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Theatricality of Greek Tragedy: Playing Space and Chorus


Ancient Greek tragedy has been an inspiration to Western culture, but the way it was first performed has long remained in question. In The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy, Graham Ley provides an illuminating discussion of key issues relating to the use of the playing space and the nature of the chorus, offering a distinctive impression of the performance of Greek tragedy in the fifth century BCE. 

Drawing on evidence from the surviving texts of tragedies by Aeschylus, ...

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Ancient Greek tragedy has been an inspiration to Western culture, but the way it was first performed has long remained in question. In The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy, Graham Ley provides an illuminating discussion of key issues relating to the use of the playing space and the nature of the chorus, offering a distinctive impression of the performance of Greek tragedy in the fifth century BCE. 

Drawing on evidence from the surviving texts of tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Ley explains how scenes with actors were played in the open ground of the orchestra, often considered as exclusively the dancing place of the chorus. In reviewing what is known of the music and dance of Greek antiquity, Ley goes on to show that in the original productions the experience of the chorus—expressed in song and dance and in interaction with the characters—remained a vital characteristic in the performance of tragedy.
Combining detailed analysis with broader reflections about the nature of ancient Greek tragedy as an art form, this volume—supplemented with a series of illustrative drawings and diagrams—will be a necessary addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in literature, theater, or classical studies.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226477572
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 1/15/2007
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Graham Ley is a reader in drama and theory at the University of Exeter. He has directed ancient and modern plays, has been a dramaturg for professional productions, and is the author of many books, including A Short Introduction to Greek Tragedy, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47757-2

Chapter One The Playing Space


The subject of this chapter is the playing space of tragic performance in the fifth century BCE in Athens, and I shall be presenting evidence that the tragic scripts from this period were composed for performance in the open playing space. Despite the abundance of writing on Greek tragedies and on the ancient Greek theater, the practical playing space of tragic performance is the explicit subject of very few studies. Any study of the playing space has to combine what is known of the theater of Dionysus at Athens and its resources with an investigation of the theatricality of the tragedies, matching the scripts and the indications they contain to the space for which they were composed. This is a problematic procedure, made trickier by the absence of any description of performance in progress from a fifth-century observer. So even if we can reach reasonably secure conclusions about the layout and resources of the theater, we have to determine how these were used through a curiously inverted inspection of the scripts themselves. It is "inverted" because we have to work backward from the finished article and try to reconstruct the assumptions that gave rise to it.

With some minimal exceptions, the texts of Greek drama do not contain original stage directions of the kind we have come to expect in modern printed drama. So we are dependent on references in the verbal script to its own implementation or on inferences we can draw from the verbal script about the presence of material objects and about the proximity of performers to each other or to a material object. In this situation there is little point in debating or complaining about the little we have, but it is important to make a cautious appraisal of what we do have. To give a simple example that will appear later in this chapter, if one actor/character says to another "I have brought your bed outside," we should not automatically assume that the other actor/character has been carried out on it, without casting our eyes around to see if there are any other indications that may confirm or qualify this assumption.

The verbal script is not a complete performance, or even a secure record of a complete performance. We cannot, ultimately, even be sure of the status of the scripts that have come down to us as texts, and in certain cases scholars have suspected that an original script has been altered or supplemented for performances later than its original production in the fifth century BCE. But the survival of more than thirty mostly complete tragedies from the fifth century and the variety and range of the indications they contain provide a substantial body of material for the investigation of the problem of the playing space. I have not brought fragmentary tragedies into the presentation here, and I have made only a brief reference to Prometheus Bound (of unknown date and authorship, but probably from the fifth century) and none to Rhesos, which probably belongs to the fourth century, since it seems inadvisable to add greater uncertainties to the problem.

I have stated that there are few satisfactory studies of the open playing space, and Oliver Taplin's influential study The Stagecraft of Aeschylus exemplifies the difficulty of studying the open playing space. His consistent focus was placed on what he called "entrances and exits," which he applied to the choros as well as to the actors/characters, and his book was constructed in the form of a sequential commentary on entrances and exits in the tragedies of Aeschylus. In the course of his commentary Taplin also alluded to other, later tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides in an attempt to elucidate not just the "stagecraft of Aeschylus" but also "the dramatic technique of the Greek tragedians." The format of a sequential commentary made the book difficult to read as a study of the playing space, since the continuity of performance was obstructed by the focus on entrances and exits and by the relatively limited attention given to what occurs between them, that is, to much of the substance and action of the play and the performance.

Taplin's terminology had an unfortunate influence on the scholarship of the last generation, stamping the anachronistic concept of "stagecraft" on a form of composition for a singing and dancing choros with actors and encouraging the continuing use of "entrance" and "exit" for a playing space for which these terms are inappropriate. Taplin also wrote in passing of "arrivals and departures," and the terminology I advocate is fourfold, taking account of those who "arrive" in the playing space or "leave" it along the side approaches (known diversely as parodoi or eisodoi), and those who either "appear" from or "enter" the skene.

