Essay, Research Paper
Antigone and the Greek “Goat Songs”
When the ancient Greek playwright Thespis first brought forward one member of the chorus to speak alone, the form of Greek drama began to change. It is thought that Greek drama began as choruses engaging in song and dance at celebrations of holidays or special events. One of the most important of those was the spring festival of Dionysus. The celebration included choral presentation and the sacrifice of an animal, most commonly a goat. The presentations grew more dramatic and tragedies (literally “goat songs”) began to evolve. Even the sacrificial altar was carried over when the theater of Dionysus was built in Athens. The theatre was built in the early fifth century BC, and could hold 14,000 people. I shall suggest that the conventions of the early Greek theatre influenced the form and content of Antigone.
A typical stage would consist of a large, round dancing floor referred to as the orchestra. On either side of the orchestra were two long walkways, used for the exits and entrances of both the actors and the audience. Props were also used, such as the ekkuklema or moving platform. Sometimes it was used to bring a tableau depicting some event onto the stage. Because the sets and scenery were very simple, ancient Greek playwrights such as Sophocles used many descriptive passages in their writing so that the audience could conjure up a vivid image of the actors and their surroundings. For example,
“The stars are dancing; they pant fire. Night is talking. You’re
their leader.” (p. 65)
“Sun-blaze, shining at last, you are the most beautiful light ever
shone Thebes over her seven gates;
and now, higher, widening gaze of gold day, you come,
over the course of our west river.
“In whole armor, come out of Argos (his shield shone white) you have expelled the man, exiled in unbridled and blinding flight” (p. 25)
It was through this method that images were conveyed to the audience without the use of elaborate staging.
To portray characters, Greek actors used large masks carved with exaggerated facial expressions. Masks were outfitted with a resonant mouthpiece of brass to make it easier for actors to project their voices throughout the theatre. Masks also had an onkos, a tall wig-like section on the top of the mask that made the actors appear taller and more powerful. Because masks were used in performance, playwrights could not rely on subtle facial features to illustrate the characters’ personalities and feelings. This is why character traits are established quickly and clearly. In the opening scene between Antigone and Ismene, it is quickly shown that Ismene is more submissive and obedient, while Antigone is rebellious and will stop at nothing to do what she believes is right. When Antigone suggests that they should defy Kreon, Ismene says,
“No, we should be sensible:
We are women, born unfit to battle men … we
must obey, even in this.”
Antigone answers back,
“I will bury him myself
If I die for doing that, good:
I will stay with him, my brother;
And my crime will be devotion.” (p. 23)
The actors also helped to format the play by setting boundaries for the playwright. The Greek word for actor, hypocrites, means “answerer”. The answer’s original use was to have dialogue with the chorus. The writer Aeschylus raised the number from one to two, and therefore there are many scenes and dialogues in Antigone that only involve two characters. Such scenes are the opening scene between Antigone and Ismene, the confrontation between Antigone and Kreon, and also when Kreon and Haimon fight over Antigone’s fate. The chorus often was used as another actor or detached observer, pointing out morals and important points in the story line as the play progressed. Here they comment on Antigone’s actions:
“You were harsh and daring, child.
You went too far and fell broken
against the lofty pedestal of Justice.
Perhaps, though, you are paying
for some ancestral failing.” (p. 54)
Ancient Greek playwrights were also restrained by the parts of a tragedy: the contest or conflict, the sacrificial death, the messenger’s speech, and the lamentation. In Antigone, the conflict is between Antigone and Kreon over whether to bury Antigone’s brother, Polyneices, or not. The sacrificial death is Antigone’s, her punishment for disobeying her uncle. The messenger’s speech is the longest speech in the play, making his arrival and delivery a very important part of the tragedy. Lastly is the lamentation. In Antigone, this aspect affects Kreon after the death of his son, wife, and niece.
“No, no! I’m rising on horror, and horror flies. Why don’t you hack me down? Has someone a sword? I and grief are blended. I am grief.” (p. 71)
The boundaries set by ancient Greek theatre influenced Antigone in many ways, from the need to develop characters quickly due to the use of masks, to the different parts of a tragedy. Sophocles took these obstacles and made them into aspects that helped his play become the highly recognized piece of writing that it was in his day and still is today.
A Companion to Greek Tragedy, John Ferguson, 1972, University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas and London.
The Life of Greece, Will Durant, 1939, Simon and Schuster, New York, New York.
Greek Theatre in Preformance: http://www.schoolsite.edex.net.uk/223/acdepts/theastud/greeks/grkperf.htm
ELAC Guide to Greek Theatre