The birth and the lasting newness of ancient greek tragedy

In our effort to understand tragedy as a kind of cultural creation in such range, we should go back to the initial time of its conception, creation and formatting stage as entity during the 5th century in Athens. In our approach, we find that the historical reality, which means the objective events that some people might have heard through mythological stories or their literary versions that once occurred in the distant past, converted in the haze of history into legend and then molded through the passage of time in myth (Trojan war, argonautica). These, in turn, formed the thematic framework of which the cases of works written quite later than the leading Greek tragedians raised, after being converted from mythological tales into dramatic representations and formatted on stage by actors, addressed to viewers. In this way tragedy addresses the legend rather than the original magical-religious significance, but  its later signification of space and time of literature, which turns it into a dynamic semiotic system of symbols and meanings that constitute a literary text (JP Vernant-P. Vidal-Naquet 1981).

Because, as we know, the beginnings of theatrical expression are lost in the depth of prehistory and are linked to the myth, which refers to cosmic entities and formulates social situations, which attach value that exceeds the fragmentation of the phenomena (Roudhardt 1977: 315). This is a causal reason for the consciousness of primitive (Frye 1988), communication system with the environment, similar to the psyche (Eliade 1963: 174).

But the understanding of the world is not enough. Creative intervention is required as well in it, with an incentive or deterrent effect that will ensure the survival and guarantee the continuity of life. This is done through a magical and religious ritual, which is based on purely “theatrical” situations and recommends the theater starting point. It features the distinction between the action space from the monitoring area for action (stage / square), actors (actresses) and participants (audience), theatrical disguise, movement and improvisation, preparation for the “role” and “acting”.

Bearing these data in mind, it appears that the right conditions to develop the drama had been created. What remains is dialogue to be added, which did not exist in this original category of primitive events and homeopathic relationship between actors / participants turn into illusory relationship betwen actors / spectators, resulting in a mutation of the original “ecstasy” into “catharsis (Schechner 1985: 117-150).

The process of transformation of the data is slow and leads us after 10 B.C. century in Greece, where the worship of Dionysus generated and established a special ceremony created in his honor, known as “dithyramb” which contains many of the elements listed above.

Joined with the forces of nature, vegetation, life and of course wine and fun, the god Dionysus is the privileged bearer of such actions, which again in the seventh century in Corinth, during the era of the tyrant Periander, Arion the Mithymnaios processes and turns (the Dithyramb) into a more scholarly creation.

Later on, in Athens, in the time of Pisistratus, Thespis, as known from historical sources and testimonies, wearing mask and relying on improvisation dance of those who participated in Dithyramb screened with them and won the tragedy contest made the 534-533 BC during the celebrations of the Great Dionyssia, which were then introduced for the first time.

Despite the fact that until 472 BC when Aeschylus presented the “Persians” mediate several minor dramatic poets like Choerilus, Pratina and Phrynichus, whose works have survived only in fragments, the image which was created regarding the nature and content of the tragedy, is initially attributed to Aristotle in his work “Poetics” and then, much later, to philosophers, philologists, historians of culture, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, depending on personal ideological, cultural and psycho-spiritual data of each, respectively to the time in which they lived and which they represent.

The versatile and often contradictory nature of these views gets more obvious through the interpretation of the word “tragedy”, which, according to Aristotle, is based on the goat song, tragos” (goat) +”ode” (hymn, lamentation), of zoomorphically masked followers of Dionysus God who recited the dithyramb, a mourning chant in honor of God, in a psycho-physical state of ecstasy.

According to other, newer interpretations that bypass the Aristotelian view and go back to a more ritualistic and anthropological dimension, the term has been attributed to the goat, the animal that was being offered for sacrifice for purification of the community, to transfer  all guilt complexes of the group to him  and thus attain their catharsis ( “purification and purging of feelings”) from any of their iniquities (Romilly 1970: 18-20).

If we attempt a brief outline of the parameters of the ancient Greek tragedy, we can mention the following: the Trojan War, gave tragedy poets  the topic to create a multitude of tragedies, belonging to the same “cycle” (Hecuba, Helen, The Trojan Women, Philoctetes , Agamemnon) and speak to the mankind about senseless and useless war, the impasse of violence,  the horror of violent death, the futility of sacrifice and heroism.

