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Category Archives: Play

Was Ancient Greek Theater Only for Men?

by September 5, 2018

by Ben Potter
A quick search of our homepage will reveal that a copious amount of ink has already been spilt discussing the life and works of the great practitioners of Athenian theatre: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes.
However, leaving aside these individuals for the moment, brilliant as they may have been, what of the vehicle of delivery itself? No, not the actors, nor even the venue, but the festivals in which seminal works such as Oedipus Rex, Electra, Ajax, Orestes, Prometheus Bound, The Wasps, The Knights, and Philoctetes were showcased?
The City Dionysia

The City Dionysia Theater

The two major Athenian theatrical festivals, The Lenaia and The City Dionysia were held in honor of the god Dionysus. Calling them theatrical, whilst not misleading, isn’t wholly illuminating as they were merely primarily, not exclusively concerned with theatre.
The Lenaia lasted for four days during January/February and, because of the time of year, was almost exclusively attended by Athenian residents, due to little winter shipping in the Mediterranean.
The Lenaia was originally a festival of comedy (although tragedy was introduced in 488 BC), probably because there was more scope for political and social ‘in-jokes’, as the audience would have consisted of few non-citizens.
Alternatively, the City (or Great) Dionysia lasted six days and took place in the spring (March/April). Consequently it could have been attended by citizens from Athenian colonies (in addition to friendly travelers) because shipping would have resumed by this point.
Two things are noteworthy about the City Dionysia. Firstly, it was solely a festival of tragedy until 432 BC, and it was the main event, the big deal, the Oscars to the Golden Globes of the Lenaia. Secondly, it seems the Dionysia was ‘more religious’ or, perhaps, more preoccupied with traditional religious practice than the Lenaia.
Pan or Dioynsius festival

Before a statue of Pan
by Nicolas Poussin

Supporting evidence comes from Oswyn Murray in his comprehensive Early Greece: ‘the festival involved an annual procession of the ancient statue of Dionysus from Elutherai (a mountain settlement on the northern borders with Boeotia) to Athens’.
This shows us that if one wished to take in a show then, at the very least, one would have to feign interest in a religious procession.
Classics professors looking to justify their tenure have made a lot of the ins and outs of these two festivals. However, something really interesting, and still now ambiguous, is the role women who were allowed or obliged to play in them.
Women would certainly have had a role to play in the holy procession and been given a share of the rare and delicious animal sacrifice. Additionally, women were generally a vitally important part of most Dionysian rituals in their official status as his Maenads/Bacchae (specific female acolytes).
Beyond this, things get a little sketchy, as reliable evidence for Athenian women (their lives being private, domestic and illiterate) is scarce. However, we do have reason to believe women were allowed to attend dramatic festivals even if, like in Shakespearean London, they were not permitted to act in them.
We look to the comic masterpiece of Aristophanes, The Frogs to confirm this: ‘Every decent woman or decent man’s wife was so shocked by plays like Euripides’ Bellerophon that she went straight off and took poison’.
There is a school of thought that says women were perhaps allowed to attend tragedies, but not comedies.
The main argument for women being excluded from comic shows is that comedies would have been a ‘bad influence’ on the ‘easily susceptible’ (i.e. women), whilst tragedies had an important moral message to teach. This, however, does not hold up to closer scrutiny. In Aristophanes’ comedies the women behave no worse (and usually better) than the men, whilst in tragedies such as Medea we see a woman kill her babies. Additionally, in Agamemnon we see a woman kill her husband, and in Electra we see a woman kill her mother and display incestuous feelings towards her father.
Death of Agamemnon

Death of Agamemnon

Thus it’s hard to imagine that the corrupting influence of bawdy jokes and toilet-humour would have been more damaging on the delicate sensibilities of Athenian lady-folk than tales of incest, murder, suicide, treachery and blasphemy.

Furthermore, if women could attend one branch of theatre, but not the other, then we may expect to be told somewhere why this was (or at least have it joked about by the waggish Aristophanes).
So were women supposed to learn important lessons at the theatre?

