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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 4: The Origins of Greek Theatre, Part 2

IV. General Conclusions: A New and Better Approach to the Data?

As we saw in the preceding chapter, the data concerning early Greek drama and especially its obscure origin are scant and incoherent. Aristotle tells us that it came from dithyramb which looks unlikely. Modern research has led us down various primrose paths in an unproductive exploration of ritual and history, where nothing seems certain except that tragedy arose in Athens in the last century before the Classical Age, a progress driven by men of remarkable insight, hardly an insight in itself. We appear to be at a dead end, with no other avenues to pursue and nothing left to say, but we're not.

A. Theatre History and Paleontology

There is an important consolation here that theatre historians should not forget. As scholars, we are not alone in facing these sorts of frustrations. Other researchers confront similar difficulties, empty boxes, so to speak, where data ought to be.

Paleontologists, for instance, biologists who study the fossil remains of prehistoric life and its evolutionary history, face many of the same obstacles theatre historians do. Like history, paleontology involves work on biological organisms and all the chaos that entails. Unlike, for instance, physicists who study subatomic particles, entities generally less capricious in their individual behaviors than artists—and especially the practitioners of theatre—both paleontologists and historians deal with preserved evidence, be it based on historical records or fossils, which is invariably stilted in some way. That is to say, it is all too often random in its preservation and, therefore, much less representative of the larger picture than one might hope.

Trilobite fossil (click to see larger image)For example, to judge from the fossil record, Paleozoic life seems to have been dominated by macroscopic, hard-bodied organisms, but that view of primordial earth is undoubtedly skewed since soft-bodied organisms tend not to be fossilized as readily as their more impermeable kin. In particular, the ancient seas look like a world of trilobites, or so the fossil record leads one to believe, but that was, in fact, probably not the case. Trilobites have a hard exoskeleton which is tough and durable and not very good-tasting, so it readily fossilizes and many survive. All in all, trilobites were simply made to be fossils and, though surely it was not part of any strategy for survival, they were more apt to leave behind traces of their existence than their less concrete contemporaries.

Just like a historian, then, a paleontologist on confronting the evidence of the fossil record almost immediately faces seemingly insuperable difficulties in piecing together a fair and accurate picture of the past. Access to wide-ranging, statistically balanced information is limited, the subject under scrutiny is not repeatable—at least not the way experiments can be repeated in physics or chemistry—and paleontologists like their colleagues in history are generally at the mercy of selective forces beyond their control, all of which is to say that it is worthwhile for historians to glance at how our historical biologists are dealing with problems similar to the ones the human past presents. In observing their attempts to piece together a huge and very complex picture from haphazard but not necessarily random data consisting of fragmentary records, we might learn something useful.

Charles Darwin (click to see larger image)As it turns out, the commonalities between our discipline and theirs are more than superficial. Historians and paleontologists share not only similarly treacherous databases but a way of approaching the data. Both proceed generally along lines accredited to and laid out by Charles Darwin, the man broadly associated with the introduction of the "evolutionary" model of biological change over time. The standard Darwinian model of evolution posits that one can expect to find an organism making slow "progress" across the ages toward some sort of "final form," or, in Aristotle's words, "when it attained its own nature." Add Frazer's name also to the long list of those who subscribed to this evolutionary model.

Ascent of Primates according to a linear model (click to see larger image)Slow progress? There's the rub. The fossil evidence of ancient life has proven remarkably resistant to that way of thinking. While some evidence exists supporting Darwin's model of gradual evolution, the crux of the issue lies in the aforementioned transitional forms, in biology the so-called "missing links" between species. These have simply not been readily forthcoming, certainly not in the numbers one would project from a gradualistic model of evolution. In many instances, especially across the great junctures that delineate "ages" on the planet, what separates, for instance, the Permian from the Triassic or the Triassic from the Jurassic, the data do not accord well with Darwin's view of smooth, slow, incremental change over time.

