The Spirit of Tragedy
Although the poets knew of no rules about the unities of time and place, they usually observed these unities if only because a chorus of townspeople could not readily be moved about; no single tragedy has a wide-ranging action or a protracted development in time. Likewise the typical scene is a public place, such as the front of a palace or a temple; a chorus would be out of place in a private chamber and cannot take part in intimate drama. It was not simply a passion for the universal that made Greek tragedy a symbolic drama, enacted on a symbolic stage.
Indirectly, the choral origins of the drama influenced it by shaping the Greek theater. This was a huge outdoor theater, built around a circular dancing-place called the 'orchestra,' and designed to accommodate the bulk of the town's citizenry. In such theaters the grand style was natural, as was the broad style in comedy; actors could not convey nuances of thought or feeling by subtle changes in expression or modulations in tone. They wore masks that identified them to the spectators in the farthest rows. The masks in turn strengthened the original tendency of the playwrights to portray types rather than individuals, elemental rather than complex or mixed emotions. The actors also wore formal costumes, including head-dresses and high-soled buskins, which enabled them to maintain a dignified appearance and not be dwarfed by the distances; and this costume helps to explain why no violent action is represented in Greek tragedy, murders or suicides almost always taking place offstage. The many gory battle scenes in the Iliad, as well as the routine exhibit of the mutilated corpses in the tragedies, suggest that it was not merely a refined artistic sense that prohibited such action on the stage. Actors so elaborately arrayed could not easily manage a graceful fall, much less a physical combat.
All this formality helped to keep Greek tragedy on an ideal plane, and has therefore been sufficiently admired. The difficulties it raises have generally been slighted. While it was directly due to the religious origins of tragedy, it also reflects the conservatism that led the Greeks to stick for centuries to the simple form of the temple. Classicists declare that once they had hit upon the ideal form in any genre, they rightly adhered to it; yet in drama the formalism involved unreasoned conventions that may strike us as mechanical, and at least are not clearly the product of an unerring artistic sense. We may weary of the stock Messenger who regularly narrates the catastrophe. We may be jarred by the stichomythia, or line-for-line questions and answers, that recur in the most dramatic situations. We may wonder why to the end the dramatists restricted themselves to three actors, even when they had relatively large casts and sometimes were plainly embarrassed by the restriction.1 On the other hand, the formality of Greek. Each actor assumed various roles; the convention required only that there be no more than three speaking parts in any given scene, apart tragedy may obscure its actual variety—the continuous innovation long before Euripides took the stage. Admirers of the classical ideal of propriety have seldom done justice to the bold originality of Aeschylus and Sophocles.
Similarly with the themes of Creek tragedy. In keeping with its choral origins and its performance at a religious festival, its subject matter was characteristically taken from the traditional myths and legends. As a communal possession, these gave the dramatist more advantages than modern playgoers may realize. He was incidentally relieved of some of the tedious business of exposition and could swiftly achieve ironic effects, since from the outset the audience knew the outcome. Not having to invent new plots, he could concentrate on the more stimulating challenge of giving new meanings to old stories that already had a vital meaning for his audience. (Hence Goethe remarked in his old age that if he were to begin his life as an artist over again, he would never deal with a new story.) Above all, he had the advantage of esthetic distance and perspective. It is always said that the Greek The Spirit of Tragedy tragic poets dealt directly with the permanent, universal problems of man's life instead of the immediate social problems, the confusions and distractions of their own time.
Yet the old stories had a rather different meaning then than they have for the contemporary critics who rhapsodize over the imaginative, symbolic, ideal value of Myth. For the Greeks they were not poetry but history, the records of national heroes; Agamemnon and GEdipus were actual kings who had ruled Greek cities. While Greek drama remains essentially different from the naturalistic, sociological drama of modern times, it was more realistic than the conventional accounts of it suggest. The poets incidentally felt free to introduce a homely realism in their minor characters, or even a measure of humor—for example, the simple guard in Antigone who laments that he has to be the one to bear the bad news to the king. Apart from a few tragedies in which they did treat of contemporary events, such as The Persians of Aeschylus and The Capture of Miletus of Phrynicus, they sometimes referred to such events, often went out of their way to glorify Athens, and as often celebrated its political ideals. They were not actually aloof from the life of their times, concerned only with the eternal verities. Their very advantage over the playwrights of all other ages is that they were discharging a major public function, on a major public occasion. In reinterpreting the old stories, to make them 'more philosophical than history,' they drew upon contemporary philosophy. They found no magic in the myth per se—no timeless truth implicit in it. Aeschylus and Euripides in particular gave the old stories radically new meanings, adapted to the vital concerns of their fellow Athenians. The traditional myths and legends were only the conventional means for expressing their own thought about the political, moral, and religious issues of fifth-century Athens.
Hence they raise a question about the development of tragedy that Aristotle did not take up, for understandable reasons. He merely outlined its internal development as an art form. He ignored the more provocative question of the underlying social causes, the reasons why it developed as it did and then ceased to develop—and why only in Greece, or indeed only in Athens.