Therefore, it may not be amiss to point out that Homer is the “father” of the tragedy. But the myth in the minds of the ancient Athenian citizen, is no longer merely a false narrative. It is a reality that illustates world in a different way, commonly understood by all, in a system of values and concepts that had gradually been displaced and replaced by the development of the “Logos” (Word). But the broader cultural substrate of the ancient world, the concept and causal interpretation of things, kept being performed not  only in a rational, intellectual, but also a mythological way, so as the consciousness of things there could match with a corresponding background . The myth continues to explain the facts, to answer questions about the reality, to interpret historically identified facts with non historical terms, to deliver the truth of things in an indirect, sometimes symbolic, allusive and literal way. In this meaning, the mythologiacl narrative turns into theatrical narrative which all athenians and other spectators received.

We should not forget that  tragedy (and drama in general) as opposed to the earlier, other literary genres (epic, lyric poetry) did not address readers but spectators.  It is not written to be read individually, but be a common spectacle for the masses who come for that very purpose in a particular area (theater) in a specified time (Dionysian festivals) (Frye 1971: 489-514).

They, on the basis of “theatrical convention function” are well aware that what occurs is not true. But they pretend to perceive it as such, and the same applies for “the signified”  and the “story” that appears performed in front of them. Their interest lies not so much in facts and the truth of the facts, but in the plausibility of the situations and the consequences to the psycho-emotional and mental processes resulting in their consciousness of them. This is why the myth is to be the prime “essential vehicle” for the dramatic to address their audience  more than  history itself can , in any theatrical visualization (J.P. Vernant 1985).

Of course,  the tragic poets’ resorting  to mythical narrative and its exploitation in the drama, has other causes too. The philosophy and worldview, which form the conceptual background of the tragedy, the world of values ​​and acting behavior of ancient Greek, find the direct impact on the conceptual background of the tragedy. The disruption of the cosmic balance of “abusive” behavior (hubris) of the hero, which consequently causes   the “ate” of the gods and the inescapable “nemesis” that punishes  the”insulter” and restores regularity, the specified path of the hero who, albeit a prisoner of “fate”, refuses (or is unable) to get away of it, accepting the consequences of acts which other (usually) committed in the past, affecting his innocence he represents, can not be expressed in concrete historical events and incidents. The myth, with its multiple meanings, its ability of reconceptualization and its dynamic for versatile reading, with its ambiguity and the avoidance of a single interpretation (as it is obvious in the newest realistic drama), comes to express the possibility, the potential, the alternative, variously satisfying the multiple demands of viewers, according to their receptive skills and the horizon of expectations.

This process, sometimes overt and sometimes latent, leads the author to a fictional intervention in the issue data negotiating and creating a project which is directly or indirectly related to the original mythological material. The requested matter in this process is not truth and objectivity themselves but the probability and the consequences that these cause in the consciousness of the viewer, through experiential performance of the actors on stage. With these conditions the ancient tragedy acquires its parameters  of “timelessness” and “universality” and becomes the archetypal form of ‘classical’ theater after it masterfully moves without optimism nor pessimism, on the shaft of the “measure” without underestimation of the problem, nor depreciation of human endeavor. The individual and collective values ​​of a time are challenged. Once the hero looks for these values, he comes into conflict with personal or impersonal forces and mechanisms which hinder their conquest. Then, the inevitability of conflict arises and the concept of the tragic itself is established, within  the limits of human existence and beyond them.

Continuing, if we attempt a critical assessment of the views which  have occasionally been expressed about  the genesis and development of the tragedy in Ancient Greece, we can diagnose the existence of a constant bewilderment in understanding and interpretation of phenomenon. According to researchers who are involved in the challenge directly or indirectly, it is a multidimensional cultural product with aesthetic, philosophical, existential, social status, created in a specific place and time, under particular situations: social (Athenian democracy), historical ( victorious ending the Persian wars), economic (Athenian hegemony), cultural (golden age), philosophical (Sophistry Socrates, Pre-Socratic), religious (mythological theology), literary (epic, lyric poetry), cultural (musical contests dithyramb) and aesthetic (Classicism).

