Ancient Greek Theater and Sophocles’ Oedipus
Many distinctive Western cultural institutions trace their roots to ancient Greece, and theater is no exception. The word theater itself comes from the Ancient Greek word theatron, which means “a place for viewing.” The Greeks were the first to define genres like comedy and tragedy, explore many dramatic themes, and establish the relationship between the audience and the characters that survive to this day. But while some of the conventions of ancient Greek theater would be readily familiar to the people of today, others would not. Performances were held in the open air, masks were indispensable, and plots and themes relied on an intimate familiarity with Greek mythology. Sophocles’ Oedipus, one of the greatest plays by one of ancient Greece’s most celebrated playwrights, illustrates both the peculiarities of ancient Greek theater and its enduring contemporary relevance.
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The Greek Period in Theater
In its broadest definition, the ancient Greek period stretched from the Greek Dark Ages in the 12th century BCE to the end of Antiquity in the 6th century CE. Ancient Greek culture began to assume its familiar shape during the Archaic period of the 8th-6th centuries BCE. Its Classical period arrived after the defeat of the second Persian invasion in 479 BCE and lasted until the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. It is during this golden age that ancient Greek theater emerged, developing its iconic conventions and attracting the talent of the first known playwrights. While this theatrical tradition reached its zenith during the Classical period, it remained popular and influential throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
The Architecture of Theater
As theatrical performances were an integral part of the Greek city-state’s communal life, they needed to be physically accessible to a large audience. Initially, performances may have taken place in open areas, but gradually, a more artificial outdoor theater structure developed. The basic layout of a Greek theater consisted of a flat, rounded orchestra (stage) partly enveloped by a semi-circular, elevated theatre (seating area), which was often built into the hillside. The scene behind the orchestra seems to have started as a changing tent, but over time evolved into a permanent structure with an elaborately decorated proscenium (scenic wall). Parodoi passageways on either side of the stage provided access to audiences and performers.
Staging in Ancient Greece
Plays in Ancient Greece were staged during religious festivals dedicated to Dionysius and took the form of a contest between playwrights. City-state authorities appointed choregoi from among the wealthy citizens to cover production expenses as a public duty and assigned actors to contestants. Acting in ancient Greek theater was done exclusively by men. At first, the only performers were the chorus made up of twelve to fifteen men that sang and danced under the direction of a leader. Over time, innovative playwrights added one, two, and finally, three actors to play the leading roles in a dramatic plot. The same actor could play many roles by putting on different masks. Intricate stage machinery was deployed, including periaktoi (rotating panels signaling a change in scenery) and mechanic (cranes that lifted characters or props to create the appearance of flight). The most famous playwrights to work in this tradition were Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. While the first three were tragedians writing about events from mythology, Aristophanes specialized in comedy which satirized the present.
Costumes and Masks
Greek stage costumes and masks were not meant to last long, which limits present-day knowledge about them. Most costumes were more elaborate and colorful versions of everyday clothes, such as the chiton tunic, the himation mantle, the chlamys cloak, or the peplos garment worn by women. The chosen attire could communicate a character’s social status; foreign characters were distinguished by exotic clothing. Since only men were allowed on stage, actors playing female characters wore body stockings with a prosterneda on the chest and progastreda on the belly. Shoes with high heels called kothornoi were used to make actors more visible. Masks, or prosoma, covered the entire face and conveyed exaggerated emotions and expressions according to the genre.
Oedipus the King
Oedipus the King (as Oedipus is sometimes called to differentiate it from Oedipus at Colonus, another one of Sophocles’ plays) is a tragedy concerning the eponymous mythical ruler of Thebes. At the outset of the plot, the city is afflicted by a mysterious plague, and its citizens turn to Oedipus for help (Sophocles, 2007/ca. 429 BCE). Consulting the Delphic Oracle, Oedipus determines that the gods sent the disease in response to the people harboring the murderer of their previous king, Laius. While searching for the culprit to rid Thebes of the plague, Oedipus gradually pieces together that this killer was none other than himself, and also that he was Laius’ son. It turns out that despite his best efforts, he had already fulfilled the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother (Laius’ widow Jocasta). Anguished by this realization and Jocasta’s suicide, Oedipus blinds himself and asks to be exiled, though the new ruler, Creon, puts off the decision.
The major theme of Oedipus is the impossibility of fighting fate, or, more broadly, the limits of human agency. Though the characters all act of their own free will, they operate in a world where external forces such as fate and the will of the gods are impossible to defy successfully. In the beginning, Oedipus is powerful and admired; he already saved the city from the Sphinx, and people expect him to deliver them from the plague. Nevertheless, he ends the play as a blind outcast whose fate is in the hands of a man who was his lesser. Creon does not even see fit to immediately grant his last request, underlining how little power Oedipus has left. As the chorus concludes, “we cannot call a mortal being happy / before he’s passed beyond life free from pain” (Sophocles, 2007/ca. 429 BCE, 74). Yet it is hard to see what Oedipus could have done to avoid this outcome, given his situation and character.
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Human attempts to cheat fate form the central conflict of the play. Oedipus’ fate of killing his father and marrying his mother is set in stone for him from birth. His parents tried to avert this fate by killing him, but he survived and ended up being raised by a different family. On learning about the prophecy himself, Oedipus also attempted to prevent it by leaving Corinth, the place where he grew up. But all those actions merely contributed to a classic self-fulfilling prophecy, as Oedipus avoided the wrong parents and still ended up doing as he feared. Furthermore, all his actions in the play itself serve to accelerate his doom, as his pursuit of Laius’ killer leads to his downfall. In the end, the best he could do is try and face fate on his terms.
A significant secondary conflict is a man versus self; while the outcome of Oedipus’ actions is decided by fate, those actions themselves are driven by his character. He is brash, arrogant, and quick to act, though he is also responsible, and his accomplishments make his confidence appear justified. Indeed, it is those very qualities that made him great, as, without them, he would not have become a ruler hailed by his people as “the first of men” (Sophocles, 2007/ca. 429 BCE, 5). Yet those same qualities drive him to seek out Laius’ killer and refuse the advice of others to turn away or leave it to someone else. Thus, Oedipus is both made and unmade by his heroic character.
It’s probably fair to say that few people in modern Western societies believe in fate the way ancient Greeks did. Indeed, fatalism is often denigrated in today’s culture, which asserts the power of humans to control their destinies. Nevertheless, modern lives are still shaped by external factors that individual people can’t control, from natural disasters and economic shifts to genetic proclivities. They also have to act on limited information and live with the consequences of insufficiently informed decisions. Whether they are cautious or decisive in their actions, the same traits that help them in one instance can harm them in another. Thus, the themes and conflicts of Oedipus remain relevant today.
The Western theatrical tradition has gone through many permutations over its history. In many regards, its present form may be unrecognizable to its Greek forebears. Nonetheless, the influence of ancient Greek theater can still be seen in everything from costumes, staging, and seating arrangements to fundamental dramatic narrative conventions and themes. Perhaps the greatest testament to the persistence of ancient Greek theater is the enduring appeal of its surviving works. Despite the differences in cultural context, plays like Oedipus continue to fascinate audiences because they speak to universal, timeless concerns.
Sophocles. (2007). Oedipus the king. (I. C. Johnston, Trans.). Richer Resources Publications. (Original work published ca. 429 BCE)