In other words, much as it would make things simpler and more appealing to our modern sense of logic and esthetics, there is no gradual "ascent" of reptiles or dinosaurs into birds visible in the fossil record. While there is some evidence of "proto-birds," very few fossils of them have been found and the relationship of these creatures to dinosaurs, reptiles or birds is debatable. However the shift from one form to the other transpired—which is to assume that birds are, indeed, an offshoot of either reptiles or dinosaurs—the fossil record suggests that either a massive quantity of information is missing or there was not much evidence there in the first place. If the latter, the transition must have happened suddenly, violently and with no room for the gradualism Darwin's model rests on. The point is that, for whatever reason, transitional forms in biological history leave behind few—distressingly few!—traces of their existence.

And, because early cultural anthropologists like Frazer followed Darwin's precepts in this regard, we in theatre history were long ago handed a gradualistic model of cultural evolution, something rarely discussed as such today. In theatre history, the search is still on for transitional forms which may serve as evidence that drama evolved out of some earlier form of entertainment or ritual. But the real question is, "Is it wise of us who work in a related field—albeit distantly related—and are having little luck looking for evidence of gradual evolution, to continue pressing for data that are not forthcoming in our field, when in its home arena this model of slow, incremental evolution as the only way that change can proceed has proven somewhat vulnerable?"

B. Punctuated Equilibrium

There is no uncertainty about evolution itself—only its processes and mechanisms are at issue—nor any doubt that the processes driving a slow, smooth development in organisms over time can be seen at work in parts of the fossil record. With the understanding that artistic development—cultural "progress" if you will—hardly constitutes the same thing as its genetic, evolutionary analogue, the whole notion of searching for transitional forms in theatre history seems, at best, a dubious adventure, on at least two counts. First, can gradualism be expected in human culture where individuals have the ability to change aspects of their civilization readily and at will? Second, if gradualistic models are most problematical at the great crises in biological evolution (e.g. at the Permian-Triassic boundary), should they be imported into the analysis of watershed moments in cultural development like the origins of theatre in the West? Even if we were to answer "no" to both these questions, it may still be instructive to observe how the controversy over the patterns visible in the fossil record and the mechanisms driving evolution has unfolded in paleontology.

Wonderful Life by Steven Jay Gould (click to see larger image)Researchers of historical biology, for instance, the late Steven Jay Gould, have eloquently argued the case for adopting a somewhat different view of the way life has evolved on earth. That construct, called punctuated equilibrium—at some point, jocularly nicknamed "punk eek" by Gould's students—postulates that evolution proceeds not always in infinitesimally small and gradual steps but sometimes through massive crises, especially at the great critical junctures that discriminate the so-called "Ages of Life" on earth (e.g., Jurassic, Cretaceous, Cenozoic). According to the punk eek model, biological life is stable for long periods of time over which there is sometimes very little perceptible modification in living forms or ecological modes. While some change is clearly evident over the course of these long quiet eons, it is, for the most part, random drift, hardly comparable in scope to the great and sudden restructurings that have rewritten life several times on the planet.

To wit, many dinosaur species didn't die off slowly over tens of millions of years at the end of Cretaceous. Instead, they disappeared rather quickly, seemingly "overnight," at least by geological standards. This same pattern is discernible at many other moments of crisis in evolutionary history. Stability and calm prevail for a long time, but then a huge disruption of some sort occurs and there is a rapid change in the forms of creatures, greatly affecting the ways organisms interact. The long periods of stability are the "equilibrium," and the violent disruptions are "punctuations."

The punk eek model reflects better what certain parts of the fossil record show than a traditional Darwinian, gradualistic view of evolutionary change. Punk eek calls for lengthy periods in which the forms and modes of life are relatively stable—allowing, of course, for some random variation and evolution amongst species—and in general, there is a balance between food sources and predators, with all ecological niches satisfactorily filled. But then some sort of disruption presumably from outside the system destabilizes this order, for instance, a debilitating disease or catastrophic seismic activity or an asteroid impact that gravely threatens and drives to extinction many types of life. This upsets the ecological niches on which the entire system depends. After that those forms of life which happen to have survived often find unprecedented room for growth and expansion, though in a very different world. In short, the survivors, what few there may be, thrive—assuming, of course, they can thrive.