In what follows, I shall refer in the notes to some of Taplin's discussions and to other modern discussions of the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, although in many cases the full problem of the playing space for tragedy is not truly their subject. The major exceptions in this respect are the theatrical commentaries attached to the translations of Aeschylus and Sophocles edited by Michael Ewans, although the commentaries are not restricted to that single issue. The approach taken by Ewans exemplifies a method that is now becoming far more familiar across a variety of disciplines, including archaeology and classics as well as theater studies, which is that of research through practice. Ewans's method shared by his collaborators was to explore the scripts in workshop or performance and to draw conclusions about their presentation on the basis of a firm interest in the original conditions for which the scripts were composed. Though by no means infallible, practical research tends to offer a different set of observations about the material or problem concerned, and if it is valuable in the case of Caesar's construction of a bridge across the Rhine and other archaeological experiments, it is of obvious and unavoidable relevance to theater studies and the investigation of performance.

In this chapter I shall investigate the disposition of actors in the playing space and the disposition of the choros and its members in relation to actors/ characters. It is that aspect of the choros that matters here, and the larger problem of understanding the nature of the choros is the subject of the following chapter. Similarly, I have referred merely to "parts" of a song and dance by the choros (or an actor/character) without further commentary on choric singing and dancing, since for the purposes of this chapter that is just adequate. I have at times used the neutral term "sequence" for those sections of the scripts I have selected because I am not interested in confronting the reader in this particular enquiry with questions about formal structure and any terminology associated with it. My immediate concern is to offer readers the opportunity to develop a sense of the problem of the playing space through reference to indicative sequences in the surviving tragedies. In relation to the tragedies after Aeschylus, that referencing will be selective; for various reasons, the consideration of the tragedies of Aeschylus has to be more extensive, and I start with this.


What evidence there is, from late sources, suggests that Aeschylus began composing early in the fifth century, won his first victory in the dramatic competitions in 484 BCE, and composed about eighty plays, winning thirteen victories. So if the surviving, complete plays of Aeschylus represent a phase in what might loosely be called the "development" of tragedy as a festival performance at Athens, then it is certainly not the earliest phase. On any reasonable calculation, the surviving plays belong to the second part of Aeschylus's life as a composer. There are dates available for Persians (472 BCE), Seven against Thebes (467), Suppliants (late 460s), and the three tragedies of the Oresteia (458), Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides, and while the surviving fragments are interesting, it would be a mistake to attempt to draw firm conclusions from them. It is only reasonable to assume that some of these fragments should date to the period before 472 BCE and Persians, his earliest, complete surviving tragedy. Before Aeschylus there is the hidden activity from the time of the introduction of tragedy to festival performance at Athens, which has been traditionally dated to the mid 530s BCE but may be much later than that, toward the close of the sixth century BCE.

To look backward from Persians is undoubtedly tempting, but there are very few guidelines indeed if we try to move into the labyrinth of "early" or "original tragedy." Tragedy is a form of performance by a choros, but it is next to impossible to determine what that form was like until we see it in the earliest surviving tragedies of Aeschylus. In the Poetics, Aristotle states that originally there was only one actor/performer distinguished from the choros, and then a second was added, and finally a third. We can be reasonably sure that the composer was the original separate performer and that he remained so until Sophocles decided to withdraw from that role, leaving three actors to perform the differentiated roles in any tragedy, from about or just before the middle of the fifth century BCE.

So we seem to see a requirement for only two actors, doubling roles effectively by means of masks, in the surviving tragedies of Aeschylus before the Oresteia, while the Oresteia itself requires three actors, with the possibility of four for a brief sequence in Libation Bearers, the second tragedy of the trilogy. Most scholars believe that Aeschylus was composing for two actors and the choros until the late 460s BCE, close to the end of his life, and only adopted three actors either with or just before the Oresteia. The timing of any change from one to two actors is completely hidden from us, although Aristotle states plainly that it was Aeschylus who introduced the second actor. If Aeschylus also adjusted to composing for three only toward the end of his life, then it is an obvious conclusion that the art of composing for two actors and a choros was his art par excellence.

Of course, "development" is a tricky concept, which is why I placed it above in quotation marks. One of the more obvious traps it sets is the implication that Aeschylus came at the "beginnings" of European drama and theater. It is bound to be tempting to see drama and theater straining in some way to reach the present, to become recognizable to us from an obscure or strange starting point, and the path from ritual origins to secular performance is one that is constantly traced by many commentaries. Aristotle's Poetics, the principal theoretical treatise on drama from antiquity, offers a lead here that can be irresistible, since he plainly believes that tragedy did reach its proper form after moving through earlier phases.