The different element that appears with it, is that the new type is intended to be illustrated on stage and be a live spectacle presented in a specific public space and addressed to all the Athenian society.

This is the amphitheater, which is a property created at the same time to include the cultural event that has been called “theater”.

The first theater in Athens, situated at the foot of the Acropolis (Dionysos Theatre) was originally wooden and later became marble, with a capacity ranging to several thousand viewers (Moretti 2001: 100-120). The crowd gathered here to watch the spectacle which had both a purely artistic and a social character , since before the start of performances the children of soldiers who had died in recent battles in Athens  were honoured and brought to the orchestra and the allied contributions were brought to the orchestra in public view as well(Meier 1993: 75-87).

 The time was specific as well. These are the four main multi-day festivals in honor of Dionysus and artistic / theatrical “contests” that were established therein, ie  the”Rural Dionysia ‘(December-January), the Linea (January-February), the Flower Festival (February-March) and ‘City” or ” Great Dionysia’ (end of March -April) (Moretti 2001: 65-73).

Their common characteristics were that they had both a ritual / worship character (opening jars with new wine libations to the god, ceremonies in honor of the dead) and social / festive character in which the whole “city” participated either by the part of viewers, or factors / coefficients of performance (authors, sponsors, actors, etc. responsible authorities). They were a unifying fabric that united all the members of Athenian society, since all citizens, to whom they constituted an important part of private and public life, were involved.

 The celebartions  were an extension of other music and sports events that had been enacted by the nationwide, to honor deities or mythological heroes. Especially the Great Dionysia, gave an ideal opportunity to the newly established Athenian democracy to display and honor its principles. In these (through tragedy and comedy which constitutes the theatrical imagery), the old aristocratic social values ​​found their foundation in earlier myths and religion interacting with the sophistic sound reason, resulting in moderation, which is the most essential and general criterion for these Athenian citizens / viewers performances. Those, who were taking part in, found the opportunity to escape from their daily lives and reconsider their stand and relationships in interpersonal, political and social level (Meier 1993: 19-25).

Therefore, tragedy is connected, from the very first moment of its occurrence , with the public life of the city, interests and concerns of Athenian society, contributing to the creation of a new cultural identity structured for the Athenian citizen, after the Persian wars. The result of the above is  the combination of traditional mythological motifs of archaic thinking with the new rationalism of the sophists, like the co existence of a popular cultural tradition which represents dance and  artistic creation, which homogenizes the outdated perceptions with modern arguments of people and sophists.

The messages of the plays which were received by viewers were without clear didacticism, although they were known as ideas, values ​​and situations through their previous mythological and literary version, and were given moral standards and benchmarks which signified specators’ lives. That’s why theater was sponsored by the city, because it exerted a particularly educational and social role.

Within this historical context of Athenian democracy in the 5th century with the corresponding regime of  specific structure and the hierarchy of the existence of specific activities (Dionysian festivals) and spaces (theater), tragedy as a species, finds the opportunity to consolidate and develop itself within the particular form and content that we know today.

But due to the different and (sometimes) heterogeneous structural components from which “tragedy” is composed, term that has subsequently been established by  the analysis of Aristotle in his “Poetics”, scholars and researchers , due to subjective or other reasons, gave multiple and sometimes conflicting views as to the origin of the content and its dimensions.

Undoubtedly, the historically first interpretation is that which Aristotle gives us, which directly connects the origin of tragedy with Dithyramb and religious ceremonies, giving emphasis on  this metaphysical and theological character of the new species, which readily is supported later on by different scholars as Th. Caster who in his work Thespis. Ritual, Mythe and Drama in the Ancient Far East (1993) insists on relating tragedy with mythology and religion.