The changes in form and lifestyle they must have undergone according to a punk eek scenario have to take place very quickly, in perhaps under a millennium which, by the standards of the fossil record, is virtually instantaneous. But then very quickly, too, the new ways of life settle down into stable patterns and the rate of evolutionary change again drops. The new, post-apocalyptic world soon becomes the norm and "equilibrium" is restored following the violent "punctuation" that originally precipitated the rapid change.

1. Cats, Dogs. Squirrels and Acorns: A Hypothetical Example

This is all very abstract and complex so it may help to provide a concrete example, if a bit simplified and unreal, of how the punk-eek model of evolution can be applied to theatre history. Suppose, for instance, there is a stable ecological niche in which squirrels eat acorns, and dogs and cats eat squirrels. But then for some reason, a cataclysm occurs and the squirrel population drops to zero. There are two immediate consequences: dogs and cats have nothing to eat, and acorns have nothing eating them. The immediate result is that there are many acorns, making many new oak trees and a niche awash in acorns, while dogs and cats begin to die off rapidly from starvation.

As their comrades are falling thick and fast, the more ingenious members of the erstwhile predator species notice they are up to their collective whiskers in acorns, so a few bold pioneers attempt to save themselves by eating them. Despite terrible stomach aches and how bad acorns taste to them at first, a few of each species survive to reproduce. Their offspring are quickly selected for those best suited to acorn consumption, and in any case their progeny do not know the delicious taste of squirrel they are missing because they have never tasted or even seen one. Both species, thus, begin to evolve rapidly. Those descendants that have claws and teeth best suited to cracking open acorn shells and alimentary tracts able to digest such food are selected for and thrive in this oakish Eden.

As generations unfold, the limbs and mouths and digestive tracts of both cats and dogs become better modified to meet the challenge of this changed niche, and these creatures evolve into a new species of acorn-eating cat or dog, not really a dog or cat at all any longer, at least not by the standard of their progenitors, but ironically more like squirrels in appearance. While these new species are, in fact, the direct descendants of dogs and cats, they do not look or act like the predatory cats and dogs who were their ancestors only a few generations ago. They have but one thing in common with their cat and dog forebears: they compete with each other for food, not squirrels as before but acorns. So, the rapidity with which these species are able to make the transition to an acorn-eating lifestyle underlies and is central in their evolutionary success. In the end, their competition over food continues, but no longer over squirrels but acorns and eventurally one of the two species proves better at consuming the new food source and begins to crowd the other out.

It is important to note here that this example grossly oversimplifies what in nature is rarely so straightforward a process. In reality, the squirrel population would not likely disappear instantaneously, which would give cats and dogs some time to adapt, though under certain circumstances the transitional phase could still be quite brief. Thus, the change in cats and dogs from squirrel-eaters to acorn-eaters must nevertheless happen quickly, not just because of their competition over acorns, but because neither species will survive long if it cannot find a suitable source of food. No doubt, this is, in fact, what has occurred many times over the course of evolution; that is, in times of intense ecological stress, individual species have failed to make the transition and they and their like have died out.

2. The Nautilus and Evolutionary Fitness

Given that the fossil record shows how more than 99.9 percent of all species of animals that have developed over time exist no longer, it seems safe to suppose that those that can accommodate quickly to a radically reformed world are the exception rather than the rule. Thus, besides the "fitness" that Darwin deemed the highest criterion of evolutionary success, luck must also have played a part in the history of life on the planet. Fitness is, after all, relative to the challenges posed by a world in transition, at times violent upheaval. Depending on the precise nature of the catastrophe, it may not be a species' robustness that saves it but some odd feature of its physiology or behavior that happens to help it weather a particular crisis and survive.

Ammonite fossil (click to see larger image)There is an excellent example of this in the fossil record. An ancient type of shelled sea creature called a nautilus (or nautiloid) has survived several of the catastrophes that exterminated many other types of marine life. Its continuing existence depended, no doubt, on a peculiar feature of its life cycle, one observable in its modern descendants. When the nautiloids' food source dries up, they sometimes go into a dormant phase in which they sink deep in the ocean far from predators and there they are able to "hibernate" for long periods, much the same way bears do. Assuming that this is not something recently added to their repertoire of behaviors, we can see that a mechanism designed to help the nautiloids through times when there is little food may, in fact, be the very thing that has saved their species in the past. They have indeed ridden out some of the more catastrophic evolutionary crises, such as those at the end of the Permian and the Cretaceous Epochs.

