characters by wearing masks and costumes and he had a chorus as back-up singers who posed questions for him to "answer" and sang odes when he was off stage. For viewers used to simpler "oral" narrative, watching this sort of drama must have seemed like having the mythic past come alive in front of them with vivid, even frightening clarity. That emotional charge set theatre off on a search for ever more eye-catching effects.

After the pre-Classical Age, for instance, later tragedians brought in first another actor besides the hypocrites—and later a third—allowing for the first time dialogue among characters, not just conversations between one actor and the chorus. Other efforts to present more realistic action on stage soon accompanied these reforms. First came a wheeled platform called the ekkyklema ("roll-out") that could be pushed out of the skene building to reveal interior scenes. Later, a crane called the mechane ("machine") was devised which could lift actors into the air and carry them over the stage when they were portraying gods or flying characters.

But for all their spectacular appearance, none of these special effects compares with the shockwaves which surely rippled through that first generation of Greek theatre-goers as they watched before their very eyes Achilles, for instance, forbid the burial of Hector or Apollo and Artemis conspire to slay the children of Niobe. At heart, this new form of narrative represents a dramatic break from the way the Greeks had traditionally told stories. Little wonder, then, these plays were introduced as part of a new god's festival. Because of its novelty and the awe it inspired, attending the theatre in this day must have been close to a religious experience.

B. Theatron

As far as we know, the Theatre of Dionysus, which is situated in the heart of downtown Athens and served as the home of the Dionysia, was the birthplace of drama itself. Built into the slopes of the Acropolis—the Acropolis is a rocky up-cropping in the middle of Athens—this primordial theatre utilized the natural terrain to create a curved auditorium above and around a central playing area. That stage at the base of the cliff was called the orchestra—literally, "an instrument for dancing"—because the chorus performed their songs and dances there. Behind that was a raised area reserved for the actors mainly, and at the very back sat the skene building. Unfortunately, there's little more we can say with certainty about this cradle of theatre in early antiquity, because so little of the original structure remains.

This is not unexpected, however. Because of their age, the physical remains of all Greek theatres built in the Classical Age lie in crumbling ruins, making it a treacherous game to reconstruct the performance spaces, sets, costumes, dances, music or any of the material features of performance which existed during the time when classical Greek tragedy thrived (the 400's BCE). Indeed, most ancient theatres surviving today were erected long after the Classical Age, and what few have survived from earlier times were almost universally renovated in later antiquity—the Theatre of Dionysus itself was remodeled twice—which means they have little to tell us about fifth-century theatre. The difficulties are only greater, then, in reconstructing the theatre of the century prior to the Classical Age, when drama was born.

But it's not an utterly hopeless situation. From the dust can be sifted some facts about Classical theatres and the audiences and actors who filled them, and many of these data must also apply to pre-Classical drama. For example, Greek theatra ("theatres")—the singular is theatron, meaning literally "an instrument for viewing"—were enormous by any standard, more comparable to modern sports stadiums than theatres. Almost all of the theatra still surviving could hold thousands of spectators.

As such, Classical theatre called for a certain dimension in performance. Actors in later antiquity, for instance, wore tall boots and towering wigs to elevate and magnify their appearance. Likewise, gestures and movements had to be broad, and costumes and sets bold in color and design if they were to be intelligible at such distances. In contrast to today's theatres which are mostly intimate, indoor spaces with controlled lighting, watching a Greek tragedy in antiquity would have resembled more closely by our standards going to an athletic event than attending the type of drama with which we're most familiar.

Actually, if an ancient Athenian were to compare theatre to anything in the day, it probably wouldn't have been sports but court trials. Lawyers back then were, in fact, actors of a sort—as many today still are—they certainly provided some of the more sensational and theatrical moments in Greek history. Moreover, ancient lawyers often plead their cases before thousands of people, just the way actors performed at that time. To drive the point home, the ancient Athenians actually used the Theatre of Dionysus more than once as the venue for important public trials.

The reverse is also true. Most Greek plays have a distinctly litigious atmosphere about them. Characters often appear to subpoena, cross-examine and render judgment over each other, even appealing on occasion to the chorus or audience as if they constituted a jury. Moreover, many classical tragedies include characters who engage in a formal argument and counter-argument—together these speeches are called an agon ("contest")—executed in a legalistic fashion as if they were the statements of the prosecution and the defense in a law suit. In other words, Court TV isn't really a modern invention.

