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The Origins of Greek Drama

  • N. P. Miller


Various difficulties beset the scholar investigating the origins of Greek drama. The ancient evidence is fragmentary, sometimes unreliable, and often difficult to interpret; Greek drama is the original drama, and from those to whom dramatic representation is a commonplace a real effort of imagination is required in dealing with its possible origins and early history; and scholars of a previous age, writing under the influence of early anthropological studies and their generation's innate notion of progress as ordered and inevitable, have sometimes bedevilled the whole investigation. Not all of these difficulties can be removed, nor are they without their compensating advantages. Anthropology can provide very interesting and suggestive parallels, and can help us to see significance where we might otherwise have missed it; and ritual no doubt has much to do with the beginnings of drama. But in attempting to explain the existence of the great drama of fifth-century Greece, we should do well to view with suspicion any theory which traces a direct and merely thickening line from primitive ritual to Aeschylus or Aristophanes, and regards the plays not as dramas but as interesting sources of evidence for primitive ‘survivals’. The more new facts about the origins (the plural is used with intent) of drama become known, the more complex these origins appear; and however much an artist is influenced (as he must be) by the conventions and inheritance of his own age, we should remember that that inheritance will include conscious intelligence and individual genius, as well as primitive ritual and superstition.



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page 126 note 1 The invaluable reviews by T. B. L. Webster and K. J. Dover in Fifty Years of Classical Scholarship (Oxford, 1954), 80–83 and 112–15, are mainly for the specialist. So far as I am aware, there is not in English any general discussion of the whole problem, and this paper is an attempt to supply one.

page 126 note 2 There is no evidence for the existence of, e.g., Chinese, Indian, or Japanese drama as early as the fifth century b.c.; and Egyptian ritual did not develop into drama proper.

page 126 note 3 As is done, e.g., in different ways by G. Murray (in Harrison, J. E., Themis, Cambridge, 1912, 341–63), Ridgeway, W. (The Origin of Tragedy, Cambridge, 1910), and Cornford, F. M. (The Origin of Attic Comedy, London, 1914).

page 127 note 1 I owe this quotation to an article by Pascal, R. in Modern Language Review (1941), 369–87, ‘On the Origins of the Liturgical Drama of the Middle Ages’.

page 127 note 2 e.g. Herodotos v. 67 on τραγικο⋯ χοροί the note on Arion in Suidas, and the information about Thespis.

page 127 note 3 For further details see Webster, T. B. L., Greek Theatre Production (London, 1956), 2938, 129, 131–5.

page 127 note 4 See Pickard-Cambridge, A. W., Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy (Oxford, 1927), Figs. 37–39; Webster, , op. cit., PL 5: Bieber, M., History of the Greek and Roman Theater (Princeton, 1939), Fig. 83.

page 127 note 5 Webster, , op. cit., Pls. 3, 4.

page 127 note 6 Pickard-Cambridge, , op. cit., Fig. 18.

page 127 note 7 Id., Dramatic Festivals of Athens (Oxford, 1953), Fig. 162.

page 127 note 8 Id., Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy, Fig. 38.

page 127 note 9 Ibid., Figs. 19–23.

page 127 note 10 Pollux, , iv. 150–1.

page 128 note 1 Arist. Poet. 1448a29 f.

page 128 note 2 Ibid. 1449a9 f.

page 128 note 3 Ibid. 1449a20 f.

page 128 note 4 The evidence is conveniently listed by Pickard-Cambridge, , Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy, 97100.

page 128 note 5 Other explanations have been offered for the forms found in tragic lyric; but they are most probably Doric. See Björck, G., Alpha impurum (Uppsala, 1950).

page 128 note 6 Poet. 1448a36 f.

page 128 note 7 Vesp. 57; Ach. 738.

page 128 note 8 Eth. Nic. 1123a23 f.; Poet. 1448a31 f.

page 128 note 9 Kaibel, G., Comicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (Berlin, 1958), 88 f. Epicharmos probably based his comedy on the farce apparently native to Dorian cities; and if he was in fact the first writer to connect such farcical scenes into a coherent plot, on a theme invented by himself, then his claim to be considered the ‘inventor’ of comedy is a strong one.

page 129 note 1 See above, p. 127.

page 129 note 2 Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy, 123–9.

page 129 note 3 Archilochos, Fr. 77; Epicharmos, Fr. 132.

