Why did the Greeks invent Tragedy?

Theatre is an art form into which man pours his hopes, his dreams, his fears and his passions. It can infuse in us a pool of emotions from ecstasy to sorrow and has played a massive part in the evolution of Western society. It is no surprise then that Theatre is also one of the oldest of mans ventures. Its origins stem from Ancient Greece where two distinct genres emerged. Comedy and Tragedy. With Comedy we find the ability to make people laugh, to wash their sorrows away making worries disappear. Its is fun, happy and generally positive and optimistic, at least regarding the main character. Why then do we find the emergence of Tragedy, a significantly pessimistic and negative genre filled with woe and sadness. Was the emergence of Tragedy simply culture branching out or is there a deeper meaning behind its birth.

To understand the nature of Greek culture at the time we must understand the nature of Greece at the time. Greek tragedy is generally thought to have originated approximately between 600-200BC. Ancient Greece was almost continually at war, not only with other countries such as Persia and Troy but within their own city states. Conflict often arose within Greece itself due to territory disputes. Greece was a country riddled with war. It is therefore not surprising that theatre became popular. In times of darkness people need an escape and for Greece that escape was the arts, specifically theatre. Even in modern times we can see people escaping from the problems of everyday life via theatre. In the weeks after 9/11 Broadway ticket sales seemed to swell because of New Yorkers wanting to escape from the reality of the situation. It is therefore not surprising that in Ancient Greece during times of war theatre seemed to grow. This does not however seem to fit with the development of tragedy. Why would a population afflicted with war wish to sit down to a generally pessimistic Oedipus or Medea? The answer seems to lie within the nature of the main character. In comedy the centre seems to be an underdog rising up. With Tragedy the centre is a king or a nobleman of high birth being brought down and plagued by tragedy. This is why we find Tragedy beginning to grow and to thrive. People wanted to see the men who were causing these conflicts that were ravaging an entire country and afflicting an entire generation with death, suffering as much as they had. People wanted to see kings brought to their knees and brought down to the level of the people. They wanted to see the men who were dividing their country suffer as they had suffered. Comedy didn’t provide this in the same way.

Another reason why tragedy might have began is because it involved the Gods more than other play genres did. People would have liked to see such plays because it would have increased their understanding of deities that they didn’t fully understand. With tragedy they could develop their beliefs and understanding. This seems like a valid reason but included in this could be the fact that people like to see Gods, Goddesses and other mythical beings portrayed in front of them. This is similar to such books as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy, they needn’t be read by Christians to be enjoyed. Human beings like to explore myths because the Gods seem so similar to man and yet so different. With tragedy we find a new way of looking at the Gods, as vengeful, cruel beings, that wasn’t the Gods people had seem in Comedies, this was a new and different type of God than that previously shown on stage. People had only heard of the Olympians in such a tyrannical way in the tales of the bards. A perfect example of this would be in Oedipus. In this play the idea of fate is a crucial one, Oedipus is destined to commit the two most taboo acts in civilised culture, incest and patricide. The nature of fate would have interested the Ancient Greeks as it is something that they thought may apply to them. A new view of the Gods needed to be seen on stage and this was provided for by Tragedy.

A further reason for the emergence of tragedy is the fact that theatre is an ever expanding art form and therefore in Ancient Greece, the birthplace of theatre, it should be expected that evolution should occur. Coupled with this is the fact that Greece was split up into city states, each providing different although similar goods and services. Each of these cities became a wellspring of trade, least of all those that had ports. Therefore ideas were continually coming into Greece from all over the known world, Greece’s culture accumulated ideas and techniques that would lead to its evolution. Also it just seems a completely natural step to move from something positive to something negative. Theatre had to evolve and expand and ,coupled with the fact that new ideas were coming into the country and influencing its structure all the time, it seems that evolution was obvious. Furthermore there’s a niche in the market. Tragedy was relatively new and different to what was already being shown. Playwrights such as Sophocles and Euripides noticed this and it seemed natural to exploit such an obvious space in the theatre. More than this though both of these men had influence to write tragedies, Euripides was born into a time of Greek expansion and lived in Athens which was attracting great thinkers, poets and artists from around the world. Euripides is said to have associated with philosophers and one cannot help but think that their understanding of the world influenced him greatly.

