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Theatre as a Religious Ceremony

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Nicole Jarrell

Intro to Theatre

Ms. Elizabeth Taheri

October 10, 2000

Theatre as a Religious Ceremony

"The drama in Greece was inextricably bound up with religious feeling and religious observance." (Cheney 33) The citizens of the Greek states were the first European communities to raise dramatic performances to the level of an art. Furthermore, the Greek playwrights still exercise a potent creative force, and many modern dramatists find strong relationships between these legendary themes and modern conditions. The Greek's religion is wholly responsible for the creation of all facets of early Greek theatre; whether it is the content of the plays, or the immense size of the theaters required to accommodate the attendance of the city's men.

Although much is speculated about the origins of early Greek theater, it may be stated that the "source of tragedy is to be found in choric dithyrambs sung in honor of the god Dionysus" (Nicoll 9). The performance took place in an open-air theater. The word tragedy is derived from the term "tragedia" or "goat-song", named for the goat skins the chorus wore in the performance. Originally these songs were improvised and rhapsodical as time passed by they were "poetized or rendered literary" (Nicoll 9). The word "chorus" meant "dance or "dancing ground", which was how dance evolved into the drama. Members of the chorus were characters in the play that commented on the action. They drew the audience into the play and reflected the audience's reactions. The change from freelance song to theatre was obtained at the hands of a Greek named Thespis. He turned what was originally a song leader, or priest, into an actor whose words were answered by a chanting chorus. Thespis also "changed the subject matter of theatre events, expanding them to deal not solely on stories of Dionysus" (Nicoll 9). In the sixth century B.C., drama had been born in Greece and with the introduction of a second actor and later a third, this art form was ready to mature at the hands of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

These festivals grew in size and complexity, especially in Athens, where the largest of these festivals were held and only the premier playwrights released their plays. These prestigious and elaborate plays were performed at dramatic festivals. The two main festivals were the Feast of the Winepress in January and the City Dionysia at the end of March. The Proceeding began with the procession of choruses and actors of the three competing poets. A herald then announced the poet's names and the titles of their plays. On this day it was likely that the image of Dionysus was "taken in a procession from his temple beside the theater to a point near the road he had once taken to reach Athens from the north, then it was brought back by torch light, amid a carnival celebration to the theater itself" (Lucas 315). This is where his priest occupied the central seat of honor during the performances.

"Regarded as community event, not commercial enterprises, responsibility was taken by state officials on behalf of the citizens and visitors from neighboring districts and states for the production of the plays" (Wickham 39). Hence, the production of these plays required a great deal of public thought and energy before the performance actually took the stage.

Surely farmers, traders, shopkeepers, hostelries and the manufacturers of souvenirs came to these events attempting to reap the benefits of such large number of consumers. This, however, is insignificant compared to the purpose of these events. Even in the fifth century B.C., purpose was rooted in the religious calendar of Attic Life (Wickham 39). Participation in the festival for authors, actors and spectators was regarded as a civic duty and only secondary as entertainment. However, this precedent eventually reversed. As a result these events were heavily subsidized without any attempt to cover all the cost with admission prices, which would change around the end of the fifth century. Even with admission charges free spaces were held open to those who were unable to meet the cost of better seats. (Wickham 39) Government and wealthy individuals had to agree on the appointment of choragus, a business manager, to supervise the production of the plays accepted into the contest. The actual production of these attracted all then town's male citizens, and few women. Still, the events and stories must have had a substantial impact on the thought and feelings of the community to create such a large attendance.

On the first day of the festival there were contests between the choruses, five of men and five of boys. Each chorus consisted of fifty men or boys. On the next three days, a "tragic tetralogy" (group made up of four pieces, a trilogy followed by a satiric drama) was performed each morning.

In order for theatre to have an effect on the people you must first bring the people to the event. The building of these great theatres must have, as stated previously, taken the effort of the entire community. There was a building at the back of the stage called a skene, which represented the front of a palace or temple. It contained a central doorway and two other stage entrances, one at the left and the other at the right, representing the country and the city. Sacrifices were performed at the altar of Dionysus, and the chorus performed in the orchestra, which surrounded the altar. The theatron, from where the word "theater" is derived, is where the audience sat, built on a hollowed-out hillside. Seated of honor, found in the front and center of the theatron, were for public officials and priests. "The seating capacity of the theater was about 17,000. The audience of about 14,000 was lively, noisy, emotional and unrestrained. They ate, applauded, cheered, hissed, and kicked their wooden seats in disgust" (Lucas 251). Small riots were known to break out if the audience was dissatisfied. Women were allowed to be spectators of tragedy, and probably even comedy.

Some theaters are still in use today, such as the theater at Epidaurus, while others are merely ruins, like the theatre of Dionysus in Athens. The theater was the largest structure in the cities and must have seemed very impressive to people from other cities that have not seen anything so large and majestic. It is not hard to see how the theater affected the people. Not counting war, it was responsible for the largest gathering of people known in Europe at this time.

The Attic dramatists, like the Elizabethans, had a public



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