Nautilus (click to see larger image)During holocausts such as these when most life forms would have died out, this ability to hibernate in the deep ocean would shelter the nautiloids from the devastation unfolding above them. By chance it would allow this species to wait out the "nuclear winter" of a cataclysmic punctuation without starving and, once it had passed, to rebound magnificently. As one paleontologist says, "They were indeed a group with an instinct for grand theater." (note) So, it is to the great good fortune of nautiloids that they have this ability and, no doubt, they survive to this day not because they are particularly strong and sturdy creatures—they are but that's not the point—rather they still exist because they happen to have the ability to sleep through times of extreme stress. "Fitness" is thus not necessarily strength but rather flexibility working in league with good fortune, and this is what drives evolutionary success, at least according to some paleontologists.

C. Punk Eek and Theatre History

From the perspective of a theatre historian, what matters most here is the way a punk eek scenario accounts for the actual nature of the fossil record of life on earth. That is, the punctuated equilibrium model helps explain the reason transitional forms often fail to appear among the remains of ancient life, especially at the great junctures in history. Because a swift-moving evolution—what a punk eek view can account for—provides little opportunity for the preservation of transitional forms, it is clear that one should anticipate finding fewer of them. In other words, when the change from one species to the next is not gradual but sudden and stressful, there are simply not many transitional forms created—things happen very quickly — and with that there is little chance those transitional forms are preserved. Bear in mind that the change in species would not have happened at all, if the mechanisms that provided for the change did not operate swiftly and efficiently. That is, the species as a whole would have died out, if it had not undergone a rapid reformation and accommodated itself expeditiously to a new living environment. Extinction, we must remember, is the rule; adaptation and change leading to survival are the exception.

To import this model into theatre history, we must envision entertainment as an ecological "niche" filled at different times by various "species" of art, genres of literature, drama, painting, song, dance and so on. To look at ancient Greek theatre and art this way entails, in fact, no more of a change in methodology than what Frazer did when he adopted the older, Darwinian model of gradual evolution in his quest for the "slow and toilsome ascent of humanity from savagery to civilization." But, as opposed to a Darwinian approach, a punctuated equilibrium model for the origin of Greek drama allows for the sudden appearance of the new art form, seemingly out of the blue, which is able to fill the entertainment niche recently left empty after a cataclysm of some sort has made older forms of art no longer viable and put them out of favor. The punk eek model predicts that the new species will not appear alone but have rivals that compete with it for success in the niche. The fittest form will thrive best and prevail in the long run. (note)

And that is exactly what appears to have happened around the time of the rise of Greek drama, a new and better history of which can now be reconstructed in accordance with the punk eek model of evolution. In the wake of oral epic's demise as the dominant genre of poetic narrative, the "entertainment niche" in seventh- and sixth-century Greece was left wide open. The new, faster, richer way of life that evolved in its place all around the Greek-speaking world during the heady bull-market of the early sixth century opened the way for a new "species" of entertainment.

Initially, lyric poetry rose, a poetic form built for the first time around writers who were literate, and for some time it thrived, but in the long run its basic nature entailed fatal limitations. While it was appropriately fast-paced and emotional, which made it attractive to the high-living Greeks of the day, it could not by definition sustain a long, continuous narrative the way Homeric epic could. In other words, myths and legends could only be alluded to in lyric poetry, not entirely retold with the same sort of grandeur and depth of characterization that had made epic popular and famous.

Furthermore, without frequent retelling, knowledge of the mythic cycles memorialized in epic stood the risk of lapsing from the public's conscience altogether, making them useless to everyone including lyric poets. With this, the way was open for a new type of entertainment, one that could narrate complex stories with intricate characterization, as Homer had, and still play to the nouveaux-riches, the worldly crowd the Greeks had become at this crucial juncture in their history. In light of this scenario, the sudden—not gradual!—appearance of drama on the entertainment scene makes excellent sense.

