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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 11: Greek Drama after the Post-Classical Age

I. Post-Post-Classical Theatre, or The End of Greek Theatre

Theatre at Delphi (click to see larger image)The theatre is one of the best barometers by which to measure the social and culture changes that occurred in Greece during the post-classical period. The new breed of playwrights, actors, technicians and producers who emerged at this time attests to the radical evolution that transpired in and after Alexander's day, especially the growing cosmopolitanism of ancient society. For instance, Greek festivals mutated drastically over the course of the fourth century BCE, many becoming panhellenic, i.e. "involving all Greeks (i.e. not just a single polis)." When its rising popularity impelled theatre into arenas outside the narrow confines of Athens and the worship of Dionysus, the opportunity to produce drama expanded exponentially.

Theatre at Segesta (click to see larger image)Other forces were at work as well, changing the cultural landscape. The rich, for example, tended to see play production as no longer a necessary and valuable benefaction for their community or a source of public acclaim, making it harder and harder to find a choregos to sponsor shows at the Dionysia. By the end of the fourth century, the burden of financing theatre was shifted into the hands of the city of Athens itself which started to finance productions out of the public coffer. Later, an official called an agonothetes ("public official [-thetes] in charge of dramatic contests [agono-]") oversaw the distribution of municipal funds for the presentation of plays at various festivals that sponsored dramatic competitions. The result was that theatre people, like so many others in their age, were now dependent on government financing.

A. Actors and Acting

Greek vase depicting an actor holding a mask (click to see larger image)But if playwrights and technicians were standing in line for handouts, actors most certainly were not. Mega-stars like Polus, Neoptolemus and Theodorus, the diadochoi of classical theatre, could command huge sums just for appearing on stage and bringing to life the grand old classics of tragedy. Ever more as time went on, it was not new works that audiences demanded; instead, they sought the refuge of dramatic glories from the past. It was this age, remember, that inscribed the Parian Marble recalling Athens' triumphs in politics and theatre centuries prior, with remarkably little to say about the world that carved this stone. Whereas most people see their own times as vitally important, it's as if the Greeks of the Hellenistic Age saw history in more vivid detail than their own lives.

Actors also toured almost constantly throughout the ancient world and more than once were enlisted as ambassadors to foreign countries, not only because actors could travel with immunity between hostile lands but they also made attractive representatives since they were well-known and respected artists. Moreover, after his official duties were done, at least one actor-ambassador was asked to give a command performance to boost his nation's interests—his own as well, no doubt. Thus, just as with opera today, performers reigned supreme and the creators who composed the vehicles carrying them to glory were, if greatly respected, largely dead.

Handling the arrangements and travel for stars of this caliber was no simple business, so eventually the theatre community unionized. By 275 BCE a guild was formed called The Artists of Dionysus, which oversaw booking, scheduling, and travel arrangements for actors on tour. It also included other kinds of professionals involved in theatre work: costumers, musicians, chorus members and so on.

Relief depicting three actors sacrificing to Dionysus (click to see larger image)Here, one aspect of classical drama fortuitously came into play. The "three-actor rule," which had developed in Greek drama for other reasons, called for minimal casting which made touring much more practicable. Traveling with only three actors who could perform an entire play—or more likely a whole menu of dramas—was surely far more manageable than carting around the entire cast of a single play, the way tours are done today. Evidence from both inscriptions and art work supports this assumption. It shows that actors by as early as the late fifth century were already touring in groups of three accompanied, no doubt, by a small technical support staff.

The fact that later drama replaced choral odes with embolima, in fact, aided the process. When song and show no longer had to cohere, the local performers and the visiting stars were not obliged to interact either in rehearsal or performance. That meant a traveling troupe of acclaimed comedians could bring in Menander while some local chorus sang a medley of favorite showtunes, and the disjunction would be perfectly tolerable—some might even have enjoyed it—all the same, there had to be songs, of course, not only because the Greek audience loved musical performance but because the choral interludes gave the headliners a needed respite mid-performance, along with the opportunity to change mask and costume. It was a perfect balance: local glee clubs got the spotlight for a moment, while the distinguished artists-in-residence remained where they should be, at the center of attention.