Given that, the ancient Greeks saw little reason for features which are conventions of the modern theatre such as maintaining an invisible "fourth wall"—that is, the side of a stage set which is missing and through which the audience watches the dramatic action—or building characters with interiority, the psychological subtlety effected through what actors call subtext, a character's hidden motivation. Instead, Greek theatre and drama abounds with overt presentationalism, that is, characters acting as if they know they're being watched, all framed inside the sort of formal language seen most often today at presidential press conferences and Senate hearings. All in all, like the trials and public spectacles after which Greek drama was fashioned—and which it fashioned in turn—ancient theatre had little choice but to meet the enormity of the arena in which it played.

C. Actors and Acting

1. Differences between Ancient and Modern Acting

The size of ancient theatre also shaped drama in other respects, for example, the way actors acted. Namely, such a grand scale called for performers with a commanding voice. It's hard for us to imagine anyone with the capability of speaking before such large crowds and even being heard, much less understood—one must remember there were no microphones or megaphones back then—but the ancient evidence is firm in this respect: Greek audiences were able to follow what the actors on stage were saying.

Indeed the modern world offers some support of this assertion, too, and shows that projecting one's voice across so immense an arena is, in fact, physically possible. To wit, opera singers can do it—after years and years of vocal training, of course. So, unlike their modern counterparts who rely on good looks as much as anything else, actors in antiquity made a livelihood from their strong and distinctive voices.

Another feature of classical theatre which may strike some people today as unusual is that male actors played all dramatic parts, including female characters, the way it was done in Shakespeare's day and still is in some types of Asian theatre. This is because women in Classical Athens were precluded from all participation in public life—political, military and otherwise—thus, it was a natural extension of their sequestered existence that Athenian women weren't allowed to participate in the most public of all arts, the theatre. If female characters were then to be represented at all on the Greek stage, men had to play them. As a result, the art of ancient acting centered around a performer's ability to portray different types of people, that is, his capacity for effecting a wide panoply of characters ranging from young women to old men. The masks and costumes which hid both his face and form from the audience's view helped greatly in this respect.

Yet another aspect of Greek theatre which might seem surprising today is that for at least the first few generations that theatre existed playwrights acted in their own dramas. Aeschylus, for example, the earliest Greek dramatist whose work is preserved, was famous as an actor as well as a playwright. That is, he both composed and performed his works, the same way Homer did. While later tragedians like Sophocles and Euripides surrendered the stage entirely to their actors, their great predecessor shows that the dramatic arts, in fact, grew only gradually out of epic and lyric and that in the earliest stages of tragic evolution poet and performer were one, the way they had been prior to the invention of drama.

2. The Three-Actor Rule

Stranger still by our standards, the classical theatre involved what will seem to many like an odd and arbitrary restriction but one clearly demonstrated in the surviving plays. Namely, the principal performers of tragedy at the Dionysia, outside of the chorus, were limited to only three actors, a convention known today as the three-actor rule. But this applied only to speaking actors—that is, the performers who spoke lines on stage—not mutes, non-speaking actors portrayed, no doubt, by young men who were in training but whose voices were not as yet ready for the demands of a leading role. To the requisite three, a tragic dramatist could add any number of mute actors.

We know this rule existed because texts of ancient commentators like the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Roman poet Horace seem to presume readers know such a limitation is de rigeur. Sealing the case, however, is the fact that no ancient text of a play produced at the Dionysia requires more than three speaking actors on stage at any moment during the performance, even if the drama involves as many as ten characters. The multiple role-playing necessitated by this restriction in the number of actors who spoke on stage was made possible through the use of masks and costumes, as noted above.

The reason the limit was set at three, however—as opposed to four or five—is a more problematical issue presenting no easy answer. Three is, most likely, the product of a compromise of some sort, the result of the young art's failure to grow beyond three actors rather than some deliberate or conscious decision that a triad of performers was somehow the best option. In any case, the restriction may not have been as much an imposition on the playwrights as it might seem today. As we'll see in the next chapter, Aeschylus appears to have had fun playing with the audience's expectations of whether a character is being represented by a speaking actor or a mute. Moreover, there were other reasons to limit the number of characters who spoke on stage.

