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Greek Tragedy and Comedy


There is little doubt that at some period what we now call tragedy consisted of a chorus which sang comments in response to a story told by the poet, but whether, as has been claimed, there was a time when there was only the chorus is open to dispute. It was once accepted as a fact, based on something that Aristotle wrote, but now is less accepted.

What is more likely - and we can possibly attribute this to Thespis - is that two different poetic traditions fused into the one form. What we do know - for it is obvious! - is that a combination of one actor and a chorus does not give a very wide range of dramatic possibilities, particularly as it is almost certain that the chorus always worked in unison. For the form to grow, the introduction of a second actor was essential and, according to Aristotle, it was Aeschylus who did this. He also, said Aristotle, reduced the importance of the chorus, and thus he is called the "father of tragedy".

Of course, once a major innovation occurs, more tend to follow quite quickly and Sophocles is usually credited with the next advance, the introduction of a third actor, somewhere around 460.

It should be noted that we are talking here of actors, not characters. Each actor could, of course, play more than one character, but only three could be on-stage together.

Tragedy usually dealt with myths, or with events from the comparatively recent past which had become myths - Aeschylus' The Persians is one such. The important thing here is that the entire audience knew the story before they even set foot in the theatre. This is sometimes adduced as a piece of evidence in favour of the religious origin of drama, but it is not, in fact, so unusual. After all, audiences like what they know and the wandering minstrels of many cultures, from the Greeks through to the Vikings and beyond, would tell the stories of valour or love which everyone knew and enjoyed.

Using known stories was not so restricting either - after all, a simple story of love between enemies can be Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe or West Side Story! And a comparison between the same story as it was treated by different tragedians only serves to reinforce that - look at Aeschylus' The Libation Bearers, Sophocles' Electra and Euripides' play of the same name.

The important thing about using myths as the basis for a play is that the subject matter is distanced from the mundane world and can be looked at sub specie aeternitatis - in them we can see the workings of fate or the gods, without the distraction of the everyday. No living Greek, no matter how important or influential, was ever mentioned in a tragedy.

Unlike Roman tragedy (see our feature on Seneca's Oedipus), there was no on-stage action of a physically violent nature - Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus puts his eyes out off-stage - although there were, of course, intensely violent emotions. Language was heightened and rich with allusion, metaphor and, often, irony (for knowing the outcome of the story gave the audience an advantage over the characters!), a poetic language which was even more unlike the language of every day than Shakespeare's was different from the English of the Elizabethan streets.

The later tragedies of Euripides did become less "grand", with plots which can be described as being more romantic.


Comedy was very different. It seems likely that the earliest comedies had plots based on myths, just like tragedies, but by the time of the late fifth century, the time of Aristophanes, this had changed and, to be honest, plot was not of central importance. Aristophanes was not one to allow plot to get in the way of a good joke! Often the plot gets pretty lost by the end of the play, lost in things that tragedy would never allow - attacks on contemporary figures, dirty jokes, slapstick and parody.

Aristotle tends to dismiss comedy as being less serious than tragedy, which is certainly true, but comedy did tend to mock the grandeur of its more sombre cousin - it was not (just!) a more or less filthy romp.

Like tragedy, comedy changed. It, too, became more romantic and tended much more towards the comedy of manners, with some consequent moralising which would have been totally out of place in the work of Aristophanes. The so-called New Comedy, best exemplified by Menander, was much nearer to much of Shakespeare's comedy whereas the Old Comedy had more of the Monty Python about it!

We actually know the new Comedy best through its Roman imitators, Plautus and Terence (Publius Terrentius Maro), who had a much greater influence on the development of comedy in Britain than the Greeks, just as Roman tragedy, and particularly that of Seneca, was the major influence on the development of English tragedy.

Next page: Aristotle

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©Peter Lathan 2001