In 340 BC, the tragic playwright Astydamas the Younger won first prize in the tragedy competition at the Great Dionysia with Lycaon and Parthenopaeus, the latter a play about the son of Atalanta who was one of the Seven against Thebes. This was Astydamas’ second victory in a row at the Dionysia; in 341, he had won with his Achilles, Athamas and Antigone.Footnote 1 It is a mark of Astydamas’ popularity that the people of Athens voted to set up his portrait statue in the Theatre of Dionysus. (All that remains of the statue is the base, with only the first four letters of Astydamas’ name legible.Footnote 2) Reportedly, Astydamas composed an inscription for his own statue, but it was so self-congratulatory that the Athenians refused to have it inscribed on the statue.Footnote 3 In the inscription, Astydamas complained that the only reason he is not considered the equal – or superior – of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides is that they all lived before his time, and are thus immune to the ‘envy’ of Astydamas’ contemporaries. Astydamas’ epigram seems to have become a byword for extravagant self-praise, as suggested in a fragment by the fourth-century comedian Philemon: “You’re praising yourself like Astydamas, woman!”Footnote 4 Whether exaggerated by comic poets or not, Astydamas’ conceitedness does not diminish the significance of his back-to-back victories in the tragic competition, nor, indeed, the boldness of his self-promotion. One prominent scholar of the Greek theatre, T. B. L. Webster, has called Astydamas’ inscription ‘a manifesto’ for fourth-century tragedy.Footnote 5 To understand why, it is helpful to note that in the years 341, 340 and 339, i.e., at the time of Astydamas’ victories, three ‘old tragedies’ by Euripides were also revived at the Great Dionysia: Iphigenia, Orestes and a third play whose title has not been preserved.Footnote 6 By this time, the works of Euripides had become canonical, along with those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. By praising himself as the equal (at least) of the ‘Big Three,’ Astydamas was challenging the canon, and implicitly questioning the valuation of fifth-century tragedy over contemporary, fourth-century tragedy.
Fourth-Century Tragedy and the Tragic Canon
It is during the fourth century that we see the crystallization of a tragic canon, in which the three great tragedians of the fifth century have pride of place. Their dramatic output becomes part of a body of texts considered authoritative and magisterial: they are generally acknowledged as paragons of literary creativity for subsequent generations to aspire to and to draw inspiration from. This is a development that seems to begin already in the late fifth century. The three contestants seriously considered in Aristophanes’ Frogs for the distinction of being brought back to the upper world are Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.Footnote 7 And a few decades later, in the mid-to-late fourth century, Heraclides of Pontus, a pupil of Aristotle’s, could write a treatise entitled simply On the Three Tragic Poets (Περὶ τῶν τριῶν τραγῳδοποιῶν), evidently on the assumption that the identity of the ‘Big Three’ needed no further specification.Footnote 8 More important, as early as 386 BC, performances of ‘old tragedy’ – i.e., a tragedy by one of the canonical fifth-century tragic dramatists – were introduced into the Great Dionysia, though as an hors concours event rather than as part of the regular contest.Footnote 9 This explains the aforementioned performances of Euripides’ plays in the Dionysia of 341–339 BC (see Footnote n. 6 earlier in this chapter), with contemporary actors, one of whom was the famous Neoptolemus of Scyros,Footnote 10 being responsible not only for starring in but also apparently for organizing and producing the revivals.Footnote 11 This is presumably the general context in which the Athenian orator Aeschines (ridiculed as a third-rate actor by his political rival Demosthenes) performed in revivals of Euripides’ Cresphontes, Oenomaus and Hecuba, as well as of Sophocles’ Antigone, no doubt in the third quarter of the fourth century.Footnote 12 In about the same time, between 336 and 324 BC, the statesman Lycurgus passed a decree whereby the Athenian state was to set up bronze statues of the three great tragic poets in the Theatre of Dionysus and to have official copies of their tragedies deposited in the state archive and read out to actors by a state official.Footnote 13 This measure was reportedly intended to prevent actors from inserting interpolations into the authoritative texts of the canonical tragedies; however, it was also as an act of cultural appropriation asserting a vision of the recent Athenian past as an era of memorable greatness.Footnote 14 The Athenian city thus granted official recognition to the canonical status of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and also took it upon itself to guarantee the authenticity of their texts.Footnote 15 On this topic see further ‘Canonization and Lycurgus’, later in this chapter.