3. Dialogue in the Ancient Theatre

To understand this, we must imagine the way dialogue worked in the Greek theatre. Inside a stadium filled with as many as seventeen thousand viewers—and at that, rowdy ones celebrating Dionysus—most of the audience would have been sitting some distance from the stage. At such a remove, it would have been difficult for many to tell which character was speaking on stage, even with actors who had the clearest and most distinctive voices imaginable.

This meant that playwrights had to take a very cautious approach to dialogue, which is exactly what's seen when two characters speak with each other in any of Aeschylus' plays, the earliest surviving Greek tragedies. Normally, each of the speaking characters comes on stage separately. They then deliver discrete monologues, and only after some time do they at last converse with each other.

Greek theatre calls for such a judicious lead-in to a dialogue because the audience first needs to hear the individual tones and style that characterize the different actors' voices before they can distinguish their words in a conversation. It's important to remember here that the distance between viewer and performer would have prevented the vast majority of the audience from being able to hear where the different voices came from—that is, everything on stage would have sounded like it was coming from the same direction—and that the actors' masks would have blocked the cues we normally use to discern who's speaking, such as lips moving which most of the audience wouldn't have been able to see anyway.

So to help their viewers better comprehend which characters were speaking which words, Greek playwrights deployed a poetic convention called stichomythia ("line-talking"). Since all Greek tragedies are verse, ancient audiences could to some extent predict the rhythms of the words to come, the same way we know the basic shape of the next line when we hear "Little Miss Muffet . . ." or "There once was a man from Nantucket . . ." By including changes of speaker only at the end of poetic lines so that one character always speaks one full line—"And what was her answer, I ask you?"—and the other character's words always take up the next whole line—"She told me to go to the devil!"—viewers could follow a dialogue on stage more easily. Given the size of the theatre and the masks necessary if actors were to play multiple characters, stichomythia was instrumental in helping the ancient audience understand who said what words on stage, because they could predict changes of speaker.

So then, if a playwright introduced a third speaking participant into a conversation interrupting the predictable patterns of stichomythia, he risked undermining his audience's ability to follow the course of a scene. Therefore, we never see trialogues, three-way conversations, among characters in Aeschylus' dramas—as we noted above, he's the earliest tragedian whose works are extant—and only rarely among the later tragedians Sophocles and Euripides. In fact, that trialogues happen at all in classical drama bespeaks the growing artistry of actors and the sophistication of viewers in the waning years of the Classical Age. More than that, however, it points to a society eagerly embracing an art form, willing to work with it and relishing the beauty along with the challenges it presents.

III. Conclusion: Euripides' Orestes, or Why Everyone Went To See Tragedy in the Classical Age

And indeed there is no better example of why the classical Greeks loved the theatre than a play produced in 408 BCE during the darkest days of Peloponnesian War. The Sicilian Expedition had by then failed, leaving the survivors in Athens locked in a desperate struggle to the death with the Spartans. Just as it did a few years later, many Athenians surely feared their city would soon fall to their inveterate enemies, their fellow Greeks.

In the midst of these gloomy times, the playwright Euripides staged a stark and hilarious drama that mocked Greek myth, Athens at that moment in history, the theatre itself, and indeed all of humanity. Later sources tell us it was the most frequently produced tragedy on the ancient stage. That a people facing siege and imminent death would take an afternoon to watch such a bitter and accurate denunciation of everything they loved highlights the genius of this age.

The play was called Orestes and it centered around an age-old myth, one which had been presented on stage by none other than the venerable Aeschylus himself half a century prior. Never one to let laurels rest on their icons, Euripides parodies, perverts and updates his great predecessor's magnum opus and in the process shows why people flocked to the theatre in the Classical Age. Orestes displays a master playwright at the top of his form, bringing to bear everything he and the art had to offer. It was, in simple words, the biggest event of 408.

Euripides set his drama during mythic times before the royal palace of Argos in the ghastly aftermath of a horrible atrocity, a thinly veiled reflection of Athens in the wake of the Sicilian Expedition. At the behest of the god Apollo, the central character of the tragedy, Orestes, has murdered his own mother Clytemnestra to pay her back for her murder of her husband, Orestes' father Agamemnon. As punishment, the Furies have risen from Clytemnestra's blood and driven Orestes mad.

