How is the Greek tragedy described?

The Greek tragedy

Worship as debauchery

Every March in ancient Greece, the rules of decency are exposed for six days. Then there is celebration and dancing. Wild animals are eaten, wineskins emptied. Faithfulness and chastity are not taken seriously.

What sounds like Carnival are the Dionysia, the celebrations for the god Dionysus. God of wine, fertility, ecstasy - he has many ascriptions, but he always comes in the wake of goat-legged satyrs: wild demons with shaggy hair, goat tails and an impressive phallus.

In order to create the spectacle, showmen roam the country - for example Thespis with his proverbial cart. He is a guest in Athens in 534 BC. He's thinking of something very special for the discerning audience. There is always a choir with the Dionysia: the singers are disguised as satyrs and praise their god.

For the first time, Thespis contrasts the choir with an individual. What is actually a monological song of praise becomes a song with speech and counter-speech. And: the one who steps out of the crowd no longer wears an animal mask like the satyrs in the choir, but the mask of a person.

He steps before the divine powers, asks his fate questions, becomes aware of himself - the original constellation of Greek tragedy.

Tragedy as the entertainment machine

A little later, the first poets set about making literary capital out of this tension between the individual and the choir. From now on, the Dionysia is no longer just about cult - no, a very secular artistic understanding is at work.

Machines for thunder and lightning are built, masks with stylized facial expressions are painted. The actors never take them off - after all, the female tragedy characters must also be portrayed by men: women are prohibited from playing. However, they are allowed to watch.

Magnificent theaters will soon be built for the Dionysia. The best preserved is in Epidaurus: in the middle a circular square, the orchestra, which is bordered on one side by a mighty stage, the skene.

On the other sides, the spectator tiers grow into the sky. Even in the back row you can hear a coin falling to the ground in the middle of the orchestra.

Fear and Compassion - Aristotle on Tragedy

The viewer of the tragedy should feel fear (phobos) and pity (eleos), at least that is what the philosopher Aristoles said. In the end he was purified to go home, cleansed of his passions - "catharsis" is the term for it.

These categories are controversial to this day among writers and literary scholars. There is not even agreement on the translation: "shudder and misery" instead of "fear and pity", "lust" instead of "purification" - questions of faith that Lessing answered differently than Goethe.

For the enlightener Lessing, tragedy transforms people's passions into "virtuous skills" - the play is over, the viewer a better person.

All nonsense for the realist Goethe: "Katharsis" would only mean that the conflict had been resolved on stage: after all, every story needed a decent ending. It has nothing to do with the viewer.

Probably both of them are a little right. The Greek tragedy may come from the cult, but it is about religion and virtue as well as good entertainment.

At the end of the performance, undisciplined spectators are regularly punished for insulting actors or even storming the stage. The poets, in turn, have to face ten judges. Vying for the favor of the audience has always been part of the theater.

The big three: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides

Three tragedy poets are particularly successful with the audience: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. All of their important tragedies arise in the 5th century BC, the heyday of democratic Athens - and with each of them the tragedy moves a little more away from the gods and towards humans.

With Aeschylus, the fate of his heroes is still a fate that must be quietly tolerated - after all, it is usually a punishment for presumptuousness and arrogance. With Sophocles, on the other hand, tragic greatness consists more in the fact that one heroically affirms even the most innocent suffering - in a conscious decision.

Euripides, the youngest, is the psychologist in the triad of dramatists. His characters begin to question the divine laws. Are they really fate - or just a cruel coincidence?

His Medea, a mad, vengeance, kills her children in order to punish her husband Jason. At the end the choir steps in front of the audience and proclaims: The god Zeus knows a way even where man cannot understand. That seems like a mockery and is also meant to be.

The essence of tragedy

But what is it actually: the tragic? Almost more has been pondered about this than about Aristotle's doctrine of fear and pity. The collision of two values, both of which claim to be valid, is one answer - and woe to him who has to face this conflict.

Another well-known formula he becomes guiltlessly guilty of. He must necessarily perish in this conflict, because everything tragic is hopeless, according to a third declaration. Answers that fit together harmoniously to form an overall picture as soon as one looks at Sophocles' "Antigone", for example.

The tragedy takes place in the distant past, around 1230 BC, after the battle for Thebes. The brothers Eteocles and Polynices fell - one as a defender of Thebes, the other as a traitor. Antigone wants to bury her brother Polynices, the traitor.

But Creon, the new king, has forbidden that: he insists on the right of the state to leave the enemy unburied.

"I am there not to hate, to love," replies Antigone - she represents the rights of the gods of the dead, the family and the love of sisters. When she defies Creon, he takes Antigone prisoner. She hangs herself. In the end, Creon, on the verge of madness, laments his guilt.

But only apparently Creon is the only culprit. The law of the state is as valid in ancient Athens as that of the dead. So both values ​​are valid. However: Both Antigone and Creon only obey one of them, and that with stubborn exclusivity.

So they become guilty, although they are actually law-abiding and thus blameless - and maneuver themselves into a conflict that can only end in ruin.

The tragedy in the present

What remains of the ancient tragedy? Modernism has always struggled with the origins of theater from cult, with gods and fate. But what subjects, what drama!

A king, for example, who, without knowing it, kills his father and marries his mother - and pokes his eyes out when he finally sees through it ("King Oedipus" by Sophocles):

You have to come to that first. A lot of the tragedies that ancient times left us with are just great theater. And you will always want to see that.