The playwrights of Ancient Greece would have been familiar with each other and so there would have been certain degrees of competition and cooperation, both of which would have aided the expansion and development of new theatre techniques and genres mainly tragedy. Both competition and cooperation both played a large part, competition encouraged writers to try and develop new, perhaps even radical, ideas in order to stand out amongst their colleagues. This could give rise to tragedy in order to stand out amongst other playwrights who may have been concentrating more on comedy. Cooperation would have been useful as it would allow various playwrights to develop their ideas together, moving forward as one. The more likely of these two would be competition. If we look at the comedies, specifically Aristophanes, we find it filled with satire. This does not mean that Aristophanes disliked other playwrights and that his satire was an attack on them. The important thing to remember is that Aristophanes was writing comedies and trying to make people laugh. He did this by mocking the serious, and often pompous, nature of other more dramatically playwrights. Aristophanes wasn’t attacking other playwrights but it does show the division between comedy and serious drama. This division means that cooperation would be unlikely.

Another reason for the introduction of tragedy in Greek theatre is the fact that the festivals are often very similar to stage performances themselves. This may have provided inspiration. Tragedy is said to have developed at the city Dionysia, a festival honouring the God of wine and gaiety Dionysus. This shows that that tragedies, in fact the theatre in general. The Lenaina, another festival honouring Dionysus, also contains elements of tragic performances despite being mainly a comedic based festival. This is important as it shows the emergence of Tragedy as a main contender, dramatically, to comedy, with both of them sharing a major festival to a God heavily associated to the arts. The way tragedy features in these festivals would lead them to become widely know amongst high ranking Greeks such as politicians and those of high birth, large support from these wealthier areas of society would lead to a large influx of funding therefore allowing tragedy to grow and expand, increasing its popularity once more.

A final reason why tragedy may have been invented is because people can associate more with tragedy than with comedy. Life is tragic and can be unfair, tragedy conveys this perfectly, albeit far more dramatically, Comedy lacks the realism that tragedy has, despite the fact that neither are really based on everyday situations. People prefer to watch comedy because its jovial and helps them to forget, Tragedy however has more realism to it and people can connect with that. With the fact that tragedy can connect with people more easily, not necessarily the situations but certainly the emotions, comes the social nature of the theatre. If we look at the design of the theatre we can see that the layout is one that would easily promote social interactions. The stone benches are close together and are at the right level and angle to allow the audience to see everything in the theatre, not only the performance but the other audience members. The performance would have attracted people from across the city, people of all nationalities and creed. It would allow shepherds, who would spend many months high in the mountains with nothing but sheep for company, a chance to interact with other people. This social interaction would explain the origins of theatre but not tragedy explicitly, other than the fact that tragedy connects more and therefore may have proved more popular.

In conclusion there are several reasons why tragedy may have been invented. Firstly Greece was seemingly always at war. People needed a way to both display their displeasure with the rulers and politicians and forget their problems. Tragedy does this, Oedipus was a king, Medea a princess. The entire concept of tragedy is to bring a ruler down to the level of the poor man, thereby striking back at the people who caused the war. Secondly the Greek’s Gods were enigmas to them. They continued to try to understand their deities, The writings of Homer are prime examples of the Greek desire to explain and understand the deities. There are other points that tragedies try to explain, the concept of fate is the main concept of Oedipus and the Greeks would have believed fate to be an important deciding factor of their lives. Thirdly theatre may have just evolved, expanding and developing a new genre. The fact that Greece was split into many city states all of which would have been centres of trade of goods and ideas. Athens especially had an influx of thinkers, poets and artists. Fourthly a healthy completion between the playwrights would have encouraged new ideas to develop and therefore tragedy would have emerged as something different to comedy which was the main theatre genre. Fifthly the festivals would have allowed the perfect place for tragedy to be premiered in some of the most important festivals in Greek tradition to a God widely associated with the arts. These festivals would have brought tragedy to the attention of wealthy members of society who would have been able to fund further performances. Sixthly tragedy is easier to identify with than comedy, people tend to find life more pessimistic than optimistic and therefore find more in common with tragedy than comedy. Finally the social aspect of the theatre is undeniable. Theatre has a way of bringing people together. Couple the social aspect with the fact that tragedy is more identifiable especially during times of war, which Greece often was. The fact of the matter is that there were many different factors in the birth of tragedy. If I were forced to choose one I would have to say that tragedy was filling a niche required at the time. Nevertheless, if it were not for the numerous circumstances which were fulfilled at that time in Greek history.


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