The Influence of Euripides and Aeschylus on New Tragedy
If the three great tragedians of the fifth century become undisputable paragons of tragic dramaturgy in the fourth century, it is Euripides who (at least on the strength of the evidence available) stands out as a particular favorite with audiences in that era and later. We saw earlier that, between 341 and 339, the ‘old tragedy’ performed at the Great Dionysia was consistently a play by Euripides; what is more, as has been recently pointed out, Aphareus, one of the contestants in 341, entered the contest with three tragedies whose titles (Peliades, Orestes, Augē) are also attested as titles of Euripidean plays.Footnote 16 And in the second century BC (some time between 190 and 170),Footnote 17 a dedicatory inscription from Tegea in Arcadia by an unknown actor commemorating his victories in various dramatic contests mentions performances of three Euripidean plays (Orestes, Heracles, Archelaus), the last two repeated twice in different venues.Footnote 18 Literary sources also provide evidence for repeats of Euripidean plays in the fourth century (or somewhat later).Footnote 19 It is therefore unsurprising that echoes from Euripides should appear in the sparse remains of fourth-century tragedy (see further Liapis and Stephanopoulos, this volume).
More generally, on the basis of the little that remains from their considerable output, it would appear that fourth-century tragic authors staked their own claim on excellence by vying with the canonical playwrights of the previous century (as we saw earlier in this chapter in the case of Astydamas), but also with the canonical author par excellence: Homer. This tendency may perhaps be exemplified in the comparatively large number of fourth-century tragedies that draw their plot from Homer rather than from the epic cycle, as was commonly the case in the fifth century. Characteristically, at least five plays of that period (including tragedies by such major authors as Astydamas and Carcinus) took Achilles as their principal character,Footnote 20 and at least some of them must have done so in a bid to outperform each other in recasting Homer into tragic molds. By contrast, we know of only three fifth-century tragic works with Achilles as their subject, most notably Aeschylus’ Achilles trilogy (Myrmidons, Nereids, Phrygians).Footnote 21 As Taplin (Reference Taplin2007: 254) remarks, it was evidently important for a new fourth-century tragedy ‘to set itself against earlier versions of the story, both reflecting and rejecting them’ – although, remarkably, Aeschylus’ undisputable primacy in the fifth century seems not to have led to a corresponding number of revivals of his plays, at least in mainland Greece.Footnote 22
Much as fourth-century tragedy seems to have evolved under the sign of the canonical authors of an earlier era (Homer and the three great tragedians, particularly Euripides), it would be rash to dismiss it as merely derivative. As Taplin (Reference Taplin2014: 141–2) has recently reminded us, there is unmistakable, if rather sparse, evidence suggesting that such fourth-century tragedians as Chaeremon, Theodectas and Astydamas were highly esteemed; indeed, they were popular on the stage, they were as memorable and quotable as, say, Euripides, and they could be evoked in serious critical discussion as masters of the tragic art.Footnote 23 The canonization of fifth-century tragedy by no means implies that fourth-century tragic production was somehow of lesser quality or vitality.Footnote 24 As we saw earlier, Astydamas enjoyed incomparable success in his time, and had public honors lavished on him. Chaeremon was, alongside Euripides, among the authors whose plays secured victorious performances for the anonymous actor of the Tegea inscription mentioned earlier in this chapter, including Footnote n. 18); he is also quoted, together with Aeschylus, Euripides and the fourth-century Carcinus Junior, in Menander’s Shield and also in other authors; and he is mentioned or parodied (a sign of general recognizability) by Eubulus and Ephippus. Carcinus produced, among other things, a startlingly innovative version of the Medea myth, in which the heroine did not kill her children; and his Aëropē was apparently a classic in its own right. Finally, passages from plays by fourth-century tragic authors – including not only those mentioned earlier in this chapter but also, e.g., Dicaeogenes and Antiphon – are brought to bear on topics discussed by Aristotle in his Poetics and in his Rhetoric, and not only in disparaging ways at that (though see the next section on ‘Innovation in later tragedy’).Footnote 25
Innovation in Later Tragedy
As we saw earlier, the development of the repertory tradition of fifth-century ‘old tragedies’ during the fourth century by no means suggests that ‘new tragedy’ was in the shadow of ‘classic,’ canonical tragedy: the momentum, during the time of Astydamas’ back-to-back victories, seems to have been on the side of ‘new tragedy.’ It can be difficult to appreciate this state of affairs, between the almost complete absence of any preserved fourth-century tragedies and the tremendous influence of Aristotle’s Poetics, which sometimes may seem to value ‘old tragedy’ over the tragedy of Aristotle’s own time.Footnote 26 In the Poetics, Aristotle compares modern tragedy, sometimes unfavorably, with what he sees as the best of fifth-century tragedy, plays like Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians. He says that modern tragedy often lacks ἦθος (1450a15),Footnote 27 that modern tragic characters speak more like rhetoricians than like statesmen (1450b23),Footnote 28 and that modern tragedies do not treat the chorus like a full character (1456a19–20). He implies that many modern tragic playwrights rely too much on spectacle (1450b28),Footnote 29 that their plots are often episodic rather than organically connected, partly due to pressure from actors (1451b11), and that they occasionally cave in to the sentimentality of the audience by rewarding the ‘good’ characters while punishing the ‘wicked’ ones (1453a4). To be fair, Aristotle, who has very precise ideas about what the perfect tragedy should look like, applies these criticisms to some fifth-century playwrights and plays as well; and his reservations do not, in any case, amount to a wholesale dismissal of the tragedy of his time, nor are they necessarily representative of audience opinion, which surely will have varied. Furthermore, some of the attributes he seems to associate principally with fourth-century tragedy can actually be detected already in the fifth century (see Carter, this volume).
