Chapter 1- understanding and evaluating theater
1. one professor said there’s three kinds of theater and that you identify them by the audience’s behavior
a. it it’s exciting and compelling the audience sits on the edges of their seats and leans forward
b. if mostly dull, they lean back in their seat w/ hands in lap
c. if it’s really boring, the seats are empty because the audience went home
2. What is theater?
a. Theater is fun
b. It’s storytelling
c. There’s a playfulness of theater
3. Defining theater: theater is a unique live event that involves actors and audience, that happens in a particular place at particular time, that takes place in the present tense and yet has a pre-determined structure, that uses understood conventions to communicate through all five senses, and that has a lasting impact on the audience.
4. Why do we value theater? In addition to entertaining, theater involves you in a search for your humanity, for what it truly means to be human.
5. Studying theater helps increase your knowledge and expand your thinking. Teaches new ways to analyze your experiences and equip you to apply you new analytical skills to the many challenges you will encounter
6. Arthur Miller says “the arts are a highway to the soul of the people. After the cannons have stopped firing and the great victories of finance are reduced to mere surmise and are long forgotten, it is the art of the people that confronts future generations”.
Ten Traits of Theater
1. A live event – takes place only once.
2. Actors – someone has to play a part and imitate an action.
3. Audience – as herd animals, we get comfort and pleasure from being in a crowd that has gathered for a common purpose. Theater requires you to be more than a passive observer.
4. a particular place – we go to the theater, it doesn’t come to us
5. A particular time – it happens only at a set time.
6. The present tense – audio/video recorders make it past tense. Live theater is experienced in present tense only
7. A predetermined structure – theater has an organized structure. It’s divided into segments. Scenes and acts. Acts have numbers, scenes sometimes numbers and names.
8. Understood conventions – agreed upon rules of the game.
a. Curtain call – actors take a bow at the end and thank the audience for their participation and audience applauds actors for their work
b. Aside – one actor turns and addresses audience while other actors pretend they don’t hear.
c. Willing suspension of disbelief – Samuel Taylor Coleridge said the audience consciously sets aside its knowledge that what is happening on stage is fiction and pretends for the duration of the performance to believe that what it’s watching is really happening.
d. The fourth wall – the invisible barrier between the actor and the audience.
e. Virtual time and virtual place – our understanding that the action on stage is happening in a time and place different from our own.
9. Communication through all five senses – we hear and see, but also smell, taste, and feel. Total experience gives us the play’s meaning.
10. A lasting impact – an experience that stays with you, possibly for many years.
Chapter 2 – Aristotle’s guide to pleasure
1. Aristotle – Greek born in Athens in 384 BCE died 322 BCE at age 62
2. student of Plato
3. “greatest thinker of antiquity”
4. works lost at collapse of Roman Empire
5. from @400 CE to 1000 CE his works were studied in Syria and Spain by Arab scholars
6. after dark ages, Europe rediscovered him and the Renaissance began
7. Dante calls him “the master of those who know”
8. he wrote on astronomy, physics, rhetoric, ethics, politics, metaphysics, biology, botany, and poetics (study of literary expression)
9. The Poetics
a. Explains the primary purpose of theater
b. Provides a methodology for analyzing the form of theater
c. Defines the six elements
10. He believed the primary purpose of all human activity is to provide pleasure. It is not the same as “the pleasure principle”
11. He believed nothing gave more pleasure than learning the truth. About ourselves, others, etc.
12. He believed the theater provides the vehicle to study human behavior and learn the truth about human nature.
13. while we watch the characters in a drama – we’re observing case studies of human behavior that we can learn from
14. he believed theater at it’s optimum is a vitally important experience that can help us understand the truth
15. he believed that Oedipus the King was the best example of excellence
The Three Unities – pg 17
1. the unity of action
a. A play should have one simple plot so that the audience can learn from its clear example and not be confused by secondary plots.
b. Each play should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
c. New forms of plots include the flashback and many like Shakespeare’s have multiple and complex plots
2. the unity of time
a. He believed we get the greatest pleasure from plays in which the action occurs in one passage of consecutive time.