Most Athenian women (even of the upper classes) would have received little or no formal education whatsoever, so these infrequent visits to the theatre would have been probably the only opportunity for mass enlightenment.
We can see in plays such as Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen (396 BC) that an attempt is made to communicate ideas women may never have had the liberty to contemplate. The brief plot of this comedy is that the women of Athens obtain power of the city through an elaborate scheme in which they descend on The Assembly dressed in drag.
This play could be Aristophanes’ attempt to champion the rights of Athenian women by implying that not only are they capable of creative/devious thinking, but also that they may be suitable to play a political role.

Cast of Lysistrata, 1928

Likewise in Lysistrata (411 BC), in which the Athenian women go on a sex strike, Aristophanes could be challenging the existing system of the husband being kurios (master) over his wife. Such plot lines may have been seen as subversive, however if they were, would any serious message have had less of an impact when veiled in comedy? Perhaps so.
The argument that Aristophanes had no interest in transmitting a political or social message is groundless. Cambridge professor Paul Cartledge pointed out that the controversial and powerful demagogue ‘Cleon thought Aristophanes was worth taking legal issue with’ and Aristophanes actually rewrote his satirical Clouds to make it more strongly political.
Euripides was another major playwright who conveyed a strong message to his female audience; a very different and possibly more effective message than Aristophanes.
Euripides has been called everything from a misogynist to a feminist and was blatant in his attempts to suggest that ‘clever’ women should not be trusted. Most obviously in Medea (431 BC) where the title character is a woman who has given up her citizenship and then murders her children following her husband’s affair.
This powerful and emotive play could have been Euripides’ attempt to persuade women of Athens to stay loyal to the state, not be overly concerned or jealous about their husband’s extra-marital misdemeanors, and generally to be wary of concerning themselves in ‘male’ matters.
However, it could have been just the opposite. A message to women that they don’t need to put up with this sort of thing and a warning to men that, despite their great power and social status, despite the world being run by them, for them, they could lose everything they cared about in the blink of furious, female eye.
However, moving away from the speculative, we must address the very real possibility that women had little significance at all in the two festivals.
Apart from the actual opening procession itself, women may have had not much to do. Even assuming women were allowed to attend all the theatrical productions, perhaps none of the performances were geared towards them.
Women in a procession

Ancient Greek women

In Assemblywomen the underlying message of the play is that the current politicians in Athens were so poor that even a woman would make a better leader! And the fact that rule by women is considered a suitable topic for a comedy indicates that the message of the play is not towards women but a scathing attack on low-caliber politicians.

Likewise in Lysistrata it seems that the theme is more the obtainment of peace than sexual equality.
Euripides’ negative (or at least extreme) portrayal of women could easily be a reminder to Athenian men to keep close watch on their wives and perhaps not allow them too much freedom.

It seems that the main and key advantageous role women had at these festivals was to receive a preciously rare moment of education at the theatre. This, however, was no official or even planned act, but more the accidental vehicle by which individual playwrights could spread their influence further.
The fact that Athenian women would have had so little access to creative thinking and ideas would have meant that, for the individual women, this day would have been of great significance, even if their formal role in the festivals would have been rather limited.
Thus, we cannot really conclude on a truly positive note that theatre was a vehicle of emancipation that changed female Athenian society. What it was, however, was a pinprick of light in a life of repetition and banality, a highpoint of refinement, art, culture and beauty to liberate and elevate a class of society, which had less potential for social progression than the bevy of slaves who kept Athens ticking.
Even if only for a moment.

Was Oedipus a Hero?

