Greek tragedy was a popular and influential form of drama performed in theatres across ancient Greece from the late 6th century BCE. The most famous playwrights of the genre were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and many of their works were still performed centuries after their initial premiere. Greek tragedy led to Greek comedy and, together, these genres formed the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based.
The origins of tragedy
The exact origins of tragedy (tragōida) are debated amongst scholars. Some have linked the rise of the genre, which began in Athens, to the earlier art form, the lyrical performance of epic poetry. Others suggest a strong link with the rituals performed in the worship of Dionysos such as the sacrifice of goats - a song ritual called trag-ōdia - and the wearing of masks. Indeed, Dionysos became known as the god of theatre and perhaps there is another connection - the drinking rites which resulted in the worshipper losing full control of their emotions and in effect becoming another person, much as actors (hupokritai) hope to do when performing. The music and dance of Dionysiac ritual was most evident in the role of the chorus and the music provided by an aulos player, but rhythmic elements were also preserved in the use of first, trochaic tetrameter and then iambic trimeter in the delivery of the spoken words.
A tragedy play
Performed in an open-air theatre (theatron) such as that of Dionysos in Athens and seemingly open to all of the male populace (the presence of women is contested), the plot of a tragedy was almost always inspired by episodes from Greek mythology, which we must remember were often a part of Greek religion. As a consequence of this serious subject matter, which often dealt with moral right and wrongs, no violence was permitted on the stage and the death of a character had to be heard from offstage and not seen. Similarly, at least in the early stages of the genre, the poet could not make comments or political statements through the play, and the more direct treatment of contemporary events had to wait for the arrival of the less austere and conventional genre, Greek comedy.
The early tragedies had only one actor who would perform in costume and wear a mask, allowing him the presumption of impersonating a god. Here we can see perhaps the link to earlier religious ritual where proceedings might have been carried out by a priest. Later, the actor would often speak to the leader of the chorus, a group of up to 15 actors who sang and danced but did not speak. This innovation is credited to Thespis in c. 520 BCE. The actor also changed costumes during the performance (using a small tent behind the stage, the skēne, which would later develop into a monumental façade) and so break the play into distinct episodes. Phrynichos is credited with the idea of splitting the chorus into different groups to represent…