society, politics, and religion: theater in classical greece

Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk,

but no flowers grow on it.

Vincent Van Gogh

Theater’s western origins are Greek—or, more specifically, Attic. Having been officialized at the end of the 5th century BC under the government of Pisistratus (561-528), 1In the Greek world, theatrical performances took place since the 6th century BC, in Sicily, but the period of greatest dramatic development was in the 5th century BC, in Attica, when around 536/535 BC. in Athens, theatrical performances had an extraordinary cultural reach and were of great social repercussion, also playing a relevant educational role for the establishment and maintenance of the democratic city. Playwrights’ use of myth and its political and religious significance were fundamental to the development of the dramatic arts in Athens, where beginning in 536/535 BC, tragedies, comedies, and satirical drama were annually performed during the festivals dedicated to the god Dionysus: the Dionysia and the Lenaia.

During these festivities, nearly 15,000 people occupied the stands of the Theatre of Dionysus to witness actors perform on stage and to see the Choir sing and dance in the orchestra. Thus, the crowd of citizens took part in the event, which became a great popular celebration, organized by the city not only to entertain, but moreover to generate a collective reflection on humanity and its values, drawing from glorious, mythical narratives of the past. From among these stories, playwrights selected their favorite themes. It wasn’t up to them to invent something novel, since the spectator of the Athenian theater was more interested in discovering how the poet would narrate or represent an already well-known story than they were in witnessing something entirely new. On the stage, they saw performances of well-known myths from the Homeric poems, from the scenes painted on ceramic vases, the motifs carved in the marble of the temples, and from stories passed down from parents to their children.

However, not all mythical content interested the playwrights, and they would choose from among the myths the narratives most appropriate to their purpose, especially the most moving scenes that could provoke a reaction by the public and, consequently, promote their “emotional education.” 2GARCÍA GUAL, Carlos. Enigmático Edipo. Mito y Tragedia. Madrid: FCE, 2012. Playwrights chose to stage the tales of illustrious and wealthy aristocrats from the Greek past—for example, the Labdacid and Atreides families—because, as Aristotle observes in Poetics, the tragic effect derives from, on one hand, a feeling of distance, in space and time, between the audience and the hero, and on the other, of approximation and identification with the hero’s misfortunes as believable, likely to happen to any of the spectators present in the Theatre of Dionysus.

Triggering unrestrained passions, placed into a state that threatened to break loose at any moment, the theater featured as a pillar of support and regulator of the democratic city in all its complexity: while the community sought to reconcile universal interests with individual well-being, individuals—not always in possession of the same interests as the majority—sought to reduce such complexity to the maximum, restoring social differences. Now, seated in the Theatre of Dionysus, sharing the same space, were common citizens in the stands and the sponsors of the choir in the proedria. 3At gatherings, during games, and at the theater, these were the seats for citizens who financially sponsored the Choir, thus enjoying the right of presence, which consisted of the permission to sit in the first row during public celebrations, from where they attracted the attention of everyone present at these events. Theatrical performances, especially tragedies, seem to have operated as a strategy, allowing the city’s tyrants to win over the sympathy of the people, as these opposing ends of the civic body came together to experience the same ceremony. According to Cusset, “tragic spectacle is the pause of civic life” 4CUSSET, Christophe. La Tragédie Grecque. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1997, p. 6., a period in which the city can regenerate itself, temporarily suspending its contradictions.

This article will thus discuss the political, religious, and social aspects of theater in Classical Greece, arguing that the cult of Dionysus, on the occasion of theatrical performances, was the opportune moment for the city to debate freedom of expression, experiencing a suppression of social tensions to which it was normally subjected. Furthermore, I will discuss the presence of political, religious, and social aspects in theater, and the repercussion of these elements in the tragedies represented at the Theater of Dionysus in Athens.

