The Living Art of Greek Tragedy

The Living Art of Greek Tragedy

by Marianne McDonald


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Marianne McDonald brings together her training as a scholar of classical Greek with her vast experience in theatre and drama to help students of the classics and of theatre learn about the living performance tradition of Greek tragedy. The Living Art of Greek Tragedy is indispensable for anyone interested in performing Greek drama, and McDonald’s engaging descriptions offer the necessary background to all those who desire to know more about the ancient world. With a chapter on each of the three major Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides), McDonald provides a balance of textual analysis, practical knowledge of the theatre, and an experienced look at the difficulties and accomplishments of theatrical performances. She shows how ancient Greek tragedy, long a part of the standard repertoire of theatre companies throughout the world, remains fresh and alive for contemporary audiences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253215970
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/15/2003
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Marianne McDonald is Professor of Classics and Theatre at the University of California, San Diego, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. The author of more than 160 publications, she pioneered modern versions of the classics. Many of her translations/versions have been staged. Her books include Euripides in Cinema: The Heart Made Visible; Ancient Sun/Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage; Sing Sorrow: Ancient Classics in Modern Opera; and the forthcoming Space, Time and Silence: The Craft of Athol Fugard. She has six children, five grandchildren, and a black belt in karate.

Read an Excerpt

The Living Art of Greek Tragedy

By Marianne McDonald

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2003 Marianne McDonald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02828-0



Aeschylus (ca. 525-456 B.C.) is the father of Greek tragedy. Large issues and the splendor of his choruses characterize his drama. His trilogies show divine justice acting over generations. He utilizes spectacle to advantage, coupling it with equally spectacular poetic words.

Aeschylus lived during the glorious period of the Persian Wars (490-89 B.C. and 480–79 B.C.), when the invading Persians were defeated. He fought at Marathon, as evidenced by his epitaph, which commemorates him as a soldier and not as a playwright. He never had to face the less-glorious Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.), which came about as a reaction by Sparta and other former allies against the expansion of the Athenian Empire. It is likely that he came from a distinguished family. He was invited by the ruler Hieron to visit Syracuse in Sicily, and he wrote his Women of Etna on the occasion of Hieron's founding of the city of Etna.

His plays had inspirational and educational value. In Aristophanes' Frogs (405 B.C.) the god Dionysus brings Aeschylus back from the dead so that the Athenians can enjoy good drama once more, and Aeschylus claims that his Seven against Thebes is "full of Ares" and that whomever sees it is anxious to be a warrior (Frogs, 1021–22).

Aeschylus is said to have written about eighty-two plays. The seven plays that survive are:

Persians, 472 B.C.

Seven against Thebes, 467 B.C.

Suppliant Women, not earlier than 466 B.C.

Oresteia: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides, 458 B.C.

Prometheus Bound (authorship of this play has been disputed, and there is no agreed date for it).

We are told that Aeschylus won thirteen victories, compared to the approximately twenty-four of Sophocles and four of Euripides during his lifetime and one posthumous. Fragments exist of many of the missing plays. The most substantial fragments come from satyr plays: Diktuoulkoi (Netfishers) and Theoroi, also known as Isthmiastai (Spectators at the Isthmian Games). There are few extensive fragments from the tragedies. The most we have are from Myrmidons, Niobe, and Prometheus Luomenos (Prometheus Released).

Aeschylus's plays have many exchanges between one actor and the chorus. As much as half of a play can be choral, and his choruses are visually striking. The chorus of Persians appeared in lavish Oriental costumes. The Erinyes, or Furies, in Eumenides, were so hideous in appearance an ancient biographer claimed that women miscarried upon seeing them and little boys fainted from fright. By the time that the biographer wrote his account (in the fourth century or later), women were attending the theater.

Of the three great tragedians whose work we have, Aeschylus gets the prize for poetry. He combines abstract usage and invented and rare words, coupled with bold metaphors. He is certainly difficult, if not impossible, to translate. He often takes an image and carries it throughout the play or trilogy, as, for instance, in Oresteia with the related images of net, hunt, blood, fertility, sacrifice, and war: public pursuits which lead to private disaster. This use of a repeated image in a play or a connected trilogy is not unlike the Wagnerian leitmotiv in opera.


Most tragic plots and characters come from mythology. In the Deipnosophistae (Sophists at Dinner) by Athenaeus, Aeschylus is quoted as saying "My tragedies are large slices from the great Homeric feasts" (8.347.e). The first tragedy that we know of that had a plot and characters entirely of the author's own making was Antheus by Agathon, toward the end of the fifth century.

Tragedies rarely dealt with historical subjects. Alone of the three great tragedians, Aeschylus deals with a historical subject in Persians. Persians was written and performed in 472 B.C., eight years after the defeat of the Persians, who had invaded Greece on two occasions (490 B.C. and 480 B.C.), intending to make it part of their empire.

Phrynichus had earlier written The Capture of Miletus, and it was said that he was fined because he reminded the Athenians of their recent sufferings. It was produced in 493-92 B.C. and told of an Ionian city seized and destroyed by the Persians in 494. An ancient writer claims that Aeschylus based his Persians on Phrynichus's Phoenician Women, which showed the defeat of the Persians in the opening scene. It is unlikely to have been as dramatically effective as Aeschylus's play, which built up suspense by revealing the disaster only later.

