Greek drama

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Greek drama

Greek drama

In the fifth century B.c., at the end of Persian expansionism, Greek drama enjoyed a golden age. The stage offered a forum for public debate and a clearinghouse for doubts and unease among Athenian intellectuals concerning the future of their city-state. From its inception, Greek theater had its roots in the essentials of national pride. The festivals of Dionysus throughout the year were occasions for dramatic performances:

✵ The Lenaea, the winepress and winemixing festival, in late January, which included a religious procession and sacrifice along with plays, mainly comedy

✵ The Anthesteria, or “flower of the grape,” a three-day tasting festival of casks, beakers, and pots in late February and the first days of March, which comprised drinking libations to the gods, rejoicing, dressing in costumes, and honoring the dead

✵ The six- day City Dionysia, the winemaker's celebration, in April, which called for a display of weapons and phalluses, sacrifice of bulls, street revelry, and dramatic performances

✵ The Rural Dionysia, a festival of vine cultivation, in the last days of December, consisting of thanksgiving for bread and wine, dancing, and singing of dithyrambs (exultant poems or hymns)

For the audience's edification, mythic and historical plots and characters reaffirmed beliefs in the gods, the nuclear family, and the city-state.

Greek playwrights made the most of their dramatic tools. The immediacy of dialogue and the subtleties of irony, allusion, and SATIRE enabled writers to examine threats to the status quo and to criticize the efforts of dignitaries and the military to maintain order and security against rogue empire assaults. Authorities excused from military obligations all members of the actors' guild, who served Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, rather than Ares and Athena, the gods of war. As a gesture to soldiery, the Theater of Dionysus that Pericles rebuilt at Athens in 435 B.c. seated ephebi (18-year-old recruits) in a designated tier of rows behind the city officials and the Dionysiac priests.

The First Dramatist

Aeschylus (525-456 B.c.), a veteran of the battles of Marathon, Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea, became the first superstar playwright in Athens. The Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy (18631933) described Aeschylus as “a vivacious young man, mad about literature” (Cavafy 1992, 105). American mythographer Edith Hamilton called him the Western world's first dramatist and a writer with “soldier spirit” (Hamilton 1962, 173). Because of his basic decency and morality and his disdain for religious fanaticism, Aeschylus focused on humanistic questions. His only history play, Persae (Persians, 472 B.c.), the second of a tetralogy, draws on his eyewitness account of the Persian Wars (490 B.c. and 480-479 B.c.).

Aeschylus deliberately avoided turning stagecraft into a tool of the state. The lone extant Greek tragedy on a contemporary topic, Persae pictured international clashes from the perspective of the Persian leader Xerxes I (519-465 B.c.), Darius's son and the grandson of Cyrus the Great, all of whom HERODOTUS featured in his Histories (440 B.c.). Instead of gloating, Aeschylus extended pity to the vanquished by placing in the stage's center the tomb mound of Darius I (550-486 B.c.), who had led the Persians to defeat at the battle of Marathon five years before the play's action begins. An encomium to Cyrus interjects a common subject to imperial literature—the egotist's perception of assumed divine nepotism. According to the playwright, Cyrus overreached his potential by thinking himself “Heaven's favorite” for successfully merging the Medes and Persians into a single world power (Aeschylus 1991, 78). For balance, at the time the play was first staged, the performance featured the statesman Pericles, the playwright's benefactor, as choregos, or spokesman. Pericles led the chorus, the body of commentators who danced, gestured, chanted, and sang their interpretations and questions about each plot development.

Eschewing suspense in an age when everyone knew the results of the Persian Wars, the action of Persae depicts a character study of Xerxes' folly and embitterment. He returns home from the Greek victory at Salamis on September 29, 480 B.c., after a fleet of 1,200 Persian vessels attacked the Greeks' meager in-harbor armada of 310 ships. The king's hubris, a ruinous pride ungoverned by humility, had induced him to ignore omens and to commit to a war that generated “foundering awash dead men shrouded in sea-drowned cloaks” (53). The prominent speech of a combat messenger imparts to viewers its effects on distant Persian noncombatants, who rightfully fear for their nation, navy, and infantry.