The topic of the addition of actors, from one to two to three, is simple enough as an example. The presence of the "actor" at the beginnings of tragedy corresponds with our own modern emphasis on the actor as the elemental component of theater, and the desire for multiplication of this figure is one with which we can easily feel sympathy. In addition, we may well be tempted to believe that we know why the second actor was introduced: the reason must have been an irresistible urge to create spoken dialogue, to move away from a ritualistic, choric form of performance as swiftly as possible to something more manageable.

There are, indeed, exchanges between actors in Persians, Seven against Thebes, and Suppliants, but we should be unobservant if we classified them as dialogue without qualifying that concept carefully. In most of these scenes, one of the actors/characters present has previously addressed the choros alone, and the second actor/character regularly addresses the choros first before acknowledging the other actor, responding as much to the concerns embodied in and by the choros, and by the present crisis, as to the other character. The presence of the choros, rather than the presence of the actor, is a constant factor in the composition of these tragedies, and our sense of "dialogue" needs to be judged accordingly.

Significantly, in Seven against Thebes, which introduces two actors/characters before it introduces the choros, even the exchange between Eteocles, ruler of Thebes, and the Scout who has been watching the enemy does not take the form of reciprocal dialogue. Eteocles expects a report from the scouts he has sent out, and the Scout arrives and addresses Eteocles, but the king does not respond to him (Seven against Thebes 36-77). Reciprocal acknowledgment between these two characters is postponed to the central sequence of the play, but even there it is marginal, subsumed in the public determination of a strategy of defense for the city, which proceeds in front of a tremulous choros.

Elsewhere, actors in these early tragedies of Aeschylus regularly address the choros, and it can hardly be called speculative to assume that this was the substantial function of the original, separate performer, almost certainly the composer himself. The multiplication of characters, and their effective deployment (appearance or arrival, and reappearance or return) during the length of the drama, is as strong a motive for the addition of the second performer as the potential of exchanges made between them, in which "dialogue" in any modern sense features very little. If we retain the idea of development, it would be more accurate to describe the process as the gradual amplification of a choric form of performance, not a move away from it, even with the addition of a third actor. The extent to which this is evident in the Oresteia should emerge from the discussions in this chapter.

But the addition of a third individual performer is not the only resource that distinguishes the Oresteia from the preceding tragedies. The script of Libation Bearers has a scene of knocking at a door and, indeed, an extended section that involves entrances into and appearances from a structure. Other aspects of the trilogy (e.g., the Watchman apparently on the "roof" at the opening of Agamemnon) make it plain to us that Aeschylus is using a solid construction of some sort, for which the conventional name is a skene (or skenai), literally a "tent." There is no comparable use of a door or of a construction with a presumed interior in the earlier plays, although it is not difficult to imagine or believe (if one chooses) that it was actually present but scarcely used or just not used dramatically at all.

The important consideration is that Aeschylus evidently composes for the skene in the Oresteia and does not apparently or manifestly do so in the earlier tragedies. The plays by other composers that come after the Oresteia adopt this skene, and composition continues to take it into account in various realizations that are important to the conception of the dramas, whether tragedy or comedy. So we are faced in Aeschylus's surviving work by two modes of composition, which may be closely related: that for a choros and two actors and that for a choros and three actors. Accordingly, in relation to the playing space, I shall be concentrating on the continuities and differences that may be found between Aeschylus's earlier tragedies and the Oresteia.

The concept of the playing space sounds very simple, and yet for the ancient Greek theater of the fifth century it is problematic. In the modern theater, we have become accustomed to constant redefinitions of the playing space, established according to the circumstances of production and the choices made by directors or ensembles, or even by architects and planners in the case of predetermined space. For Athens, we need to assume a degree of regularity not simply in location but in the repeated use of similar conditions for composition and presentation.


Excerpted from THE THEATRICALITY OF Greek Tragedy by GRAHAM LEY Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

            Scope of the Book
            Rationale for the Diagrams and Drawings
            Further Comments and Acknowledgments
1          the playing space
            The Scripts and the Playing Space
            The Surviving Tragedies of Aeschylus and Early Tragic Performance
            Choros, Actors/Characters, and Playing Space in the Earlier Tragedies of Aeschylus
                        Seven against Thebes
            Composition for the Playing Space in Aeschylus’s Oresteia
                        Libation Bearers
            Realizing the Tragic Playing Space after Aeschylus
            Altars and Tombs in the Playing Space after Aeschylus
            Performers and Vehicles in the Playing Space
            Three Kinds of Vocal Delivery in Tragedy
            Movement and Dancing in the Playing Space
            Actors/Characters and Choros: Chanting, Singing and Dancing in the Playing Space
            Appendix A: Chronology of the Surviving Plays
2          the chorus
            The Choros in Epic
            Composition for the Choros
            Music: Meter or Measure, Melody, and Mode
                        Meter                        Melody and Modes
            Strophe, Antistrophe, and Choreia
            The Theatrical Choroi: Definitions and Distinctions
            Appendix B: Time Line for Chapter Two
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