In his Persians, Aeschylus extolled the merits of Athenian democracy by comparing it with the Persian monarchy. When Atossa, the Persian queen, asks who rules the Greeks and who is their master, she is told the Greeks are slaves to no one.

This is a play about overweening pride (hybris), which Aristotle describes as "doing and saying things which bring shame to the sufferer" (Rhetoric 1378b23-24). This is a common theme in Greek tragedy and generally led to crimes, which Aeschylus, as many other Greeks, felt that the gods punished. In the Greek mind, an abusive tyrant was the embodiment of this type of pride, and Xerxes, the Persian king who attacked Greece, fits this model. He tried to bridge the Hellespont, the crossing from Asia to Greece, by boats chained together. Storms destroyed the bridge, and Xerxes had the sea whipped to punish it. He and his army pillaged shrines, and for these and other acts punishment from the gods followed. This play combines history with an important moral lesson. It nevertheless arouses sympathy for the Persians, because we not only see their suffering from their eyes, but we also see the suffering of Atossa, a mother, for her son, Xerxes.

Aeschylus is delivering useful political and philosophical commentary. One might take this as a warning to the Athenians not to overextend themselves, and not to be eager to acquire an empire, which could be a liability later. It is just after the Persian Wars that the Athenians were beginning this expansion.

Persians also advises against going too far: "Nothing in Excess" was one of the sayings of the sages affixed on a temple at Delphi. Victors can easily become victims, and this play advocates sympathy for the defeated. It is to the credit of the Athenians that they gave a first prize to this play that showed sympathy for a long-standing enemy.

There are effective dramatic moments, such as the first entry of the Persian chorus in their colorful and exotic costumes. We should remember also that they sing and dance. The queen mother enters in a chariot. The ghost of Darius, Xerxes' father, is invoked and rises from the dead in hopes that he can save the city. Xerxes himself finally appears in rags, the embodiment of defeat. The incorporation of ghosts and gods in modern stagings can contribute to the overall drama not only visually, but also through tapping into an age-old desire for additional explanations and recourse behind phenomena. Religion and religious awe, even in the most secular age, still seems based in the human psyche.

The staging would have shown a tomb, possibly in the middle of the orchestra. The location was Sousa, the capital of Persia. One of the left and right entries might indicate the palace and home, and the other, the direction of Greece or the "foreign" land.

Seven against Thebes

This play, like Persians, contains long choral passages of lamentation; in both plays the chorus has half the lines. It seems fitting that our very first tragedies to survive from antiquity transformed human suffering into beautiful poetic song. In Persians it was an Asiatic foreigner, the "other," who did the weeping, and in this play it is women, also regarded as "other" by the Greek males.

As in Persians, there is strong sense of the divine in the play and of the pitilessness of fate. Seven against Thebes, following Laius and Oedipus (which no longer survive), is the third play in a connected trilogy about the family of Oedipus. The satyr play that followed, Sphinx, was also connected in theme.

Seven against Thebes illustrates the tragedy that resulted from Oedipus's curse on his sons, Polyneices and Eteocles. According to most mythical accounts, these two sons were to alternate yearly as rulers of Thebes. Eteocles became the ruler of Thebes and refused to give up his rule when his year ended. Polyneices raised an army in Argos and attacked Thebes.

The play opens with Eteocles explaining that the city is about to be attacked. He probably addresses the audience directly. The women of Thebes weep and call on the gods because of the threatening danger. They speak about the terrible things that happen to women who are made prisoners and slaves.

Eteocles forbids the women on pain of death to continue such disheartening lamentation. Instead of a random battle, Eteocles declares that seven defenders should confront seven of the enemy at each of the city's seven gates. There is elaborate poetry describing these heroes, including even the iconography on the shields. The boastful claims on the attackers' shields were sure to attract the anger of the gods. In addition, Polyneices was attacking his own city, something no one should do. As usual in Greek tragedy, things are not simple. Polyneices has a claim on the throne, and Eteocles should have given up the throne to him when it was his turn to rule.

The women warn Eteocles not to fight when he finds out he must face his own brother at the seventh gate. He remembers his father's curse but stubbornly insists on fighting and fulfilling his mission as a defender of his city. He concludes by philosophically claiming that no man can escape what the gods have in store for him. Then a messenger comes to tell us of the disaster. Eteocles and Polyneices killed each other and many others perished, but Thebes is safe. The women now lament the dead. They say of the two "sharp-hearted" brothers that they "divided their property, and each received equal shares" (lines 906–907). The original play probably ended with this dramatic lament, but the manuscripts include further scenes. First Antigone and Ismene lament their brothers deaths. Then a herald enters to tell them that Creon has forbidden burial of Polyneices. Antigone says she will bury him anyway. The chorus divides and half sides with Antigone and goes to help her bury the body, while the other half obeys the law and goes to bury Eteocles. It is most likely that a later writer added this passage, after seeing or reading Sophocles' Antigone.

