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For those who missed us (or for those who would like a reminder brief outline of
what we did in our ‘Meet the Authors’ course this session), here’s a Catch-Up for
Today’s session looked at Drama, ‘an ever-changing genre’, beginning with the Greek
tragedies of Aeschylus (who wrote religious dramas, aiming to make sense of a changing
world), Sophocles (who wrote of what men and women should and could be) and Euripides
(who wrote about the inner drives of men and women).
A closer look at Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy revealed its many themes including the
inevitability of fate, the cycle of murder leading to vengeance and evils passed
on through the cursed generations. But this is tied in with Athens’ new democracy
and the attempt to find a new way to break that cycle by public judgement and punishment
instead of individuals being duty-bound to avenge family griefs. Aeschylus’ Oresteia
trilogy (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides) are some of the most
powerful drama ever written.
Similarly, Euripides explored whether there was a place for irrational frenzy of
the Dionysian worship in an ordered civil state? These were the topics on the minds
of the Greeks who were finding a new way of life after they defeated the Persians
and revelled in their new democracy and freedom of expression.
Plato the philosopher disliked ‘poets’ who encouraged dodgy behaviour and wanted
them banned from his ideal Utopia.
Aristotle, however, saw drama as a catharsis, cleansing and healing our troubled
minds and emotions.
As life changed under the power of Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great’s
Empire, tragedy’s themes became irrelevant. Tragedy remained a ‘classic’ to be studied
though. Comedy took its place in a Hellenistic world where everyone needed a reason
to laugh. Aristophanes had led the way in Old Comedy with his fantastical and scurrilous
tales. When democracy gave way to the powerful few, critical, farcical, obscene
comedy became a risky profession and comic writers including Aristophanes adapted
to a Middle Comedy that ridiculed ordinary people and avoided open criticism of politicians. It
became more character-led, filled with ‘ordinary’ imaginary people.
This New Comedy was dominated by Menander who really fleshed out the stock characters
(clever, crafty slave, grumpy old men, love-sick youths, etc).
Rome was introduced to Greek drama in 240 BC by captured Livius Andronicus. Comedies
were presented in Latin (fabulae palliatae), then given Roman scenes and clothes
(fabulae togatae and fabulae praetextae).
Plautus and Terence were the greatest Roman comedy writers. But comedy became a
conventional art form, set in its ways, and it ceased to evolve or even be performed.
However, scholars continued Lit.Crit. exercises on them, and to use drama to teach
student orators etc. Gladiator games etc were much more popular than drama with
Ancient tragedy and comedy alike influenced Shakespeare hugely.