Intertwined with military worries for the survival of young soldiers are the views of the overwrought dowager queen Atossa, Xerxes' 70-year- old mother. Because she is the daughter of Cyrus, and the widow of Darius for five years, she knows enough of war firsthand to fear for her son. The choregos honors her as “most blest among son- bearing women” (45), a salute to the homebound mothers who produced males for the Persian army. The chorus enhances the significance of female reactions to a faraway debacle that “so exceeds all bounds that one can neither tell, nor ask, about the suffering” (53). Rather than obsess over spears, shields, and cries of the fallen, the singers dread the sound of womanly mourning, which the playwright compares to “ripping falls on the fine-linen robes” (163), the first action of the female sorrower.

Aeschylus took an unusual tack in highlighting the remarks of a matriarch and a ghost. The queen of Persia knows too well Xerxes' penchant for risking disaster. Her queries about the nature of imperialism far from the motherland emphasize issues of drawn-out struggle and quests for power against nameless, helmeted alien warriors. Female commentary specifies the role of women as guardians of the hearth and upholders of religious piety and domestic sacrifice. Dutiful to her country, the queen reverences valiant male ancestry, even when it bereaves families.

The return of Darius's ghost from Hades recalls through early GOTHIC stagecraft his loss at Marathon, when the Greeks “crushed [his] huge and shining army” (51). The still-tender hurt from Marathon's combat toll prefigures the son's repeat of a fatal error and another round of postwar laments. The ghost charges his heir with “something so monstrous it twisted his good sense” (75). Like David's lamentation in the biblical books of Samuel over King Saul's death alongside his son Jonathan while fighting the Philistines at the battle of Gilboa in 1007 B.c., Aeschylus concludes the Persian loss with Xerxes' dirge. A flawed man, the king exalts Greek military might and blames himself for lack of foresight.

A Pacifist View

Aeschylus’s successor, the introspective pacifist Euripides (ca. 484-406 B.c.) of Salamis supplied the classical stage at Athens with a series of imperial vengeance plays centering on the Trojan War: Andromache (ca. 425 B.c.); Hecuba (ca. 424 B.c.); and The Trojan Women (415 B.c.), winner of a second prize at the City Dionysia festival. His plays are the most poignant and enduring of the era. While The Trojan Women specifically arouses a sympathy for the female and child sufferings that occurred on the island of Melos in 415 B.c., when Athenian soldiers slew males and sold women and children at auction, all three plays are landmarks of the golden age of Greek theater that dramatize the unavoidable GENOCIDE that accompanies one empire’s slaughter of another.

To prevent the emergence of a new generation of Trojan royalty, the triad begins, in Andromache, with a baby killing—Hector’s widow’s loss of the infant boy Astyanax and the enslavement of his mother, who becomes a Greek concubine. Myth increases the irony of female punishments for war by awarding Andromache as concubine to Neoptolemus, the savage son of Achilles who violates reverence for the gods by slaying the elderly King Priam on the altar and by murdering Queen Hecuba’s daughter, Polyxene. Contributing to the protagonist’s woes, Neoptolemus’s wife Hermione charges Andromache with witchery as a means of explaining Hermione’s barren womb and lack of sexual appeal. Perhaps because of his own two failed marriages, Euripides turns the dialogue into a verbal duel between Andromache and Hermione. He provides a subtext of insult to Sparta, the archenemy of Athens and homeland of Hermione.

Euripides’ second Trojan tragedy, Hecuba, reignites the attack on the concept of war by featuring the widowed Trojan queen and her sorrow at the death of Princess Polyxene and Prince Polydorus, who epitomize the suffering inflicted by imperial conquest. The subtext honors elderly women who outlive their children and must bathe and shroud their remains for burial. With the trilogy’s third part, The Trojan Women, the 65-year-old dramatist took a melodramatic look at the helplessness of noncombatants. They stand immobile as the citadel burns, Ajax drags the priestess Cassandra from the temple of Apollo, and Greek soldiers begin the lottery that will assign the women to sexual enslavement. After the departure of Andromache, Hecuba is left with the task of burying her grandson Astyanax, whose tiny corpse returns to the stage on his father’s shield, a symbol of thwarted manhood and service denied the little prince. A 1971 film version starred Genevieve Bujold as Cassandra, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, and Katharine Hepburn as Queen Hecuba.