3. the unity of place
a. He believed we get the greatest pleasure from plays that set their action in one place.
b. Today there is more flexibility and the plays move from place to place
The six elements of theater
a. the life and soul of the drama
b. the most important element
c. the arrangement of the incidents
d. it’s the totality of those incidents in a story that the playwright has selected to be in the play and those incidents are arranged in a logical sequence
a. the action for the action
b. the play unfolds when the characters enact the incidents of the plot
a. the meaning of the play sometimes called the message
b. the play is communicated thru the plot as presented by the characters
a. describes both the vocabulary the playwright uses and the order in which the words are placed
b. helps to make the characters unique
a. Everything we hear in a performance.
b. Sound effects, musical accompaniment, and the sounds of the actor’s voices
a. he believed that what the audience sees is the least important element
b. he might have believed that a blind person could satisfactorily experience theater
c. Greek theater presented much less visual stimulus than modern theater.
Theatre Compared with Other Art Forms
1. Theatre reflects life, and in doing so gives us the opportunity to gain knowledge and broaden our understanding of other people.
2. Theatre communicates through dialogue that is specific and conveys exact content.
3. Theatre is temporal, which means that every performance will be different.
4. Theatre directly imitates human experience by creating recognizable characters onstage.
5. Theatre interprets life through the creativity of the actors, directors, and designers, who bring their own personal bias and background to each theatrical production.
6. Theatre is one of the most collaborative of all art forms, bringing together the skills of many artists to create a total production.
7. Contemporary Theatre is one of the most unlimited forms of art. Despite a certain frame work “the three act structure”, for instance theatre is
Limitless in what it can convey.
Theatre as Imitation and Ritual
1. Theatre artists often begin their work by imitating the world around them. This is called the mimetic instinct.
2. Theatre is a ritual of entertainment that is rehearsed and presented for an audience.
3. As children, our pretend play is a ritual in which we assume roles, follow loosely drawn rules, and perform for the entertainment of ourselves and others.
4. As adults, we continue in our pretend play when we are called upon to fulfill certain roles in our relationships to others in hope of eliciting a desired response or action from our partner.
Theatre in Evolution
1. Throughout history, theatre has reflected the political, social, religious, and economic themes of society.
1. Plays that deal with common feelings and beliefs are said to possess universality.
2. Theatre imitates and heightens life experiences.
1. Theatre differs from television in that it allows direct contact between actors and audience.
1. Audiences attend the theatre to he entertained; to he educated about the past, present, or future; to be confronted with a social problem; to learn about human nature; to reaffirm their beliefs; and, finally, to experience emotion.
2. The audience should learn about theatre as an art term so that they can
judge a production on its own merits and benefit from what it has to offer.
A Theory of Drama
A script is the bare outline from which theatre artists begin their work. All plays reflect the perspective of the playwright.
Aristotle describes tragedy as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. The action of the play should demonstrate a clear cause-and-effect relationship.
The Elements of Drama
A playwright works with a certain structure, within which he or she is free to experiment and find new methodologies and ways to present new concepts.
Aristotle described six elements as essential for tragedy: plot, character, thought, dialogue, melody, and spectacle.
Theatre is made up of symbols that approximate life.
Aesthetic distance allows us to detach ourselves from the actions of the actors onstage and appreciate the beauty of a production without feeling responsible for the well being of the characters being portrayed.
Theatre is built on conventions used by the theatre artists to tell a story.
Theatre depends on the audience’s willingness to suspend their disbelief and accept the illusion of reality as presented on the stage.
Conventions imply meaning in a theatrical production.
Acting conventions, such as projection, aid the audience in interpreting the message of the play.
Playwrights use conventions such as soliloquies, asides, monologues, and flashbacks to help the characters present the exposition or background information needed to advance the plot.
