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Performance Context Of 5th Century Greek Literature Notes

Classics Notes > Greek Literature of the 5th Century BC Notes

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How important is it to understand the original performance context of the works you have been studying, and to try to reconstruct the conventions that govern their performance?
The context to any performance is important to understand so that the way in which the play would be received by the audience can be fully appreciated. Furthermore it will help to bring added meaning out of the work; for example whether it is confirming or challenging its societal context. Also for these reasons it is also important to reconstruct the conventions that govern their performance, if indeed one took place. The main audience for the tragic plays were Athenians and all plays were performed at two festivals in Athens herself; the Lenaia and the Great Dionysia. At the Lenaia there were unlikely to be any foreigners in the audience, mainly because it was held in winter when the seas were not yet navigable. This meant that the Athenians were free to be themselves; Aristophanes especially took this to mean that he could criticise his own city without fear of embarrassment in front of members of other cities. The Great Dionysia, in stark contrast to this, was a festival distinguished by the pomp with which the Athenians flaunted themselves in front of their subject states and others since it was at this time the tribute could be brought in from all over the empire. The event itself was a thoroughly political event masquerading as a religious festival; Plutarch says that before the tragedies libations were poured by the ten generals who were the most powerful political and military leaders in the city. This is significant because no more than four occasions a year were they recorded as being together as a group, making the Great Dionysia one of very few important political engagements on the calendar. Furthermore before the plays began all the tribute of the Athenians was brought into the theatre along with the orphans of men who had died in battle fighting for the state clad in full armour at the city's expense. This served to glorify the power of Athens as well as to demonstrate their military power to their assembled subjects and to the wider Greek world. As Winkler notes this could only have been a late development at around the time that the treasury was moved from the island of Delos to the city of Athens. This shows that as the power of the Athenian democracy and empire grew so did the ostentation of their displays and thereby they linked their tragic festivals inherently to their democracy and the values that come along with that. In this vein the Athenians also took this opportunity to give out crowns and wreaths to those men who had most benefited the city that year; this was a great honour but was more intended to encourage others to follow their example and engender a patriotic and civic minded spirit in all the citizens. This is comparative to the famous funeral oration of Pericles in Thucydides book one in which he honours the glory of Athens rather than the individual members themselves; in both cases it is the benefit done to the city and the democracy which is being celebrated. This therefore was the highly politicised context in which the tragedies were performed and it is important to consider whether this affected the content or impact of them as it certainly did with the comedies, which were highly politicised themselves.

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