A Text Seldomly Comes Alone: Why the Timeless Qualities of Athenian Drama are Not Enough.

Should we analyze Athenian plays as responses to the world around, or should we pay more attention to their “timeless” qualities? In this post I argue that we should look primarily at ancient drama as response to the world around. Awareness of contemporary Athenian history can greatly deepen our understanding of drama since it is not only specifically reflected upon in plays, but hidden within each word. A grasp of Greek society can therefore make the meaning of theatre much less opaque which this essay will attempt to show in respect to freedom of speech, religion, reception and the radically different Greek mind.

Freedom of Speech

Hellenistic theories about from whence the right of Classical authors to abuse evil persons in comedy or tragedy comes from, tell that evil would be embarrassed and would hence stop its evil ways. More modern theories claim that this license for the comic arose from the carnival-like setting of the dionysia. However, It would be more fitting to say that playwrights sought opportunities to speak out freely at their own ristk whenever the current interests of oligarchs and democrats so allowed. Evidence for this constraint may be the ca 430BC Constitution of Athens (Aristotle: Constitution of Athens 2.18), which states that it is not allowed to ridicule the masses or the people of the Athenian political state as a whole, but very well individuals. This draws a blurred line between what can and cannot be submitted by writers.

In the trial against Aristophanes for his comedy Babylonians (Aristophanes: Acharnians 378) initiated by Cleon, he is being charged for insulting the people in front of foreigners at the Dionysia with his satiric comments on the state of the polis and Athenian imperialism. (Acharnians 496-519). Another surviving trial against tragedy writer Phrynichus for his play on the recapture of Miletus by the Persians 494BC (Herodotus 6.21) protests against telling how Athens gave and then withdrew aid to the revolt at Miletus, which were highly controversial happenings in Athens. There is also further evidence for an attempt to introduce censorship legislation by Cleon and Syrakosios with a ban to ridicule people by name, though it is questionable whether this is reliable. Alas, authors may have altered names to indirectly indicate who and what they were ridiculing and critiquing (Csapo, 2005).

All these hidden messages are completely opaque to us. The substance of a play may be completely unknown or any current interpretation overthrown by new evidence, which is why it is imperative to be aware of the political climate during which any play was written. Perhaps as a result of these changing climates, ancient writers displayed such an “intense interest in the limits and possibilities of language” (Guthrie, 1981). Knox notices that a great many legal and philosophical terms are for instance being incorporated into oedipus tyrannus, like zetema, skopein, historein, tekmairesthai, gignoskein, manthanein, or  didasko, which were all words used in 5th century as appropriate to the contemporary “process of intellectual humanist enquiry” (Knox 1957:  116ff); which makes them particularly susceptible to wrong interpretation. In essence, the obscurity of what writers were able to write and how generalist terms were used makes it extremely difficult to see where a reflection on a contemporary event exists and even if it is specifically pointed out, how bent the view of the author is. Hence only if the secondary, philosophical or political meanings of words are known can we make a qualitative judgement about the meaning of a play.

Past-Fictionalisation and Religion

Furthermore, these pieces of theatre were not “history with the boring parts taken out”, since they are not only unable to reflect on Athenian society, nor do they necessarily attempt to do so. (Pomeroy : 9) Playwrights were not historians and did not write what they saw or thought but rather fictional portrayals of Myths that usually take plays in other cities like Thebes (Goldhill 1986: 114). Tragedies become fictionalisations of the Athenian’s own past. An extreme modern example of that kind of story-telling would be the movie Inglorious Bastards, which we would not advise future historians to take too seriously when writing 2010’s history. By the same token Athenian dramas are set in different times at different places and in order to illustrate that authors must use styles that specifically indicate to the Ancient audience that they are far away. The modern inability to separate these from the parts of the play that can be informed by contemporary history makes this very problematic.

To add even another dimension one ought to look not just at historical fact, dates and descriptions but also  the discussion of themes such as sexuality, motherhood or piety. “The disease [disbelief] is a constant, not however the number of the infected” (Fragmenta Hesiodae 275) Even Plato who was famous for his conservatism and piety concedes that since minoic times atheism, superstition and belief in Gods that never intervene coexisted in Greece (Plato: Laws 888c). As a result, Asitophanes has no hesitation in Frogs to let Dionysos urinate himself. Also Euripides and Sophocles took their dramatic power from the fact that no consensus existed in the Ancient audience on religious issues. In fact, for many Athenians a relationship between us and Hollywood would come close to theirs and the Gods, which makes it very difficult to see where Athenian mythology and religious history have been used as serious attempts at religious discourse or amusement.

Furthermore, Gilbert Murray theorises that the origins of Greek tragedy lie in some sort of ritualistic trance or sacer ludus that may have come from the worship of Dionysos and was later incorporated into the dionysia. It is entirely possible that the Greeks saw Dionysos as eniautos daimon who serves to promote fertility of the polis’ own land (Murray 1912: 341). Again, if so then any modern interpretation of drama would have to be adapted to the Greek view of what the purpose of theatre is.

