David Raeburn has directed innumerable Greek tragedies over 70 years, including the Greek plays at Bradfield and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His most recent work has been a series of eight tragedies at New College, Oxford. He has now published a book, Greek Tragedies as Plays for Performance, the fruit of his unparalleled experience of directing these plays. It is published by Wiley-Blackwell.

‘The photographs below are by Jane Lightfoot.



Of all our many legacies from the ancient world few have captured the public imagination more than Greek tragedy. Ever since Gilbert Murray’s translations were published and professionally performed early in the 20th century, interest in the genre has steadily grown. Today a plethora of translations is available and there have been innumerable realisations in live production, both professional and amateur. A great deal of scholarship has been devoted to the ancient theatre, but I find it disappointing that, when it comes to the plays themselves, whether for study or theatrical representation, current discussion all too rarely begins with what they were in the first instance: dramatic artefacts designed for performance before an audience.

In academia I sense that that the humanities have rather suffered from a desire for scientific theorisation and for establishing patterns of likeness which all instances are expected to fit. Where tragedy is concerned, there has long been a wish, for example, to apply Aristotle’s Poetics to any play that might be classed as a tragedy and this this can often distort our understanding of particular works. (The Greek word tragoidia, ‘goat-song’, was first applied to any play chosen for entry in a tragic contest, and it did not even need to have an unhappy ending.) Apart from this, inter-disciplinary approaches have encouraged the treatment of tragic texts as socio-historic documents that offer evidence for ancient attitudes or contribute to the exploration of general issues such as gender or class. Greek tragedy can, of course, be studied in many different ways, but we should not lose sight of its original raison d’être.

Modern theatrical practice, for its part, invites distortion in its tendency to see a Greek tragic text principally as a vehicle for creating exciting ‘theatre’ with specific points of reference to the modern world. This can all too often lead to directorial self-indulgence and a failure to engage with or even to comprehend the text’s central preoccupations. Certainly a play’s universality is a major reason for its revival, but it would be more artistically honest to import modern associations to illuminate the ancient text rather than to ‘use’ the text to reflect modern society.

In my own productions with school and university students, I have tried as far as possible to put myself in the shoes of the ancient poet. I now go on to describe his task under four main headings: the social and political context, the medium in which he composed, the physical and human resources at his disposal and finally the challenge posed in the dramatisation of a particular story.

Antigone 2016

The social and political context

Greek tragedy was developed in the 5th century BC at Athens, where plays were mounted as a major feature in an annual religious festival, the City Dionysia. The full community of male citizens sat for three days to experience the work of three selected poets who were each required to present three tragedies and a satyr play on their allotted day. The entries were competitive and great prestige was accorded to the poet who was adjudged to have done best, also to his leading actor and to the choregos or producer who bore most of the expenses. Tragedies were thus composed, in principle, for a unique performance, a far cry from our practice of taking tickets for a convenient date during a run of weeks or months.

When we think of an audience of many thousands of spectators, some of them illiterate, the challenge for the poets to hold their concentration for five to six hours, perhaps, of playing time in a single day must have been phenomenal. They could have counted on an element of partisanship in favour of one or another poet, actor or choregus. In some ways the festival atmosphere could have had something akin to a modern football match.

Athens at this time was a developing democracy. It seems to me an overstatement to say that tragedy in itself was a product of democracy as such, but the cultural climate in the state evidently inspired an extraordinary creativity in the arts.  During the period of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides Athens was at war with Persia, it acquired an empire of subject island states and was involved in a long war with Sparta. In the 440’s something of an intellectual revolution followed on the arrival of the Sophists, the teachers of rhetoric who questioned normal assumptions on morality and religion. All these factors influenced the tragic poets and many of their plays need to be referred to their historical context before they can be fully understood.

