as Part of The Oresteia Trilogy
a tragedy that was first performed in Athens, Greece, in 458 BC, along
with two other plays: The Libation Bearers
(also called Choephori, ChoŽphoroe, and Choephoroi
in English transliterations from Greek) and The
three plays make up a set known as The Oresteia, considered Aeschylus's
finest work and one of the greatest works in world literature.
they are separate plays~ez_mdash~each one complete
in itself~ez_mdash~the second play continues the story
of the first and the third play continues the story of the second. In addition,
the plays share a common theme: how the justice system of ancient Greece
evolved from a crude, "eye for an eye" system to a civilized system with
courts and trials.
ancient Greece, three plays with a related theme and plot were called a
trilogy. We still use this word today to identify three plays, novels,
films, etc., with related themes and continuing plots. The first three
Star Wars movies are an example of a modern trilogy. The title of
the Aeschylus trilogy is derived from the name of a pivotal character in
The Libation Bearers~ez_mdash~Orestes.
based the plot of Agamemnon and the other plays in The Oresteia
(also spelled Orestea) on a mythological story well known to Greeks
of his time. Because Aeschylus focused his plays only on a later part of
this story, readers need to be familiar with the earlier part in order
to understand the later part. Following is an abbreviated account of the
story up to the time when Aeschylus picks up the story:
was the son of a man named Atreus. When Agamemnon and his younger brother,
Thyestes, were adults, Atreus became King of Mycenae, a city in southern
Greece on a peninsula today known as the Peloponnese. Atreus then drove
his brother out of the city when the latter challenged him for the throne.
One account of this tale says Thyestes had first seduced Atreus~ez_rsquo~s wife,
AŽrope, to gain possession of a lamb with a golden fleece that conferred
on its owner the rulership of Mycenae. When Thyestes left the city, he
took with him Atreus~ez_rsquo~s child, Pleisthenes, and reared the boy.
day, Thyestes sent Pleisthenes on a mission to kill Atreus. But the murder
plot was foiled and Pleisthenes was killed. Atreus did not immediately
realize that the man who tried to kill him was his own son. However, after
he discovered to his horror the identity of the assailant, Atreus hatched
a plot to get even with his brother: He invited Thyestes to a banquet,
pretending he was ready to reconcile with his brother. The main course
turned out to be the cooked remains of the sons of Thyestes. Thyestes ate
heartily of the fare. After he learned of his brother's treachery, he laid
a heavy curse on Atreus and his descendants to get even for this unspeakable
it was that the son of Atreus, Agamemnon, inherited the sin and guilt of
his father, just as Christians of later times inherited the sin and guilt
of Adam and Eve.
then fathered another son, Aegisthus. When he grew up, he and Thyestes
killed Atreus. Thyestes then seized the throne of Atreus and became King
Agamemnon went on to become King of Argos, a city in the Peloponnese, and
later became general of all the Greek armies when Greece declared war on
Troy. However, a cloud of doom~ez_mdash~the curse pronounced by Thyestes~ez_mdash~hovered
over Agamemnon everywhere. It eventually manifested itself at Aulis, a
Greek port city where Agamemnon's fleet had gathered to debark for Troy.
There, the Olympian goddess Artemis~ez_mdash~offended because Agamemnon had killed
an animal sacred to her~ez_mdash~stayed the winds, making it impossible for Agamemnon
and his armies to sail to Greece. The only way to gain favorable winds,
she said, was to sacrifice his young daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon did
so and even gagged his daughter so that, with her last breath, she could
not curse him for this deed. Her death enraged Agamemnon's wife, Queen
Clytemnestra. After Artemis quickened the winds and Agamemnon sailed off
to Troy, Clytemnestra never forgot what Agamemnon did. While he was fighting
the Trojans, she took a lover~ez_mdash~Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes. Together,
Clytemnestra and Aegisthus plotted Agamemnon's murder while he was fighting
at Troy. When the Greeks at long last defeated the Trojans and Clytemnestra
received word that Agamemnon would soon return home as a conquering hero,
Clytemnestra set in motion the murder plan. It is at this point that Aeschylus
picks up the story.
