Iphigeneia at Aulis
“Nothing to do with Dionysos!” So went the proverbial Athenian complaint about tragedy. And no wonder: after all, the annual theatrical productions at Athens—with their brilliant costumes and special effects, the rich musical accompaniment and complex choreography, the poetically sophisticated and intellectually provocative libretti, the keenly watched competitions for playwrights—seemed to have very little indeed to do with the quaint rural shindig in honor of the wine god Dionysos from which, if we are to believe Aristotle, Greek theater evolved. For tragedy (as he asserts in the Poetics) got its humble start as a festive choral song called the dithyramb, sung in celebration of the god’s birth; while comedy owed its origins to a genre that clearly had something to do with Dionysos’ role as a fertility deity, as we may infer from its rather louche name (“phallic songs”).
Still, however far from its folksy holiday roots it may have strayed, Athenian drama in its heyday represented much more than an evening (or, more accurately, morning) of secular, private entertainment—the kind of experience we expect when we go to the theater. “Dionysos” was indeed present—nearly every extant work for the Athenian stage returns obsessively to the subject of religion—as were a host of other issues crucial to the city and its self-image. These matters were explored with a combination of intellectual subtlety and theatrical verve made possible by the genre’s natural affinity for the symbolic, abstract, and metaphorical over the naturalistic. Only in tragedy, where (for instance) women so often represent the domestic realm, and men the public, where a red carpet embodies a family’s bloody past, and a trial lawyer is an Olympian deity, could a family melodrama involving bad career decisions, spousal abandonment, child abuse, and retributive homicide become, as it does in the Oresteia, an allegory for the establishment of justice, of orderly civic life, of civilized culture.
The grand religious and civic ceremonials that framed the performances—the opening libations to Dêmokratia, democracy personified, the pa-rade of war orphans (and of allied tribute), the reading of the names of patriotic citizens, the sacrifices on behalf of the city, even the visible presence of fifteen thousand other citizens in the theater of Dionysos—underscored, in a fashion impossible to reproduce in today’s theater, the sense that the plays being performed had much larger social, civic, ritual, and political resonances.
“Nothing to do with Dionysos” would, on the other hand, be a fair assessment of most modern-day stagings of tragedy. Of the vast number of works composed for production at the annual Dionysiac festival in Athens—the three great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote nearly three hundred between them, and there were many more poets writing over a period of a couple of centuries, all of them together producing a total of perhaps a thousand works in the fifth century alone—only thirty-two survive. Of those thirty-two, contemporary productions of tragedy have favored those that seem to be …