Every Greek polis worthy of the name – whether located on the Hellenic mainland or in Italy, Asia Minor, North Africa and even further afield – possessed four things: an agora or marketplace, a gymnasion or training-ground for athletes, a bouleuterion or democratic assembly-hall, and a theatron for the performance of sacred dramas on festival days. The theater was a holy structure belonging to the God Dionysos. His priests were granted the choicest seats and the masked actors consecrated their craft to the God, regarding him as their divine patron. During the Hellenistic period guilds called technitai Dionusou or “the artisans of Dionysos” developed into powerful, international bodies whose favor was cultivated by Kings and Emperors, were given large endowments by the state and permitted to travel freely through hostile territories (even during times of intense conflict). The festivals of Dionysos, during which dramatic shows were put on for a week at a time, were occasions of national importance. People traveled from all parts of the country under a sacred truce to attend. Numerous troupes competed – sponsored and trained by influential individuals – spending half the year in preparation with only the prestige of winning for their reward. (Well, that and free meals at state expense.) Since so many were in attendance these festivals were used as opportunities to demonstrate a polis’ conspicuous wealth and power: officials gave long-winded speeches, the ephebate was granted citizen status, civil servants, veterans and the orphans of those who had died in defense of their city were paraded about and awarded high honors, weighty matters were heatedly debated by the citizenry and important proclamations read out.
Nor was this simply an opportunity for civic grandstanding and popular entertainment – these dramas had a strong religious function as well. The dramatic arts arose from the early agrarian worship of Dionysos. In addition to being the God of actors, Dionysos is also the God of vegetation – and especially of the vintage. His spirit dwells in the grape on the vine. Therefore when the vintners harvested the crop, plucking the ripe fruit and then stomping the grapes and pressing them to make wine, they were actually enacting a savage rite whereby the God was murdered and dismembered. At the end of the harvest men would smear their faces with the lees and sing a mournful dirge in his memory to placate his spirit and ensure that the God was not vengeful since he lived on in the drink made from his flesh. This disguise – either to hide their true identities or to give expression to the feeling of intoxicating enthousiasmos brought on by the consumption of alcohol, with the God’s spirit rising up within them and taking hold of their bodies, making them move and speak in ways they never would otherwise – grew more elaborate until men began fashioning intricate masks out of the different kinds of wood sacred to the God. At the same time the harvest-songs became more formal, with choruses of men singing and dancing and miming incidents from the life and death of Dionysos. Out of this eventually arose the art of drama, with the performances no longer just about the sufferings and triumphs of the God. In time the actor came to impersonate other figures such as famous Kings and heroes who had endured similar torments and transformations.
By the time that the triad of great Athenian playwrights (Aischylos, Sophokles and Euripides) came on the scene, much about the art-form had changed, and under their skilled hands it would undergo even greater transformation. These men and their lesser-known contemporaries were responsible for introducing more roles so that it was no longer just a single actor accompanied by a chorus up on the stage. They also broadened the themes of tragedy so that they could tell a much wider assortment of stories. They brought in props and mechanical devices, including a contraption of levers and pulleys whereby an actor could be lowered down from on high at a pivotal moment in the plot, usually an improbable rescue of the seemingly doomed hero – the famous deus ex machina. Some conservatives resented these innovations, giving rise to the saying “What has this to do with Dionysos?”
For many, the theater was where religion came alive. Not everyone was capable of reading Homer and Hesiod, but the theater was open to anyone including women, slaves, and foreigners. During the performance they could witness the traditional Gods and heroes walking about on stage, see the ancient stories given new life and vitality. Here they learned about concepts such as fate and justice, saw wicked deeds punished and pious sacrifice rewarded. Good men endured hardship with courage and strength; brave women (played by male actors, of course) forfeited their lives rather than relinquish the principles they held dear. One can see how important drama was in instilling the virtues of Greek culture by how frequently philosophers, theologians, and scholar-historians made allusions to the plays or employed dramatic terminology in their writing. Nor was drama merely a tool of the status quo – often the playwrights would use their stories to challenge the common assumptions of their society. Shortly after the Persian War, for instance, Aischylos wrote a play in which the Persians, the ancient enemies of the Greeks, were presented in a noble and sympathetic light:
Grief swarms, but worst of all it stings to hear how my son, my prince, wears tattered rags. (Persai, 845-849)
Can you imagine an American play in which the humanity of the terrorists was emphasized coming right on the heels of 9/11?
Similarly, slavery was decried as an unnatural evil and Euripides had this to say about the alleged second-class status of women:
Men’s criticism of women is worthless twanging of a bowstring and evil talk. Women are better than men, as I will show …. Women run households and protect within their homes what has been carried across the sea, and without a woman no home is clean or prosperous. Consider their role in religion, for that, in my opinion, comes first. We women play the most important part, because women prophesy the will of Loxias in the oracles of Phoibos. And at the holy site of Dodona near the Sacred Oak, females convey the will of Zeus to inquirers from Greece. As for the sacred rites of the Fates and the Nameless Goddesses, all these would not be holy if performed by men, but prosper in women’s hands. In this way women have a rightful share in the service of the Gods. Why is it then, that women must have a bad reputation? Won’t men’s worthless criticism stop, and men who insist on blaming all women alike, if one woman turns out to be evil? Let me make the following distinctions: there is nothing worse than a bad woman, and nothing better in any way than a good one. (Melanippe Captive fr. 13)
Such an argument could have been written by any modern feminist. Instead, these are the words of a 5th century Athenian male, meant to be recited at one of the city’s largest festivals where all of his contemporaries would have been in attendance. They did not find such views shocking and offensive; instead they applauded his clear vision and eloquence.
This is heady, revolutionary stuff – and they were no less vigorous in their examination of the traditional myths. Difficult and at times unflattering stories about the Gods were put on stage – one thinks of Sophokles’ Prometheus Bound, for instance, where Zeus’ arrogance and violence is condemned and the Titan is presented as a noble, suffering friend of humanity. Probably the most striking line from a Greek play comes from the pen of Euripides (Belepheron Fragment): “If the Gods do ought that is shameful, they are no Gods.”
Of course, what makes Greek tragedy so compelling is its unflinching honesty, its recognition that the world is not black and white, that there are not always easy answers to our questions. Our quest for truth, our longing for justice can lead us to commit grave sins. It was Oedipus’ desire to see the perpetrators of murder punished that led to his own downfall and the revelation of the sins he had unwittingly committed. It is no easy thing to tell which side Euripides wants us to be on in the Bakchai; both Pentheus and Dionysos are sympathetic characters in their own way, and both, in the end, go too far in the pursuit of their cherished ideals. There is virtue in freedom and restraint, evil in wildness and civilization. If you come away from these plays with a simple answer you are not thinking deeply enough about them. Greek drama challenges us in the way that all great literature does. (And most of the themes of that great literature are taken wholesale from the Greeks.) That is why it still has relevance two thousand and more years later, why these plays are still being read and performed meaningfully and shall continue to be so as long as man struggles to understand what it is to be human and how the divine intersects with our own world.