Among the most representative and established opinions, which influenced in various ways in most of the subsequent and modern versions, we can mention that of Fr. Nietzsche, who in his study The birth of Tragedy in 1872 supports the view that on the one hand the species results from the collision of the earlier Dionysian element, as inherent in irrasionalistiic mythology and on the other hand  from  the apollonian rationalism as it was developed the 5 BC century and it eventually leads to a unity that occurs through the tragic poetry, eminently by Sophocles. Apollo’s Reason and the  Dionysus’s Passion bring conflict and cause the development of tragedy.

  1. Freud gives a different interpretation , focusing (due to his profession) on the term ‘catharsis’, as given by Aristotle, in the famous definition of tragedy (Poetics VI, 1-4, 1449b). He points out the satisfaction felt by the viewer with the hero’s illusory crash, without the slightest risk (for himself) nor personal suffering caused by what the person is acting on stage, and interprets the phenomenon ‘tragedy’ in psychoanalytic terms.

Besides these Nietzschean and Freudian views, a different school of interpretation of Greek tragedy, is to connect it to the anthropological research and the influences of this discipline, as it arises from the monumental task of Sir James Frazer The Golden Bough (1890 ). According to these views and their representatives such as G. Murray with his work Excursus On the Ritual Forms Perserved in Greek Tragedy (1912) and F. Mc. Cornford with The Origin of Attic Comedy (1914), the structure and origin of the tragedy date back to contrastive anthropological terms such as light / dark, sacrifice / and death associated with seasonal primitive rituals connected with death and resurrection.

Recent approaches of the same perspective and with particular emphasis on the contribution of the myth to the creation of the tragedy, are made by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Nacquet who in “Mythe et tragédie en Grèce ancienne” (1972) and later “Mythe et pensée en Grèce ancienne” (1895) (the first of the two authors who had been mentioned before) attempt to explain the development of the tragedy through the pre-existing mythological background of ancient Greek thought as a whole, something like what had also been supported by ER Dodds in his study “The greeks and the Irrational” (1951), in which the focus was mainly on the “Dionysian” (in Nietzsche) elements of tragedy.

A composition of anthropological, religious and sociological data is proposed by Jacquelin de Romilly in the work of La Tragédie Grèque (1970) as a component in the creation of the tragedy at the site and time of the Athenian democracy in 5th BC century. According to this, the genre is associated with the cult of Dionysus and pagan background that it contained, connected to the “contests” (agones)  that took place in the city in honor of this god, which turned the originally religious character in social event and then in secular / artistic effect with corresponding content.
This social character and mission of the tragedy, as a spectacle of all citizens of the Athenian democracy, apart from artistic event with purely aesthetic content, had equally (perhaps even more) a social mission, thus being a strong connective bond of the new state of consciousness of Athenian citizens , and was equally powerful attraction of scholars, who in their work have created a solid trend in the interpretation of ancient drama. Starting from these extreme Marxist views G. Lucacs the proponents of this view G. Thompson (Aeschylus and Athens. A Study in the Social origins of Drama, 1966), M.I. Finley (Politics in the Ancient world, 1983), Chr. Meier (The Political Art of Greek Tragedy 1993) insist on the social and political dimension of the tragedy. They argue that tragedy is born the moment the religious improvisations, which “Dithyramb” originitated from, passed into the hands of a political power based on people and was reorganized with social content, which coincides with the flourishing of Athenian democracy and the introduction of the concept of citizen (Meier 1993: 19-25).

A completely different picture emerges from the views of existentialist Miguel de Unamuno philosopher (The Tragic sense of Life 1926), indicating that the tragedy is recording constant progress of the individual towards the transcendental values, which brings him into conflict with the established order of things but also with the limits of his own existence.

Disregarding or ignoring the mechanisms and causal social relations which encouraged and established its appearance, the scholar emphasizes the metaphysical and idealistic character of tragedy. The tragic hero, core of the genre and the concept, is the special person that challenges the established moral, social and religious order and sets his own limits on an ongoing “crisis” / “venture”. In this way he discovers the transcendental which is revealed at him..

Finally, in a particularly extreme  category, we can include the modern “postmodern” versions of Lacan, Foucault and Derrida, and the feminist approach, which result in different suggestions about the emergence and development of the species under a different perspective.

