L.C. Elson, Curiosities of Music: The Public Games of Greece

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Chapter VII. Greek Theatre and Chorus

Among the many institutions which contributed to that polished civilization which was the glory of ancient Greece, none were higher in aspirations, or more prolific in results, than the Tragedies and Comedies which were at certain intervals presented in the Theatre at Athens. The Athenians were by this agency, brought to a cultivated discrimination in music and poetry, and as we shall see later, the choruses being chosen from the body of the people, and demanding an amount of musical ability in the members, caused the study of music to become almost a necessity to all.1

In its early days the Drama, (if it be worthy of the name,) must have been a mere masquerading on any raised platform. It had its origin in the festivities of Dionysius (Bacchus), for at the earliest Dionysian festivals, the populace smeared their faces in wine lees, and thus disguised, sang choruses in honor of this god of mirth.

In later times, linen masks were substituted, but only in the days of Thespis, did the art assume some regular shape.

Comedy may be said to have arisen about 562 B. C., when Susarion and Dolon travelled around, caricaturing the vices and follies of their time, from a rude scaffold.

The first Tragedy was acted in Athens, by Thespis, from a wagon, in the year 535 B. C. In the same year Thespis received a goat as reward for playing “Alcestis” at Athens. Goats were frequently given as rewards for this kind of composition, and the word Tragedy is derived by some, from the words Tragos, a goat, Odé, a song, literally a “goat-song.”

The earliest attempt at dramatic action, with a plot, or incident to give it connection, was the representation of the gift of the grape to mankind, by Dionysius; this required three dramatis personae, therefore Thespis changed his linen mask three times.

Solon was not well pleased with the new art; striking his stick upon the ground he said: “If this sort of thing were allowed and praised, it would soon be found in the market-place;” and to Thespis who was singing a recitation in the character which he was acting, he said: “Are you not ashamed to lie so?”

Solon had probably forgotten that when he aroused the Athenians to the reconquest of Salamis, he had assumed the character of a herald from the island. Solon had predicted right however, the drama became the most cherished institution of Greece; even in its earliest stages, the state fostered it, and it always attracted the peons for 69it was both a religious, and popular enjoyment.

The sons of Pisistratus did much in these days to encourage and stimulate it. They arranged contests, rewards, etc., with profusion.

The tragedies of Thespis which he both wrote and acted himself, had but one performer, who, rapidly changing his mask, assumed various different characters in the play. The monotony was soon felt, and in order that dialogues might be used, a chorus was introduced, and then much of the action consisted of duets between the solitary performer, or protagonist, and the chorus.

Phrynicus, a few years later, allowed this single actor to take both male and female characters; but the first thorough representation of tragedy, with its properties carefully attended to, is due to the great tragic poet Æschylus, who instructed the actor and the chorus carefully, and gave attention to thoroughness in its every department so far as then known.

The platform and auditorium were still uncouth wooden structures, until a poetical contest took place between Phrynicus and others, when the benches were so crowded that the whole structure gave way and many were injured; after this the theatres were built of stone.

The performances were still regarded as belonging to religious rites; the seats were at first built in a semi-circle around the altar of Dionysius, and the theatre never became, as with us, an every-day matter, but was only used at certain Dionysian festivals, which occurred about three times each year. Aeschylus aimed very much at the terrible in his tragedies, and the poets of this era never sought to “hold the mirror up to nature,” but rather to represent something awe-inspiring and supernatural; therefore the actors had to prepare themselves in many peculiar ways for the stage.

The characters of tragedy were represented as much larger than human beings; to effect this the tragedian wore a kind of stilt-shoes with very high heels, called cothurne, padded out his body in proportion to his height, lengthened his arms by adding an artificial hand, and wore a mask of large size, over his face. The stage upon which he appeared, was also elevated above that on which the chorus stood, and the latter not being artificially enlarged, must have appeared as pigmies, beside these gigantic heroes.

The voice was pitched in a style corresponding to the magnitude of the body; it has been suggested2 that the large tragic mask may have concealed some contrivance for strengthening the voice; however this may be, it is certain that the voice of the tragedian needed to be metallic, solemn and majestic, and that this, though partly a natural gift, had to be strengthened by long and severe practice, and a vast amount of physical strength was also required to move about naturally when so extremely bundled up.