Furthermore in a polytheistic society divine intervention is not always as clear an indicator for divine support. Let us consider Medea for instance, who in some interpretations has divine support in her female struggle against Jason, or Antigone against Creon and earthly injustice in general. Generally it can be said that the protagonists in both tragedies at least received some verbal divine recognition. It is not however possible to ascertain whether they had the support of the Gods. As mentioned before that would also not be necessary for the authors since their intent is not to condemn adultery in Medea, but rather to let the audience participate in a discussion that takes place between different legal notions.

The mentioned law by Creon to not burry enemies of the polis was actually deeply intrenched in the Greek legal system. Pious citizens like Plato supported the view that adversaries should even be dragged over the border for them to rot there (Plato: Laws 909). The wrong interpretation that the Gods or religion supports a specific set of rituals and that characters fight against the divine can only be uncovered if we are aware of contemporary legal texts. Just as in Hollywood the ancient audience is invited to question whether the rights of a barbarian really are less enough to justify divorce or whether national borders weigh more heavily than those to the Hades.

The Greek Actor’s Mind

The Pronomos vase, Satyr actors preparing, about 400 BC

The greek perception of the ‘self’ was utterly different from ours. The modern divide between body and soul has its origins in Plato’s Republic, but At the time of Frogs, Oedipus Tyrannus, the Bacchae or Medea this theory was not yet of significance and the Greek actor cannot have used this image of what a person is. The pre-socratic view onto what complements a person was the general consensus: The body was focused, but not ruled by a single I. In four basic centres, Aeschylus associates physical action with internal conditions (Wiles 2008: 155):

phrên – the thought, reason and logic of a person; equitable and judicious, but easily overtaken by other parts.

êpar – the deep, slow emotions.

kardia – an old form of the modern ‘heart’ representing many ‘daily’ emotions like joy or disappointment.

thumos – the temperament; erratic, quick and powerful emotions emerge form here.

These four parts of the person work together to direct the person. Depending on which of these is stronger than others, a character will be drawn towards a certain action. Medea has no choice, is predetermined to kill her children, as different parts of her personality take over. Today’s actors may try to convey Medea’s pain through facial expressions, while the ancient Greek actor under the mask would utilise his entire body to visualise the fight amongst these personality parts.

And I understand what evils I am about to do,

but my thymos is stronger than my bouleumata

[this thymos] which is the cause of the greatest evils for all mortals (Euripides: Medea 1078-80)

There is no I in Medea, just different pieces of personality that govern her. What the Pronomos vase illustrates is the bonding between the actor and the mask as well as between their different physical and mental body parts. A modern dramaturge or psychologist can therefore only empathise with Medea if she is informed by Athenian contemporary psychology.

False Humanist Interpretation and Originality

It is very tempting from a modern point of view to use our humanist values whilst interpreting Sophocles or Euripides. Today’s reader wants to see an emancipated Medea and unjust Jason. Indeed it was controversial to divorce a wife under such circumstances (Wiles 2008: 84), but Jason’s actions were relatively legitimate. After all, Medea is a barbarian (Euripides: Medea 530), behaves in an extremely rude manner when talking to the prince (Euripides: Medea 459-60 and others), and argues inconsistently (Euripides: Medea 344ff vs Medea 749,77-78). All this may have led audience to support Jason. Antigone, also, since she fights against the tyrant while following her heart, the humanist may arrive at a different conclusion than the Greek would have. Further research into this area would therefore much help modern literates.

It is conceivable that the ancient audience had a very specific view and story of Teiresias in their minds. Someone just had to say “Teiresias!” and anyone knew who was meant; but although there are written forms of the story of Teiresias, the Greeks did not have a sacred text like Koran or Bible where a relatively fixed version of the story can be found. Mythos was therefore always adapted and modified to serve an author’s purpose, which makes it very difficult to find originality in myth.

Jacques Derrida therefore suggests that we should reject originality as creative ideal, as myth is context-bound and dependent on the audience’s knowledge (Norris 1986: 32). If we accept that however, we can only look at timeless qualities of theatre though since any venture into originality would be misleading. Also, there are more practical obstacles to applying that concept since texts could have been altered over time. For Example, the internal inconsistency of Oedipus Tyrannus makes it likely that large parts towards the end are not original. (Csapo, 2005)

In conclusion, depending on who you are you ought to look at theatre in timeless or contemporary terms. Greek plots can expose deep psychological ideas that are relevant to this day and because of their setting in a polytheistic world are able to convey tragedies in a way that today’s art cannot (Foley 1999: 5); which is why a theatre practitioner must consider them form themselves so as not to limit the level of enjoyment we allow the laymen to have; but for the clear advantages to being informed by contemporary Athenian history and society mentioned in this essay, I must conclude that historians must look at drama as response to the world around.


The Pronomos vase, URL: [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/image?lookup=1993.01.0669] [accessed 09.08.2008]


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Awareness in Greek Theatre Essay (pdf)