A soliloquy shows a character thinking aloud, revealing innermost thought, in much the same way we talk to ourselves.
A monologue is a long speech delivered either to the audience or to the other Characters.
A flashback is a scene that occurred in the past, before the play’s opening scene.
The environment in which the action takes place onstage is a convention. The sets, properties, and costumes are artificial, but they are part of what the audience accepts and they contribute to the effectiveness of the play.
Theatre goers are willing to accept any character once a framework or a world has been established in which they can exist. Only when the author deviates from that framework does a play and it’s characters become unbelievable.
The time on stage progresses faster than it does in real life, Dramatic time as opposed to chronological time, refers to the amount of time represented by a play; an hour onstage may represent any amount of actual time. Although more time usually is represented as having passed than the actual time it takes to present a play.
1. Aristotle (384—322 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher and scientist whose Poetics analyzes the function and structural principles of tragedy (a second book, written on comedy, is lost). Aristotle argues that tragedy represents serious action and arouses tenor and pity, leaving the spectator purged and strengthened. Although his works are often quoted, various societies have misunderstood or misinterpreted his theories.
2. The protagonist was the chief, and at first the only, actor in Greek tragedy (he was originally the leader of the dithyrambs). Contemporary scholars use the term protagonist to mean the character whose choices move the play forward.
1. In primitive cultures, theatre grew out of ritualistic prayers and hymns created to appease the forces that controlled the universe.
2. Entire tribes performed rituals. Later, the religious leaders were given the honor of performing the rituals in the place designated as appropriate for holy ceremonies.
3. Rituals were used to re-create past deeds and to preserve the history and beliefs of the tribe.
1. In Egypt dramas dealt with mythology and religion. (In Mesopotamia, the oldest mystery play told of the sacred marriage between god and man.)
2. Priests presented creation dramas as well as medicinal dramas, which celebrated their skills.
3. Religious rituals were performed by a chorus of religious leaders at the temple of the particular god or myth that was being celebrated.
1. Little is known about the origin of Indian drama, which is called Sanskrit (classical) drama.
2. Theatre probably grew out of dance. Itinerant dancers and mimes often performed for celebrations.
3. Theatre buildings had precise measurements of ninety-six by forty-eight feet, divided exactly in half
4. There was no scenery, so location was conveyed through a spoken prologue. Subsequent locations were described using stylized movements and gestures.
5. Acting and dance were integrated into expressive body art with exact gestures and movements.
6. The earliest Sanskrit drama of which we are aware can be traced to 320 A.D. It dealt with moods, or rasas.
7. Sanskrit drama had no tragedy; good always triumphed over evil. The plays had between one and ten acts, each covering no more than twenty-four hours, with no more than a year’s time passing between acts.
Early Theatre in Other Regions of Asia
1. The Chinese theatre space was a rectangular hall with a balcony on three sides and an acting platform that jutted out into the audience.
2. In the ninth century, Emperor Tang Ming Huang established the first school of scenic art and music.
3. During the Sung Dynasty (960—1279) song, dance, and dialogue were melded into stories.
4. Plays were based on traditional, familiar stories, with actors using exact gestures similar to those used in India.
5. Japanese drama became increasingly important after the seventh century A.D., with the development of No and Kabuki theatre.
6. Approximately 100 of the 240 dramas still in existence were written by Zeami Kiyotsugu (1364—1444), who performed with his father, Kanami Kiyotsugu (1 333—84).
7. Performers of No drama were associated with a temple, while the Kabuki performers were considered to be of the lowest social class, and they were not allowed to perform for the higher classes of Japan.
8. Kabuki theatres had resident playwrights, who wrote for the individual company members. Since women were not yet allowed to perform, male actors played female roles.
1. By the fifth century B.C., theatre in Athens was extremely advanced, coinciding with the advanced commercial, political, and cultural conditions of this city-state.