Lucian in his “De saltatione,” ridicules the tragic actor’s equipment. He says: “What a ridiculous thing it is, to see a fellow stalking around upon a pair of high heeled boots, with a terrible mask on, and a wide gaping mouth, as if he intended to swallow the audience,3 not to mention the unseemly thickness of breast and body, all of which is done to hide the disproportion between his extravagant height, and his meagre body. Bawling aloud, and writhing his body in a thousand odd gestures;” and then he alludes to the better singing and acting of previous time, “but all sense of fitness is lost,” he concludes, “when Hercules enters singing a mournful ditty, without either lion’s skin or club.”

With regard to the immovable mask, Ottfried Müller supposes that the picture is overdrawn, for facial expression had far less to do with the action of the drama of that day than we imagine; the character had not so many changing emotions to depict, as in modern plays; he says4 “we can imagine an Orestes, or a Medea, with a set countenance, but never a Hamlet or Tasso.”

We must also remember that the vast extent of the Athenian Theatre, made it next to impossible to distinguish much play of feature, and that the same masks were not worn throughout the play, but changed at any great change of emotion. Oedipus in the tragedy by Sophocles, after misfortunes came upon him, wore a different mask from the one worn in his days of prosperity.

The first plays represented were relative to the history of the gods, and demi-gods, but Phrynicus made a bold innovation by representing contemporaneous events upon the stage. He once ventured to represent the conquest of Miletus, from the Athenians; the effect, according to Herodotus, was startling, the whole audience burst into tears, and the Athenian government forbade any further plays on that subject, prohibited the piece from ever being represented again, and fined the poet heavily.

The contests between rival writers, by simultaneous production of their pieces was a fruitful source of jealousy. Aeschylus upon being vanquished in one of these by Sophocles, took his defeat so much to heart, that he left Athens for some years, and took up his residence in Sicily.

In the plays of Thespis and Phrynicus, one actor only was employed; Aeschylus enriched his works by adding a second performer, called the Deuteragonist. Sophocles went beyond by adding the third, or Tritagonist, and desired even more, for in his Oedipus in Colonus, he found that four players were a necessity, and wrote the tragedy for that number, but dared not publicly make the innovation, and therefore this great work remained unperformed until after his death.

The above mentioned three performers, had their distinct lines of duty, as we to-day have upon the stage, actors for each kind of character, but the distinction was carried to great height on the ancient stage, for the first actor always came on the stage from the right entrance, the second from the left, and the third from the centre.

The stage of the Athenian theatre was very wide but not deep, and the scenery was very simple; sometimes the house of the chief character was represented, sometimes the tent of a hero, but oftenest the entrance of a palace, before which the entire action of some dramas could take place. They were always exterior views, and no scenes of the interior parts of a dwelling were ever used. The whole active life of the Greek was passed in the open air, so that it seemed more natural to him to represent his characters as living similarly. The female characters were often personated by boys.

There were many expedients to make the following of the action of the play easier to the spectators, in such a vast space; programmes they had not, opera glasses did not exist, so certain formulae took the place of both; when standing on the stage of the Athenian theatre, and facing the audience, the harbor and city of Athens were on the left hand, and Attica on the right; a person entering from the right hand, was therefore presumed to be a stranger who had come over land; and from the left as coming from the city.

The stage also possessed some mechanical effects, such as chariots descending from the skies, birds or even immense beetles soaring aloft carrying persons with them, forms arising from the deep, thunder, lightning, etc. The chorus was an immense help to the audience in following the events of the piece, and we must now describe this characteristic part of Greek tragedy.

The dramatic chorus probably appeared first as Satyrs, the natural attendants of the jolly god Dionysius, in the plays of Thespis, and were then numerous and ill disciplined.

Aeschylus lessened the part of the chorus in his tragedies, and they no longer sang an unceasing duet with the Protagonist, for the addition of a second actor, made dialogues possible without their assistance.

The number of Choryeutes (chorus players) in Aeschylus’s tragedies was twelve; Sophocles, and Euripides had usually fifteen.

In the tragedy of the “Eumenides” there was a special chorus of fifty members; these were apparelled as the hideous furies of that name, all in black, with angry countenances, snakes twining in their hair, and blood dripping from their eyes; and suddenly these frightful apparitions appeared on the stage: the effect was terrible, women shrieked, and fell in convulsions, and several children died of fright. This event proves that the stage effects were rather realistic in those days.

The chorus was felt as an inconvenience by Euripides, who yet could not break the shackles of custom sufficiently to do away with it.

The arrangement of the chorus was changed when it was transplanted from lyric to dramatic use. The dithyrambic chorus stood around an altar singing hymns, and was wholly occupied with its music: the dramatic chorus stood in the shape of a square, the director taking good care to place the best dressed and handsomest choryeutes in front.