Festivals dedicated to Dionysus 

What is known today as Greek theater is, in general, the product of social, political, and religious factors that influenced this experience. Its development particularly took place in the Athenian polis, the model of a democratic institution of 5th century BC. Ancient theater held a multifarious character, consisting not only of theatrical and artistic performances, but also of a wide variety of other activities, including ritualistic events and competitions. 5CHANIOTIS, Angelos. “Theatre Rituals”. In: WILSON, Peter (Ed.). The Greek Theatre and Festivals: Documentary Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 48-66. During religious celebrations dedicated to the gods, various ceremonies were performed, transforming the ancient Greek world into a culture of festival. For the present discussion, we are interested in the festivals in which Dionysus was present as a deity figure.

In Greece, there were festivals throughout the year in honor of the Olympian gods. Here I highlight several ceremonies in honor of Dionysus, which took place between the end of winter and the beginning of spring: the Rural Dionysia, the Lenaia, the Anthesteria, and the City Dionysia. In addition to these ceremonies, simpler celebrations were held during other seasons: for example, the Oschophoria, which took place during the fourth month of the Attic calendar, Pyanepsion (corresponding to the second half of October and the first of November) in mid-autumn. The Oscophoria were celebrated on the same day as the Pyanopsia, the festival of Apollo. The festival was of great religious importance because Apollo and Dionysus, asymmetrical gods, share the same holy day, Apollo having given Dionysus a part of his, the seventh day of Pyanepsion. 6SIMON, Erika. Festivals of Attica: An Archaeological Commentary. Madison/Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983, p.89. Even more interesting is to note that the two gods shared the same sanctuary in Delphi, with Apollo worshiped in the summer, Dionysus in the winter.

On a chalice-shaped vase from the 4th century BC, Apollo and Dionysus meet in Delphi, holding hands in a gesture of greeting. Apollo, leaving, takes the summer away with him, while Dionysus, arriving, brings forth autumn, in order to prepare for winter, when he will be worshiped. In this movement of arrival and departure, we find foundational characteristics of both gods. On one hand, the diurnal norm, symbolized by the clarity of light, resplendent in Apollo’s brilliance, prophesizes human destiny; on the other, the nocturnal norm, expressed by the darkness in which Dionysus and his entourage submerge, the loosening of civilized ties, linked to nighttime and orgiastic cults.

The Oschophoria were celebrated during the grape harvest and wine pressing, thus in gratitude to Dionysus, the provider of bounteous clusters of grapes and a plentiful season. On the occasion of the feast, there was a procession led by two young men, the oskóphoroi, who, dressed as women, carried a vine branch loaded with grapes. Such a ritual was typical of festivals of vegetation deities, which are not immortal. Mortality, linked to singing and dancing, at times happy, others sad, highlights the nature of the god Dionysus as a twice-born deity, who, although he is a god, dies in order to be reborn.

While the Oschophoria commemorated the beginning of the harvest, when the grapes were pressed for wine production, during the Anthesteria, celebrated for three days during the second week of the month Anthesterion, boys and girls who had reached adolescence were crowned with flowers, perhaps to mark the beginning of spring. On the first day, wine barrels were opened and taken to the temple of Dionysus, where they were mixed with water in order to lighten the damage to celebrants. It was a moment of communion and liberation from social bonds, as masters and slaves alike participated in the drinking, and children between 3 and 4 years old were crowned with flowers, receiving their first pitcher of wine. On the second day of the celebrations, drunken participants rambled throughout the city, participating in a public contest (whose prize was a wine bottle) that consisted of drinking all the wine contained in the khóos/khoûs, a kind of vessel for storing liquid. On the third and final day, there was a feast of prepared lunches, the secret celebrations of Dionysus and the preparation of the sacred marriage of the wife of the archon king, or basileus, with Dionysus.

The symbology of the marriage of the fertility god, Dionysus, with the wife of the archon king, representative of Athenian society, is particularly interesting, as it clearly demonstrates the importance of Dionysus’ role in the restoration of the city. In this relationship, the god was not a husband, but a lover; he is not a regulator of customs, but merely a liberator of the drive for life of the participants in the festivities, promoting the transgression of social imperatives imposed by the city.