Electra 2014

The medium

This is absolutely fundamental. All the Greek tragedies we possess follow the same basic pattern of discrete movements for up to three solo performers and a chorus, whose songs alternate with ‘episodes’ (literally ‘insertions’) containing dialogue for spoken delivery by actors who divided all the different roles between them. In form, therefore, a Greek tragedy is much more like an 18th century opera or oratorio than what we understand by a stage or television play. The precise origins of tragedy are obscure, but it is not hard to see it as a marriage between two pre-existing art forms. The first of these was ‘choral lyric’, that is a performance of various kinds of hymn, sung and danced in honour of a god or hero, a form chiefly developed in the Peloponnese during the 6th century. The other was the public recitation, established at Athens in the later 6th century, of Homer’s epic poetry. These were given by ‘rhapsodes’ in competition with one another, who  must have cultivated the art of vivid story-telling alongside some skill in impersonation, as demanded by the speeches put into the mouths of the different characters. Such was the hybrid medium in which the tragic poet had to tell his story, ensuring that his choral movements were fully integrated into the dramatic sequence which he was constructing. To engage properly with a Greek tragedy, we need to note its ‘structure of feeling’, that is the calculated succession of emotional responses which the dramatist was contriving to stimulate in his audience and so to involve them attentively in his story.

Crucial to the hybrid form was the use of musical accompaniment and of three distinct ‘modes of utterance’, based on metre as well as on vocal register. The actors in the episodes spoke their lines composed in the iambic trimeter, which I imagine was fairly flexibly delivered rather like Shakespeare’s verse today. By contrast, the chorus sang their odes in complex stanzas of varied and expressive ‘lyric’ metres and these were accompanied by the aulos, the double-reed pipe which sounded like an oboe. In between the two came lines in anapaests, used by chorus and soloists alike in a delivery, I suspect, closer to speech than to song but with aulos accompaniment.

Certain formal features need to be recognised in the iambic mode. The bulk of the episodes consists of rheseis, long speeches, or stichomythia, line-for-line dialogue. The primary rhesis is the Messenger Speech which harks back to the rhapsode’s narrative function and uses colourful language to stimulate the audience’s imagination in describing exciting action that cannot be enacted onstage. Sophocles and Euripides also made much use of the agon or formal debate where pairs of rhetorical speeches offer conflicting points of view, as in a law court or public debate. Stichomythia (dialogue in single lines) is likewise an admirable vehicle for adversarial argument or for an exchange of question and answer to supply information.

Ion 2012

The poet’s resources

The open-air space in the theatre of Dionysus was very large, with the spectators seated in tiers up the hillside in a horseshoe round the (probably) circular orchestra or dancing-floor in which the chorus would have performed their songs. This came to be backed by a stage building, the skene, with a central doorway, whose frontage could suggest a location for the play’s action. It may well have opened onto a lowish platform, on which the soloists could have performed from a raised position. The two areas, however, were inter-accessible and the actors must have joined the chorus in the orchestra for the special ‘numbers’ (often laments) for soloist and chorus together. In such a space vocal projection would have been paramount for the performers. Here too the dramatist had to envisage his play being performed and, as his own director, to deploy his actors and chorus in a visually interesting way. We enhance our own reading if we can picture a play in our mind’s eye in its original setting.

The poet’s human resources were all male: the three professional actors paid by the state and the chorus, provided by the choregus, which he would train himself to his own music and choreography. Long periods of rehearsal must have been needed for a full day’s events. Essential to multiple impersonation was the mask which the ancient audience would have accepted as a normal part of the trappings. Though the poet might have composed with particular actors in mind, nothing like our own type-casting could have applied.

Bacchae 2013

Individual plays – subject matter and theme

The poet’s material was normally drawn from the mythology which formed the basis of his audience’s culture, but he was expected to offer his own ‘take’ on it and, maybe to find the universal in the particular. Here he might assume a role as a teacher and offer his audience a ‘message’ which might be relevant to contemporary politics or, more generally, suggest obedience to the Delphic injunctions to know oneself and avoid excess. Interpreting the message or meaning of a play is of course central to scholarly criticism, the best of which takes full account of the drama as it unfolds within the hybrid form. Similarly, modern directors might do well to look for inspiration in the form as well as the content – seeing the chorus, for example, as an opportunity rather than a problem.

In conclusion, I have argued that a Greek tragedy is primarily a work of art and that our engagement with it should follow from our understanding of the tragic poet’s task. We have the knowledge to gain that and thereby some access to his creative mind.

Bacchae 2013
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