It may be helpful for our purposes to read the Poetics not as the prescriptive text it often is (i.e., a set of guidelines for producing the best kind of, mainly, tragedy), but rather, descriptively, as evidence for the ongoing changes and developments in fourth-century tragedy. We do not have to subscribe to Aristotle’s judgments about ‘the best kind’ of tragic plot, or his teleological view of tragedy’s development, to discern a vibrant, active theatrical culture during the period when he was writing. Reading between the lines of the Poetics, it seems that playwrights were experimenting with different sorts of diction, plot, character, and structure from what was common in fifth-century tragedy, and that they may have catered to popular tastes by ceding to actors’ demands.Footnote 30 The competitive festival context in which plays were performed in Athens made it highly likely that playwrights would respond to audience pressures. At the same time, and in the same festivals, audiences enjoyed non-competitive performances of ‘old tragedies,’ which continued to influence new tragedy. Presumably the performances of ‘old tragedies’ were also due to popular interest, which suggests a sort of push-and-pull: pressure on contemporary tragedians to differentiate themselves from ‘classic’ tragedy, and, at the same time, an interest in keeping ‘the classics’ alive in a repertory tradition. This push-and-pull may explain Aristotle’s observation that most tragedies in his day concerned the same few mythological cycles of stories (1453a17–22); tragedians might try to differentiate themselves, but within a narrower range of material, as Carcinus did with his Medea (on which see Liapis and Stephanopoulos, this volume).
The only extant fourth-century tragedy is the Rhesus, formerly attributed to Euripides (see Fries, this volume). From the point of view of performance history and staging, it is a fascinating play. Set entirely during nighttime, with possibly four speaking actors, it includes one goddess impersonating another and a Muse singing a dirge over her son Rhesus’ corpse while on the mēkhanē.Footnote 31 The play’s plot, lyrics and unusual staging features provide a glimpse into the state of fourth-century tragedy: an interest in finding new aspects of familiar material, an emphasis on spectacle and the heavy influence of the ‘classic’ canon, especially Euripides.
The Rhesus may have been written in fourth-century Macedon, possibly at the royal court, for a Macedonian audience.Footnote 32 We might consider other experimental tragedies from the fifth century onwards as evidence of the genre’s flourishing and adaptability to different venues and markets. Although tragedies on non-mythical subjects were not unknown in the fifth century (cf. Phrynichus’ Sack of Miletus, Aeschylus’ Persae), it is in the fourth century that this subgenre seems to acquire new vitality. We know of several historical tragedies written during the fourth century, including Theodectes’ Mausolus and Moschion’s Themistocles.Footnote 33 In the Poetics, Aristotle notes in passing that ‘the poet should lay out the whole story for both traditional tales and made-up ones, and then expand the episodes,’ which suggests that he took it for granted that playwrights of his time might invent their plots;Footnote 34 indeed, elsewhere (Po. 1451b19–23) he refers to Agathon’s Antheus or Anthos, a tragedy in which both plot and characters were entirely made up, and Aristotle’s language here suggests that he knew of other similarly made-up tragedies. He does not mention in which circumstances playwrights might work with invented plots, but creating works on commission for powerful patrons is one plausible reason. Moving past the fourth century, we see further evidence of the ever-expanding market for tragedy in Ezekiel’s Exagōgē, a Hellenistic Greek tragedy about the Exodus of Moses and his followers which was most probably composed in Alexandria, Egypt,Footnote 35 and a tragedy by an unknown author about Gyges, the sixth-century BC ruler of Lydia, whose story was most famously recounted by Herodotus in his Histories.Footnote 36 All of these historical tragedies can be thought of as evidence for the flexibility and variety of postclassical tragedy. They can also be thought of as the forerunners of Roman historical tragedy, fabula praetexta, which dramatized significant events and ‘great men’ from Rome’s legendary early days and its more recent history.
