Ancient tragedy brings together three essential elements. The
first is music: it is no accident that the Greek words τραγούδι
("song") and τραγωδία ("tragedy") have the same linguistic root.
Song and dance are integral to this form of drama.
The second is rhythmical recital: tragedy's style of
storytelling owes much to the great epic poems, the Iliad
and the Odyssey, which were originally narrated by a
ῥαψῳδός or "rhapsode," who would recite - like a modern rap artist
- to a rhythm that he beat out on the ground with a stick.
Tragedy's third component is rhetorical debate. In ancient
Athens, tragedy was not just entertainment; it was a public event.
It offered a kind of academy where people could hear - and reflect
upon - discussions of issues that were important to the state. The
Athenians saw tragedy as a social way of thinking, an instrument of
Today, Greek tragedies are often treated as if they were
melodramas, offering clear-cut moral distinctions between right and
wrong. But in tragedy we do not know what is right and
wrong; that is the whole point. We are not told what to think; we
are merely given hints to help us in our search for truth. This is
why the role of the chorus is so important in these plays: it is
the chorus that gives tragedy its meditative aspect.
The mythical characters who drive the action in a tragedy
generally represent extremes: people who, like Elektra, stand
outside the social norm. Such characters are dangerous: they defy
society, they threaten its peace and its unity. The chorus, on the
other hand, embodies society. The individuals who make up the
chorus do not want to be different; they do not want the
responsibility of distancing themselves from the group.
Although the chorus amplifies the emotions expressed in the
play, it generally wants peace and calm. Taking moderation as its
ideal, it tries to reconcile the characters' inner or outer
conflicts, to find a balance between extremes and to prevent people
from becoming outsiders, from being different. It tries to
incorporate, or reincorporate, every dangerous element into itself,
in order to neutralize it.
The actors playing the mythical characters wore masks, making
them almost like symbols: larger than life, removed from our reach.
They did not directly address the audience. But the chorus - often
comprising the younger sons of the Athenian citizens - wore no
masks. Their faces could be seen; they could address themselves to
the audience. They had a direct connection to the audience that the
characters did not.
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