Greek Drama-rama

GREEK THEATRE in Athens began some 2,500 years ago – around 600 BC – but its form, technique and terminology have lasted into modern theatre. Greek festivals evolved from religious rites going back to about 1200 BC when the cult of Dionysus led to somewhat emotional displays of dancing (those of you who were part of the 60s/70s era will know what I mean). Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele and so was one of the 12 Olympian gods (he was god of wine, fertility, grapes, ecstasy, madness, pleasure, festivity, etc – you get the drift).



Initially the rites of Dionysus were led by the dithyramb (‘choric hymn’). This was sung/chanted by a Greek chorus of up to fifty men or boys (no women or girls in ancient Greek theatre). They may have been dressed as satyrs (men with horses’ ears and tail, servants of Dionysus) and some probably played the flute, lyre and drums. The gist of the hymn would relate to some incident in the life of Dionysus or just be celebrating wine and fertility in his name. Good a reason as any.


Dithyramb from ancient Greek vase

Circa 600 BC, Arion of Mehtymna (Corinth) wrote down formal lyrics for the dithyramb. Then, sometime during the next 75 years, Thespis of Attica added an actor who interacted with the audience. And that is where the word thespians (actors) today comes from. This actor was known at the protagonist, meaning the main character of a drama. In 534 BC, Pisistratus (the Athenian ‘tyrant’) changed the Dionysus festivals and introduced drama competitions. Thespis is said to have won the first competition. Around this time the Theatre of Dionysus was built in Athens (what remains today is mainly from the 4th century BC).


Theatre of Dionysus, Athens – seated 17,000 people

The Theatre at Epidaurus, in the east Peloponnese of Greece, is still used today for Greek plays (but not always in Greek – Sarah I went there a few years ago when four Greek plays were presented in German and to a modern setting – it just didn’t work for either of us). The theatre was designed by Polykleitos the Younger in the 4th century BC and originally had 34 rows of seats which were extended at the top to another 21 rows by the Romans. The view of a lush landscape behind the skene was an integral part of the theatre itself and not to be obscured.

Theatre of Epidaurus ‘today’ – seats 14,000 people, viewing a lush landscape background

The government authority (the archon) chose the competitors and a wealthy patron (choregos) financed the production. In return, the patron paid no taxes that year. So funding the arts was a way of tax avoidance (not evasion – apparently that is something different). You can see from the diagram below how the theatre was set up and how the names were used:

greek theatron

               Theatron: ‘seeing space’;  Orchestra: ‘dancing place’;  Skene: ‘scene building’; Parados: ‘entrance’

Plays were performed in the daytime and were spread over several days in Athens. There was little or no scenery and most the action took place in the orchestra by the ‘chorus’. When there came an important shift from chorus to characters, the action moved to the skene (then became ‘the stage’). The chorus literally means ‘dance’ and most Greek choruses blended music, dance and song. The chorus entered the orchestra during the parados (‘entrance speech’) and remained there for the whole play. Its purpose was to create ‘doom and gloom’ to come (‘foreshadowing’) and some suspense to help the audience understand what was happening (although with the  later tragedies, the audiences already knew the plots).

Types of plays

Tragedy (Tragodia) comes from tragos and ode meaning ‘goat song’. The reason the word is used is obscure but it could either mean that the chorus was dressed in goat skins, or a goat was the prize for the best song/play (hmmmm …. ok). Tragedies, usually trilogies, were centred around the rise and downfall of the ‘hero’ (from Homeric epic or mythology) and the conclusion was usually a messenger coming out to tell the audience of the tragic consequences of the characters action (never good). The main tragedy poets of the 5th century BC were Aeschylus (who added a second actor, the antagonist, and reduced the chorus from 50 to 12); Sophocles (who added a third actor and put more emphasis on interaction between humans rather than humans and gods); and Euripides (whose plays were more about real people). Due to the limited number of main actors, masks were worn by all at all times (that way one or two actors could play different parts – also, masks may have amplified the voice).


Aeschylus (525-456 BC)                  Sophocles (496-406 BC)                  Euripides  (484-406 BC)

Satyr had to be submitted to a magistrate (archon eponymos) along with three tragedies for a competition. A satyr play, although implies comedy, was actually somewhere between tragedy and comedy – sort of tragicomedy – and, again, taken from epic or mythology. The only satyr play to survive in its entirety is Euripides’ Cyclops based on Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops, Polyphemus (not exactly an hysterical tale). They were performed at the end or between the 2nd and 3rd Tragedy play for a bit of ‘light’ relief. You needed a break!


Papposilenus playing the crotals, type of the satyr play

Comedy was slapstick and crude humour and appeared for the Festival of Lenaia in March. Such plays had happy endings and the characters usually found a solution to the original conflict of the play (rather like farce). Aristophanes (old satirical comedy) and Menander (new farcical comedy) were the best known comic playwrights of the 5th-4th centuries BC. The democracy of Athens allowed for free speech and these guys made good use of that. Aristophanes particularly disliked warmongers and made that clear in his plays (occasionally finding himself in court for defamatory remarks against a pro-war fanatic called Cleon).

