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History of drama and Greek tragedy


In the history of drama it was the Greek tragedy which held the sway over all other dramatic forms for quite a few centuries. The first great name that appears upon the stage of ancient Greek tragedy is Aeschylus (525-456 BC). He developed primarily as a poet, but having served with the Athenian forces, the effect of what he saw and witnessed at these battles is very prominent in his plays. Being so close as he was, to the events of the Persian wars, his work shows an intense spirit of patriotism and the power of the gods over men and the force of destiny.

“…And when I turn to my rest — my rest

Dew-drenched and dark and stumbling, to which near

Cometh no dream or sleep, but always fear

Breathes round it warming lest an eye one fain

To close may close too well to wake again…”

Even in translation, Aeschylus has the facility for raising a background of tragedy and horror. The speech I have quoted above is spoken by a watch-man who stands on the ramparts of the palace at Argos watching for the beacon lights which will tell of the return of Agamemnon and the fall of Troy. They occur in “Agamemnon” the first part of a trilogy by Aeschylus known as “Oresteia”.

The world of ancient Greeks was full of violence and cruelty — cruelty of the gods mostly. Everyone accepted the prescribed order of things until those who created Greek tragedy instilled a new dimension into human thinking. The landscape of terror was entirely familiar to the audience and this familiarity acted as a spur to the dramatists’ imagination and invention. The mythology of Greek drama was the expression of a traditional image of life. The poet-dramatist was thus able to achieve, with the audience, an immediate contact of terror or delight because both shared the same habits of belief.

More than a thousand years of reality lay behind the fables of Homer and Sophocles. It is also important to bear in mind that in the classic order, men and women had their assigned place. If they deviated or rebelled they were subjected to punishments clearly marked out. Purgation had a positive meaning for him as well as the playgoer. The playwright dealt with guilt and lust and the accompanying anguish, and not with the existential loneliness of the individual. He gave to reality shape and order.

* * * * *

Aristotle was born in the 4th century BC, well after most of the powerful tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had already been written. He must have based his theories after the study of Orestia, Oedipus, Medea etc. His immense achievement was to codify the rules for the construction of tragic drama in his Poeties, which inspite of being contentious is still the most famous treatise on drama.

According to Aristotle there are a few essential rules for the construction of a tragedy: (i) The plot must extend over no more than a day or two, and within no more than one or two cities. The concentration of action within a small location and time period produces a stronger emotional response. (ii) The hero must be of noble blood. It generates the feeling in the audience that if a tragedy can happen to an exalted personage it can happen to anyone. (iii) The tragic hero should meet his fate because of a tragic flaw. The flow is not a defect of character but an error in judgement of the kind we all make. Since we all make mistakes, this generates fear in that we recognise our own potential for tragedy by committing the same errors. It also generates ’ because we do not blame the hero for his ‘tragic fate.’

Aristotle has enumerated, in order of importance, the parts that should constitute a tragedy which he calls “an imitation of an action that is serious”: It must be written in a dramatic form with dialogue between multiple characters and not in traditional narrative form (as in an Epic). It should arouse the emotions of pity in order to purge away the excesses of the spectator. He also writes about “pleasure” that is proper to tragedy, apparently meaning the aesthetic pleasure one gets from contemplating the pity and fear that is aroused through the play. His view is that tragedy is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe, it creates a cause and effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the world operates.

The most important element of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is the ‘pleasure’ or Catharsis — Purgation, Purification, Clarification — experienced by terror and pity. The characters must be four things “good, appropriate, realistic and consistent.” Discovery must occur within the plot.

“It is important for the poet-dramatist to visualise all of the scenes when creating the plot. He should incorporate complication and Dénouement within the story. He must express thought through the characters ‘words and actions’, while paying close attention to diction and how a character’s spoken word, express a specific idea.”

He also believes that the reality of the drama should be felt as read, as well as in the play as acted. Shakespeare who all but discarded the Aristotelian ‘unities’ (time, place and action) never ignored this bit of advice.

Tragedy, for Aristotle is a representation of serious, complete action which has magnitude in embellished speech, with each of the elements used separately in the various parts of the play and represented by people acting, and not by narration.

Referring to the plot of a tragedy he says that the key elements of the “structure of incidents — should be “reversal, recognition and suffering.” The best plot should be complex, that is to say, it should involve a change of fortune; it should proceed from good fortune to bad and involve a high degree of suffering for the protagonist usually involving physical harm or death. Actions should be logical and follow naturally from actions that precede them. They will be more satisfying to the audience if they come about by surprise or seeming coincidence and only afterwards seen as plausible, even necessary.

Who would have thought that all of this was written by a philosopher more than twenty three hundred years ago? A tragedian today may not consider it appropriate to find a man of noble birth as his protagonist; he may not think it necessary to complete the action in a day or two in a single city, but he cannot ignore the other factors — fatality and responsibility, ironic reversal of fortune, tragic flaw — that Aristotle outlined in the 4th century BC.

Zia Mohyeddin

The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)

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