Given this picture of fourth-century tragedy’s flourishing, it might seem surprising that just a few years after Astydamas’ portrait statue was erected in the Theatre of Dionysus alongside statues of the fifth-century war heroes Miltiades and Themistocles, the politician (and, for lack of a better term, ‘financial overlord’Footnote 37) Lycurgus set about fixing the canon of ‘old tragedy’, which apparently had already been crystallizing since 386 BC (see the section on ‘Fourth-century tragedy and the tragic canon’ and Footnote n. 9). As discussed earlier in this chapter, he had bronze statues of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides made and placed in the Theatre of Dionysus, ordered that the texts of their tragedies be deposited in the state treasury for safekeeping and mandated that actors not deviate from the official text in public performances. This canonization process was not simply a matter of enshrining the theatre-going public’s current tastes in bronze; it was more a matter of fixing the list of Great Playwrights, those whose work ought to be remembered and respected. The canonization process is also evident in the visual record; Csapo has calculated that ‘Aeschylean, Sophoclean, and Euripidean plays account for close to 75 percent of all tragedy-related vase-paintings.’Footnote 38 The move to canonize the ‘Big Three’ suggests that the culture’s heritage is envisioned as having already peaked, despite the constant production of new plays. It is a nostalgic move, at some level. Along with fixing the tragic canon and the canonical texts, Lycurgus also undertook the work of replacing the wooden walls, seats and buildings in the Theatre of Dionysus with stone ones – another move toward prestige, permanence and fixity.Footnote 39
What prompted this impulse to canon-formation, celebration of the ‘classics’ of fifth-century tragedy, and textual (and theatrical) fixity at this moment in Athenian history, just a few years after Astydamas’ statue was erected as a celebration of ‘new tragedy’? Why did the Athenians, under the direction of Lycurgus, look back to their past at this moment? In 338 BC, Athens, together with several other Greek city-states, rose up against the control of Philip II of Macedon, who was expanding his rule outside of his home territory. The Athenians and their allies fought Philip’s army at the Battle of Chaeronea, and were crushed. Philip treated Athens more mildly than he did the other city-states that had defied his control, because of Athens’ political and cultural importance, but he did set up Lycurgus, an Athenian politician, as financial administrator of Athens. The year 338 marked a turning-point for Athens: the city already had been stripped of its empire at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War in 404, but it had continued as an autonomous, sovereign city-state after its loss to Sparta. Now, the political autonomy of Athens was gone, and all that was left of its former greatness was its cultural legacy, in which tragedy had pride of place. New Greek tragedies continued to be written and performed for centuries after the 330s BC, but once the impulse to canonize the ‘Big Three’ of the fifth century was institutionalized, there were two sets of tragic texts: the ‘classics,’ and everything else. Despite the painstaking work of generations of ancient scholars and editors, most of the latter set of texts has not survived.
The Theatrical Environment and Equipment
Drama as an International Art Form
Another major development in fourth-century tragedy was the spread of drama beyond the confines of Attica to other Greek (and later even non-Greek) cities, as a result of which tragedy became a Panhellenic and later an international medium of high prestige and recognizability. True, already in the fifth century major Athenian tragic playwrights were invited to produce their plays outside Athens – for instance, Aeschylus at Syracuse, or Euripides at the court of the Macedonian king.Footnote 40 At that era, however, Athenian drama, for all its Panhellenic appeal and prestige, is predominantly an Athenian cultural product, even when produced outside Athens: it is composed to a very large extent by Athenian playwrights, even when performed before non-Athenian audiences, and carries with it the allure of its perceived birthplace, the sophisticated cultural metropolis that was Athens. By contrast, from the fourth century onwards, drama, and especially tragedy, gradually sheds its associations with its Athenian origins to become a truly international medium, spreading not only throughout the Greek peninsula but also as far as South Italy and Sicily, the Black Sea or the Middle East.Footnote 41 The recent survey of 116 sites outside Athens in Csapo and Wilson Reference Csapo and Wilson2015 (see Footnote n. 41) demonstrates both that Athens had no clear or longstanding monopoly on drama and that performance of drama continued to grow, exponentially, in the Greek world and beyond even before the spread of Greek culture through Alexander’s successors bolstered the dissemination of dramatic performances even further.