                                Bust of Menander

                            Aristophanes (446-386 BC)                             Menander (342-290 BC)

Athenian drama waned somewhat around 404 BC with the defeat of the Athenians by the Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War. Athens was never the same again. In fact, nor was drama …….. until a chap called Shakespeare came along some two thousand years later in the 17th century. So there you have it.  Don’t you feel better informed? ……… No. Okay.

Juries – a good thing or a bad thing?

IN THE FINAL scene of the final play of the Oresteia trilogy (The Eumenides) by the Greek playwright, Aeschylus, Orestes is at the Areopagus in Athens facing trial by a jury of twelve. The play was first performed in 458 BC and is probably the first reference to trial by jury in the history of man.

Aeschylus (525-456 BC)

Juries have been used in the English legal system for over 1000 years (set up in the 12th century by Henry II), representing a person’s right to trial by ‘the lawful judgement of his peers’. By the middle of the 15th century, juries had become independent assessors and assumed their modern role as deciders of fact. Well, I say ‘independent’, in the famous Bushell’s Case of 1670, it had to battle for such independence.

The case came about from a previous case involving two Quakers, William Penn and William Mead, who had been charged with unlawful assembly. The two Quakers were challenging the Conventicle Act, which restricted certain religious practices. The judge had charged the jury that they “shall not be dismissed until we have a verdict that the court will accept.” (note: ‘that the court will accept’!). When the jury decided to acquit, the judge was not willing to accept it and sent them back to reconsider, fining them in the process. Edward Bushel, one of the jurors, refused to pay the fine and so the judge threatened him with, “You shall be locked up without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco. You shall not think thus to abuse the court; we will have a verdict, by the help of God, or you shall starve for it.”

Bushel took the case to the Court of Common Pleas (sort of equivalent to the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court today) where it was established by Sir John Vaughan that a jury could not be coerced into giving a particular verdict. This case established unequivocally the independence of the jury.

Sir John Vaughan (1603-1674)

Despite this, well into the 19th century, some jurors were locked up without ‘food or fire, water or candle’ until they reached a verdict – any verdict would do now , not necessarily as expected by the court. There are numerous interesting cases in which deliberations went on in this manner for so long that jurors fainted and doctors were summoned.

However, the very fact that a jury system is steeped in time has led to the debate over whether it has become outdated. Certainly we know of some pretty odd decisions being made – and many, I imagine, that we don’t know about. In one case, R v Young, in 1994, the jury found the defendant, Stephen Young, guilty of the murder of Harry Fuller and his wife, Nicola, after four of its members (during an overnight stay in the hotel …. and some alcohol) had contacted one of deceased victims by way of a séance and a Ouija Board! This only came to light because one of the jurors panicked and reported it. Generally we would not know how or why a jury comes to its decision and its deliberations are private – so you may be found guilty by the toss of a coin. Hardly in the spirit of justice. (Young was in fact retried and found guilty again, presumably without the assistance of either Harry or Nicola).

Ouija Board – win some, lose some!

In some instances juries completely ignore the law and go for what is called a decision of conscience. One such case was R v Ponting (1985) in which a civil servant was charged under the old Official Secrets Act 1911 for leaking information to an opposition MP about the sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands War. There was no doubt he had committed the offence and, despite the judge ruling that there was no defence, the jury refused to convict him seeing as he was acting for ‘public interest’.  In other words, the public had the right to know if the government was being economical with the truth – and rightly so. Who needs laws ….

Clive Ponting

Clive Ponting – in the public conscience …..

In his 1985 book, What Next in the Law?, that great judge, Lord Denning, said, “… the chances, by sheer weight of numbers, are loaded heavily against the jurors being sensible and responsible members of the community.” Far be it for me to comment further.  However, juries have made critical mistakes. Take R v Bentley for example. In that case the Court of Appeal decided in 1998 that Derek Bentley was not guilty of the murder of a policeman as decided by the jury in December 1952. Unfortunately, as a result of the jury’s decision, Bentley had been hanged in January 1953.

Lord Denning (1899-1999)

The American comedian, Norm Crosby observed, “When you go into court you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.” Mind you, Grouch Marx once said, “I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.”

Want to know more about juries and the English Legal System? You should do. If you haven’t already (why not?), find out more by downloading onto your kindle, iPad, phone, or whatever, my fascinating e-book on the subject, Do you know your law from your elbow? Click here.  



Next week: Thomas Edward Booth of the Booth Museum, Brighton

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My good friend, the Very Reverend Uriah Doorstopp, told me of a tale of his cousin who was an archaeologist. Apparently he (the cousin) was in the deepest jungle and suddenly found himself surrounded by what he perceived to be a bloodthirsty group of headhunters. Upon surveying the situation, he said quietly to himself, “Oh God, I’m in big trouble.” There was a ray of light from heaven and a voice boomed out, “No you are NOT in big trouble. Pick up that stone at your feet and hit the head of the chief standing in front of you.”

So his cousin picked up the stone and proceeded to hit the chief over the head.  As he stood above the lifeless body, breathing heavily and surrounded by 100 possible headhunters with a look of shock on their faces, the voice from above boomed out again, “Okay, NOW you’re in big trouble.”