Michael J. Cummings...©
night watchman on the roof of King Agamemnon~ez_rsquo~s palace in Argos sees a mountain-top
fire reddening the horizon. It is a signal that the Trojan War has ended
in a Greek victory and that Agamemnon will soon return home.
the watchman hurries into the palace to report the sighting to Queen Clytemnestra,
a chorus of old men walks to the front of the palace and points out that
ten years have passed since Agamemnon left Argos to lead the Greeks in
the war. The elders remember a seer~ez_rsquo~s prophecy that the king would sacrifice
his and Clytemnestra~ez_rsquo~s daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis in order
to gain favorable winds for his fleet on its journey to Troy. For this
act, it was foretold, there would be retribution. When the time came for
his ships to debark. Artemis withheld the winds because Agamemnon had killed
a stag sacred to her. To loose the winds, the goddess decreed, he had to
pay for his offense by sacrificing Iphigenia. Agamemnon did so. This horrible
act was made even worse when he gagged Iphigenia to prevent her from pronouncing
a curse on him. So enraged was Clytemnestra that her anger never subsided
during the ten years that Agamemnon was at war. The chorus of elders suspects
that the queen is plotting against her husband:
At home there tarries like
a lurking snake, [snake: Clytemnestra]
In addition to recalling the
seer's prophecy, the chorus also recalls the prophecy that the Greeks would
win the war but commit evil in doing so. However, the old men point out
that it was a young Trojan, Paris, who provoked the war. While visiting
Greece, he violated divine and human laws by running off with the beautiful
Helen, wife of Agamemnon~ez_rsquo~s brother, King Menelaus of Sparta. Such an act
was not only an offense against Menelaus as the husband of Helen but also
against Menelaus as the host of Paris. The Spartan king deserved respect
on both accounts.
Biding its time, a wrath
A wily watcher, passionate
In blood, resentment for
a murdered child.
the old men recount these events of a decade ago, Clytemnestra leaves the
palace [through a door at the center of the stage] and lights fires on
a sacrificial altar. She had decreed that similar sacrificial fires be
kindled throughout Argos. When the chorus asks why, she informs them that
she has received notice of a Greek victory in the Trojan War. The message
arrived via a series of signal fires kindled by sentinels posted by her
on mountain tops between Troy and Greece. Even as she speaks, she says,
the Greeks are in Troy celebrating victory. She lit her own sacrificial
fire, she says, to pray that the Greeks are gracious in victory and respect
the gods Troy holds dear.
Yet let them reverence well
the city's gods,
After asking the chorus likewise
to pray for a righteous treatment of the Trojan gods, she returns to the
palace. The chorus then offers of a prayer which thanks Zeus for the victory
and reminds the audience that he punishes all who commit an ungodly offense
like that of Paris when he caused the war.
The lords of Troy, tho'
fallen, and her shrines;
So shall the spoilers not
in turn be spoiled.
Yea, let no craving for
Bid conquerors yield before
the darts of greed.
later, a herald arrives at the palace to confirm that the war has ended
and that Agamemnon is in Greece and soon will return to Argos. The herald
also reports that other returning warriors are unaccounted for, having
apparently been blown off course or lost at sea. There is an implication
here that the gods may have punished them for desecrating Troy's shrines.
When Clytemnestra comes forth, she pretends that she is joyful at the prospect
of reuniting with her husband:
What day beams fairer on
a woman's eyes
speaks here with verbal irony, of course, for she plans to kill Agamemnon
to avenge the death of Iphigenia.
Than this, whereon she flings
the portal wide,
To hail her lord, heaven-shielded,
home from war?
Agamemnon finally appears, he is riding in a chariot at the head of a procession
that includes a chariot carrying a captive princess, the prophetess Cassandra,
who is Agamemnon's concubine. That Agamemnon would bring home a mistress
to live in the same house with his wife further enrages the queen. After
the chorus greets him, Agamemnon salutes his native land and the gods who
helped Greece win its victory and who watched over him when he sailed home.
comes out of the palace and says she endured great agonies when rumors
spoke of Greek woes at Troy, one of which even reported the death of Agamemnon.
(If she did experience agony, it was probably born of disappointment that
she would be denied the opportunity of killing Agamemnon herself.) She
wept. When sleeping~ez_mdash~on the rare occasions
when she could sleep~ez_mdash~she jumped awake at the
slightest sound, she says. After she has her say, she welcomes her husband
and orders handmaidens accompanying her to lay down a path of finest purple
cloth for him to walk on from his chariot to the palace. Agamemnon thanks
his wife for her greeting but declines her invitation to walk on the makeshift
carpet. To do so would be to exhibit great pride offensive to the gods:
A mortal man to set his
Clytemnestra tells him he well deserves to enter the palace like a god.
