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 of young men recently come of age for
military service and participation in the political assembly (Winkler's theory)
2-3 actors, older men (quasi-professionals)
Production values: live performance before an audience of many thousands
Elaborate costume (depending on producer's largesse)
Actors wear masks that may be used to convey emotion
(probably not the ‘bullhorn’ of later illustrations, Meineck’s study)
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 'orchestra'
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 playwrite presents 3 tragedies, often with connected theme as a 'trilogy'
followed by comic interlude with chorus of satyrs
Aeschylus and 'Prometheus Bound' -- tragedy as an Athenian export?
This play attributed to Aeschylus, the earliest of the 3 major tragedians, was evidently part
of a trilogy on Prometheus, and was followed by a play called Prometheus Unbound or Fire-
bringer. If this work is indeed Aeschylus', we would expect the final play to resolve the
conflict and conclude with the foundation of cult honors for our protagonist. But this would
be perhaps the very latest of Aeschylus' work (mid to late 450s) and perhaps only produced
posthumously in Syracuse (Sicily) where Aeschylus apparently spent his last years.
Thus we have two points of uncertainty in interpreting the characters of tyrannical Zeus
and rebellious Prometheus: each may have gained some redemption in the next play of the
trilogy; and Aeschylus may have been writing for a somewhat different audience.
But so far as we can see, the play as we have it is a thoroughly Athenian product, suitable for
the theatre of Dionysus and the usual conditions of performance.
As we read and discuss the play, take note of three basic techniques for characterization:
we (and the ancient audience as well) form an impression of a character's moral cast from
(a) what he himself claims;
(b) what other characters say about him or to him;
and (c) what he does, esp. how he responds to each turn of events.
Beware the temptation to assume that the ancient audience knew how the story had to be told
beforehand. ..............The surviving tragedies all seem to involve some significant
change from the well-known story!
Characters: (note that none is entirely human)
Prometheus, the Titan: How is he brought on stage?
He seems to be lying there while others speak,but says nothing until they make their exit.
Might and Violence: demon henchmen of Zeus (Violence does not speak)
Hephaestus, son of Hera, doing the bidding of Zeus. What is his attitude to the task?
Chorus of Oceanids (daughters of Ocean)
Father Oceanus himself: Again, what is his attitude to Prometheus?
And how does Prometheus respond?
Io: the only mortal (for now), clad in half-calf costume, fleeing torments sent by Hera
How does Prometheus respond to her?
Note esp. Prometheus' famous speech of defiance: 907-29.
What does this respond to, and what does it tell us about his character?
What is the power over Zeus that Prometheus boasts of?
Hermes, son of Zeus (messenger and trickster).
Why has he come, and how does he regard the suffering Prometheus?
The play ends as Prometheus describes it , with crash of thunder and cataclysm,
signaling further punishment (?)
General questions for discussion:
Why does Prometheus rebel against Zeus?
(What are his grievances? Other causes of defiance?)
What does his punishment tell us about the nature of the gods as the Greeks conceived them?
Identify and paraphrase 3 passages to illustrate or justify your interpretation.