Although the focus of this festival was joy and celebration for a successful harvest, it also held a dark dimension, bringing it closer to the Oschophoria. The presence of the geniuses of death on the second day of the festival, when, according to tradition, they returned to earth to pass through the city, was celebrated without music or poetry. On the last day, the cult of the dead, during which their ghosts returned to the world of the living, “cathartic measures” 7CASTIAJO, Isabel. O Teatro Grego em Contexto de Representação. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, 2012, p.19 were necessary, with all participants joining in a ritualized, general cry, so to rid the city of evil.

Dionysus and the theater

It was during the Great Dionysus festival, the largest and most important celebration in honor of Dionysus, divinity of wine and mystery that theater assumed a prominent role in the celebrations offered to this god. In view of the economic, civil, and artistic power centered in Athens, theatrical performance emerged as a powerful form of poetic communication, in addition to functioning as entertainment and as an extraordinary tool for the emotional education of Greek citizens. Education here was understood as a complex process of being in general. Twice a year, citizens flocked to the theater: in Gamelion (the end of January), during the Lenaia, and in Elaphebolion (the end of March), during the Great Dionysian festival. With unprecedented views, spectators could witness performances that, during Poseideon (December), would be represented in other parts of Attica during performances in the Rural Dionysia.

The performances took place in an open-air theater, built on the southern hill of the Acropolis, in a sacred forest that belonged to Dionysus, close to his sanctuary. “The god—that is, his statue—watched the performance […] and his priest sat with the magistrates of the city,” among them, “the archon responsible for the contest.” 8BILLAULT, Allain. La Littérature Grecque. Paris: Hachette, 2000, p. 50. On the occasion of this festival, religious, political, and civil representatives occupied the same space in the theater; an official decision by Pisistratus.

With theater, the city held a mirror to itself, displaying its many faces: tragic, comic, and satirical alike. Dramatic poets addressed issues pertinent to the city, debating justice, community life, war, and peace. In reality, theatrical themes were not so different from those approached by politics. For instance, in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, the central character gives the Magistrate a lesson on how to manage the city:

MAGISTRATE – How, may I ask, will your rule re-establish order and justice in lands so tormented?

LYSISTRATA – Nothing is easier.

MAGISTRATE – Out with it speedily—what is this plan that you boast you’ve invented?

LYSISTRATA – If, when yarn we are winding, it chances to tangle, then, as perchance you may know, through the skein, this way and that still the spool we keep passing till it is finally clear all again: so to untangle the war and its errors, ambassadors out on all sides we will send / this way and that, here, there and round about—soon you will find that the war has an end.

MAGISTRATE – So with these trivial tricks of the household, domestic analogies of threads, skeins and spools/You think that you’ll solve such a bitter complexity, unwind such political problems, you fools!

LYSISTRATA – Well, first as we wash dirty wool so’s to cleanse it, so with a pitiless zeal we will scrub through the whole city for all greasy fellows; burrs too, the parasites, off we will rub. 9ARISTÓFANES. Lisístrata. Tradução de Ana Maria César Pompeu. São Paulo: Hedra, 2010, vv. 565-73. The English language translation cited is by JLINDSAY, Jack. Lysistrata. London: Franfolico Press: 1926.