The songs were accompanied with well regulated movements, usually of a stately and dignified character, such as befitted the characters which they were representing, the parts which they performed usually being those of Matrons or Patriarchs, who were best suited to give counsel, comfort, or admonition to the acting characters of the drama.

The formation of choruses, was a matter of legislation. The archon of the city, gave the task of forming the choruses, to some of the wealthy citizens, who had the title of Choregus. This person was not the chorus leader, but the founder of it. He had authority from the archon to receive and select able singers; when he had the organization formed, he engaged a choryphaeus or director, to instruct the members in singing and dancing; he engaged flute-players5 to accompany them, and paid a regular salary to them all, that of the flute-players being higher than that of the singers. He had to board and lodge them; to supply them with good beverages during rehearsals; to see that they received nutritious food, and such as was good for their voices; to supply them with masks, and costumes for their parts, and other duties all tending to the well being of the chorus. The choregus received no pay for this, but if in a dramatic contest his chorus was adjudged to be the best, he received a wreath as a reward.

Expensive as this honor was, yet it was sought after by all the richer class of Athens, as it was an ostentatious manner of showing their munificence, for the tragic choruses vied with each other in the splendor of their attire, their costumes being superb mantles of gold, and purple. So costly was it that the saying became a well known jest, that the way to ruin a man, was to get him appointed choregus.

The costume of the actors was also rich, without much reference to the part they were playing. Hercules came on the stage in purple and gold instead of with a lion’s skin.

The poet who had just completed a tragedy, and succeeded in obtaining a hearing for it, applied to the Archon for a chorus; that functionary, if he had confidence in the applicant, would assign him one of the choruses which had already been formed and on receiving the permission from the choregus, the composer would set to work, drilling them in their various songs, attitudes, and movements. The director did not use a stick for this purpose, as in modern days, but beat the time with a heavy pair of iron shoes which he put on for the purpose.6 The chorus of comedy was a less expensive and smaller affair. The music which it sang was also less difficult and grand.

The comedy chorus consisted of twenty-four members, who came on the stage in detachments of six each.

The comedy costumes of both actors and chorus were something like what we are accustomed to see in farce or pantomime; there was something comical and exaggerated about them, which occasioned mirth of itself. The masks were decidedly comic, and usually caricatured the countenance of some public person well known to the audience. The comedy, especially in the older days that of Aristophanes sought to teach the people by holding up to ridicule, all such persons or measures as seemed to the poet worthy of censure; therefore it dealt almost exclusively with the events of the day, and such characters as Alcibiades, Socrates, Cleon, etc., are constantly appearing, and in the most mirth-provoking manner.

It is a matter of regret, however, that Aristophanes wielded so much influence, for he brought it to bear against Socrates, whom he was narrow-minded enough to take as the representative of Sophistry, and raised a popular feeling against him by his comedy of “The Clouds,” in which he attributed the most interested motives to that grand philosopher.

It is unfortunate for Cleon that the caricature of Aristophanes was accepted as a portrait, and he has come down to us only as the noisy impudent demagogue, as portrayed in “The Knights;” yet Cleon must have been a rough and sturdy leader of the populace, to have attained so much power.7

Aristophanes was aristocratic in his tendencies, and could not forgive the tanner, for having risen from his humble sphere.

It required much courage however to attack the leader of the democracy, with such boldness. Even the mask makers refused to make the comic mask of Cleon; and when the mask was obtained no actor dared to play the character, so that Aristophanes was obliged to act it himself. Cleon embroiled Aristophanes in three lawsuits in consequence of his audacity.

The choruses of these comedies had sometimes to assume very odd parts, as in the two comedies of the “Birds,” and the “Wasps,” where they represented those creatures. The masks were made to correspond to the character assumed, and in “The Wasps” each man had a short spear or sting, which they sometimes thrust out, or drew in, and the whole chorus would sometimes move about quickly with a buzzing noise. The wasps were a satire upon the swarm of Athenian magistrates.8

One is forcibly reminded in these plays of the recent inventions of the French Opera Bouffe.

In the later comedies, private intrigues began to form the plot, and there was no great difference between these and the plays of modern times.

This is a part of a book Curiosities of Music: A Collection of Facts not generally known, regarding the Music of Ancient and Savage Nations (1880) by Louis Charles Elson, in public domain.
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The section covers pages 39-113, originally footnotes were not numbered.
Originally, chapter numbers also include "VII." twice.

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