Therefore it is possible—and the possibility must be explored, if only to be dismissed—that the classical tragedies as they have been handed down to us were, in fact, given the form in which we have them now during the post-classical period. This includes not only the restriction to three speaking actors and the use of embolima but also the addition of expository information to make the tragedies more easily comprehensible to those unfamiliar with Greek myth and culture. Indeed, all extant tragedies function as self-contained dramatic units in which no real awareness of Greek mythology is required to follow the story, because the plays themselves lay out all necessary features of the plot. The possibility exists, then, that actors in the Post-Classical Age added this exposition (the background of a dramatic plot) when they were touring abroad and needed to inform their barbarian viewers about the distinctly Greek tales driving the vast majority of fifth-century tragedy.

There is, however, much to disagree with in such a supposition. The classical Greek audience, for one, did not necessarily know all the essential details in myths portrayed on stage and it is easy to imagine that they required enlightenment about the particular situation being portrayed, especially when rival versions of the same myth coexisted as they did so often. For another, the original audiences included distinguished visitors drawn to Athens at the opening of the trading season. Even if these foreign dignitaries had been exposed to Greek myth before entering the theatre, they would very possibly have been unfamiliar with Athenian variations of traditional Greek tales. To lose these viewers—or worse, insult their erudition—would have been foolhardy, especially when it is neither time-consuming nor difficult to explicate the plot of a play. Last of all, to reproduce classical Greek poetry of the quality Euripides composed—or better yet Sophocles!—is no mean task, something comparable to writing one's own soliloquy for Hamlet. In sum, it seems highly unlikely that the Greek tragedies we have are in any broad or substantive way post-classical.

Nevertheless, in one respect there is a case to be made that later actors did, in fact, distort the dramas they performed. Some texts of classical tragedies appear to include interpolations—later additions made to the texts—traceable, no doubt, to post-classical actors attempting to elaborate the scripts of tragedy for various reasons, most likely, to enhance their own roles and extenuate their moment in the sunlight. One famous and obvious example of this comes in no less than Sophocles' Antigone (905-915). Toward the end of the play as the title character walks to her death, condemned to be buried alive, she says:

I would never have done this, if children whose mother I was,
Or a mate of mine had wasted away in death, never
With violence to our people would I shoulder this hardship!
Of what law, with what reasoning do I speak this?
A husband—if he died, there would be another,
And a child from a fellow mortal, if I lost that one—
But with a mother in Hades and a father hidden there, too,
There is no brother possible who might be born ever.
That's my way of honoring you before all others,
My law – though Creon voted it down as misguided
And far too daring, O brother dear of mine!

But earlier she had said she defied the new king Creon's official decree and buried her brother Polynices because she believes all people deserve last rites—even her brother who died attacking the city—for burial is a basic right, the "unwritten law of the gods."

In the passage quoted above, however, the laws of the gods are not just unwritten; they're nowhere to be found. To claim she would not have dared this "dreadful act" if Polynices had not been her brother because brothers are irreplaceable when one's parents are dead defies not only everything that has come before it in the play but any sensible estimation of human life. At best, it paints Antigone as psychotic and undermines any sympathy sensible viewers have felt for her up to this point. If Sophocles wrote this—and it is hard to believe he did—it is a drastic, almost violent shift in the play's structure and theme.

More likely, some overzealous but under-intelligent actor in a later age sought to expand Antigone's role in the play—his part, no doubt—by stretching this speech out and adding a few more lines yet, in composing this interpolation, did a very feeble job of comprehending what Sophocles had hoped to achieve with the character. This would not be the last instance in history of an actor showing more style than substance.

B. The Technical Dimension of Post-Classical Theatre

But perhaps the most dramatic change in post-classical Greek theatre was in its visual and technical aspects. Besides the ekkyklema and mechane, several new pieces of equipment were added to the technician's arsenal of machinery. The bronteion ("thunderer"), for instance, was used to simulate thunder, the keraunoskopeion ("lightning-viewer") generated a lightning effect, and there was something fancifully called "Charon's steps" ("Stairway to Hell"), probably a trapdoor in the middle of orchestra used to effect the appearance of ghosts.