The above scene would be unlikely in the daily lives of Athenian women in the 5th century BC. However, the frank use of language in the theater allowed people to question the ban. As Cusset reminds us, “language is used in the performance […] as in political debate”. 10Op. Cit. p. 7. In this sense, we can underscore the political nature of theater as an effective tool for indicating conflicts present in the city. However, language is not the only common element between the theatrical and political arts. The agora was a space of communion and meeting of the civic body, a site of decision-making through words, as well as the semicircular arena of the Theater of Dionysus, where these discussions came as a relief to spectators of the tragedies that presented debates of themes dear to them. Despite their similarities, the two should not be confused, since theater has an artistic dimension that differentiates it from political action. However, it is possible to imagine the two parties, each in its own jurisdiction, playing, through debate, the role of defender of its point of view.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, the debate between Creon and Antigone oscillates in two opposite directions. 11SÓFOCLES. Antígona. Translated by Maria Helena da Rocha Pereira. Coimbra: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 1992. While Creon defends the city’s right not to bury a traitor, Antigone argues for the divine right to bury the body of her brother, Polynices. On this frontier, we encounter the domain of tragedy, not only at the limit where human actions intertwine with those of the gods, but also in the imminent risk of representing the “heroic” past as a spectacle that affects the city 12VERNANT, Jean-Pierre & VIDALNAQUET, Pierre. Mito e Tragédia na Grécia Antiga I e II. Translated by Anna Lia A. de Almeida Prado; Filomena Yoshie Hirata Garcia; Maria da Conceição M. Cavalcante; Bertha Halpem Gurovitz and Hélio Gurovitz. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1999.

If tragedy consists of an attempt to resolve conflicts, whose violence, as Cusset notes, is “theoretically verbal and does not reach the physical plane”, 13Op. cit., p. 7. it finds in myth the raw material of its plots. Narratives about the birth of the gods and on the destiny of humanity, myth is always in discrepancy with the time of the sacred and the profane. Thus, the universe of tragic theater is situated between myth—a temporal reality that has already passed—and the political actions of the present historical reality. This temporal difference allowed playwrights to approach issues relevant to the present of the polis, dressed in the trappings of the notable heroes of the past.

In tragic conflict, the hero, the king, and the tyrant are still well attached to the heroic and mythical tradition, but the solution of drama escapes them: it is never given by the lone hero and always reflects the triumph of collective values imposed by the new democratic city. 14VERNANT & VIDAL-NAQUET. Op. cit., p. XXI.

Seeking in the heroic past the model for their tragedies, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides often examine the human soul, which is opened up by the universe of fear in which the tragic hero lives.

In the second act of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, in a section of dialogue between Creon and Oedipus, we see that not even the holder of power is exempt from fear. Defending himself against his brother-in-law’s accusations, Creon refutes him:

Not at all. Not if you see things calmly, rationally, as I do. 15SOPHOCLES. Rei Édipo. Translated by Maria do Céu Zambujo Fialho. Coimbra: INIC, 1986. The English language version cited is FAGLES, Robert. Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. New York: Penguin, 1984.

And, warning him that even the superior man, a city ruler, can be afraid, he asks:

Look at it this way first: who in his right mind would rather rule and live in anxiety than sleep in peace? Particularly if he enjoys the same authority. 16Ibidem, vv. 584-85.

The tragic poets seem to instruct us that fear helps to preserve the democratic order of a city, for example, these reflections carried out successfully by Menelaus in Sophocles’ Ajax, invite the viewer to consider relevant issues of city life given that,

[…] never can the laws be prosperously established in cities where awe is not found; Nor may a camp be providently ruled Without the shield of dread and reverence. 17SOPHOCLES. Aias. Translated by Flávio Ribeiro de Oliveira. São Paulo: Iluminuras, 2008. The English language version cited is TREVELYAN, R. C. Ajax. London: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1919.

If until now the public had made a moral judgment of Ajax, Menelaus’ almost proverbial sentence provides the viewer with a political argument. Besides democracy regulatory fear, tragedy expresses a painful truth: human existence is unstable and transitory, for humanity is subject to the whims and arbitrariness of the gods and of fate. In Prometheus’ case, he asks the Oceanides choir to take compassion on his suffering, since evil affects all mortals equally. Therefore, nothing is safe,

For a day can bring all mortal greatness low,

And a day can lift it up.

But the gods love the wise of heart, the froward they abhor. 18Ibidem, vv. 131-33.

In this instability of fortune, the tragic hero is at the mercy of what may come, yet he must stand firm on his imperative to act. If tragedy strikes at a moment of unease in the spirit of an agitated society—in the context of the birth of law, reason, and human justice, as opposed to the reason and justice of the gods—it is natural that he should ask questions about humanity and our ambiguous nature.

