The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Drama II.


By Professor Charles Burton Gulick

THE word "drama" is Greek, and means action—or, as the Greeks limited its use, action that goes on before our eyes. In this way they distinguished the product of the theater from the action of epic poetry and the action of history, both of which, as understood and written by the Greeks, had highly dramatic qualities.

Three centuries roughly coincide with the three periods of development into which the history of the Greek theater naturally falls. The sixth century B.C. is the time of preparation. The fifth witnessed the full flowering of Athenian genius. In the fourth the so-called New Comedy, largely inspired by the realism of Euripides, took shape in the comedy of manners, the portrayal of domestic life, and the foibles of society.


A superficial glance at any play contained in The Harvard Classics will at once reveal the prominence of the chorus. To understand this, as well as other features in the structure of a play, we must inquire into the origin of tragedy and comedy.

This inquiry, slight though it must be, is the more essential because it was the constructive genius of the Greeks that discovered and developed the drama as all countries and ages have since known it.

The drama is founded in religion. In the Greek consciousness it had its spring in the worship of Dionysus, who in one of his aspects was a god of the underworld, latest comer into the Greek Pantheon, whose religion had evoked much opposition, and whose story was full of suffering as well as triumph and joy. He represented the life-giving forces of nature; he was god of the vine and of wine, and at the vintage festival the country folk celebrated him in dance and song. They smeared their faces with wine lees and covered their bodies with goatskins, to imitate the goatlike attendants of the god, who were called satyrs. Thus their song, tragoedia, was the "song of the goats," tragoi, and many years elapsed before it became dignified. Toward the end of the seventh century B.C. the poet Arion of Corinth adapted this folksong to his own purposes and gave it, under the name of dithyramb, something like literary distinction. It was capable of great variety in form and matter, but maintained its characteristic pathos throughout. The chorus gave expression to cries of joy or ejaculations of pity and terror as the story of the god unfolded itself. A refrain, in which the same words were repeated, was a constant element.

The dithyramb remained purely lyric; but during the sixth century, we know not how or through what personality, it underwent a modification of profound importance. Some genius, perhaps Thespis, conceived the idea of impersonating the god or some hero connected with his myth, in the presence of his chorus of worshipers. He wore a mask and carried other properties appropriate to his nature, and with the leader of the chorus interchanged a dialogue which was interrupted from time to time by the comments of the chorus, accompanied by dancing and gestures.

Thespis, whose name has become familiar in all the literatures of Europe, was a native of Icaria, a village in Attica, at the foot of Mt. Pentelicus. The region, excavated by American explorers some years ago, is still known as Dionysos. It lies in a valley which leads to Marathon, and the scanty ruins, hidden among olive groves and vineyards, betray no sign that it is the birthplace of European drama. Thespis exhibited here during the latter half of the sixth century.

None of his works have survived. They were probably merely sketched, not written out, and still followed the method of improvisation which, Aristotle says, was in vogue in the early steps of the drama.


The fifth century begins with authentic names and shows more positive progress toward an imposing achievement. By this time the country festivals of Dionysus had been taken up by the city. As early as the middle of the sixth century the god had been brought in pomp to Athens, and a precinct was consecrated to him at the southeast slope of the Acropolis. Beside his temple the ground was smoothed and laid out in a great dancing circle—orchestra—with an altar in the center. The spectators, or theatron, were ranged on the slope of the Acropolis. Opposite at some distance from the circle, was the temple, and beyond that Mt. Hymettus made a distant background. There was no scenery except what nature had thus provided, but a convention soon arose whereby it was understood that an actor entering from the right of the spectators came from the city or the immediate vicinity, whereas one coming from the left came from some distant country.

The early composers of tragedy—for the author composed music, invented dance steps, and trained the chorus to sing—were content with one actor who by changing mask and costume in a neighboring booth (skênê) could take different rôles. The chorus leader was his interlocutor and bore the most difficult part, if we may judge from the plays of Æschylus. Among the earliest poets was Phrynichus, noted for his lofty patriotism, for the sweetness of his lyrics, for vigorous inventiveness—which dared on one occasion to employ a historical theme, "The Fall of Miletus"—and for the introduction of female rôles among those assigned to the actor. The progress, as Aristotle emphasizes, was slow and tentative, and it is clear that the audience did not willingly allow any wide departure from the limits imposed by the religious origin and occasion of the performance. More than once the conservative complaint, "This has nothing to do with Dionysus," would restrain an author from breaking too hurriedly with tradition, and the high purpose and seriousness of tragedy was due not so much to any latent germ at its beginning—for comedy had the same popular origin in the vintage festival—as to the serious intent and deep religious conviction of the poets of the time, whose minds were also impressed by the gravity of the coming conflict with Persia.