Theatre at Epidaurus (click to see larger image)Still, many of the same problems persist that devil our understanding of earlier classical theatre, questions about where the actors performed (on the first level in front of the skene?) and the chorus (in the orchestra only?), and how hard and fast were any of the "rules" about acting and production. Nor does it help that not a single tragedy written in this period survives intact, or even a substantial fragment of one. Nevertheless, it is clear that the visual elements of theatre grew and commanded much interest and attention from the ever larger crowds in attendance.

Theatre at Epidaurus (click to see larger image)To serve this growing public, many new theatres were built—or old ones renovated and expanded—all across the Mediterranean world. At Oropus (northern Greece), Epidaurus (southern Greece), Alexandria (Egypt), Ephesus and Priene (Asia Minor, i.e. modern Turkey), to name but a few, Greek-style theatres arose, with seating capacities ranging from a mere three thousand (Oropus) to over twenty-two thousand (Ephesus)—the latter is surely the upper limit for performance spaces without the benefit of microphones or any significant equipment with which to enhance the voice—and stone became the principal medium for construction, replacing the wooden skenes and seats used in older theatres like the Theatre of Dionysus during the Classical Age. It is also at this time that circular orchestras came to dominate and skenes added a second story. All in all, post-classical theatre was clearly a feast for the senses, if not always the intellect.

II. Mime

Statuette of a mime dancer (click to see larger image)Nor were all Greek stage works tragedies or comedies written in a City-Dionysia style. During the Post-Classical Age a form of drama called mime rose to prominence, not the silent studies-in-movement we call "(panto)mime" but a crude species of popular entertainment. Its origin is unknown, though some evidence suggests mime may have existed as far back as the Classical Age. If so, it most likely played to a very different crowd from the one attending the high-brow entertainments produced at the Dionysia. The evidence suggests mime typically appealed to baser tastes and thus fostered a rather unsophisticated viewership, at least in its early phases.

Even with very few texts remaining it's clear that mimes shared little to nothing in common. The surviving scripts are highly variable in length, content and tone, though they tend to be short (under a hundred lines), are often disposed into monologues or dialogues and typically avoid myth and grandeur, focusing instead on realism and comedy. Nor are there obvious standards for mime performance, nothing like the "rules" that governed classical tragedy and New Comedy. At least early on, mimes seem to have required little more than an audience, an actor and a place to perform. Conversely, later ones were staged on elaborate sets, employed special effects and contained sophisticated philosophical and literary deliberations.

Statuette of a veiled dancer (click to see larger image)Nor is the nature of performance in mime much better understood. For instance, some call for only one speaking actor, known as the archimime, who would then have performed multiple roles in the same piece, evidently without changing mask or costume. Because mime scripts have dialogue for multiple characters in conversation, the archimime, no doubt, was required to execute such conversations with gesture and expression alone, in much the same way stand-up comedians today are able to portray both sides of a dialogue. To muddle matters even more, not all compositions labeled "mime" in antiquity were even designed for performance, or so we are told. Thus, there were apparently "closet-mimes," aimed exclusively at a reading audience.

All in all, there seems to be nothing definitive in execution or content that made a mime a mime. Yet this motley genre persisted for centuries, ultimately surpassing all other types of performance and establishing itself as the principal form of theatre in the later Roman period. It was, in fact, this form of entertainment, not the classical tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, that so incensed the Christian Fathers of late antiquity and provoked their rage at the licentiousness and irreverence of theatre in general.

Needless to say, then, the prominence of Christianity in later antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages explains the failure of any mime text to survive the Middle Ages. But like Menander, something as popular as mime is apt to leave its imprint in many different places. Thus it's no surprise papyri containing texts of mimes have surfaced in Egypt, though not nearly as many as one might expect given the universality and longevity of this genre.

These rare documents demonstrate well the wide range of subjects and style which mime could encompass. In particular, six Mimiambi ("Iambic Mimes") written by Herodas (or Herondas) came to light in the 1890's. They were, however, considered so scandalous at the time of their discovery that they were not widely distributed nor even translated until fairly recently. In one, for instance, a pimp prosecutes his assailant in a trial. In another, a mother brings her truant son to school for punishment. In yet another, two bawdy Egyptian women deliberate the merits of a certain marital aid. The incompatibility of the themes and tones evident in these Mimiambi—yet they were all written by one author and published as a unified group!—and to judge from what we can see of other ancient mimes as well, makes it virtually impossible to define mime as a genre.