Tragedy will never satisfy the demands of single-mindedness and conviction. It lays bare the dark savagery hidden in the depths of the human soul, just as Dionysus does, as a god who acts in the sphere of death and life, in both storm and calm, in wilderness and tranquility, who keeps his worries at bay. Thus, Dionysius, the archetypal image of indestructible life, 19KERÉNYI, Karl. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. brings forth human savagery, making possible what was previously forbidden. Watching tragedies, the spectator at the Theatre of Dionysus would have been touched by these ambiguous feelings. But such ambiguity also affects the gods, as they are able to perform both good and bad deeds, they are sources of fortune and, consequently, of humanity’s misfortunes.

If myth only describes humanity, drama, through tragedy, places human life as a central topic. The three great Greek tragedians do not treat the human subject in the same manner, but humanity is always present in the works of the triad: in Aeschylus, we find “man’s civic sense, in Sophocles, his loneliness, and in Euripides, his feelings”. 20ROMILLY, Jacqueline de. La Tragédie Grecque. Paris: Quadrige/Presses Universitaires de France, 1970, p. 54. It seems that the tragic ambiguity is exactly in the inquiry about the condition and of human nature revealed by the tragic debate, which

[…] will address man endowed with free will, but subjected to uncontrollable forces, both endogenous and exogenous. The appeals to wisdom cannot be understood by the hero. The question is how to adapt to these forces that create violence. 21Translated by the author from the French “ […] va traiter de l’homme doté d’un libre arbitre mais soumis à des forces incontrôlables, tant endogènes qu’on exogènes. Les appels à la sagesse ne peuvent être entendus par le héros. La question va porter sur comment s’accommoder de ces forces créatrices de violence”. (PAYA, Farid. De la Lettre à la Scène, la Tragédie Grecque. Saussan: L’Entretemps Éditions, 2000. p. 66-7). Free translation.

Free will, fate, practical wisdom, and violence pave the way for the tragic hero. The decision not to kill his father brings Oedipus to the crossroads where the crime will be perpetrated. “Oedipus’ fate is certainly a testament to the fragility of human greatness.” 22GARCÍA GUAL, Carlos. Op.cit. p. 130.

Thus, the wisest and most just of men, through ignorance, contaminates the city, bearing the curse for the most terrible of crimes and pays a high price for crime committed, but, after settling for the violence suffered and having understood who he truly was, he receives the favor of the gods.

The theater, like Dionysus, is the art of contradiction. The theater holds the debate that forces the spectator, an Athenian citizen, to position themselves within civic institutions and to submit to the scrutiny of the gaze of the other. In this sense, the spectator experiences a paradox between the familiar and the enigmatic, whose resolution they will not find in a single and definitive answer, but in the slippage of the signifier, in the ambiguity that simultaneously forces Oedipus to bear the weight of misfortunes and fate, blaming the gods and defending himself against crime: “I acted without knowing, I am innocent before the law”. 23SOPHOCLES. Édipo em Colono. Translated by Donaldo Schüler. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2003. Translator’s note: this is my free translation from the Portuguese language version, maintained for clarity in this essay. For comparison, see i.e. STORR, Francis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956: “I slew without intent/A wretch, but innocent/In the law’s eye, I stand, without a stain.” Oedipus’ words—combined with those of Char: “they who enter the world so as not to disturb it deserves neither respect nor patience” 24Translated by the author to the Portuguese from: ”ce qui vient au monde pour ne rien troubler ne mérite ni égards ni patience” (CHAR, René. Fureur et mystère. Paris: Gallimard, 1962. p. 195). Free translation. –define and reflect the stature of the hero and the importance of theater in the debate on the contradictions of the city as a social, political, and religious institution.

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This text was originally published in the book reds (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2020) and revised in June, 2021.

