Dionysus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece

Dionysus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece

Dionysus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece

Dionysus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece


What is the nature of theatre's uneasy alliance with literature? Theatre historian and drama theorist Jennifer Wise believes that a comparison of the performance style of oral epic with that of drama as it emerged in 6th-century Greece shows the extent to which theatre was influenced by literate activities relatively new to the ancient world.


Yes, my dear, when you have first shown me what it is you have in your left hand, under your cloak. For I suspect you have the actual text. Plato

The abdomen is the reason why man does not easily take himself for a god.


ONE FINE DAY IN FIFTH-CENTURY ATHENS, OUTSIDE THE THEATRE OF Dionysus, the great philosophy teacher Socrates was delivering a lecture, and Plato chanced to hear him. Now Plato, barely twenty years old, was already something of a poet by this time, having composed dithyrambs and other lyrics; he had also just written a tragedy, and was planning to submit it to the upcoming contest in drama. Our source for this story does not reveal the subject of Socrates' talk; but whatever it was, it must have had a sensational effect on Plato, for as a result of it, he renounced playwriting forever. We know nothing about what happened to Plato's work in the predramatic genres of choral and solo lyric; but the tragedy he had written for submission to the theatre festival suffered a remarkable fate under Socrates' pedagogical influence: Plato consigned it to the flames (Diogenes Laertius Plato 3.5-6).

Plato went on, of course, to make his name as a writer of dialogues, a literary form whose connections to drama are intriguing to say the least. Like drama, the philosophical dialogue focuses on the speech of speakers at the expense of almost all surrounding lexical and narrative material. Like drama, its "stories" are cast in terms of an interlocutory situation. But the difference between drama and the dialogue, as far as literary form goes, is perhaps ultimately more significant still: what is implied by all dramatic texts, the bodies of performers, is not required by the Platonic dialogue. Regardless of what Plato may have intended in composing them, his dialogues . . .

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