Saturday, 11 June 2011

Greek Drama and a Comparison of Tragedy and Comedy

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There are many theories about the origins of theater; the common element in most theories is the role that primitive ritual played in the development of drama. Primitive societies, which did not have written languages, used ritual enactment to show their understanding of the human condition and of the world around them. Ritual was also a way of communicating this knowledge to others. Furthermore, it was believed that ritual could be used to influence or control natural phenomenon such as rainfall, the growth of crops, and recovery from disease. Ritual had a religious purpose in society, as it was used to glorify supernatural powers and to invoke these powers to act on behalf of the society. In addition rituals were a from of entertainment because of the spectacle of the performance and the skill of the performers.

Over the centuries, as humanities confidence in its own skill and power increased and less reliance was placed on supernatural powers, theater as a non- religious activity emerged. Ritual still served its religious function, but theater fulfilled humanity’s need to entertain, enlighten and communicate.

There is much evidence to suggest that Greek mythology was strongly influenced by earlier Egyptian mythology. But, while Egyptian theater never evolved beyond ritual performance where the same ceremonies were repeated for yearly for centuries, Greek performance evolved from ritual to a highly sophisticated theatrical from. Greek theater was the foundation of all western theater.

One of the earliest Greek rituals paid honor to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility. The form, which the ritual took, was called a dithyramb, a hymn that was both sung and danced by a chorus. The chorus leader sang an improvised story and the chorus sang a refrain. Gradually other stories were added to the dithyramb. For example, stories about Greek heroes, good and bad, and their wars, feuds, marriages and the destinies of their children were always popular. During the ritual of the dithyramb, a goat, the animal sacred to Dionysus, was sacrificed, and the chorus members wore costumes made of goatskin.

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Theater emerged when Thespis spoke independently of the chorus and assumed the role of the god or hero of the story. Thespis engaged in dialogue with the chorus and is regarded as the first actor. While these innovations in performance were taking place, the acting area itself was also undergoing change. The stage was raised above ground level, and it was separated from the audience. Public interest in performances increased and writers emerged to organize the structure of the original improvised stories. Greek playwrights all their work on Greek myths or history and plays remain today of the three major writers, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Each of their plays had a similar structure, because Greek playwrights developed the concept of the unity of place, time, and action, sometimes known as the “ three unities.” This meant that the play occurred on a single setting, that time was continuous and that the action preceded without interruption towards the conclusion. As Greek drama flourished, each major writer added innovations. Aeschylus introduced a second actor, the “ antagonist” to counter the “protagonist.” Later, Sophocles added a third character. Euripides developed more realistic characters and dialogue.

In his Poetics (0 B.C.), the Greek philosopher Aristotle examined and defined the major dramatic style that plays were written in at this time. The mode is called tragedy, which literally means “ goat song.” According to Aristotle, the six elements of tragedy are plot, character, thought, diction, song and spectacle. Aristotle defined tragedy as “ the imitation of an action that is serious,” and noted that the protagonist often suffered because of a tragic flaw that led to a downfall as he or she struggled with moral or ethical problems.

But tragedy was not the only theatrical form developing at this time. Comedy was also a major force in Greek theater, and was presented in the drama festivals to balance the seriousness of the tragedies. Comedy generally involved satirizing domestic situations and making fun of myths. It also commented on contemporary society, politics and literature. Comedy began with making fun of burlesquing the seriousness of rituals. It has been suggested that comedy was the dramatic form, which enabled theater to emerge from ritualg. Humans have always wanted and needed to laugh and comic plays were one of the earliest expressions of that need. Theatrical comedy arose in Greece with such plays as The Birds, by Aristophans. In the early Middle Ages, comic mimes took place even when there was no other theatrical activity.

Humanity has a basic need to release emotions and the creation of theater was an evolution of this basic need. Greeks turned basic rituals into a from of entertainment and then expanded this into separate areas of performance- tragedy and comedy.

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