As an all-conquering hero, he has earned the right to enjoy a stately,
majestic homecoming. Agamemnon gives in. After attendants remove his sandals,
he proceeds into the palace on the purple walkway. Clytemnestra follows.
On these rich dyes? I hold
such pride in fear,
And bid thee honour me as
man, not god.
chorus, still suspicious of Clytemnestra~ez_rsquo~s motives, senses that death has
entered the palace with Agamemnon, for ~ez_ldquo~these wild throbbings of my heart
and breast~ez_mdash~ / Yea, of some doom they tell.~ez_rdquo~
returns and orders Cassandra to enter the palace. When Cassandra does not
respond, Clytemnestra leaves it to the chorus to persuade the girl to accept
the invitation, then goes back inside. After the old men importune Cassandra
to obey the command, she prophesies that she and Agamemnon both will die
if she sets foot inside the palace. Nevertheless, she agrees to go inside,
stoically accepting the fate she knows awaits her. Before entering the
palace, she makes another prediction: The day will come when deadly vengeance
is exacted against those about to murder her and Agamemnon.
after Cassandra enters the palace, the chorus hears Agamemnon crying out
that he has been struck down. Moments later, he cries out again after suffering
another blow. The members of the chorus fear that their own lives are in
danger. While they try to decide what to do, Clytemnestra opens the palace
door, revealing the corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra.
qualm, she admits killing her husband, saying she struck him three times
in all and that the blood spurting forth was as sweet as ~ez_ldquo~the rain of heaven
to cornland.~ez_rdquo~ When the chorus asks what drove her to kill her husband,
Clytemnestra, as expected, cites Agamemnon~ez_rsquo~s sacrifice of Iphigenia as
the primary reason. But she says she did the deed for another reason as
well: Agamemnon had been unfaithful to her and even had the audacity to
bring Cassandra, his paramour, back to Greece with him. Now both of them
have received their just deserts.
chorus accuses her of having ensnared Agamemnon in a ~ez_ldquo~spider-web of treachery~ez_rdquo~
and predicts an avenger will one day visit its wrath upon her. Clytemnestra
answers that she was merely the agent of vengeance, an executioner who
carried out a just sentence on a man condemned by his own actions.
second motive for killing Agamemnon, infidelity, rings of hypocrisy, for
she herself was guilty of infidelity when Agamemnon was at Troy. She took
a lover, Aegisthus, who conspired with her to murder Agamemnon. Aegisthus
had long thirsted for Agamemnon~ez_rsquo~s blood as a result of the deadly feud
between his and Agamemnon~ez_rsquo~s family.
now takes his place at the side of Clytemnestra, declaring that he too
exults in the death of Agamemnon. Defiantly, he admits ~ez_ldquo~plotting and planning
all that malice bade.~ez_rdquo~ The chorus condemns him:
Thou womanish man, waiting
till war did cease,
Clytemnestra ends the
play by telling Aegisthus:
Home-watcher and defiler
of the couch,
And arch-deviser of the
Heed not thou too highly
of them~ez_mdash~let the cur-pack growl and yell:
I and thou will rule the
palace and will order all things well..
action takes place in Argos, Greece, at the palace of King Agamemnon. Argos
is a city on a mountainous peninsula, the Peloponnese, that makes up southern
Greece. The peninsula is south of the Gulf of Corinth and north of the
Mediterranean Sea. Argos is in the northeastern part of the peninsula.
Citizens of Argos were called
of Argos. She plans to murder her husband, King Agamemnon, because he sacrificed
their innocent daughter, Iphigenia, to gain favorable winds from the gods
for his sea voyage to Troy. Clytemnestra is strong-willed and ruthless,
a man in womanly dress.