As noted, the views on the origin and character of the tragedy are many and varied, sometimes converging and sometimes diverging from each other. This is not negative, as it corresponds to the meanings and the universality of its kind, which has the feature of “classical” and universal.

Any view we may adopt for the origin and evolution of tragedy in ancient Greece, under any approach we may try to interpret the content and the dimensions, we must not lose sight of the fact that whatever our interpretation is, it is based only on the works that have survived from roughly over a thousand tragedies written during the period of a century (seven of Aeschylus, Sophocles seven eighteen of Euripides).
Nor should we ignore the parameter of the show, that is the element of the performing arts that took place in front of spectators gathered to watch the stage performed actions, whose plot and ending had been known in advance.

Under these terms, we can understand  the reason why the ancient Greek tragedy is a unique cultural product, not only due to the subjects it dealt with, nor the type and size of conflicts presented, nor the comparison between the physical and the metaphysical world, the personified impersonal or the imagery illustration of these contrasts.

The concept of “tragic” is not a quantitative but a qualitative variable, which, as such, transcends the time limits and space commitments, acquiring dimensions of universality, which are also met today, under different conditions and in different frame of reference. This concentrated form, the particular mode of action, the link between causes and consequences and the position of the hero in them, constitute the dimension of the “tragedy” that, despite some morphological transformations, can be detected even in modern postindustrial society (Mc Donald 1993).

Violence in modern cities, international terrorism, the inflated social inequality, the huge economic and social contradictions between advanced industrialized societies and the Third World masses, the oppression and exploitation of man by man, the disregard of the laws of nature that brings cumulatively large ecological problems that threaten the future of humanity itself, the degradation of humanitarian values ​​and ideals, fanaticism and racist phenomena, ideological weakening and its replacement by  interests of economic, social and state origin, are the new reality which tragedy can pump its material from.

The principles on which the ancient tragedy was constructed still remain stable, but today  the content and form has changed.: Hybris, as the endogenous tendency of the human to exceed the limits which had been set and his trial to enforce himself on things and situations, is clearly demonstrated through technology and the infinite possibilities offered to man. The contempt of the laws of nature is widely displayed by the development in the fields of genetics, molecular biology, robotics, which so defiantly convey the image of a “different” human species and which poses huge risks for the presence of man on earth.

Therefore the “destiny”, which was the inescapable reality for the ancient world, may be present in modern man’s attempt to radically change things dominate the universe in a selfish way.

Consequently we may  face  the “Ate” and “nemesis” that lead to the crash of the person that commited “hubris” . Here are some of the possible sources that may cause tragedy in the 21st century man and constitute exploitation issues of the modern form of tragedy (Aylen 1964).

Because if we specify  figures to persons (Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra, Orestes, Oedipus, Antigone, Creon), modules (Trojan War, Mycenae, Thebes) and situations (murder, suicide, self-punishment, death, justice, overrun ), then we risk losing the essential meaning and the type of content (tragedy) of works that represent: a sense of the tragic as an element of human nature itself, as recorded (maybe prescribed) existential status, ontological and metaphysical nature, from which its “timelessness” derives and that gave rise to its “universality”.

Under this light, the “story” that transforms theatrical creative minds of writers of ancient drama is nothing but a pretext that will give the viewer the opportunity to try and make the excess of “here and now” of his own existence to “somewhere else in another time” of fiction. Within this illusory “Hyperreality”, and given the function of theatrical convention and the imaginary conception of the real which regulates, according to  Aristotle (and after him, according to the entire western theater), communication between stage and audience , the viewer will find those foundations which will allow him to make reductions and parallels with his own objectivity, which will ultimately provide the “catharsis” through its multidimensional significance.

In this matter, the tragic gets disconnected from the tragedy and is converted into a “tragedy of everyday life”, without special action or “hero”. The tragedy of “Great” Oedipus and Jocasta in Thebes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in Mycenae, can become the tragedy of “small “heros” like John and Helen, in Brooklyn,  Robert and Christine in Cartier Latin, Kostas and Maria in Athens.


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