This is a warning against any civil war, which often is the bloodiest type of all wars, if the American Civil War (1861-65) and the Greek Civil War following World War II offer any indication. Some say both those wars are still going on. The "troubles" in Ireland have gone far beyond the simple colonial model where the occupied fight against the occupier. When brother fights brother no one can ever win. Wars that oppose one family or family members against each other are as bloody as religious wars.

Seven against Thebes takes place right before and around the city. It is possible that there are statues of the gods at the back of the orchestra. We can assume that one entry, possibly audience left, indicates the area of the conflict, from which the messenger would arrive, and the other entry indicates the city center, either the shrines or the palace. When Eteocles addresses the "citizens of Thebes," extras could play these citizens. A polarity is established between male and female, between the men who run the city, make the laws, and declare war, and the women (the chorus) who are subject to those decisions and who suffer from them. The chorus of women enters after just having visited the shrines, probably audience right. These suffering, lamenting women are a key to the drama, which can be taken as a warning to Athens to avoid war and internal strife. One would need particularly good performers (skilled singers and dancers) for the female chorus. Modern productions, unlike the original production, often cast women in these roles. Aeschylus's complex and striking poetry calls for particularly clear delivery.

Suppliant Women

In this play, again, the chorus has a substantial role, singing over half the lines. The daughters of Danaus (said to be fifty) come with their father from Egypt to Argos, trying to escape marriage with their cousins, the fifty sons of Aegyptus. Since the original chorus of Greek tragedy may have consisted of fifty (which I doubt), this used to be regarded as the oldest surviving play by Aeschylus. We now know that it is not. The fifty must have been represented by a lesser number, perhaps the usual number of twelve, which became fifteen in later plays. The dithyrambic chorus usually consisted of fifty, and on one day of the Greater Dionysia they performed.

Pelasgus, the king of Argos, is confronted with a dilemma: either he accepts these suppliants and faces the risk of war with the sons of Aegyptus, or he turns them over to the Egyptians and offends Zeus, the guardian of suppliants. The suppliants claim that they are related to the ancient Argives; they also threaten to commit suicide and thereby pollute the land of Argos. Pelasgus takes the dilemma to his people (an unexpected decision since he is king, and this probably alludes to the democratic climate in which Aeschylus wrote). They vote unanimously in favor of sheltering the supplicants. Backed by an armed force, a herald comes to seize the women and return them to their Egyptian pursuers, but Pelasgus promises to defend them with his army.

The father gives some general precepts to his girls on how to conduct themselves in a foreign land. An Argive chorus, most likely of men (a supplementary escort), urges them to accept marriage, but they violently refuse. They pray to Zeus to preserve their virginity and their freedom. This exchange raises one of the debates between men and women. These young women are adamant that they want to retain their freedom and not be subjected to the further restraints that marriage puts on a young woman. Euripides' Medea later will articulate this loss of freedom in her address to the women of Corinth.

We imagine that the other plays of the trilogy continued the mythological story. The women are forced to marry the Egyptians. All but one follow their father's order to kill their husbands on their wedding night. For this they will be punished in Hades and must carry water in leaky sieves for eternity.

The womens adamant stand against marriage and threats of violence are harbingers of the violent ending of this myth. This play shows a male-female polarity. The women are both attacked and protected by men. This play is also a lesson in a citizen s duty to protect a suppliant. It raises the dilemma which can confront a city: whether to wage a war to defend itself or to be cowardly for the sake of peace. It is obvious that Aeschylus, who himself fought at Marathon and at Salamis, is on the side of an honorable war. He shows this by opposing Pelasgus's democratic defense of freedom and justice against the herald's claim to tyrannical "might makes right."

Pelasgus claims that he has uttered plain words. (Free speech was something that characterized democracy.) He also makes a couple of rather silly claims, not only of the superiority of the gods of Greece over the gods of Egypt, but also of the superiority of men who drink fermented grapes over those who drink fermented grain, namely wine instead of beer, a sophisticated snobbery.

The language is as usual richly poetic and metaphoric. Dust is called the "silent messenger of an army." The women compare the soldiers who manhandle them to nightmarish spiders and serpents.

One can take dramatic advantage of the women threatening to kill themselves with nooses in hand, made out of the belts that held their clothes together. Then again there is more excitement when the herald (backed by the suitors) arrives to drag the women away, literally kicking and screaming. His defeat at the hands of the king who arrives with his men just in time to save the women illustrates how right can occasionally overcome might.

An altar is prominent, and probably once again there are statues of the gods. There would be entrances from the city and from the direction of the Argive coast on which the sons of Aegyptus have landed. The contrast of dark-skinned Egyptians in their exotic costumes with pale Argives in plain Greek clothes adds to the visual excitement in a typically Aeschylean way. Once again Aeschylus shows himself sympathetic to the foreigner, a useful lesson for the Athenians and for any conscientious citizen.


Excerpted from The Living Art of Greek Tragedy by Marianne McDonald. Copyright © 2003 Marianne McDonald. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents



1. Aeschylus
2. Sophocles
3. Euripides


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Lovely...! beautiful.....!.... Just enjoy it.....!