Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION
Although originally stemming from the "Dionysia" or religious festivals dedicated to Dionysius, the God of Wine, Greek tragedy was solemn, poetic, and philosophic in tone. Plays such as the ones about Oedipus often told the tale of a central character/protagonist who was an admirable but, not necessarily, a perfect person. This individual was often confronted by hostile forces from both outside (the fates or gods) and within (individual free will, pride, etc.). The protagonist often had to make difficult moral/ethical choices in order to resolve these conflicts. If the protagonist's struggle ended in defeat or death, the play was labeled a tragedy. Most Greek tragedies were based on myths and, as Aristotle says, were "an imitation of an action" that was both serious and complete in itself.
Tragedies were marked by certain common elements. They consisted of a series of dramatic episodes linked by choral odes, chanted by an on-stage chorus of 12 -15 persons. This chorus often commented on the dramatic action or analyzed, in their own fashion, the pattern of events and the behavior of the central character/characters. They sang, danced, and recited the choral odes and lyrics to the accompaniment of such musical instruments as the lyre or flute (which Dionysus himself is known to have played). The main episodes were performed by, at the most, three actors who could appear simultaneously on stage. Men played both men and women's parts and the three central actors shared all the roles in a play. Masks were worn to depict the kind of characters they represented, such as an aging man or a young woman. The use of masks was a way to surrender or submerge one's own identity -- a principle basic to all Dionysian rituals.
For a clearer idea of how Greek tragedy works, one must refer to Aristotle's definitive comments given in his great critical treatise about Greek drama, entitled The Poetics (circa 335 B.C.). It deals with theories of Greek tragedy as seen in the finest plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These principles of classical Greek tragedy have influenced almost all the later tragic dramatists of the Western world. Though modern tragedy often deviates widely from the Greek classical norms, it still acknowledges the universality of Aristotle's fundamental concepts, especially his ability to pinpoint those elements in human nature that are, always and everywhere, responsible for tragedy in life.
Aristotle's View of Tragedy
In his Poetics, Aristotle claims that comedy shows man to be worse than what he is in real life. In tragedy, however, man is represented as better than he is in actual life. He defines tragedy as "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in a language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament . . . in the form of action, not narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, and has as its goal a catharsis of emotions. Thus, he identifies six major features of tragic drama: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Melody.
For Aristotle the most important part of tragedy is the Plot or Action, which is the structure of the incidents. Plot is the very life-blood of tragic drama. Without action, there can be no tragedy, though it is sometimes possible to have a tragedy without character. Any tragic drama must be long enough to depict a reversal, or a change from good fortune to bad in the central figure. It must be so constituted that all its parts combine to form a unified and organic whole.
Character is the second most significant feature; it gives tragedy its moral dimension. The central personage in tragedy must be morally good, of fitting heroic stature, true-to-life, and consistent in action. The change in the fortune of the central figure must be from good to bad, from prosperity and success to adversity and failure. This downfall is often the consequence of a fatal flaw in a character or an error in judgment, which in Greek is called "Hamartia". The failure of the tragic hero/heroine is also due to "hubris" or a false sense of pride in the character's own secure position.
The tragic dramatist must choose suitably heroic characters and place them in a well-constructed plot which aims at the imitation of such actions as will excite pity and fear in the audience. These twin emotions are the distinctive effects that tragedy aims to invoke. The downfall of a noble, well-renowned, prosperous, and basically good person naturally evokes pity "for his/her misfortune;" it also evokes terror or fear that such misfortunes can easily overtake any human. This leads to an effect of catharsis or purging of the very emotions of pity and terror evoked by tragedy. Because of this catharsis, tragedy has a psychological, as well as a social, dimension since it provides an outlet for undesirable emotions.
Aristotle also draws a distinction between simple and complex plots. He states that more profound tragedy ensues when the playwright skillfully manipulates the actions in a complex plot. Complex action achieves its greatest impact through surprises and astounding revelations. The two devices that give tremendous power to the plot are what the Greeks called "peripeteia" and "anagnorisis". Peripeteia is often wrongly translated as a "reversal of fortune". More correctly, it refers to a reversal of the situation, where the action turns towards a direction just the opposite of its original course. Anagnorisis refers to recognition of a person/situation. It is a change from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge, which produces hate among the characters and the final downfall of the central character. Such changes shown through "Peripeteia/Anagnorisis" must be within the limits of probability and produce the effect of dramatic irony.
Finally, the element of noble Thought gives to tragedy its proper intellectual point of reference. Diction is the playwright's choice of appropriate phraseology for effective communication or maximum effect. Melody and Spectacle are useful embellishments in a tragic play and can be quite entertaining for the audience, though sometimes these, especially the element of spectacle, constitute a distraction from the essence of drama. Aristotle's theories must not be interpreted as rigid rules since they were merely observations about contemporary Greek drama. Taken too literally, strict adherence to the Unities has often resulted in a stilted, artificial, and rigid drama which Aristotle would hardly have advocated.