Ain’t No Tragedy Like An Ancient Greek Tragedy
Until I actually looked into it, I had no idea that the Greeks invented theater. I had no idea that theater had even needed inventing. I mean, ok, theater is a pretty broad term, and it arose independently in several places, but as far as I can tell, the Greeks were the first to tell a story using actors reciting dialogue.
It all started as a religious observance in honor of Dionysus, whom you might remember from the Greek God Family Tree as the jolly drunk god of frat parties. They’d have festivals where everyone sang long chanty religious story songs in his honor. Eventually, that gave way to a chorus singing long chanty religious story songs to an audience, with a choral leader occasionally taking solos, and then the solos got longer and the choruses got smaller and you ended up with something that could *almost* be called dialogue: one dude on stage monologuing, and a bunch of other dudes monologuing, in unison, about his monologue.
But actual, two-people-talking-with-each-other dialogue didn’t show up until sometime after 500BCE, when a guy named Aeschylus wrote a play that had a character, a chorus, and *another* character. And as far as I can tell, he rode that success from stardom to superstardom, writing dozens of plays, winning dozens of awards (the Greeks also had the first theater festivals), and having his work performed even 2500 years later. Take that, Shakespeare.
The other two authors of the plays above are also famous, prolific, and (not coincidentally) the only other Greek tragedians whose work we still have.
The first, Sophocles, won first prize over Aeschylus in 463BCE, when he was only twenty eight years old, and apparently won first or second prize in literally every festival he competed in for the rest of his life. He’s responsible for the most famous greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, which you might know from the complex Freud named after it. But he also wrote more than a hundred more, most of which are lost to time.
And then there’s Euripides, a bold, irreverent, witty, brooding man who, despite winning far fewer competitions than either of the other two, is a lot more popular today, partially for his fully-fledged female protagonists, and partially because more of his plays happened to survive than all the rest combined. The best bit I read about him is that he wrote in a cave on the island of Salamis. (No, but it’s actually a real place.)
And now, Extremely Short Summaries of Fifteen Greek Tragedies:
Aeschylus, 458 BCE
Part 1 of the Oresteia trilogy. While King Agamemnon was off warring, his wife Clytemnestra had an affair with his cousin Aegisthus. Agamemnon comes home with Cassandra, a princess he’s enslaved, and Clytemnestra kills them both, and then threatens the chorus for good measure. There’s a neat bit in the middle where it turns out Cassandra was cursed so that she can see the future but no one will believe her, like an Ancient Greek Sarah Connor.
The Libation Bearers
Aeschylus, 458 BCE
Part 2 of the Oresteia trilogy. Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, runs into his sister, Electra, and they hatch a plot to get revenge on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Long story short, it works, and Orestes kills Aegisthus, but when Clytemnestra walks in he isn’t sure what he should do – like, she *did* kill his dad, but you’re not supposed to kill your mom. It’s a tough moral quandry, you know? He dithers for a while and then stabs her.
Aeschylus, 458 BCE
Part 3 of the Oresteia trilogy. The thrilling conclusion! Since killing his mom, Orestes has been pursued by horrible ghostly spirits of vengeance called eumenides, or furies. Apollo sends him to Athens to get help from Athena. The bulk of the play is basically a courtroom drama, with Athena as judge, Orestes as defendant, the eumenides as prosecutors, Apollo on defense, and a dozen Athenian dudes forming the jury. In the end, the jury is hung (which is not the same as hanged, tragedy or no), but Athena casts a vote in favor of Orestes, and rules further that whenever juries are tied in the future, the defendant should win. Legend has it that, in the original performance, the actors playing the eumenides were so scary that one pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage and died. I’d guess that’s apocryphal, but then, the whole theater thing was pretty new at this point, and I’ve heard similar legend about the early days of film.
Aeschylus (or possibly his son), ? BCE
Prometheus foiled Zeus’s plot to destroy humanity, so now he’s chained to a mountain and super bummed. It’s the first part of a trilogy, but no one knows where the rest got to.
Aeschylus, 472 BCE
You remember the movie 300? The one with the thongs and the capes and the “THIS. IS. SPARTA!”? It was based on a real battle, where the Greeks beat the Persians. This play is about the Persian king going home afterwords and facing his disappointed parents. It’s actually pretty neat in context, since most plays were based on mythology as opposed to current events, but out of context I think it’d make a great weird indie movie – like this, but Persian.
Sophocles, ~450-440 BCE
Achilles is dead, and whoever’s the next best warrior is supposed to inherit his armor, and Ajax is the next best warrior. But the powers that be gave it to Odysseus, so Ajax decides to kill those powers that be. But Athena intervenes and tricks him into killing a bunch of herdsmen instead. Then Ajax realizes what he’s done and decides to commit suicide, and the rest of the play is people trying to stop him, failing, and arguing over what to do with the body. Speaking of his body, here’s an artists’ representation of Ajax’s torso.
