Tragedy as Social Rite at Athens

Public performance at City Dionysia--festival of Dionysus in late March

--funded by wealthy individuals, as 'producers' under legal obligation

Each year a public official (archon) selects three tragedians to compete and assigns each a 'producer.'

All male cast:

chorus 'drafted' from citizen ranks, probably (Winkler's theory) of young men recently come of age for military service and participation in the political assembly. 

--2-3 actors, older men (quasi-professionals)

Study the scene from an ancient vase painting: The cast prepares for Satyr play:

 Tragedies were produced in sets of 3 (a set on a single theme was called a 'trilogy'). After the 3 tragedies a sort of comic interlude was performed with chorus changing costume to appear as Satyrs (naughty followers of Dionysus)

Production values: live performance before an audience of many thousands

Elaborate costume (depending on producer's largesse)

Actors wear masks to project voice and caricature emotion

Scenes of dialogue (between actors) divided by choral 'odes'

Choral odes in 3-part structure-- strophe, antistrophe, and epode-- corresponding to movements of stylized dance in the 'orchestra' (area below the stage).

Theatre of Dionysus south of the Acropolis

by the 450s BC plays are performed with a painted backdrop, skene

stage vehicles, including ekkyklema, a sort of revolving stage

Each playwright presents 3 tragedies, often with connected theme as a 'trilogy' followed by comic interlude with chorus of satyrs. Tragedy usually deals with 'Mythic' themes, but occasionally translated recent history into this format, as in Aeschylus' Persians of 472. The line between history and saga was often hard to distinguish, as even the most mythic stories could reflect upon current issues.


Sophocles' Ajax.

Setting: the Greek camp outside Troy, near the end of the Trojan War. Achilles has fallen but Troy is not yet conquered. Ajax, the next most valiant of the Achaean warriors is insulted because the armor of Achilles has been awarded to his rival Odysseus.


the goddess Athena

the hero Odysseus

Ajax, the son of Telamon (himself a hero of the first Trojan War)

Tecmessa, the warbride of Ajax, who is mother to his son Eurysaces

Teucer, the half-brother of Ajax (and himself the son of a war-bride)

Menelaus and Agamemnon = the Atreidae.

Agamemnon is the 'king of kings', the leader of the Greek confederacy. Menelaos is his brother, the husband of Helen, for whom the war is fought.

Chorus of Sailors from Salamis (staunchly loyal to Ajax)


This tragedy, like many of the early tragedies is in two parts. The first part, the real tragedy to our way of thinking, ends with the death of Ajax.

Study Questions:

How does Ajax take his life? and Why? (on various levels) List the motives he expresses.

Why does Odysseus take his side? List specific reasons.