The play opens with a prologue delivered by Electra, Orestes' sister, who outlines the situation as she stands beside the bed of her brother sleeping off a bout of delirium. She dares not even wipe the crust of blood and dried spittle from his face for fear of waking him. But there's something else she fears more. The Argive mob is demanding blood for blood, that is, Orestes' execution—and Electra's, too, for her complicity in the slaughter of their mother who was the queen of Argos—in a city torn apart by war, Euripides seems to be saying that only death befits death.

Enter Helen, the lovely wife of Menelaus, just back from Troy where her passionate fling with Paris was responsible for the deaths of countless thousands, indeed the extermination of an entire civilization. Having heard of Clytemnestra's recent demise, Helen wants to put flowers on her sister's grave but is afraid to go there herself. She fears that the angry mob whose fathers and sons have died at Troy will attack her, and rightfully so. So she asks her niece Electra to go there in her behalf. That is, she wants the murderer's sister who abetted in the murder to honor the grave of the murdered, and not unexpectedly, Electra refuses and tells her to send her and Menelaus' daughter Hermione instead. Helen does and leaves, clearly having learned neither sense nor sensitivity from her experiences at Troy.

As Electra laments to herself how alone she and Orestes are, the chorus enters which, of course, wakes him up—how could the incursion of a crowd of singers and dancers not wake someone up?—and Orestes proceeds to have another fit of madness in which he runs around the stage shooting invisible Furies with non-existent arrows. Humiliated, exhausted and distraught, Electra leaves, reminding Orestes of their one and only hope, that their uncle Menelaus, now the most powerful man in Greece, will come to their rescue and save them from the raging mob.

On cue, Menelaus enters and proves himself the very sort of man who survives war and ends up on top, in other words, not a hero like Achilles or Hector but a politician. He debates with Orestes whether or not he should or even can help him, and when Orestes insists it was Apollo who ordered him to murder his mother, Menelaus whose only real god is political reality tells him that Apollo then will have to save him. Pleading, as he exits, that he has no power in Argos where he isn't king—but with Orestes out of the way, Menelaus will be king—Menelaus shrugs and promises to attend Orestes' trial that day and do whatever he can to help his poor nephew. As he leaves, Orestes curses him and prays for better help.

It arrives, in the form of his good friend Pylades—though "fellow gang member" might be more accurate—Pylades promises to go to court with Orestes and help him defend himself. That trial, as reported to Electra by a stranger "who just happened to be passing by," makes a farce of justice, with nearly all the parties involved out only for their own good. In the end, Orestes and Electra are both condemned to death, allowed the one royal consolation that they may kill themselves before sunset to avoid being stoned to death by the mob.

Orestes and Pylades return to a grief-stricken Electra. The brother and sister bewail their misfortunes in life, especially Apollo's injustice, and just as Orestes is about to enter the palace to do the deed, Pylades stops him and makes a suggestion: rather than surrendering without a fight, why not take out some of their enemies on the way down? When Orestes asks who and how, Pylades says, "Let's kill Helen! That'll make Menelaus feel our pain." Orestes gleefully accepts the plan and, when Electra adds that they can also kidnap Hermione whom Helen just sent off to visit Clytemnestra's grave and, if Menelaus tries to retaliate, they can kill Hermione, too, Orestes is overjoyed. "My sister," he says, "you think like a man."

Before they go inside the palace to slaughter Helen, the three kneel in prayer together, not to Zeus for justice nor even to any god, but to their dead father whose zombie ghost they hope will guide their swords home to Helen's heart. Never mind that Agamemnon spent ten years at Troy trying to recover Menelaus' wife—revenge is all that matters now—Orestes and Pylades creep like the snakes they are inside the palace to murder the hapless Helen.

Enter Hermione whom Electra greets with crocodile tears as she lures her indoors maliciously to serve as victim, be it hostage or corpse depending on Agamemnon's response to Helen's murder. After the chorus hears Helen shrieking inside the palace that she's being attacked, one of her pathetic Eastern eunuch servants escapes outside and tells the chorus what's happened. Unable to speak Greek very well—he's only been in Greece about a week—he sings in falsetto and acts out the tale of what went on inside the palace. To judge from the language of Trojan dance, it seems that Helen has indeed been killed, though it's possible she just evaporated. In any case, she has departed this world.