A Great Comedy Writer

To warn the nation of hubristic imperialism, Aristophanes (ca. 450-385 B.c.), Attica’s audacious funny man, chose another route. Born during the Periclean age, he witnessed the moral decline of Athens’s youth under increasingly rapacious demagoguery by the war party. To register his discontent at imperialism and the arms race against Sparta, he employed the aphorism “Laughter tells the truth.” Although laws passed in 440 B.c. forbade the lampooning of public officials, he wrote gleeful satires for the Greek stage during a period rife with the buffoonery and greed of society’s upper echelons. The playwright, whose plays are the only surviving examples of Greek Old Comedy, took on the worst of public parasites one by one. At the City Dionysia festival in April 426 B.c., he presented Babylonioi (The Babylonians, now lost), which leaders of the Athenian empire attended. The first scene opened on slaves at a mill, symbolic of cities yoked under Athenian oppression. The play portrayed Cleon (d. 422 B.c.), an Athenian statesman and strategos (general) as a demagogue. Cleon took offense and attacked Aristophanes in the senate, then charged him with treason for demeaning Athens before strangers attending the performance, a capital offense.

Aristophanes mined events of the late fifth century for anecdotes and lewd gags that he used in his plays to alert Attica to contemporary corruption. He specialized in mocking egregious political climbers, whose reckless attitudes took the Greeks to the brink of catastrophe. He satirized elements of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta (431-404 B.c.) in The Acharneis (The Acharnians, 425 B.c.), which earned him a first place at the Lenaea festival. The action portrays a cynical Megarian (citizen of Megara, a small city near Athens) so down on his luck that he must sell his daughters to survive wartime famine. The allegory features Dicaeopolis (Just Citizen), a veteran wearied by combat and impoverished by the ravaging of his crops. He despises men like the hawkish Cleon, who sees the war as a chance to exterminate Sparta as a business competitor. The text threatens to hack Cleon into army boot soles and extols Dicaeopolis as a free agent brokering a citizen's truce and as a true Athenian for fermenting a wine called Peace. The playwright himself staged the performance, which concluded with 30 prostitutes dancing in honor of a 30-year cease-fire.

War and Wisecracks

In the comedy Hippeis (The Knights, 424 B.c.), a transparent allegory performed at the Lenaea festival in the seventh year of Athens's lengthy war with Sparta, Aristophanes revenged himself by mocking Cleon onstage. The Knights repackaged Cleon as the slave Paphlagonian (the tanner), a hanger- on eager to engage with ambassadors carrying fat purses. The dramatist ventures to say of his target, “a greater swine of a stool-pigeon never walked this earth” with “a voice like an overloaded sewer” (Aristophanes 1978, 30, 33). The comic masterwork failed to derail Cleon's political strivings and jury rigging, but it did preserve a sharp-edged sally picturing Nicias, Athens's senior general, as a sausage seller in verbal duel with Cleon. The play maligns Cleon for embezzlement by picturing a huge cake in his locker with only a sliver removed for the people.

Depicting greed at the public trough, The Knights anticipates that the higher-ups “intend to slurp down all the national gravy” (42). Aristophanes foresees that the tanner, the worst of bloodsuckers, will die in his own polluted brine, a slough of corruption symbolizing Athens's political miasma. To lessen the chance of being punished, the comedy writer himself played Cleon in a bloated portrait mask stained with wine. In a more serious vein, the historiographer THUCYDIDES took Cleon to task for venality in The History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 400 B.c.), a scholarly study of imperialism during Athens's cultural acme.

Aristophanes took offense at civil conflict requiring Attic Greeks to kill Corinthian, Megarian, and Spartan Greeks. For the City Dionysia festival in April 421 B.c., he based his topical play Eirene (Peace) on the Athenian hope of a half-century accord with Sparta. The text demonizes arms dealers, fraudulent prophets, and the deceased officials Cleon and his enemy, Spartan general Brasidas, for seeking personal advancement at any cost. At a tenuous moment in the peace plan, Aristophanes grouses, “Desire to attain the rank of regimental commander shall begrudge, O holy Lady of Peace, thy return to the light” (105). To enable vintner Trygaeus to fly to heaven on a dung-beetle to rescue the title character, Aristophanes assembled a stage crane to lift the actor to the skene (backdrop) roof. In the play, country folk, the people most demoralized by warring, welcome peace with traditional fun. In the grand celebration, the plot toys with the connection between war's end and sex by describing a woman's fragrance as “the true scent of demobilization” (112), the introit to partying, drinking, and romancing, the normal forms of gaiety.