by June 17, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga
I’m fairly sure it would be safe to say that everyone’s heard of Oedipus. If that’s too much of a generalization, I would only amend it to something like “most people” have heard of him—he’s the legendary character of classical tragedy who killed his father, slept with his mother, and fathered children who were also his siblings. It’s the classic story of patricide and incest.
Largely thanks to the work of Sigmund Freud, the name “Oedipus” has become such an accepted addition to our cultural lexicon that you would be able to have discussions about the “Oedipal complex” with people who have never even heard of Sophocles, let alone read his plays about the aforementioned character.
Many people, then, would be surprised to hear that Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus—the last of his three Theban plays—argues that Oedipus’ burial in Athens would bring great benefit and safety to the city. This should immediately raise several eyebrows and one very important question: how can the grave of a man who killed his father, slept with his mother, and begot children who were also his siblings be considered a boon of any kind?
For those of us who need a quick recap, this odd play takes place well after Oedipus discovers the identity of his parents and his own transgressions, blinds himself, and is exiled from Thebes. By this time Oedipus is an old, frail man who has ceaselessly wandered the country with help from his daughter, Antigone.
OedipusOedipus and Antigone
The play begins as Oedipus and Antigone arrive at Colonus, a small village within sight of Athens (and, incidentally, Sophocles’ birthplace). A wandering stranger tells Oedipus and Antigone that they are standing in a grove sacred to the Furies, which immediately agitates Oedipus. We learn that the same oracle who told him he would kill his father and marry his mother told Oedipus that he would die in a place sacred to the Furies, and his grave would be an immense gift to the place in which he is buried.
Thus the question: how could the grave of a man like Oedipus possibly be considered a gift? In fact, as soon as the villagers of Colonus realize who Oedipus is, they want to kick him out of the village! No one wants anything to do with him—and they certainly don’t want to bury him in town.
No one, that is, except Theseus—the legendary king of Athens. He intervenes, offers Oedipus protection, seems to agree that Oedipus’ grave would indeed be a gift to Athens, and promises to bury him.
Okay, what’s going on here? Many of us may pity Oedipus, but it’s difficult to understand why Theseus would befriend him and defend him so wholeheartedly.
Before diving into an examination of Oedipus’ role in Athens, it’s incredibly important to understand the political relationship between Athens and the titular city, Colonus. It is clear that Colonus is separate from Athens, and when Oedipus and Antigone first arrive, they learn from a wandering stranger that the town has its own unique founding myth. However, when asked if Colonus is ruled by a sovereign, the stranger replies that their ruler is Theseus, Athens’ king.
Even before the hundredth line of the play, we’re led to understand that Athens and Colonus are experiencing some political awkwardness.
OedipusMost people want nothing to do with Oedipus
According to legend, Theseus was, at the time of the play, attempting to unite the lesser Attic communities with Athens proper in the hopes of forming a cohesive, powerful city-state. The historian Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, says:
“In the days of Cecrops and the first kings, down to the reign of’ Theseus, Attica was divided into communes, having their own town halls and magistrates. Except in case of alarm the whole people did not assemble in council under the king, but administered their own affairs, and advised together in their several townships. But when Theseus came to the throne, he, being a powerful as well as a wise ruler…dissolved the councils and separate governments, and united all the inhabitants of Attica in the present city, establishing one council and town hall. They continued to live on their own lands, but he compelled them to resort to Athens as their metropolis, and henceforward they were all inscribed in the roll of her citizens” (Book 2 Chapter 15).
As readers of Oedipus at Colonus, we are meant to understand that Colonus is still in the process of being absorbed—and this is inherently a complicated process which involves so much more than Theseus declaring himself ruler. For Colonus to be truly united with Athens into one larger city-state, Theseus will have to encourage the people of Colonus to break their natural attachment to the literal, geographical place on which their town was founded. The permanent presence of Oedipus, in the form of his grave, can actually help Theseus achieve the breaking of this bond. To understand how this is possible, we also have to understand how Oedipus has changed since the revelation of his crimes.
By the end of Oedipus the King, Oedipus is so distraught at the realization that he killed his father and slept with his mother that he begs for banishment from Thebes. He appears to completely blame himself for his actions, and says: “I beg of you in God’s name hide me/ somewhere outside your country, yes, or kill me/ or throw me into the sea, to be forever/ out of your sight.” These are obviously not the words of a man who believes he’s done nothing wrong.
However, by the time Oedipus arrives in Colonus, he is singing a different tune. “Do not see me as a lawbreaker,” he says to the Chorus, “that I entreat you.” Oedipus, in this play, argues rather passionately that he is guiltier of suffering than he is of law-breaking. His reasoning? That he can’t be fully guilty because his crimes were committed through ignorance.