In sum, the well-attested breadth of both text and production found under the banner of mime must stem at least to some extent from the fact that this type of theatre went unregulated for the most part in antiquity. By existing largely outside of formal festivals and public funding—even though archimimes are known to have toured widely, nevertheless they did not belong to the Artists of Dionysus—these performance pieces clearly relied on a paying audience as their principal form of subsistence. That this sort of entertainment had to be responsive to the various venues in which it played goes some distance toward explaining the highly flexible nature of mime. With supple simplicity, it adapted itself to the whims and pleasure of its ticket-buyers, which explains much: its longevity, elasticity and vulgarity (see "The Oxyrhynchus Mime," Reading 6).

III. Conclusion: The Evolution of Classical Greek Drama and Theatre

In under three centuries, the ancient Greeks took what began as a novel but simplistic mode of narrating tales with poets who "ran around" (drama) and created an enduring medium for human expression. From local one-man shows with choral back-up to an art form recognized throughout the known world, theatre became a sensation that brought kudos and currency to many a Greek. Rarely has a people sold its culture at such a mighty price.

Reconstruction of the Theatre of Dionysus (click to see larger image)But the central question in all this is not "how much" so much as "how." The speed with which advances in theatre came is dizzying, even in retrospect, and the succession of geniuses drawn into the enterprise is difficult to imagine even possible: "Thespis," Phrynichus, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Cratinus, Eupolis, Aristophanes, Alexis, Philemon, Diphilus, Menander, to name just the greats! If some of these seem like lesser luminaries, it is only because they stand so near the others' resplendence—and who doesn't look small next to Aeschylus?—indeed, dramatic genius seems almost to have fallen over itself in ancient Greece as so many men of incomparable vision staged so many masterpieces in such a short span of time. This sort of surge of artistic brilliance is unparalleled, even in Renaissance Italy.

However, the tidal wave that the classical Greeks and their immediate heirs had stirred finally washed ashore on the desert sands of their descendants' deficiencies. Nevertheless, in three hundred brief years these masters had advanced their art unimaginable distances. To put it in perspective, it took the Western world almost two millennia after the Classical Age ended to invent Shakespeare and thus finally catch up to the sophistication of Euripides' tragedy.

In the modern era, the development of monumental interior spaces in architecture and the invention of artificial lighting and sound recording, which opened the door to "electrical theatre," paved the way for the next substantive advancements in the art. This is, of course, only one way to look at the situation, and at that from the dangerously biased perspective of technological improvement, in part another heritage we owe the Greeks, the Hellenistic Greeks at least. But can the same be said about the drama written today? Is it as much improved beyond Sophoclean tragedy as our ability to stage it in spectacular fashion? All in all, it seems safe to assert that, to judge from the heart and soul alone, Greek drama has never been surpassed.

It is also worth remembering that there are remarkably few stage conventions which do not go back in some way to the ancient Greeks. Indeed, they devised nearly everything, both dramatic and theatrical, which is still used on the stage today: costuming, dialogue, masks, prologues, epilogues, tech crews, disguises, irony, actors' unions, character-types, scenery, pampered stars, farces, love triangles, flying around the stage on ropes, hit musicals, censored plays, touring shows—throw in mime and it's even possible to add nudity on stage. Everything from the roar of the greasepaint to the smell of the crowd is at heart a Greek invention, all brought to light in a virtual instant of history, a punctuation in evolution if ever there was!


Terms, Places, People and Things to Know
Agonothetes [ah-GOH-noh-THAY-tayz]
Polus [POLE-luss]
The Artists of Dionysus
Bronteion [brawn-TAY-yawn]
Keraunoskopeion [care-ron-know-SCOPE-pee-yon]
Charon's steps [CARE-ron]
Archimime [ARK-keh-MIME]
Hero(n)das, Mimiambi [hair-ROW(N)-dass]
The Oxyrhynchus Mime [OX-see-RINK-koss]


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