Æschylus was thirty-five years old when he fought at Marathon. Born at Eleusis, near the Greek sanctuary where the Mysteries of Demeter, Persephone, and Dionysus (here worshiped as Bacchus) were celebrated, his soul was charged with influences which affected his plays and explain why religious problems, like that of sin and the justice of God, are so prominent in his thought. Externally, the gorgeous vestments of the Eleusinian priests inspired him with the idea of perfecting the costume of his players; but it was his own genius which led him to take the step that entitles him to be called the Father of Tragedy. This was the introduction of a second actor, which made it possible to portray two contrasted characters, two sets of emotions or purposes, and to bring before the sympathizing chorus and spectators a conflict of ideals which, according to Hegel, is the essence of tragedy.

The dithyramb was a comparatively short piece; hence an early tragedy was short. When, as the constructive faculty increased, it became evident that a theme could not be worked out within the limits of a single play, the custom arose of treating it in a group of three plays, to which was added, in deference to the festival, a satyr play, wherein the chorus took the part of satyrs, as in the ancient time. Thus the great theme of the commission, transmission, and remission of sin has its beginning, middle, and end in the "Agamemnon," "The Libation-Bearers," and "The Furies,"[1] the only trilogy that is extant. Even this lacks the satyr play which once made the group a normal tetralogy. The "Prometheus Bound"[2] is obviously incomplete. We have lost the part of the trilogy in which the reconciliation between the rebellious Titan and his enemy, Zeus, was effected, and the justice of Zeus vindicated.

All the Greek plays contained in The Harvard Classics belong to the period of Athenian expansion following the successful fight against Persia. Poets, painters, sculptors, joined in celebrating the achievement of Greece, due mostly to Athens, in ridding Europe for centuries from the fear of Oriental despotism. Exploration and commerce brought new wealth into Attica, which now controlled the sea, and the outburst of lyric and dramatic genius has had no parallel except in England after the destruction of the Spanish Armada.


Sophocles,[3] the tragedian who represents the purest type of the classical Greek, was in his teens when the Battle of Salamis was won. Beautiful in person and clear sighted in intellect, he was the first to use the new Greek art in the theater. For he introduced scene painting. Heretofore even Æschylus had been content with only the altar in the orchestra and a few statues of gods on the outer edge away from the audience. Sophocles now erected a scene building, the front of which showed to the audience the facade of a temple or palace, pierced by a single door. The two side entrances were retained. Æschylus adopted the innovation readily, and thus we find the scenery of the "Agamemnon," simple as it is, far advanced from the earlier conditions. Sophocles also enlarged the chorus from twelve to fifteen singers, securing greater volume of tone and variety of motion and gesture. But from this time onward we note a steady diminution of the choral parts and the greater prominence of the actors, whose number Sophocles increased to three.


In Euripides we have the boldest innovator, both in the resources of dramaturgy and in the moral problems which he treats. Even he cannot break entirely with tradition, and it is a curious chance that the latest play of this great period, "The Bacchae,"[4] harks back to the theme of the earliest tragedies, the savage triumph of Dionysus over his persecutors. But the method of Euripides leads him to devices for which he was bitterly criticized. His characters are no longer gods, the motive power in his plots no longer divine. They are men and women, often moved by sordid and trivial causes, yet none the less pathetic. To Aristotle he is the most tragic of the three, and his appeal to sympathy is strong because his personages are human. The effects of tragedy, pity and terror, become more vivid because the sufferers are made of the same stuff as the audience. In plot he is less skillful than Sophocles at his best, and he sometimes has recourse to the deus ex machina to cut the complicated knot of his own tying. Yet even here the appearance of the god, as at the end of the "Hippolytus,"[5] is justified by its spectacular effect.

  1. For the complete trilogy see Harvard Classics, viii, 7ff.
  2. H. C., viii, 166ff.
  3. H. C., viii, 209.
  4. H. C., viii, 368.
  5. H. C., viii, 303.