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E - 23 : Greek Tragedy and Comedy (2)

The Greek Theatre in Taormina in Sicily - partially rebuilt by the Romans

A few blogs ago I wrote about Greek theaters and that only in ancient Greece theatrical performances were public events. Hence the permanent theatres with thousands of seats. Most of us know the Greek poets Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes who “invented” Greek tragedy and comedy. Invented is an incorrect word, though. The plays have roots in ceremonies for Dionysus, the God of wine, fruits, vegetation, fertility, religious ecstasy, festivities, and theatre. During these ceremonies goats were sacrificed and actors in hilarious masks recited religious songs, ancient poetry and danced. The plays had first just one actor and a chorus, then two actors and eventually three. Men played all the roles – including the females. By the 5th century, the standards and settings for Greek theatre were set and fixed.

Aeschylus, the "father" of Greek Tragedy (525 - 456 BC)

But rather than theoretically talking about Greek comedy and tragedy, I started reading Antigone from Sophocles (441 BC) and Lysistrata from Aristophanes (411 BC). Had not held these books in my hands for decades.

Sophocles, the author of Antigone (497 - 405 BC)

What surprised me most when reading Antigone was the universal theme of the play – the conflict between law and our ethics or expressed in other ways, “can it be wrong to obey the law?” In the field of finance, I saw this conflict more than once. Not every transaction that is legally permitted stands the test of our ethics. Another thing that surprised me in Antigone was the open display of human suffering – usually one if not two people die in a play, leaving the audience shocked and pondering what leads to this disastrous outcome.

The heroes in a play like Antigone are human beings, real people. Usually powerful but not perfect. Making mistakes and erring in judgment. Their bad decisions often lead to tragic results. Greek tragedy shows that we live in a flawed world. Our only compass is the principle that we should not do to others what we do not want to be done to ourselves. Greek tragedy was played in the same locations where public life and debate took place. It was part of Greek everyday life and made people aware of the ethics and moral beliefs we need to run our own life. It was more than just entertainment. Tragedy was Greece’s deep reflection of what it takes to hold civilization together and at peace. During the play’s inter-sessions, the chorus provided context to the audience and explained the play.

Antigone making her case to her uncle, King Creon, for the burial of her killed brother

A quick summary of Antigone illustrates my points. Antigone, a princess of Thebes, had two brothers Eteocles and Polynices who agreed to alternate every year as kings when their father Oedipus died. However, after one year, Eteocles refuses to step aside. Polynices gets help from other towns but the forces marching on Thebes are defeated. Eteocles and Polynices die in a duel during battle. Creon, their uncle, becomes the new king. He orders Eteocles to be buried with honors. The body of Polynices, the rebel, however, shall rot on the battlefield. But his sister Antigone buries him secretly at night. Creon condemns her to be immured. His son Haemon who was supposed to marry her follows. He finds Antigone dead – she already hung herself. Haemon then commits suicide with his dagger. On this news, his mother Queen Eurydice cuts her throat. King Creon is bereft and alone and wonders whether his stubbornness has caused this suffering and whether it was worth it.

Below a link to an English translation of Antigone – read it – takes half a day - totally worth it:

Greek comedy is a different matter and a further development, starting about 30 years later. Played during the festival of Dionysus in spring, with the sailing season starting, comedies were full of slap-stick humor and sexual inuendo. Rude and foul language were often part of them. No current or past politician was saved from mockery. There was not too much respect for authority. The festival was actually an annual competition between three plays, all sponsored by wealthy Athenian citizens. There was no price money. The winner’s name – picked by a special jury - got engraved into the theatre’s walls for eternity.

Aristophanes, the author of Lysistrata (446 - 386 BC)

Comedies are fun to watch. Like tragedies comedies were inspired by Greek philosophy and history. Comedy though put everything into the context of contemporary Athens. To stay save, the comedy writers cloaked their message in wild and hilarious schemes, egregious costumes and exuberant decorations that most people would not take them seriously. But serious and political they were.

Lysistrata is a perfect example. It was shown in Athens during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431 – 404 BC) and reflected the war weariness of the Athenians and their unhappiness with their leaders. Under the outspoken and brave Athenian Lysistrata, women from all over Greece decide to abstain from sex until their men agree on peace. The women complain they had to bear the burden of war twice: not only are their sons and husband killed on the battlefields, but they are also permanently alone during these campaigns missing out on life.

Scene of Lysistrata with one of the old men on a contemporary Greek Vase

To underline their seriousness, the women occupy the Acropolis which served not only as Athens’ religious centre but also its treasury. Athens’ elder men try to retake the Acropolis by force. After many insulting and lude dialogues, in which the women argue men do not take them seriously and are full of their own B/S, the elder men get doused and beaten back. Eventually, the lack of sex makes all men surrender. Exactly at this point a messenger from Sparta arrives. The exchange of ambassadors is agreed and Lysistrata dictates the terms of peace. The war ends - women call of their sex strike. The comedy ends in harmony.

Again, here is a link to the full play as pdf – it is lots of fun to read - takes 1/2 day:

What is striking about Lysistrata is how honest and open the play is about the Athens’ problems during the Peloponnesian Wars. As a democracy, citizens of Athens could question and debate the purpose and human cost of the war. Tragedy and comedy were thus deeply embedded in Greek society. In a way, tragedy and comedy are the siblings to medicine, science, philosophy, democracy and citizen armies which we inherited from Greek culture. It is thus no surprise that these plays written 2’500 years ago are still relevant.

The Roman Odeon in Athens which was only used for musical entertainment

Sadly, during Roman time, the deeper meaning of Greek theatre was lost. The emperor tolerated no public debate and comedy degenerated to pure entertainment. In my view it is no coincidence that only a few Roman plays survived. They have no deeper meaning.

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