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  • 1
    In the Greek world, theatrical performances took place since the 6th century BC, in Sicily, but the period of greatest dramatic development was in the 5th century BC, in Attica, when around 536/535 BC.
  • 2
    GARCÍA GUAL, Carlos. Enigmático Edipo. Mito y Tragedia. Madrid: FCE, 2012.
  • 3
    At gatherings, during games, and at the theater, these were the seats for citizens who financially sponsored the Choir, thus enjoying the right of presence, which consisted of the permission to sit in the first row during public celebrations, from where they attracted the attention of everyone present at these events.
  • 4
    CUSSET, Christophe. La Tragédie Grecque. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1997, p. 6.
  • 5
    CHANIOTIS, Angelos. “Theatre Rituals”. In: WILSON, Peter (Ed.). The Greek Theatre and Festivals: Documentary Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 48-66.
  • 6
    SIMON, Erika. Festivals of Attica: An Archaeological Commentary. Madison/Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983, p.89.
  • 7
    CASTIAJO, Isabel. O Teatro Grego em Contexto de Representação. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, 2012, p.19
  • 8
    BILLAULT, Allain. La Littérature Grecque. Paris: Hachette, 2000, p. 50.
  • 9
    ARISTÓFANES. Lisístrata. Tradução de Ana Maria César Pompeu. São Paulo: Hedra, 2010, vv. 565-73. The English language translation cited is by JLINDSAY, Jack. Lysistrata. London: Franfolico Press: 1926.
  • 10
    Op. Cit. p. 7.
  • 11
    SÓFOCLES. Antígona. Translated by Maria Helena da Rocha Pereira. Coimbra: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 1992.
  • 12
    VERNANT, Jean-Pierre & VIDALNAQUET, Pierre. Mito e Tragédia na Grécia Antiga I e II. Translated by Anna Lia A. de Almeida Prado; Filomena Yoshie Hirata Garcia; Maria da Conceição M. Cavalcante; Bertha Halpem Gurovitz and Hélio Gurovitz. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1999.
  • 13
    Op. cit., p. 7.
  • 14
    VERNANT & VIDAL-NAQUET. Op. cit., p. XXI.
  • 15
    SOPHOCLES. Rei Édipo. Translated by Maria do Céu Zambujo Fialho. Coimbra: INIC, 1986. The English language version cited is FAGLES, Robert. Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. New York: Penguin, 1984.
  • 16
    Ibidem, vv. 584-85.
  • 17
    SOPHOCLES. Aias. Translated by Flávio Ribeiro de Oliveira. São Paulo: Iluminuras, 2008. The English language version cited is TREVELYAN, R. C. Ajax. London: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1919.
  • 18
    Ibidem, vv. 131-33.
  • 19
    KERÉNYI, Karl. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
  • 20
    ROMILLY, Jacqueline de. La Tragédie Grecque. Paris: Quadrige/Presses Universitaires de France, 1970, p. 54.
  • 21
    Translated by the author from the French “ […] va traiter de l’homme doté d’un libre arbitre mais soumis à des forces incontrôlables, tant endogènes qu’on exogènes. Les appels à la sagesse ne peuvent être entendus par le héros. La question va porter sur comment s’accommoder de ces forces créatrices de violence”. (PAYA, Farid. De la Lettre à la Scène, la Tragédie Grecque. Saussan: L’Entretemps Éditions, 2000. p. 66-7). Free translation.
  • 22
    GARCÍA GUAL, Carlos. Op.cit. p. 130.
  • 23
    SOPHOCLES. Édipo em Colono. Translated by Donaldo Schüler. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2003. Translator’s note: this is my free translation from the Portuguese language version, maintained for clarity in this essay. For comparison, see i.e. STORR, Francis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956: “I slew without intent/A wretch, but innocent/In the law’s eye, I stand, without a stain.”
  • 24
    Translated by the author to the Portuguese from: ”ce qui vient au monde pour ne rien troubler ne mérite ni égards ni patience” (CHAR, René. Fureur et mystère. Paris: Gallimard, 1962. p. 195). Free translation.

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