The transition from epic to lyric, and then from lyric to drama, happened very quickly because the social and economic changes driving Greek arts were taking place at an accelerated rate. As can be expected, we find very few transitional forms between epic and lyric, and later lyric and drama, because the cauldron of changing popular tastes in this day was churning at a rapid boil, which means there were relatively few intermediate works composed and the likelihood that any of these would have been preserved is low. All this accords well with the punk eek model of evolution as opposed to a more gradualistic approach.

Punctuated equilibrium also helps explain other features of this history. That drama does not appear around the same time among the Persians or the Egyptians, for instance, is also perfectly explicable inasmuch as Persia and Egypt were not experiencing the same sort of high-pressure culture shock Greece was. And their major form of narrative entertainment—whatever that may have been—had not fallen into disfavor the way Greek epic had.

There are yet further advantages to casting the origin of theatre in this light. By seeing the rise of drama this way, we can circumvent the positivistic bias—also called cultural Darwinism—which is innate in prior models and predicates an orderly accretion of events leading to the perfected "final form" of a species. Punctuated equilibrium doesn't demand that we seek any underlying logic behind the change from epic to lyric to drama. It is possible, instead, to ascribe it to the whimsy of a people driven by social crises to re-orchestrate their view of life.

Rejecting cultural Darwinism brings additional benefits. For instance, no longer must the earlier forms of art that the original dramatists borrowed and reconfigured in creating their new ones be seen as "primitive" drama or failed attempts to make theatre. Epic and lyric poetry were simply different genres of literature playing to a different age, perfectly mature and viable forms of artistic expression for their day. Indeed, if there is judgment to be made, it is the other way around. Mature epic is surely a more "advanced" art form than the first dramas that were pioneering efforts and, unlike Homer, crude and unguided by a long history of work in the field.

So, a narrow, linear development is simply a poor way of envisioning this change. Even if it were valid to make judgments about which art forms show "progress" over others, for us to impose modern aesthetic standards on ancient art forms—"a Rorschach fantasy of the modern interpreter" (note)—would inevitably end up saying more about us than the subject we are studying. As noted above, that is a fundamental error that credible historians work hard to avoid.

Finally, a punk eek approach to the question of the early evolution of drama explains one more troublesome feature of the historical record, the prominence of dithyramb. Tragedy's rise was not inevitable—Else is surely right in that regard!—rather, it is a unique phenomenon, unlikely to have happened outside of Athens in the 500's and 400's BCE or without the agency of visionary men who had tremendous sensitivity to the tastes and sensibilities of their day. Absent those pioneers, tragic drama in general most likely would not have become the sensation it did.

If Aeschylus, for instance, had decided to become a dithyrambist instead of a tragedian—that is, if instead he had seen in dithyramb the potential for artistic expression that he saw and realized in tragedy—we could very well be talking about the triumph of dithyramb and asking ourselves what this "goat-song" genre was for which there is all but no evidence and, according to Aristotle, was the forerunner of the crowning achievement of Greek art in the Classical Age, the magnificent dithyramb. Had that happened, it does not take much to imagine what the standard critical view would be: "Tragedy, or ‘goat-song,' betrays in its very name the rustic and primitive origin from which it arose and never completely escaped. Though we know next to nothing about it, it most likely involved one or more performers imitating goats, no doubt, in a vulgar fashion. It can hardly have constituted a fitting rival for the grandeur and dignity of the dithyramb, the triumph of which was inevitable."

Hindsight is 20/20, or so the truism goes, but historical perspective can also be sharply focused on the wrong thing. The fact is that did not happen: tragedy, not dithyramb, won the day. Seen from this perspective, dithyramb was not the sire of tragedy but its rival on the entertainment scene—one a dog-squirrel, the other a cat-squirrel—and, to judge from Aristotle's acclaim of its early prominence, a serious rival at that. How does a punk eek perspective change our perception of Aristotle's theory about dithyramb?

