Myth into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece

By H. A. Shapiro | Go to book overview

4

DRAMA

Greek drama was said to have originated with a performance staged in Athens by one Thespis in the year 538 B.C.. We know nothing of what this first performance was like, but it is a safe assumption that it bore little resemblance to the surviving plays of the three great fifth-century tragedians. Aeschylus, earliest of the three, was probably born about 525 (he fought at the Battle of Marathon in 490) and could well have been presenting plays by 500 or soon after, yet the first one we can securely date is the Persians of 472. Thus Attic tragedy, as we now have it, is essentially a Classical genre, developing in the years after the Persian invasion of 480/79 and ending with the late works of Sophocles and Euripides, in the last decade of the fifth century. Although Pindar and Bacchylides might well have witnessed productions of their contemporary Aeschylus, whether the originals in Athens or revivals in Sicily, it is fair to say that their victory odes and dithyrambs represent the end of an Archaic tradition in Greek poetry, while the playwright heralds the creation of a new Classical genre.

This is not to say, however, that the new genre broke with the past in its choice of subject-matter. The Persians is the only extant tragedy that draws for its subject on recent historical events; all the others treat myths that were well known to the Athenian audience from earlier epic and lyric verse. Aeschylus’ plays were called in antiquity “slices from the banquet of Homer.” The same could be said of Euripides and Sophocles, if by “Homer” we understand the whole sweep of the Epic Cycle. In fact, this is the only way to interpret this famous phrase, since neither among the preserved plays of Aeschylus, nor among those of the other two tragedians, is there one based on an episode told in the Iliad or Odyssey. This may be partly an accident of preservation, but it also suggests that the playwrights tended to avoid direct borrowing from Homer and instead exploited epic material that was not as closely connected with the famous bard.

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Myth into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • Preface xix
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - Epic 11
  • 3 - Lyric 71
  • 4 - Drama 124
  • Bibliography 183
  • Index 192
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