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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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Page 8

The production of a Play


    The crowds are hushed and expectant. The herald, ere the play begins, proclaims the award of a golden crown to some civic benefactor: a moment of ineffable joy to the recipient; for when is a true Greek happier than when held up for public glorification? Then comes the summons to the first competing poet.

    "Lead on your chorus."[12] The intellectual feast of the Dionysia has begun.

    To analyze the Attic drama is the task of the philosopher and the literary expert. We observe only the superficialities. There are never more than three speaking actors before the audience at once. They wear huge masques, shaped to fit their parts. The wide mouthpieces make the trained elocution carry to the most remote parts of the theater. The actors wear long trailing robes and are mounted on high shoes to give them sufficient stature before the distant audience. When a new part is needed in the play, an actor retires to the booth, and soon comes forth with a changed masque and costume—an entirely new character. In such a costume and masque, play of feature and easy gesture is impossible; but the actors carry themselves with a stately dignity and recite their often ponderous lines with a grace which redeems them from all bombast. An essential part of the play is the chorus; indeed the chorus was once the main feature of the drama, the actors insignificant innovations. With fifteen members for the tragedy, twenty-four for the comedy,[13] old men of Thebes, Trojan dames, Athenian charcoal burners, as the case may demand—they sympathize with the hard-pressed hero, sing lusty choral odes, and occupy the time with song and dance while the actors are changing costume.

    The audience follows all the philosophic reasoning of the tragedies, the often subtle wit of the comedies, with that same shrewd alertness displayed at the jury courts of the Pnyx. "Authis! Authis!" (again! again!) is the frequent shout, if approving. Date stones and pebbles as well as hootings are the reward of silly lines or bad acting. At noon there is an interlude to snatch a hasty luncheon (perhaps without leaving one's seat). Only when the evening shadows are falling does the chorus of the last play approach the altar in the center of the orchestra for the final sacrifice. A whole round of tragedies have been given.[14] The five public judges announce their decision: an ivy wreath to the victorious poet; to his "choregus" (the rich man who has provided his chorus and who shares his glory) the right to set up a monumnet in honor of the victory. Home goes the multitude,—to quarrel over the result, to praise or blame the acting, to analyze the remarkable acuteness the poet's handling of religious, ethical, or social questions.

    The theater, like the dicasteries and the Pnyx, is one of the great public schools of Athens.


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