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A university arts lecture on Greek drama

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Listen to part of a university arts lecture on Greek drama.

Professor: This morning I'd like to look briefly at Classical Greek drama, because its influence has lasted for over two thousand years, and it remains the source, the origin, for much of the form and style of our modern Western stage and film dramas.

Classical Greek drama, at its height of achievement in Athens- during what is called the "Golden Age of Pericles"- in the fifth century BC, was very formal, very stylized. It used scenery very sparely, and with its masks and buskins, it might remind you of Japanese Noh or maybe The Lion King.

Student: Excuse me, professor, but what are buskins?

Professor: Oh. Uh, buskins are very high-soled boots- almost like short stilts- that were worn to increase the actor's height, his presence, and make him look more impressive. The main characters wore them.

Anyway, although the Greek drama as we know it is very formal, it actually developed from rather wild and woolly religious celebrations and rites in honour of Dionysus, who was an agricultural, a harvest, god, the god of grapes and wine. Ancient grape harvests and wine-making naturally led to celebrations or festivals of plenty- a lot of eating and drinking, dancing and singing- as well as rituals to thank Dionysus for his bounty. In Greek mythology, Dionysus was surrounded by frolicsome wenches and lusty satyrs- a satyr is a sort of rustic half-goat and half-man, like Pan- and in fact, the Greek "odi tragon", meaning "goat song"- the drunken singing of the satyrs in praise of Dionysus- is the origin of our word "tragedy".

Tragedy and comedy were both a part of the more mature cultural festivals that evolved from these revelries and goat songs, but the tragedies in particular- like those by Athens' three immortal playrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides- became the centerpieces of the later Dionysia, the Dionysian Festivals of Periclean Athens. For this three-day festival, three playwrights were chosen to write and produce three tragedies- oh, and plus a short comic interlude called a satyr play- apiece. Then each author would have his four plays performed on a single day of the festival. The themes, the stories, of the three tragedies were often interrelated, like the Oresteia of Aeschylus, and we refer to these sets of plays as a "trilogy"- though only the Oresteia still exists in its entirety.

These tragic dramas were quite sophisticated in concept, but they were still not very "dramatic" as we think of that word. They had, at the very most, only three speaking roles. Much of their presentation was narrative that was sung or recited by one or more choruses- groups of men who spoke together as one voice or antiphonally (that is, reciting back and forth in alternation). The chorus would add background information, it would comment on or explain what was going on, or it would foretell future events in the story. So we would probably find these performances very stilted, not very exciting, and certainly unrealistic by modern standards. Since all the story lines came from Greek legends and myths, they were already well known to their audiences, and these performances continued to serve a religious function, as a reconfirmation of traditional beliefs, and as a force for social cohesion, social unity.

The origin of this drama is again obvious from the way it was staged. The playing area, the stage that the actors performed on, was not much more than a glorified altar. At first, it was just a raised platform with a simple architectural facade behind it. As the art developed, entrance ways and exit ways were gradually added, and then scenery like "periaktoi"- moveable screens-, cranes for introducing the "deus ex machina", and wheeled platforms appeared. So that eventually the stages began to look more like our own modern proscenium stages.

The theatres were large- great semicircular amphitheatres that could seat the whole community. The theatre at Epidauros could hold 14,000 spectators. With three tragedies and a satyr play to sit through, it was a rather drawn-out affair- in fact, the show ran from dawn to dusk. The whole neighborhood came out to worship and be entertained and socialize, so we can well imagine a lot of chatting and picnicking going on while the plays were being performed. There may even have been snack vendors walking the aisles!

These performances were actually competitions, with prizes awarded to the playwright whose drama earned the greatest applause from the crowds. The name of the winner of the first competition- in 534 BC- is actually known. His name was Thespis, which is where we get the word "thespian" for someone who is a serious actor. And the "choregos", the financier who bankrolled the winning play, was permitted to erect a "choregic monument" commemorating his achievement. Several of these monuments still exist. One of them, which was erected by Nikias in 392 BC, is now a part of the Beule Gate, a Roman gate built in 267 AD by recycling various older structures. It's the entrance to the Acropolis.


What best describes the nature of this lecture?


To which entertainment does the lecturer NOT relate Greek drama?


The lecturer uses the theatre at Epidauros as an example of what?


Which is NOT a characteristic of classic Greek drama?


Why does the lecturer mention the Oresteia?


What does the word "thespian" mean?


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