Agamemnon King of
Argos and general of all the Greek armies that defeated the Trojans in
a long war. He is the son of Atreus, who was cursed by his brother, Thyestes,
after Atreus killed his sons. Agamemnon inherited this curse
Chorus Elderly men
of Argos who express views in unison to reflect the views of the citizens
Leader of the Chorus
of the chorus who individually addresses Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Cassandra,
and the herald.
of the King of Troy. Agamemnon brings her home with him as a captive concubine.
paramour and son of Thestes, who pronounced the curse on the House of Atreus
who sees the mountain-top beacon fire signaling the end of the Trojan War.
who announces the arrival of Agamemnon in Argos.
typical Greek play written by an author after the time of Aeschylus has
only one protagonist, a person of noble lineage who suffers a downfall
partly because of a flaw (or flaws) in his character. Usually, when the
protagonist suffers his downfall, he experiences a moment of enlightenment
in which he acknowledges the flaw.
this play, King Agamemnon suffers a downfall~ez_mdash~a
humiliating death~ez_mdash~partly because of flaws
in his character that caused him to make bad decisions. But he does not
experience a moment of enlightenment (unless one interprets his passive,
compliant demeanor upon his return to Argos as a signal that he realizes
he has sinned, that his wife desires revenge, and that he expects to be
As for Queen Clytemnestra,
she does not suffer a downfall in this play and does not experience a moment
of enlightenment. However, she does have flaws and is prophesied to suffer
a downfall. This downfall, her death, occurs in the second play of the
Which character, then, is
the main character (protagonist)?
could argue in favor of either character~ez_mdash~Agamemnon
for the aforementioned reasons, as well as the fact that he is the title
character and that his past actions and family history dominate the choral
songs; Clytemnestra for her flaws and predicted downfall, as well as the
fact that she speaks far more lines than Agamemnon and comes under greater
because Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon before the Greeks canonized the requirements
for tragedy~ez_mdash~some of which he introduced to
Greek drama~ez_mdash~his characters cannot be measured
by later standards. In the end, it may be more sensible to identify both
Clytemnestra and Agamemnon as protagonists (when using protagonist
as a synonym for main character).
The Curse, the "Eye for an Eye" Ethic
overall theme of the Oresteia~ez_mdash~the evolution
of the Greek justice system~ez_mdash~suggests that
the forces operating against Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are the antagonists.
These forces include the curse of inherited guilt that dogs Agamemnon and
the overpowering desire for vengeance that drives Clytemnestra and the
gods offended by human actions.
Themes of the Trilogy
Retribution and Revenge
gods of ancient Greece required humankind to pay for its sins. Sons and
daughters of sinners could inherit the sins of their parents, just as the
descendants of Adam and Eve were destined to inherit original sin in Christian
theology. But of course each Greek also had free will, enabling him or
her to choose good or evil. Agamemnon inherited the sin of his father,
Atreus, in the form of a curse pronounced on Agamemnon by his brother,
Thyestes. In the Aeschylus play, Agamemnon thus seems doubly cursed. On
the one hand, he bears the guilt of his father; on the other, he bears
his own guilt for sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, and for participating
in the destruction of Troy~ez_rsquo~s holy places.
could argue that the circumstances forcing him to decide whether to sacrifice
his daughter arose as a result of the curse pronounced on the House of
Atreus by Thyestes. Whatever the case, Agamemnon lives under the weight
of inherited sin and sin that he wills. Of course, killing his daughter
and defiling Troy~ez_rsquo~s altars are not his only sins; he also commits adultery
and indulges his own pride by walking on the purple carpet. After Clytemnestra
murders him, she defends her action by saying she represented the gods
carrying out a divine sentence. But it is obvious that she is also a human
avenger getting even for the murder of her daughter and for Agamemnon~ez_rsquo~s
infidelity. Ironically, Clytemnestra has also been unfaithful~ez_mdash~with
the son of the man who was wronged by Atreus. At the end of the play, the
chorus declares that another avenger will appear to exact revenge against
Evolution of Personal
Vengeance Into a Civilized Court System
very early Greek history, as well as in the myths and legends recounted
by early Greek writers, it was up to individuals to mete out justice for
wrongs committed against them. Courts and trials as we know them today
did not exist. In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra takes justice into her
own hands; she believes she has a right to kill Agamemnon in retaliation
for his killing of their daughter, Iphigenia. In her own mind, Clytemnestra
has tried and convicted her husband. When she kills him, she becomes an
executioner. In short, she personifies the entire justice system. In The
Libation Bearers, Orestes~ez_mdash~with the support
of his sister, Electra~ez_mdash~assumes the role of
judge, jury, and executioner, condemning and killing his mother to avenge
the death of his father. In
The Eumenides, the Furies attempt to
avenge the death of Clytemnestra. However, two powerful gods, Apollo and
Athena, intervene. Athena establishes a court to try Orestes for his alleged
crime. Apollo testifies for Orestes and the Furies against him. In the
end, Orestes is exonerated, and the court system replaces the old "eye
for an eye" system.