For one, Aristotle's conclusion is not entirely misguided, in particular, about the importance and popularity of dithyramb in the formative period of Pre-Classical Athens. But led astray both by the afterglow of dithyramb's great moment in the sun during the early Classical Age and by what he could still see of this art form in his own day, he construed a direct "genetic" connection between it and tragedy. In other words, he created a parent-child relationship out of what was, in reality, a sibling rivalry. Still, The Poetics—where decipherable—is right about most everything else. All in all, a punk eek construct gives room for Aristotle where Else's theory does not, and that is welcome relief. Aristotle cannot have been as wrong as "theatrical creationism" makes him look.

Best of all, the particular nature of tragedy and Greek drama in general becomes comprehensible when seen from a punk eek perspective. If we understand that tragedy did not arise directly out of Egyptian or Dionysiac ritual or Greek choruses performed at the tombs of heroes, there is no need to link together similar features exhibited in each species of performance and presume that tragedy's peculiar characteristics must be remnants of earlier rituals carried over from its origin in some other type of celebration. To some extent, it is the heir of none of these things and all of them at the same time.

Tragedy, in sum, is what its founders and their successors made of it. Scrabbling desperately at cultural "acorns" with their innovative "cat-feet," they brought together all sorts of entertainment forms—choral singing, dance, lyric poetry, epic narrative, impersonation, the use of masks and costumes—in a determined attempt to create something novel for a public hungry for new art and, more important, in an unprecedented position to pay for it. At the same time, the earliest tragedians also knew full well that their dithyrambic "dog-rivals" were doing the same and, if they and their art form were going to survive, they had better deliver high-quality entertainment, pronto!

In that sort of milieu there can be little doubt that, if the original artists did not want something included in their tragedies, it was Greek history on the spot. So, the choruses of tragedy—in any period—are not relics of the past, imposed on playwrights as the onerous heritage of tradition, but a highly exciting and effective element in drama. (note) If not, too much was at stake to include anything just because it had always been done that way. In the struggle for survival, no organism can afford to give its enemies that sort of advantage or carry the weight of honorable tradition just because.

The same held true for other features of later classical tragedy which are sometimes deprecated as archaic elements retained for the sake of convention alone, for instance, messenger speeches and masks. All of these, when well utilized, can create a very gratifying experience for playwright, producer, performer and, most important of all, audience. It is well to remember that, when at last ancient playmakers did not want to include such things as choruses in their plays, they reduced its role quickly and drastically. They, too, had to survive in a competitive and high-risk environment where, when it's time for something to go, it's gone.

Consequently, when we find a chorus in a play, that is in and of itself strong testimony to its feasibility on the contemporaneous stage. Art, after all, evolves in a Lamarckian, not Darwinian, way—it can change its form and exhibit new features at will, a will that reflects the discretion of artist and audience—which is not to say it does not evolve, but its evolution is a matter of changing tastes and talents. It moves rapidly in new and not always better directions which certainly do not necessarily encompass "progress" in the long run, but always in ways that its creators hope will make the most effective experience for all involved at the moment.

If in the end punk eek fails to explain how or why any particular features were chosen for inclusion in drama or later on became traditional features of Greek drama, that is something hard to explain about any art in any age anywhere. Theories of origin tend to address the overall contours of how some feature of art rises, not the details underlying the reasoning behind the inclusion of peculiar features, and a punk eek view of the rise of theatre is no different. Still, any new and perhaps more profitable way of looking at this deviling yet enticing question is certainly a step forward. Let's be grateful for that.

We began this discussion by seeking answers to big questions, like "Where did Greek drama come from?" and "Who created it?" If those questions still persist, at least we have obviated some of the pitfalls that have previously bogged this historia down. By looking not for transitional forms but at the environment surrounding the crisis in art and culture that precipitated the rise of tragedy in sixth-century Athens, we will better enlighten ourselves as to the how and why underlying the birth of this fundamental form of art.

V. Conclusion

All in all, what do we know about the origins of Greek drama and the environment in which it came into being? If theatre as such existed prior to the sixth century BCE, there is no clear evidence for it as an autonomous institution, nor in any place outside of Athens. The gradualistic Darwinian model of evolution which calls for transitional forms and a slow development from older types of entertainment or performance-based rituals towards theatre imports unwarranted assumptions and leaves us with a sense that a huge and important body of data is missing, when it's not certain that it is.