Basically, Oedipus argues that he did not know he’d be killing his father when he killed Laius (out of self-defense, he’s careful to emphasize), so he can’t be truly guilty of patricide, and he certainly had no idea that Jocasta was his mother when he married her, so he can’t technically be guilty of incest. In essence, he did commit the crimes, but it wasn’t his fault that he committed them, and this double-ness makes him, in some way, innocent.
Of course, this reasoning isn’t exactly bullet-proof—but the point isn’t really to pick it apart. It’s more important to consider how this sort of reasoning would affect our big question: why is Oedipus’ grave a gift?
Oedipus tells Theseus that for his burial to bring true benefit and protection to Athens, the location must be kept completely secret. He entreats Theseus to describe the gravesite “to no man, ever/ neither where it is hidden nor in what region,/ that doing so may make you a defense/ beyond the worth of many shields.” At first glance, the goal of this secrecy seems purely practical: if the burial location of Oedipus were common knowledge, thieves from another city could steal the body and re-bury it in their own city. The true reason is much more complex, and highly symbolic.
In the ancient world, graves were considered sacred ground, and it was forbidden to walk on them. If Oedipus’ grave, like all graves, is to be sacred ground, and no one actually knows where that grave is, Oedipus’ secrecy makes it impossible not to violate the sanctity of the burial site. Anyone, purely through ignorance, could walk upon his grave and thus commit a crime.
This crime-through-ignorance is a clear echo of Oedipus’ own transgressions, and because of this, his burial site seems to bring a kind of pervading guilt to Athens. But this doesn’t tell us why his grave is considered a gift—or what it has to do with Theseus’s unification project.
If Oedipus’ ignorance makes him in some way innocent, his life reveals to us that we are not responsible for who we get as parents—or what family we’re born into ( I’m sure we all know plenty of people who have expressed this same idea before, usually while they’re angry and talking about never calling home again). Family is, in essence, accidental.
The idea that family is accidental immediately implies that the natural attachment a person will feel for his or her family is, for all intents and purposes, irrational. For example, Oedipus would probably say that it makes more sense to love your sister because she’s a lovely person with whom you’re close than to love her simply because you share the same mother.
Because the mental and emotional processes that attach us to our family are so similar to the processes that attach us to our cities, countries, or general places, this idea that the attachment is irrational is the number one weapon Theseus can use to break the bonds between people and particular place.
Oedipus’ grave, in that case, doesn’t symbolize guilt as much as it symbolizes the irrationality of our attachment to things we didn’t even consciously choose for ourselves.
OedipusOedipus awaits death
This is absolutely critical to Theseus’s plan for a unified Athens. It is not enough for the lesser Attic communities to recognize his sovereignty—they have to feel Athenian. Even if they remain on the same land, in the same houses—even if daily life barely changes—the people of Colonus (and the people of every other town Athens is absorbing) have to become “people of Athens.” Without this kind of mental and political cohesion, Theseus’s imagined city-state would fall apart, and the whole area would be incredibly vulnerable not just to outside attack, but also to internal conflicts between communities. However, this cohesion is impossible if the townspeople don’t first reject their attachments to the land on which they were born.
This is why Theseus chooses to protect Oedipus, and to grant Oedipus’ requests. The permanent (though hidden) presence of Oedipus’ grave and its symbolic meaning does indeed grant Athens a very important boon. By promoting the principles that Oedipus’ life and death represent—disassociation from theaccidental, the rejection of irrationality—Theseus is one step closer to uniting the lesser Attic communities into the wealthy, powerful, and especially cohesive city-state we know Athens became—a city-state whose wealth and power would indeed provide a great deal of protection.
So, in some way, the answer is yes: a man who killed his father and slept with his mother can play a big role in Athens’ survival and success—at least according to Sophocles.
Oedipus maskOedipus’ grave symbolizes the importance of tragedy as an art form and cultural phenomenon
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the idea of a man like Oedipus can play a role—and that’s really the point, in the end, of the play. Like so many classical tragedies, Oedipus at Colonus ultimately points back to the importance of tragedy, or poetry, itself. Oedipus’ grave may lead citizens to realize the irrationality of their attachments to things over which they had no control, but only because those citizens will know Oedipus’ story. A grave without a story would simply be a plot of land. Athens gets no real benefit from the physical grave alone—all the benefit comes from a combination of the secret grave and the circulation of Oedipus’ tale. The city benefits, then, from the presence of poetry, or tragedy to be specific, and Athens’ particular devotion to tragedy will be one more thing that holds its citizens together—and ultimately sets Athens apart.
In that case, despite his crimes, Oedipus may be a hero in his own right after all.