Agamemnon, Argos is a male-dominated society that reduces women
to subservient roles. However, Clytemnestra is a strong woman who rules
the kingdom while Agamemnon is away. When he returns from the war to resume
his rule, Clytemnestra is expected to yield to him. It may well be, though,
that Clytemnestra is wedded to the throne, as it were, and has decided
to kill Agamemnon not only as an act of vengeance but also as an act of
ambition. This motif receives further attention in The Libation Bearers.
In this play, Clytemnestra is described as a tyrant who oppresses the citizens
of Argos and enslaves her own daughter. It almost appears as if testosterone,
not estrogen, drives her. When Orestes plots her death, he cites reclamation
of the throne from a woman as one of one of his goals. After killing Clytemnestra,
Orestes is pursued by female deities, the Furies, and saved by a male deity,
Apollo. Of course, a female deity has the last word: In The Eumenides,
the goddess Athena votes to acquit Orestes, the pacifies the enraged Furies.
Her action not only establishes a new order of justice but also reconciles
the warring sexes.
Importance of Heeding
the Will of the Gods
Agamemnon, the title character faces doom in part because he sometimes
failed to respect the gods and their laws. First, he killed an animal sacred
to Artemis (an act alluded to but not described in detail in the Aeschylus
play). For this offense, she prevented Agamemnon and his armies from gaining
favorable winds for their voyage to Troy. The only way for him to reverse
her action, she decreed, was to sacrifice his daughter. Second, he exhibited
excessive pride on several occasions as commander of the Greek forces.
Third, he allowed his soldiers to desecrate the holy places of Troy. After
his return to Argos, he allowed his pride to get the better of him again,
this time by walking in triumph on the purple carpet. Pride was considered
a grave sin in ancient Greece because it placed too much emphasis on individual
will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and endangering the community
as a whole. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes hesitates when the
time comes to kill Clytemnestra. His friend, Pylades, convinces him of
the necessity of the act by reminding him that Apollo ordered the killing.
In The Eumenides, everyone~ez_mdash~including
the Furies~ez_mdash~accepts the will of Athena.
Fickleness of the Gods
gods of Greek mythology could be fickle and hypocritical, just like humans.
Not infrequently, they violated laws which they commanded humans to obey.
For example, they frequently committed infidelity. They also lied, promoted
violence, and displayed inordinate pride. In Agamemnon, the goddess
Artemis exhibited hypocrisy when she withheld favorable winds from Agamemnon
for killing one of her sacred animals. To understand her hypocrisy in this
case, one must understand what her roles were. First, she was a protector
of wild animals while also serving as the patron deity of hunters. She
herself was a huntress. Yet she penalized Agamemnon for doing what she
often did: kill an animal. Second, as a virgin goddess, she was the patron
of chastity. Yet she told Agamemnon that she would not cancel her penalty
unless he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, a virgin. Artemis thus exhibited
hostility toward two humans she was supposed to favor: a hunter and a virgin.
In Agamemnon, Aeschylus does not explicitly address the issue of
divine hypocrisy, but he does allude to it~ez_mdash~intentionally
or unintentionally~ez_mdash~in choral songs.
Infidelity: A Motif in
and The Libation Bearers
Agamemnon and Clytemnestra commit adultery~ez_mdash~he
with Cassandra, whom he brings home from Troy as a captive, and she with
Aegisthus, the son of the bitter enemy of Agamemnon~ez_rsquo~s father. Although
Agamemnon's infidelity is not the main reason that Clytemnestra killed
Agamemnon, it helps her to drive her weapon into his skull. Before Orestes
kills Clytemnestra in The Libation Bearers, he cites his mother's
his mother's infidelity with Aegisthus as one of his motives, although
it is not the main motive.
climax of the play is the murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra.
Darkness and Light
uses images of darkness and light to symbolize the emergence of Greece
from the primitive age of personal revenge and vigilante justice, during
which powerful monarchs ruled city states, to the civilized age of law
courts, during which the people ruled through democracy. In the Oresteia,
the transition from one age to the other begins in the first play, Agamemnon,
when the watchman observes a mountain-top signal fire lighting the night
sky to alert Argos that the Trojan War has ended. Dawn follows shortly
thereafter. From then on, images of darkness and light vie with each other,
symbolizing the cultural and social struggle taking place.
