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Greek tragedy derived from the choral lyric sung at annual Dionysian festivals which evolved into dramatic competitions. These festivals date back to at least 1200 BC. In Athens, the Small Dionysia, held in December, included the production of old, familiar plays; the Lenea, held in January, and the Anthesteria, held in February, sometimes saw preliminary dramatic competition; the Great Dionysia, in March, saw the presentation of new plays in competition. Only three playwrights were allowed to compete in the Great Dionysia, with each playwright submitting a tetralogy (a dramatic cycle made up of three tragedies and one satyric drama). Most plots came from myths and legends.
Thespis of Attica, from whose name is derived the word thespian (actor), devised the technique of having a single actor in interaction with the chorus (which at this time, around 534 BC, consisted of 50 men), thus transforming choral odes into dramatic dialogues. Thespis also invented the traveling theatrical company when he toured the Greek countryside with a group of actors.
Aeschylus added a second actor, props, and scenery, and reduced the chorus to 12 men. His play Persians (472 BC) is the earliest written play in existence; The Oresteia Trilogy, which tells the story of Agamemnon's betrayal by Clytemnestra, is his masterpiece.
Sophocles (496-406 BC) added a third actor and three members to the chorus (bringing it to 15 men) and developed a theme of man resisting fate. Sophocles was reigning champion of the dramatic competitions, tallying 20 victories.
Indoor theatres, called odeia, were used primarily for musical
Outdoor, open-air, theatres had a specific design.
1. The seating section, called the auditorium, or theatron, or koilon, was divided into an upper and lower diazoma.
2. The orchestra was the pit in front of the seats and contained the thymele, or Dionysian altar, which later became the place where the leader of the chorus stood. The orchestra originally was where the acting took place.
3. The proscenium was directly in front of the orchestra and became the stage for action when individual actors were juxtaposed with the chorus.
4. Behind the proscenium was a building called the skene, which served not only as a background for the action being presented on the proscenium, but also as a sort of "greenroom" for the actors. The skene also contained various machines used during performances, including the deus ex machina, or crane-like apparatus for lowering "gods" on stage, and the eccyclema, or wheeled platform on which bodies of dead characters were presented.
5. Flanking the stage area were the paradoi, or entrances from which the chorus, and later other characters, entered. The right parados indicated the character was entering from the city or harbor area, and the left parados indicated the character was entering from the fields or abroad.
The rules of drama were codified by Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his Poetics. He stated that the aim of tragedy was to produce a catharsis, or purging of pity and fear, and identified the six elements of tragedy:
Plot - must observe the unities of time, place, and character
The principle parts of Greek tragedy are: prologue (opening scene, provides background); parodos (entrance of the chorus); episodes (acts or scenes); stasimons or komos (choral odes at the ends of episodes); and exodus (final act after the last stasimon).
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