This is evidenced first of all by the international spread of the professional associations known as ‘the Artists (Tekhnitai) of Dionysus’ – a network of guilds comprising actors, directors/producers, musicians, dancers and other related experts, and intended to protect the safety, considerable privileges and prestige of theatre professionals internationally.Footnote 42 Such experts now come not only from Athens but also from Boeotia, Thebes, Thespiae, Sicyon, Argos and other parts of the Greek world, including Asia Minor, and the cities of South Italy and Sicily.Footnote 43 Fourth-century developments in the acting profession in particular are especially instructive. As Taplin points out, whereas in the fifth century Athens seems to have had an almost total monopoly in outstanding actors (the only noteworthy exception being, apparently, Mynniskos of Chalcis in Euboea), in the fourth century there is a more sizeable specimen of actors of non-Athenian origin who rise to superstardom, amass great wealth and enjoy international fame and the patronage of powerful figures; these include Aristodemus of Metapontum, Neoptolemus of Skyros, and Polus of Aegina.Footnote 44 There seems to be a comparable (though perhaps less sharp) disparity among tragic authors too: we know of at least ten playwrights from the fourth century who certainly originated in regions outside Athens (including, again, Asia Minor and Magna Graecia)Footnote 45 as opposed to some four from the fifth century.Footnote 46
The significance of vase paintings (and other artifacts) from South Italy and Sicily as evidence for the spread of theatre in those areas has been a hotly debated topic during the last decades. For a considerable number of scholars, such artifacts are potentially a treasure trove of information on the ways in which theatre was disseminated beyond Athens, and a crucial tool for contextualizing Greek drama within a performance-oriented frame of reference. This approach – pioneered by Webster and given a new impetus thanks to the studies of Taplin, Green, Csapo, Revermann and others – has led to all-important discussions and analyses of a wide range of vase-paintings, sculptures, terracottas and mosaics as tools with which to explore the reception of drama in Magna Graecia and its place in and interactions with local populations.Footnote 47 The degree to which such artifacts reflect a viewer’s experience of actual theatre performances will be open to debate, but at least in some cases it is practically certain that the depictions reflect or are inspired by actual stage productions of tragedies or comedies. A case in point is the famous ‘Würzburg Telephus’ vase, which undoubtedly testifies to a performance or performances of Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae in South Italy in the early fourth century.Footnote 48 More germane to this volume’s concerns is the ‘Cleveland Medea’ calyx crater, a Lucanian vase dated to ca. 400 BC and depicting scenes from Euripides’ Telephus on one side and from the same author’s Medea on the other.Footnote 49 Nonetheless, this category of evidence is problematized by the possibility (however remote) that theatre-inspired images may not reflect directly the experience of performance but may be mediated by various renderings of myth, ranging from written dramatic texts or funerary declamations to mythic oral traditions.Footnote 50
The spread of the theatre in the fourth century is further exemplified by the proliferation of stone theatre buildings both in continental Greece beyond Athens and in non-mainland Greek cities. Indeed, it is only from the second half of the fourth century that Greek cities invest in the construction of theatre buildings from durable materials, as opposed to the predominantly wooden structures found in the fifth century. And by contrast to their rarity in fifth-century non-Attic theatres (e.g., Argos, Metapontum), stone buildings mushroom all over the Greek world during the fourth century: almost throughout the Peloponnese, at Thebes, in Acarnania, in Thessaly, on Euboea, in Asia Minor (Ephesus, Priene), in Pontus (Olbia, Heraclea), on Cyprus (Paphos), and of course in South Italy (Locri, Metapontum, etc.) and Sicily (Catana, Morgantina, etc.).Footnote 51 Indeed, it is in the second half of the fourth century that two important innovations in the architecture of theatre auditoria are introduced: namely, the construction of horizontal passageways dividing the auditorium into several sections, and (in conjunction to this) the provision of outside access to these passageways and to the upper part of the auditorium. These innovations must have arisen from the need to accommodate large audiences, and thus attest to the growing popularity of the theatre outside Athens in that era.Footnote 52
Architecture of the Theatres: The Innovation of the Raised Stage in Hellenistic Times