There is a kind of birth
going on, and there are labor pains. The newborn child finally sees the
light of day, for good, in the third play of the trilogy.
The Purple Carpet and
Cassandra's Saffron Robe
color of the carpet on which Agamemnon walks into the palace is significant.
The Greek word Aeschylus used to described this color has been rendered
in English as purple by some translators and red by other
translators. Both translations are correct insofar as some purples appear
reddish and some reds appear purplish. In fact, purple is sometimes
used as a synonym for crimson, a shade of deep red. Since ancient
times, purple has signified imperial, godlike power, as indicated by the
purple robes kings and emperors have worn. It has also been associated
with strong emotion and blood. (The association of purple~ez_mdash~a
mixture of blue and red~ez_mdash~with blood seems scientifically
sound, for deoxygenated blood takes on a bluish or purplish hue~ez_mdash~as
in cyanosis~ez_mdash~and oxygenated blood becomes bright
red). The purple carpet therefore appears to symbolize (1) the pride, or
hubris, that afflicts Agamemnon as conqueror of Troy and King of Argos;
(2) the wrath of Clytemnestra; and (3) the bloody death that awaits Agamemnon.
The saffron-colored robe worn by Cassandra also appears to symbolize the
coming bloodbath~ez_mdash~for her as well as Agamemnon.
A saffron is a flower with large purple leaves.
Animal and Insect Images
Agamemnon, eagles, hares, spiders, and other creatures exhibit the
behavior patterns of humans, figuratively speaking, and thus become symbols
for those humans. For example, spiders and snakes are associated with Clytemnestra
because she has spun a web of treachery (like a spider) and has poised
herself (like a coiling snake) to strike at Agamemnon. Eagles that prey
on a pregnant hare are associated with Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus,
because they are fierce warriors destined to destroy Troy (the hare) and
its future (the hare's offspring). In the third play of the trilogy, The
Eumenides, the spider-web metaphor appears again when the god Apollo
describes how Clytemnestra trapped Agamemnon:
She spread from head to
foot a covering net,
And in the endless mesh
of cunning robes
Enwound and trapped her
lord, and smote him down.
The plays of Aeschylus are
rich in a wide range of figures of speech that infuse his writing with
dignity and majesty. Here are examples from Agamemnon and The
Paradox, Hyperbole, Synecdoche
As saith the adage, from
the womb of Night................[womb of
Night: metaphor, personification]
Spring forth, with promise
fair, the young child Light.....[womb of Night
/ child Light: paradox
even than all hope my news~ez_mdash~....................[fairer
even than all hope: hyperbole
By Grecian hands is Priam's
city ta'en!.......................[by Grecian
and play: Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, referring to the Greek victory
over the Trojans
O mighty Hermes, warder of
the shades,..................[O mighty Hermes:
Herald of upper and of under
Proclaim and usher down
my prayer's appeal
Unto the gods below, that
they with eyes
Watchful behold these halls.
My sire's of old~ez_mdash~
And unto Earth, the mother
of all things,...................[Earth, the
mother: personification, metaphor]
And loster-nurse, and womb
that takes their seed.
and play: Electra in The Libation Bearers while praying at the tomb
(525-456 B.C.) was the first of ancient Greece's
great tragedians. Because of the standards of excellence he established
and because of innovations he made in the staging of Greek drama, he is
often referred to as the "father of Greek tragedy." Before Aeschylus wrote
and staged his plays, Greek drama consisted primarily of choral songs,
recitations, and dances, as well as dialogue expressed by a single actor
who generally played more than one part. (The actor wore a mask that signified
which character he was playing at a given time. When he switched characters,
he changed masks.) Aeschylus added a second actor, enabling the first actor
to engage in dialogue with the second actor and providing greater latitude
for plot development. He also increased the dialogue portions of plays,
reduced the lyrical portions of the chorus, and designed stage sets and
Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage,
and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring
the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dionysia, the Greeks
danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One
day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue,
to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done
so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging
them in a theater.
contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the ~ez_lsquo~tyrant' whom
the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival
into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters
of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals,
and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate
Major Sections of the
tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron
faced the east to allow the audience to view plays~ez_mdash~usually
staged later in the day~ez_mdash~without squinting.
stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the
midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors.
orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections
Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and
sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became
a background showing appropriate scenery.
Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from