Tantalus: Ten New Plays on Greek Myths
We know remarkably little about who actually went to the theater in ancient Athens—scholars continue to debate whether women were permitted to attend, for instance—but it’s a fair bet that whoever did go had a pretty grueling time of it. All tragedies were originally performed during a six-day-long citywide springtime festival in honor of Dionysos, god of what you could call altered states (drunkenness, theater). On each of the three successive festival days devoted to tragic performances, a different playwright presented a full tetralogy—three complete tragedies followed by a brief, ribald romp called a satyr play, which probably parodied the themes of the dramas immediately preceding it. The day before the performances was reserved for civic and religious ceremonials performed, like the plays themselves, inside the theater: there were parades of war orphans and of the annual “contributions” from Athens’s subject-allies; announcements of the names of citizens who had benefited the state; libations to democracy, peace, and good fortune.
The days of the performances themselves were undoubtedly long ones. Modern productions of Greek drama tend to minimize or dispense with the elaborate musical accompaniment and the choral dances that were such an integral part of the ancient performances—the music was composed, and the dances choreographed, by the tragedian himself—with the result that today a performance of, say, Sophocles’ Oedipus will take about an hour and a half. (That’s how long a new production by the Greek National Theater at the City Center in New York took in October.) But twenty-five hundred years ago the plays, which were presented in a theater scooped out of the slope of the Acropolis and underwritten, in fulfillment of a civic obligation, by rich citizens who vied to outspend one another on costumes, masks, and the training, rehearsing, and feeding of musicians and chorus members, certainly took much longer, an entire tetralogy lasting probably from sunup through dusk. (Certain works appear to have been intended to take dramatic advantage of the organization of the festival day: Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the only complete trilogy that has come down to us, begins at dawn and ends with a torchlit parade.)
To these day-long events, audience members brought their own food; with the exception of certain dignitaries and priests, people sat on either wooden benches or the ground. (The marble amphitheaters and concentric rings of stone benches that many of us are familiar with were generally built well after tragedy’s heyday in the fifth century BC.) There were, undoubtedly, longueurs. In a passage of the Nichomachean Ethics about the sources of pain and pleasure, Aristotle remarks that spectators tended to eat their snacks during stretches of bad acting.
The festival hubbub, the elaborate preliminaries, the sight (and smell) of the vast throng, numbering around 20,000, sitting for hours on end, several days in a row, under the springtime sun; and, onstage, the singing of the big aria-like speeches, the slow, recitative-like chanting of the dialogue, the choral ballets, the …
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