In the fourth century, the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens was renovated and expanded, its front rows of seats constructed of marble.Footnote 53 The stage building (skēnē), which was a temporary structure made of wood during the fifth century, was converted to a permanent stone structure, with one central door and perhaps two other doors flanking it on either side. Some scholars believe that the stage itself was raised a bit higher during the fourth century than it had been during the fifth century, which suggests that the actors needed to be more visible to larger audiences,Footnote 54 and may provide indirect evidence for the ‘rise of the actor’ in this time period. Hellenistic and Roman-era theatre buildings came to have multiple stories, multiple doors and windows, architectural details such as columns, alcoves, and niches, and an even higher stage.Footnote 55
There is some evidence for changes in other physical properties of dramatic performance after the fifth century. An interest in special effects, such as the thunder-machine (bronteion), appears in the evidence for this period.Footnote 56 Aristotle, Demosthenes, Plato and other fourth-century sources suggest that the crane was a popular theatrical device during their lifetimes;Footnote 57 in fact, the phrase ‘the god from the machine,’ which has come to us through its Latin translation deus ex machina, seems to have hardened into a cliché during the fourth century due to its use (Aristotle would say over-use)Footnote 58 in Athenian tragedy and its parody in comedy beginning in the fifth century.Footnote 59 Vahtikari estimates that more than half of the fifth-century tragedies performed outside Athens in the late fifth and fourth centuries used the crane.Footnote 60
The fourth century is often referred to by theatre historians as ‘the rise of the actor.’ The art of acting acquired, in essence, official approval in 449 BC, when a separate prize at the Great Dionysia was instituted for the best actor, as distinct from the best play.Footnote 61 The fourth century saw the emergence of superstar actors like Theodorus, Neoptolemus and Polus, who commanded hefty fees for their performances and donated equally hefty amounts to public works, and who were sometimes entrusted with diplomatic missions because of their speaking ability, stage presence and fame.Footnote 62 By 275 BC at the latest, actors and dramatic musicians had formed a union, the Artists of Dionysus (see earlier in this chapter).Footnote 63 As actors began to attract attention for their skills, tragedy began to change to showcase those skills. Aristotle notes this ruefully in the Poetics, when he laments the contemporary (i.e., fourth-century) trend of ‘vulgar overacting’, although he does indicate that overacting began in the last decades of the fifth century with Kallippides.Footnote 64 We have already discussed Aristotle’s comment that actors sometimes pressured contemporary playwrights to change the plots of their plays. Presumably, actors wanted playwrights to give them scenes that would garner them positive attention: big entrances, challenging songs, highly emotional speeches or intense arguments.
Another sort of evidence for the rise of the actor is the evidence for private performances. There are many accounts of actors being employed outside of the theatre in small-scale performances, usually at drinking-parties (symposia) hosted by members of the elite. In these performances, we most often hear about actors performing famous songs from tragedy: for example, Philip II had Neoptolemus perform some of his most famous lines and sing a tragic ode at the symposium Philip hosted the night before his assassination in 336 BC.Footnote 65 Philip’s son Alexander the Great performed a portion of Euripides’ Andromeda from memory at a symposium he hosted the night before he slipped into a coma in 323 BC.Footnote 66 Climactic scenes were another favorite excerpt from tragedy; there is a famous story in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus that the Parthian king responsible for Marcus Licinius Crassus’ military defeat and death had an actor perform the recognition scene from Euripides’ Bacchae, in which Pentheus’ mother Agave realizes that the ‘lion’s head’ she is displaying proudly is actually the head of her own son whom she killed in a Bacchic frenzy. In the Parthian performance, according to Plutarch, the actor actually held Crassus’ severed head instead of a prop (or mask) of Pentheus’ head. The story may or may not be true; what is significant for tragedy’s enormous spread and prestige at that era is Plutarch’s assumption that a foreign king would want a tragic scene performed at an important banquet in the first century BC.Footnote 67
Some scholars have concluded that dramatic performance eventually came to include these private performances of ‘highlights’ as much as, or more than, large-scale public performance in theatres – although exactly when this shift occurred is a matter of debate. Other scholars have argued that the fashion for a single actor performing ‘highlights’ at private functions had existed alongside traditional, large-scale dramatic performance for hundreds of years.Footnote 68 Whether it was prevalent or not, this sort of performance suggests that wealthy individuals sought the services of famous actors to impress their friends (or their courtiers, in the case of kings); the prestige of tragedy, combined with the exclusivity of a small audience, meant that an actor’s private performance became a status symbol.