Particularly, how theatre arose out of religious ceremonies or some other form of theatrical performance is unclear at present. Nor, evidently, was it clear to Aristotle whose theory that tragedy derived from dithyramb alludes little to ancient religious ceremony—all classical drama was indisputably imbedded in a Dionysiac ritual—and seems weak on other grounds. All in all, several aspects of the received opinion about drama's origin have little to recommend them. Thespis, especially, is a mystery. There is much room to doubt he ever existed at all.

A better way to look at this puzzle is to adopt the view that drama arose suddenly, seemingly out of thin air, as, in fact, all credible evidence suggests. Drama need not have proceeded along gradualistic lines of evolution because it is a cultural, not a genetic, human artifact. Certainly, culture and its accouterments can at times develop slowly and purposefully to clear and coherent ends. But cultures can also make sudden, violent and seemingly inexplicable changes in form and expression that do not conform with traditional evolutionary models. In other words, theatre need not have followed a step-by-step process of development. It may have been created in a flash of insight—or two, or three—but no matter how many "big bangs" it took, all were undeniably the product of extraordinary genius.

Whose genius is the real question? Thespis' perhaps, but if so, end of discussion. Aeschylus' certainly, though it's important to remember that he inherited the art form from his tragic predecessors who, in fact, were not the first but second generation of dramatists in Athens. In other words, Aeschylus was a third-generation playwright, who had probably never met any of the original creators of the art, nor ever lived in or even imagined a world without theatre.

The first generation of theatre practitioners lived at the very latest more than five decades before Aeschylus ever donned a mask. We know this because the tyrant Pisistratus had incorporated drama into his last great gift to Athens in 534 BCE, the City Dionysia festival where all significant tragedies premiered for centuries to come. The wily despot's reign—and probably his "genius" too—was without doubt central in the formation of this new and revolutionary art form.

The logic behind the shrewd tyrant's decision is not entirely unfathomable. Drama, even if it did not arise from or have any direct relation to Dionysian religion, certainly shared much in common with it. Both involved masks, dance, song, and "ecstatic" performance in which impersonation figured large. Albeit not the typical sort of worship called for in this god's rituals, drama could superficially pass for a Dionysian ceremony, if one chose to press the point, which is something tyrants typically do well.

Greek vase painting depicting worshippers of Dionysus (click to see larger image)Nor is it hard to see why Pisistratus felt the need to press this particular point and create a new type of "worship." The celebrations of the effeminate, eastern god Dionysus traditionally involved outlandish and extreme behaviors, at least in the eye of a typical Greek male in the day, arguably even more so to a man who had situated himself as the ruler of a vibrant, restive people living during a time of great social and artistic upheaval. Indeed, traditional Dionysian worship would almost certainly have seemed to him an invitation to civil disorder.

Instead, a new brand of entertainment dressed up as a Dionysiac ceremony would surely have appealed to a tyrannos like Pisistratus as a means of channeling seditious thoughts away from revolution itself and soothing a potentially explosive mob. If people complained this had "nothing to do with Dionysus," let them complain. Complaining is better than rioting.

But surely Pisistratus did not invent the artform wholesale. It had to have been already in existence, though probably in some stage of its infancy. No doubt, he merely gave formal recognition and a strong financial boost to what was already there, a new way of narrating myth in which poets "became" the characters in a story right before their audience's eyes. That is, rather than simply telling a tale or just quoting the characters' words, this new type of artist brought his audience to the myth, instead of the myth to them. In other words, where Homer had only told us what Odysseus said—albeit with great realism, but a realism based on the use of the voice primarily—now people could see a "running poet" dress and act and move as well as speak like a real Odysseus come to life. The audience no longer had to go to epic; epic came to them.

