When Lysistrata premiered in Athens over 2,000 years ago, it played to an audience of about 15,000 assembled on a hill behind the Acropolis. Last March, Aristophanes’s famous comedy was performed in decidedly humbler circumstances—in living rooms, cafes, and even a Kurdish refugee settlement in Greece.
The play, about women who withhold sex to force their men to end the Peloponnesian War, was revived by two New York actresses to protest the Iraq war. In a single 24-hour period, the play was performed by tens of thousands of people in 59 countries. Although some productions strayed far from the original, participants said there remained enormous potency in Lysistrata’s core issues—questions like: What power do the powerless have? “It was like a rock concert,” says project cofounder Kathryn Blume, “in terms of the energy and the outpouring of enthusiasm.
No modern play would have served the activists’ purposes better, Blume says. “[Lysistrata] is sexy, it’s funny, it’s dirty, [and] it really reflected our situation—a group of people who feel they don’t have a voice, undertaking a creative action to stop a war.” And because Lysistrata is such an ancient play, Blume notes, it distances the audience from the specifics, freeing them to ponder the broader themes.
It doesn’t take a protest, however, to get Greek drama an audience these days. In recent years, theatergoers have flocked to see A-list actresses like Diana Rigg and Fiona Shaw interpret the title character in Medea. They have had their senses assaulted at Lee Brauer’s The Gospel at Colonus, a version of Oedipus at Colonus set at an African-American church revival. And they have applauded Peter Sellars’s The Children of Herakles, in which a silent chorus of real refugee children underscored the play’s discussion of exile. In fact, according to researchers at the University of Oxford, more Greek tragedy has been performed in the past 30 years than at any other time since the classical age itself.
Why the enduring appeal? Greek tragedies explore how difficult it is to be a human being. Most Greek tragedy portrays the downfall of a hero, often caused by extreme arrogance, or hubris. Tragedy’s goal, said Aristotle, is to arouse in the audience feelings of pity and fear, emotions that are then purged in a process of relief the Greeks called katharsis. Tragedies have a particular appeal, says Nicholas Rudall, a classics professor at the University of Chicago, “in times when people don’t feel fully confident about their being, their safety.” Edith Hall, codirector of the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, says that Greek plays also allow modern audiences to explore a fascination with survivors.
In the moralistic tragedies of later centuries, playwrights tended to kill off characters who committed adultery, murder, or rape, writes Hall in Dionysus Since 69: Greek Tragedy at the Dawn of the Third Millennium. Not the Greeks. “The incestuous Oedipus, the infanticidal Heracles, Medea, and Agave, the mother-murdering Orestes, the bereaved women of Troy—they all survive their terrible experiences and stagger from the stage, leaving the audience wondering how they can possibly cope with their psychological burdens.”
Greek drama has influenced writers from Shakespeare to sitcom hacks. Yet it’s remarkable that there are any ancient plays left to learn from at all, since they were written on rolls of papyrus that rotted easily. Of the more than 1,000 plays created in Athens between 500 B.C. and 400 B.C., only 31 tragedies and 11 comedies—the work of just four authors—survive.
Most scholars believe that Greek drama evolved from hymns about popular myths that were performed at the annual festivals of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility. One day in the mid-sixth century, the story goes, a man named Thespis stepped out of the chorus to converse with the rest of the group, In so doing, he became the world’s first actor, and he created a new art form—the tragedy.
In 534, Athens introduced an annual tragedy contest at the City Dionysia. Every year, an official chose three dramatists to present an entire day of new plays—three tragedies and a satyr play, a comic chaser to the serious work. The playwrights directed (and early on, acted in) their own works. The city assigned a wealthy citizen to pay for all production costs not covered by the state. Foreshadowing Oscar-night pools by centuries, a panel of ordinary citizens, chosen by lottery, judged the plays and awarded prizes.
Among the festivals’ most important innovators were the three tragedians whose work has survived. Aeschylus (523 – 456) pulled a second actor out of the chorus to more fully develop dramatic confrontations. In works such as the Oresteia trilogy, he used personal stories to explore political concepts like justice. Sophocles (circa 496 – 406) focused on his protagonists’ psychological development in masterly structured plays like Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. He introduced a third actor, painted scenery, and reduced the chorus from 50 to 15.
It was Euripides, however, who pushed the envelope of civil discourse. In plays like Medea, Electra, and the The Trojan Women, he took on incest, infanticide, and more. His plots can seem half-baked—many depend on a deus ex machina, or sudden appearance of a god character, to neatly untangle events—but they have provided generations of actors with complex female characters to inhabit.
Around 488, the City Dionysia added a comedy competition to the lineup. Many scholars believe ancient Greek comedy grew out of a feature of early Dionysian festivals called the komos—a bawdy parade of jokesters who carried symbols of penises through the streets. The 11 plays from Aristophanes (circa 448 – 395) are marked by obscene lines, double-entendres, and coarse costumes, including erect phalluses worn by sexually frustrated male characters in Lysistrata. While never considered as lofty a genre as tragedy, comedy helped diffuse anxieties by satirizing important people and institutions through characters that solved social or political problems with absurd schemes.
Most contemporary producers aim to make the Greek classics as accessible as possible to audiences by using modern language, current fashions, and familiar locales. But archaeological finds, from painted vases to ruins of outdoor theaters, provide tantalizing clues to the ancient performances, and a few modern companies are presenting the old plays to conform with these ideas. Classic Greek Theater of Oregon, for example, performs in an outdoor ampitheater. The actors wear masks and tunics copied from vase paintings, and large choruses sing and dance to original music.
At New York University’s Aquila Theatre Company, producing artistic director Peter Meineck also strives to capture the atmosphere of the ancient performances, which he calls “a cross between an opera and a football game.” The actors may perform without masks, but they often use them in rehearsal. “It’s a completely different way of performance,” he says. “The actors, when they speak, all have to face the front; they can’t turn and face each other. Often an actor is standing behind another actor speaking out to the audience, and what that creates on stage is very interesting psychologically. Naturalism, which is what most actors are trained to do, is out the window.”
In spite of the challenges, Meineck says, when a Greek play hits a nerve, he knows it. In the mid-1990s, the Aquila presented The Wasps, Aristophanes’s comedy about a litigation-crazed society. It was a rowdy production that one reviewer likened to a Benny Hill skit. The performance coincided with “a time when people were really getting fed up with their legal system,” Meineck says. “It tapped into this aggressive energy that was in the audience, and it was an amazing rush. At the end, we had the entire audience up on stage—dancing.”