Sophocles, ~441 BCE
Antigone’s brothers just died in a civil war, and King Creon has decreed that only one of them is to be buried – the other gets to rot on the battlefield. Antigone decides to bury him anyway, gets caught, and is sentenced to be left in a cave until dead. But then a prophet and the chorus convince the king to spare her, so he does, but it turns out she’s already hung herself, and then his son (who was engaged to Antigone) stabs himself and his wife kills herself too.
These days you’ll often see Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone compiled together as a trilogy, and story-wise that makes sense. But they were actually written years apart and (as far as I can tell) never performed together until Sophocles was long-gone.
Sophocles, 409 BCE
Ten years before the play starts, Odysseus left Philoctetes on an island because a snakebite made his foot smell really, really bad. But now Odysseus has learned that he needs Philoctetes and his bow to win the Trojan War, so he sails back and tries to trick him into coming with him. Philoctetes refuses because, seriously, the jerk left him on an island for ten years. But then Heracles shows up and tells him if he goes to Troy his foot will be cured, so he goes.
Sophocles, ~430-425 BCE
Here we are – the most famous tragedy of them all. Oedipus is King of a plague-ravaged kingdom, and he learns this is because no one solved the murder of the former king, Laius. What follows is sort of a tragic detective story. It turns out that, years before the play, Laius and his wife Jocasta found out their kid would murder his dad and marry his mom, so they told a servant to go kill the baby. Except, the servant gave the baby to some poor couple who raised him as their own. But then one day he heard a prophecy that he’d kill his dad and marry his mom, so he ran away from home to save them. And then he got into a fight where he killed Laius, and then for unrelated reasons was named king and married to Jocasta, and that brings us back to the present. Once he figures out what happened, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs his eyes out with pins.
There’s also a thing called an Oedipus Complex, which is Sigmund Freud’s term for a part of childhood development where a kid starts competing with his dad for his mom’s attention. It’s right around the time when a kid learns the differences between boys and girls (well, some of them) and typically ends by first grade.
Oedipus at Colonus
Sophocles, 406 BCE
Oedipus at Colonus takes place after Oedipus Rex, and is mostly concerned with where Oedipus is going to die, because it turns out he’s going to be good luck for whatever town he’s buried in. At the end of the play his two sons kill each other, which sets the stage for Antigone.
Euripedes, 438 BCE
King Admetus has been granted the ability to survive death, but only if he finds someone to die in his place. Queen Alcestis, the most generous wife in world history, agrees to, but asks that Admetus never get married or forget her or, like, have super fun parties without her. Death shows up, black robe and all, and takes her away. Right around this time, Heracles shows up at the palace, and you can’t not party when Heracles is around – he’s Heracles. Eventually someone tells him what happened and is he gets super embarrassed about all the partying, so he ambushes death and brings Alcestis back. Honestly, this is probably the least tragic tragedy in this list.
Euripedes, 438 BCE
Medea (Not to be confused with Madea) is about a woman whose husband decided to marry someone else, so she kills everyone. Well, not everyone – she leaves her husband alive. But she kills the new girl and the new girl’s dad, and then, just to get back at her husband, kills her own kids. It also includes a plot point where an oracle advises an infertile man “not to unstop the wineskin’s neck.” No surprise it’s the most-performed Greek tragedy nowadays.
The Phoenician Women
Euripedes, ~409 BCE
This one’s a retelling of the Oedipus story, post-eye-stabbing, except in this version his mother/wife didn’t hang herself. Most of it has to do with the war his sons fight against each other for the kingdom. They kill each other in a duel, and then mother/wife kills herself too.
The Trojan Women
Euripedes, 415 BCE
After Troy loses the Trojan War, a bunch of Trojan Women are raped, enslaved, and/or killed, and then someone murders a baby.
Euripedes, ? BCE
The Bacchae stars Dionysus, who was raised by mortals who (with the exception of his mom) refused to believe he was Zeus’s son. As the play starts he arrives back in his hometown, disguised as a traveller, and what follows feels like a Quentin Tarantino regenge-flick. He uses his godly power to drive all the women in Thebes into an ecstatic, drunken, murderous frenzy in the mountains – like, drinking, wandering “in pursuit of love,” butting snakes in their hair, looting, plundering, killing herdsmen, and ripping cows to shreds with their bare hands. When the local ruler, Pentheus, decides to stop them, Dionysus convinces him to go alone, dressed as a woman, and climb a tree to spy on them. And then, when he gets to the top, Dionysus reveals himself, points him out to the women, and watches as they tear him to pieces. Pentheus’s mom brings his head back home thinking she’s gotten a hunting trophy, and then the murder-party-magic wears off and she realizes what she’s done and is devastated. The end? Not quite – Dionysus shows up again and decrees that she and her husband will turn into snakes and lead a bunch of barbarians.
And those are all the plays I drew vases of. As to whether they’re worth watching…well, taste is a personal thing, and I’ve met at least one person who’s really into them. But in my experience, watching plays from ~500 BCE is like playing videogames from the 1970’s – they’re neat in context, and a few have aged pretty well, but I’d still rather play Pokemon than Pong.
And now I’ve got to go read about mythological genealogy – next time, the Hindu God Family Tree!