Orestes comes out, roughs up the Asian capon and chases him back inside, and just in time, too. After a brief choral intermission, Menelaus enters with his army. So begins the play's spectacular, unpredictable finale in which Euripides gradually fills the stage with characters one level at a time until he consumes every possible acting space and uses every resource at his disposal.

Having heard about the assault on Helen, Menelaus has come to rescue her, but too late. The palace doors are locked and barred. When the general storms and threatens to break down the gates, Orestes and his gang appear on the roof of the skene building and claim they will burn the palace to the ground and everyone in it if Menelaus tries to enter by force and rescue his daughter. Pylades and Electra lift up torches, and Orestes holds a knife at Hermione's throat. A brief stalemate, and then Menelaus commands his soldiers to break down the doors. In answer, Orestes orders his friends to torch the palace as he prepares to slit Hermione's throat.

It's important at this moment to recognize that standard Greek mythology doesn't allow the deaths of any of these characters, including Helen, at this point in the story—according to Homer, for instance, Helen is still alive many years later—so it seems as if more than the palace is about to sink in flames. The whole facade of traditional Greek narrative is on the brink of collapse. But it's that very facade which will save all the characters on stage.

Just as it looks like primordial chaos is ready for its climactic close-up, in flies the god Apollo on the mechane, soaring above the din and smoke, and he's not alone. Beside him flying first-class is the lovely Helen whom he just now rescued from Orestes' murderous assault. He's turned her into a goddess so she can live with him—the gods always get the best girls, that's why they're gods—and to keep the Homer fans in the audience happy, he's left behind a facsimile of Helen on earth.

Let's stop for a moment here and imagine what the Greek stage looked like at this point in the drama. It was as packed as it can be, from bottom to top: the chorus is in the orchestra, Menelaus stands on stage with a company of mute soldiers, Orestes and his gang hold Hermione on the roof of the skene, and Apollo and Helen double up on the mechane soaring over them all. Moreover, there's one speaking actor on each of the four levels: the chorus, Menelaus, Orestes, Apollo. And, if one were to look up further to the sun—which it's a safe guess was shining that day, or any day when there were plays being presented at the Dionysia—there are, in fact, five levels of action, with the "star of stars," Apollo's solar ensign, beaming down impassively on all of this feeble human chaos, the gods' creation but, according to them, not their responsibility.

To end the play, Apollo explains that he did, in fact, order Orestes to murder his mother Clytemnestra and now he's here to make sure things turn out the way they should, the way Greek myth says they do. That is, Menelaus will return home with his faux Helen to Sparta, Electra will wed Pylades, and Orestes will go into exile but return one day to marry Hermione—"So you can drop the sword, young man! You're going to marry that girl!"—and rule Argos. Thus, the divine Apollo squeezes a size-12 earth into a size-4 myth and leaves for heaven.

So ends Orestes in what has to be one of the most breath-taking, comical, improbable scenes ever written, a finale which employs every resource the Theatre of Dionysus in the Classical Age had to offer. Certainly, it's hard to imagine a classical tragedy calling for much else in terms of noise, spectacle and irony. But there was an even greater irony looming over this play.

Orestes, as it happened, was produced as part of the last trilogy Euripides ever would stage in Athens. By 408 BCE, the political situation in his hometown had grown so tense he was forced to move away. This tragedy turned out to be his farewell—and he must have known it—to his birthplace, his people, and his theatre. As honest and bitter a kiss-off as there's ever been, the playwright's message seems all too clear: "My fellow Athenians, look at this play and its characters. This is the sort of situation you got yourselves into by going to war with the Spartans and, if you're praying the gods are going to save you, take another glance at myth and its happy endings. The gods are even crazier than you! Good-bye!" Whether viewers cheered or booed this brutally honest picture of life in their day, they didn't leave their seats and they talked about the play for years to come. Because tragedies like Orestes were daring and controversial and funny and frightening, that's why Greeks went to the theatre.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

red-figure vases
Pisistratus, 534 BCE
multiple role-playing

The Theatre of Dionysus
female characters
three-actor rule
Euripides' Orestes



A Guide to Writing in History and Classics


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.