page 129 note 4 e.g. Homer, , Il. xviii. 316, xxiv. 720–2.

page 129 note 5 Hdt. i. 23; Suidas s.v.

page 130 note 1 Athen. 622 b, d.

page 130 note 2 Herakleitos, Fr. B 15 (Diels–Kranz, , Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Berlin, 1951).

page 130 note 3 Athen, loc. cit.

page 130 note 4 Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy, 124–6.

page 130 note 5 See above, p. 127, n. 3.

page 130 note 6 e.g. as a satyr's counterpart in a phallic procession (Webster, , op. cit., Pl 2), or representing the satyrs who accompanied the Return of Hephaistos (Bieber, op. cit., Fig. 83).

page 130 note 7 On the Hephaistos vases, for example, or wearing the characteristic panther-skin. See Payne, H., Necrocorintkia (Oxford, 1931), 121.

page 130 note 8 Webster, , op. cit., 135.

page 130 note 9 See the Naples vase (Webster, , op. cit., Pl 8).

page 131 note 1 else, G., Aristotle's Poetics (Harvard, 1957), 172–8, rejects this phrase as spurious. His definition of τ⋯ σατυρικόν and his theory of the development of tragedy are too narrow; and his argument is unlikely in view of the archaeological evidence.

page 131 note 2 Suidas s.v.

page 131 note 3 else, G. in Hermes, lxxxv (1957), 17 f., argues that τραγῳδός = the tragic poet, and connects it with Thespis and the first actor. The weight of the evidence is against him.

page 131 note 4 Cf. Sophokles, , Ichneutai 358 (Pearson); Euripides, , Cyclops 7680; Plutarch, de inint. util. 86. The shaggy loin-cloths of the fifth-century satyrs probably indicate a goatish ancestry.

page 131 note 5 A goat would be a suitable prize for a new competition at a festival in honour of a god sometimes worshipped in goat form.

page 131 note 6 See above, p. 129.

page 132 note 1 Pickard-Cambridge, , op. cit., Fig. 18.

page 132 note 2 Another vase (Pickard-Cambridge, op. cit., Fig. 17), showing men dressed as cocks, may belong to the early years of comedy or may also antedate the dramatic form.

page 132 note 3 This is not seriously disputed by anyone except R. Stumpft, Kultspiele der Germanen als Ursprung des mittelalterlichen Dramas (Berlin, 1936), who finds the mainspring in tribal initiatory rites; but all his significant points belong to the later plays, the earlier ones being very close to the liturgy and Bible narrative, and obviously a dramatization of those. See Pascal, , op. cit. 372.

page 132 note 4 Pascal, loc. cit., claims that the earliest dramatic forms are esoteric and not aimed at the congregation. Whatever the truth about this, the seed of dramatic presentation is clearly to be found in the elaborate liturgy of the time.

page 133 note 1 Regularis Concordia, ed. Symons, T. (London, 1953), 4950, § 51.

page 133 note 2 Our surviving texts of the plays are continental, but records show that similar plays were performed in England in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Cf. Fitzstephen, W., Life of St. Thomas à Becket (Giles, J. A., Patres Ecclesiae Anglicanae [Oxford, 1845], i. 178, Vita S. Thomae Cant.).

page 134 note 1 They may already have been connected, but this we cannot prove.

page 135 note 1 The progress from Thespis to Aeschylus is really no more sudden than other literary progressions. English drama moved quite rapidly from Interludes to Shakespeare, and Greek prose literature from Ionian logographoi to Herodotos with considerable speed.

page 135 note 2 Aeschylus has his own claim to be called the ‘inventor’ of tragedy: if the Dorians ‘invented’ the raw material and Thespis the essential actor, Aeschylus first showed what the new form was capable of expressing.

page 136 note 1 Shakespeare's range is wider because, among other reasons, his material is wider; his technique is different because (or partly because) his historical context is different. But these apart, a great artistic kinship remains.

page 136 note 2 Probably.

page 136 note 3 e.g. Hooker, E. M. in Greece & Rome, Second Series, vii (1960), 38, explains Adrastos as a divine king, the incarnation of Dionysos. After the ritual his ‘sufferings’ are related, his chorus sings; hence the messenger speeches and subject-matter of tragedy. This may be so, but it remains very difficult to guess at the details of sixth-century ritual.

The Origins of Greek Drama

  • N. P. Miller


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