Women and War

In the 20th year of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens suffered a massive defeat against Sparta in Sicily, Aristophanes presented Lysistrata (411 B.c.), a play epitomizing his zest and the exuberance of Old Comedy. To relieve the despair caused by the empire's carnage, he created a ribald send-up on sex-deprived Athenian and Spartan husbands during intense truce negotiations. Filled with sight gags based on flirtations, coital boycotts, and the resultant priapism (persistent and painful erection), the play depicts a women's sex strike as an antidote to “soldiers in every grocery and potter shop, clanking around armed to the teeth” (Aristophanes 2007, 36). Through truth-telling obscenities and dialogue, the text weaves together the varied meanings of phallic imagery—as a symbol of fecundity and prosperity, as a salute to the human libido, and as a comic reminder of the weaponry, ambassadorial rod of office, and belligerence that forced Attica (the region of southern Greece and Athens) to the edge of extinction.

Lysistrata survives as the most controversial and most revived drama from the fifth century B.c. At a time when young men depart for battlefields in Pylos on the Peloponnese and the mountains of Thrace in northeastern Greece, leaving women untended and sexually unsatisfied, Athenian, Boeotian, Corinthian, Spartan, and Theban matrons dress in men's tunics and band into a pacifist political action group. The harried title figure, whose name translates as “disbander of armies,” represents the feminist yearning for stability and amity. By collaborating with women from Boeotia and the Peloponnesus, she voices women's universal loathing of combat as a threat to the social order and the welfare of its children, whom governments encourage females to produce as fodder for war. Lampito, a Spartan woman, echoes the complaint with her own concern over multiple military rotations: “There's no discharge in this war” (15).

The humor of Lysistrata lies in the subversion of macho posturing by aggressive females who refuse to be silenced. Lysistrata musters her forces, taking them away from daily tasks of laundry, food work, and babysitting; in the voice of wise womanhood, she proclaims, “There are other things far far more important” (11). Lampito, her Spartan parallel, backs up a plan of total celibacy, but not without making a few gibes about Attic democracy being mob rule. The tit-for-tat implies that both sexes perpetuate the competition that sets one city-state against another. In the course of opposition from their husbands, Lysistrata's “market militia” (30) becomes a phalanx of swashbucklers. To promote solidarity, one amazon exhorts, “Sting them, Sisters, goad them into submission. You're in full sail” (35). Lysistrata seizes female momentum to create a paradigm of peacemaking based on the spindling of wool: “The colonies are loose threads; pick up the ends and gather them in. Wind them all into one” (37). Rather than debate her plan, the men reject orders from women as petticoat tyranny.

For battle preparations, the playwright arms the female half of the choruses with full mop buckets and dresses his heroines in filmy nightdresses. Scented with come-hither perfumes, the women swear an oath by Aphrodite and sacrifice a wineskin rather than an animal. They take drinks from the punch bowl before the two female battalions face the enemy. Their tactics include the seizure of the citadel at the Acropolis and stopping the siphoning of funds from Athens's treasury to arms traders. During a confrontation with the city magistrate and a Scythian military squad, Lysistrata outrages vain males by proposing that women manage the public purse. The men's leader makes the cliched plaint that men cannot live with women or without them, a bromide that strikes home with both Athenian and Spartan warriors. Only after both women and men begin to long for sexual reunion—painfully so in the men's cases—do the warring parties reach a peace accord, allowing the opposing armies and their wives to go home.

A realist and believer in forgiveness and compromise, Aristophanes depicted the restoration of social order through sociopolitical and conjugal reconciliation. The universality of Lysistrata's themes resulted in its adaptation as rock opera and stage sex comedy, in addition to inspiring illustrations by the English artist Aubrey Beardsley. In the 1960s, first-wave American feminists embraced the bawdy dialogue for championing pacifism and full citizenship for women.


Aeschylus. Persians. Translated by Janet Lembke and C. John Herington. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Aristophanes. The Knights/Peace/The Birds/The Assemblywomen/Wealth. Translated by Alan H. Sommerstein and David Barrett. New York: Penguin, 1978.

----- . Lysistrata. Translated by Nicholas Rudall. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007.

Cavafy, Constantine. Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Forrest, W. G. “Aristophanes Lysistrata 231.” Classical Quarterly 45, no. 1 (January-June 1995): 240-241.

Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. New York: Mentor Books, 1962.