There can be little doubt that the more traditional members of the audience grumbled about how this new "drama" required no real imagination on the part of the audience, that it was not like in the old days of Homer and Sappho when people had to use their imaginations to "see" the story—much as some people today lament the passing of classic radio—but Pisistratus was a forward-thinking fellow. He brushed aside such conservative quibbling and embraced the new art. Young people are more likely to have the energy to revolt than older folk anyway, so an innovative art form that appeals to the young is more apt to distract the more dangerous and volatile element in society. Giving the kids their "goat-song" and allowing them to enjoy it more than epic or lyric makes it look like they have a choice, when every tyrant worth his salt knows it is really just TikTok versus Instagram.

Map: Greek Trading Routes (click to see larger image)There was probably one other attraction for Pisistratus in incorporating drama into his radical, new City Dionysia. As the festival was largely his invention, its timing was, no doubt, up to him. That is, he probably had a certain amount of freedom in situating it wherever he liked in the Athenian ceremonial calendar, and it seems doubtful his decisions were driven by any sort of "year-spirit" worship or the observance of seasons. While perfectly capable of exploiting religion for his own purposes, he doesn't seem to have been beholden to it (note)—except perhaps in one respect.

To the best of our knowledge, the City Dionysia was from its very inception held in late March, a time with important resonances in the Greek economic, if not religious year. In particular, this month coincided with the opening of the annual trading season. In antiquity, the eastern Mediterranean Sea was generally too dangerous to sail in winter because of the violence of the storms that could erupt with little warning, so commerce by sea ceased in autumn each year, only to resume in spring after the threat of winter storms abated.

Thus, theological reasons notwithstanding, financial interests, no doubt, contributed substantially to Pisistratus' decision to launch his new Dionysus festival in late March. The celebration of a god widely recognized in that part of the world would almost certainly draw an international crowd, and even more so if the ceremonies involved an exciting, new type of entertainment. Pisistratus could lure merchants from all over the eastern Mediterranean to Athens right at the very first of the trading season where they would have the opportunity to buy all sorts of Athenian goods—especially, Attic vases, olives and olive oil—that they could sell on their journeys throughout the rest of their travels during spring and summer.

With this, everybody won, except, of course, the rival trading cities in the area. Indeed, the historical records of Athens confirm that, as far back as we can tell, prominent foreigners and, among them, rich merchants from all over, were given free admission to the Dionysia along with some of the best seats in the house. So, it seems safe to conclude that economic concerns played a role in Pisistratus' decision to include tragedy in his new City Dionysia. Why he chose tragedy, not dithyramb, is anybody's guess, except that at that moment the sensationalism of seeing a myth come to life before one's eyes probably trumped the dignity and musical beauty of tragedy's most important early rival.

The result was that, by the late sixth century BCE, Western drama had set off on its rise to prominence and prestige. Out of a world pushing boundaries and grappling with new ways of looking at life, tragedy was a means to express the revolution happening in the Athenians' lives. And what better symbol of their age than theatre, a new, fast-paced, eye-catching artform built on a foundation of traditional lore, all lyric and painting and spectacle on the surface with epic and traditional myth at its heart?

If we are still left with no clear "inventor" of theatre, no credible "Thespis" for historians to pin some name on its creation, perhaps that's because there never was one. Or perhaps there was but it was not the sort of inventor we have been looking for, a founder instead of a discoverer, a George Washington rather than a Columbus. If so, the "father of drama" is clearly Pisistratus who sanctioned tragedy, adopted it as the "ward of Athens" and, wherever it came from originally, took it in and gave it a home, an oxygen-rich incubator in which to grow and thrive.

This old tyrant with a rebel's reflexes and the savvy to make people not just obey but work with him, saw in that particular type of cultural expression a vehicle for playing to several factions within his surging, restless, fractious city, a community only decades away from inventing democracy. Tragedy gave something both to those who wanted both to import a new cult and to those who were eager to hear and see a new type of storytelling, as well as those who just wanted to make a fast drachma. Surely, Pisistratus had no idea how far this drama business would go, but his instincts for what worked at the moment led him to open the door. And as we all know, after creation came the flood.


Terms, Places, People and Things to Know
Charles Darwin
Transitional Forms
Steven Jay Gould
Punctuated Equilibrium
Cultural Darwinism
City Dionysia
Annual Trading Season


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