Fourth-century tragedy saw a continuing interest in ‘realism,’ which began in the late fifth century with the later works of Euripides and Aristophanes (see also Dunn, this volume). ‘Realism’ in this case means a wide range of acting styles (including gesture and delivery) and of vocabulary, as well as an interest in vocal mimicry, all of which combined to give the effect that there were many different kinds of ‘people’ (that is, characters) on stage.Footnote 69 Aristotle notes that the late-fifth-century tragic actor Kallippides was nicknamed ‘The Ape’, and Csapo argues this was not for his over-acting but for his amazing range of mimicry, including mimicry of ‘low’ people, such as poor women.Footnote 70 Anecdotes about fourth-century actors suggest that there was a great deal of audience interest in virtuosic vocal mimicry: Plutarch notes that the tragic actor Theodorus and the comic actor Parmenon were both renowned for their ability to imitate the sounds inanimate objects made;Footnote 71 and Aristotle mentions a fourth-century tragedian named Cleophon whose tragedies used a ‘low’ diction with ‘common’ words.Footnote 72
The ancient scholia (comments by scholars) on tragic texts provide further evidence for the development of acting trends in fourth-century tragedy, as do actors’ interpolations (lines usually made up and inserted by actors).Footnote 73 Some scholia on tragic texts can be dated with reasonable confidence to the Hellenistic period, and they are valuable for the light they throw on Hellenistic performances of ‘classic’ tragedy. Some scholia condemn contemporary (i.e., Hellenistic) performance culture for its emphasis on spectacle and emotion, while others claim that lead actors reassigned lines to themselves that were originally supposed to be spoken by other actors or by the chorus.Footnote 74 Interpolations also may shed light on tastes and trends in fourth-century and later acting, insofar as they are ipso facto evidence for a play’s popularity in later times, and may even allow a glimpse into actors’ efforts to increase the appeal of a play to audiences. The text of Euripides’ Orestes, for example, has a relatively large number of suspected actors’ interpolations, at least some of which have been attributed to the actor Neoptolemus, who is known to have performed in the play in Athens in 340.Footnote 75 Regardless of who authored them, it seems reasonable to take the interpolations in Orestes as evidence of the play’s ongoing popularity after the fifth century.Footnote 76 Indeed, Orestes combined many elements that fourth-century audiences must have enjoyed: a novel treatment of a familiar myth; use of stage space such as the roof of the stage building; and characters ranging from highborn Greek princes to singing Phrygian eunuchs.
The taste for ‘realism’ in acting, the scholia and actors’ interpolations provide evidence that supports Aristotle’s general picture of fourth-century tragic performance in the Poetics. Playwrights experimented with different sorts of diction for their characters, even as they stuck to a few famous stories for their plots. Professional actors sought to give virtuosic displays of their speaking and singing abilities, sometimes by rearranging or rewriting the play text. Audiences were interested in displays of intense emotion and exciting ways of staging scenes. None of this is, properly speaking, a break with fifth-century tragedy; rather, it is a heightening of tendencies that were already present at the end of the fifth century (see also Dunn, this volume).
Theatrical masks changed over the course of the fourth century, gradually developing into standard ‘types.’ The tragic mask developed the onkos (ὄγκος), an elongated tower of hair on the top, for all of the important characters.Footnote 77
One reason for the standardization of masks may have been philosophical. Aristotle’s Poetics describes the tragic hero as someone better than the average person, but not morally perfect. This heightened moral stature ensures that the audience cares about what happens to the hero, while the hero’s imperfection explains his reversal of fortune.Footnote 78 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics provides a typology of character in its discussion of ‘the great-souled man’, where Aristotle lays out not only the moral qualities but also the actual behaviors of his type: the great-souled man engages in few but significant endeavors, would prefer to render a favor than to benefit from one, and conducts himself with honor as his only point of reference. He walks slowly, with dignity, and speaks in a deep voice, whereas the ‘vulgar man,’ his opposite type, trots hurriedly and speaks shrilly.Footnote 79 We might be tempted to consider Aristotle’s rather generic ‘great-souled man,’ who has all the behaviors and tastes of the elite (‘He likes to own things that are beautiful and useless’) without any individuality, to be consistent with the stock tragic hero. The ‘great-souled man’s’ generic traits (high social position, concern for his honor) make him easily represented by the mask of the young tragic hero, visually marked as youthful, aristocratic, and male, but devoid of any individuality.
Contemporary art may also have influenced the standardization of masks. Conventionally, fifth-century sculpture and vase-painting depicted human and divine faces as perfectly symmetrical, beautiful, and virtually expressionless, even in the midst of violent action. Fifth-century tragic masks seem to have been similarly beautiful and bland. In the fourth century, however, artistic ideals and theories began to change. In Hellenistic sculpture, with its statues of drunk old women, satyrs, and children, we see an interest in representing emotions and bodies that do not meet the classical ideal.Footnote 80 Mask-makers began to make tragic masks with emotional states represented, like anxiety or suffering, and the comic masks of low-status characters (slaves, pimps, cooks, parasites) were distinctly grotesque.Footnote 81 The second-century AD Greek rhetorician Julius Pollux made a list of the types of theatrical masks known to him, which has survived and is based on Hellenistic sources, but scholars dispute Pollux’s accuracy as well as his list’s applicability to earlier time periods.Footnote 82 The material evidence is also tricky to interpret in terms of pinpointing the emergence of stock character masks. Some scholars have argued that a set of terracotta theatrical masks excavated in Lipari and dated to about 350 BC represent the characters from a particular fourth-century play, or many of the mask types from Pollux’s catalogue, while others have cautioned against attempting these sorts of identifications.Footnote 83
Another possible reason for the standardization of masks after the fifth century was a practical one. In an era of travelling theatrical troupes and multiple venues for performances, having a standard set of masks that would fulfil most or all of a company’s needs would have been a more attractive and economical option than having to create masks anew for each new play.
It is often claimed that the fourth century saw the decline of the dramatic chorus, and that this erstwhile essential component of drama now became peripheral to the plays’ action and themes. This claim is based mainly on Aristotle’s strictures on his contemporary tragedians’ use of stock ‘interludes’, or embolima, which according to Aristotle had originated with Agathon, the late-fifth-century dramatist (Po. 1456a27–30). The evidence of Menandrean papyri (but also, e.g., of the manuscripts of Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen 729, 876 and Wealth 322, 626, 770, 801, 1096) would seem consistent with Aristotle’s complaints: where we should have expected a choral song, we find no more than the indication ‘(song) of the chorus’ (ΧΟΡΟΥ or ΧΟΡΟΥ ΜΕΛΟΣ). This is usually taken to suggest that Menander (or Aristophanes in his late plays) did not compose original choral songs for his comedies, and that the chorus performed some sort of song-and-dance routine, perhaps as part of a standard repertoire (see also the chapters by Dunn and Griffith, this volume).
Whether Menander’s perceived practice was also followed by other comic playwrights or not (and the latter possibility must seriously be taken into account),Footnote 84 there is no reason to assume that the tragic chorus underwent a process of general marginalization, as Aristotle seems to imply, or even that the development of the tragic chorus in the fourth century (and later) was a uniform one. There are a number of post-fifth-century tragedies named after what may well have been their chorus: for instance, Cleophon’s Bacchae, Dicaeogenes’ Cyprians, or Moschion’s Men of Pherae. If this surmise is accurate, then it suggests that the chorus here must have been thematically important and, presumably, integratedFootnote 85 – as indeed it is in Rhesus, the only fourth-century tragedy to have been preserved intact.Footnote 86 Further, in a tragic adespoton (TrGF II, F 649), which surely comes from a postclassical, perhaps Hellenistic piece,Footnote 87 we find a terse three-way dialogue between Priam, Cassandra and a chorus, no doubt represented here by its coryphaeus, who speaks in what appear to be snippets of iambic trimetres.Footnote 88 It is, of course, impossible to ascertain whether in this anonymous drama the coryphaeus, let alone the chorus, functioned as ‘one of the actors’, as Aristotle’s famous injunction has it (Po. 1456a25–7). And it is a fortiori impossible, on the basis of the meager remains of post-fifth-century tragedy, to extrapolate any kind of general trends with regard to the development of the chorus in that period.
True, there are a small number of papyrus fragments in which choral songs of tragedy have been replaced, as in Menandrean papyri, by the indication ‘song of the chorus’. A case in point is a second-century BC Hibeh papyrus, thought to transmit portions of Hector by Astydamas,Footnote 89 for which it is often presumed that Astydamas composed no choral song (hence the mere note ΧΟΡΟΥ ΜΕΛΟΣ), leaving the gap to be filled by a set piece from the chorus’ repertory – no doubt the kind of stock ‘entr’acte’ that Aristotle, as we saw, calls embolimon. This may well be right, but there are other possibilities. For instance, ‘song of the chorus’ may suggest that, whether Astydamas did or did not compose original lyric songs for this tragedy, the papyrus in question was meant to be used as a ‘promptbook’ for a later performance, in which it was thought preferable for the chorus to perform a set piece rather than the original choral songs, perhaps because the latter would have no doubt required special training and/or virtuosity.Footnote 90 Evidence for such ‘promptbooks’ is admittedly sparse, but a third-century AD papyrus of Euripides’ Cresphontes is likely to preserve the remains of precisely such a text;Footnote 91 and a ca. 250 BC papyrus of Euripides’ Hippolytus (P. Sorb. 2252 = no. 393 Mertens-Pack3), which transmits lines 1–106 but omits the lyric portion 58–72, may also have been used as a ‘promptbook’ to aid rehearsals only of the spoken, iambic passages of the play.Footnote 92 Alternatively, it may be that the poets themselves ‘simply inserted χοροῦ in the circulated texts, perhaps to ensure common adaptability on stages throughout the Greek world with their varying theatrical resources, as Attic drama was spreading significantly in the fourth century.’Footnote 93
To return to Astydamas’ ‘manifesto’: the vitality of fourth-century (and later) tragedy can be hard to discern in the extremely fragmentary remains of the texts and the heavy influence of Euripides. Indeed, it was hard even in the fourth century for some to appreciate their contemporary tragedy without seeing it as arrogantly comparing itself to ‘classic’ fifth-century tragedy. It is no wonder Astydamas sounds like he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. ‘If only he had lived’ in the fifth century, as he says in his poem, we might have his tragedies to read and watch today.