2. Greek theatre probably started before the sixth century B.C. with dithyrambs, or hymns to the god Dionysus.
3. Greeks held festivals to worship their principal deities. Before the development of drama, the highlight of the festival was the offering of a sacrifice. Originally, the sacrifice was human; later, goats were offered.
The Development of Drama
1. The development from the Dionysian hymns to the appearance of full-scale dramas was gradual.
2. For many years, there was only a chorus. Later, an individual actor spoke by himself. Legend says the first person to do this was Thespis in 534 B.C. (his name gives us the word thespian, a synonym for “actor”).
3. Later, the chorus dressed as satyrs (half goat and half man). The plays were then called “goat songs,” or tragoidia, from which we get the word tragedy.
4. The origin of comedy is not known, although there are theories that it may have developed from dances and songs improvised by Dionysian revelers or by a group of young men (komos) who were heckling the crowd during the procession to the altar of Dionysus.
5. Three festivals developed: the City Dionysia, the Lenaia, and the Rural Dionysia. All plays still in existence were from the City Dionysia.
6. Each festival elected a master of revels, the archon, who selected the plays, which were submitted by the playwrights, and sought out the choregus.
7. The person appointed to the prestigious position of choregus paid for the costumes and the musicians, and for training the actors.
8. The actors, known as hypokrites, were paid by the state.
9. Tragedies were presented as trilogies in the morning, while comedies were
presented separately in the afternoon.
10. Aeschylus, The first important dramatist wrote 80 or 90 plays 7 of which are still in existence today, he relied heavily on a chorus of about 50 and used traditional themes based on myths and Olympian laws. Sophocles, was the next major writer that wrote well over one hundred plays and is credited with introducing the third actor. Euripides the third major writer and wrote plays mainly concerned with human beings as an individual. He wrote ninety two plays 17 tragedies survive as well as a satyr play.
11. The Greek chorus served as a unifying force in the dramas. Although the chorus varied in size, it acted as a character, a narrator, or a messenger, commenting on the action of the play as it progressed.
12. Greek comedy dealt with current events and ordinary people. It was considered inferior to tragedy.
13. Old Comedy (454—404 B.C.) emphasized an idea. Aristophanes
(c. 448—380 B.C.) was the major writer of the form, which made use of a chorus.
14. New Comedy was made popular by Menander (c. 342—292 B.C.), who poked fun at local middle-class citizens. The chorus was omitted due to heavy taxation and the absence of financial support.
15. At first, plays were presented outside in an open space. Later, permanent seats were added and the skene was built so that actors could dress and wait for their entrance. A themele, or altar, was placed in the center of the playing space, called the orchestra. Later the skene was used as a backdrop for the action onstage.
16. A mechene, or crane (also called a deus ex machina), was used to bring in the gods to solve the characters’ problems.
17. Actors in Greek theatre were highly respected, trained, and skillful. They wore specific masks to play various characters. Tragic actors wore a high boot, or kothornos, to add to their physical stature.
18. Comic costumes were simpler and always included a large leather phallus.
19. Probably the greatest contribution of the Greek theatre was the writings of Aristotle, whose ideas about the structure of dramas still influence playwrights today.
1. Romans were exposed to Greek drama during the First Punic War (264—241 B.C.). In 240 B.C. Livius Andronicus produced the first Greek play in Rome, translated into Latin.
2. Even though Romans regarded Greek culture as decadent, Roman playwrights imitated Greek drama.
3. Romans viewed theatre as entertainment and did not associate it with the worship of gods.
4. Theatre festivals were staged by magistrates, who hired acting companies to perform plays.
5. Actors, histriones, lost prestige and were often considered as slaves by the acting company managers.
6. Roscius, Rome’s most famous actor, was made a knight.
7. Actors wore linen masks with wigs attached that covered the entire head. Acting was largely based on improvisation. Movements were broad and exaggerated.
8. Initially, theatres were temporary buildings. In 55 B.C. the first permanent theatre was erected at Pompeii. Built on a level spot, the theatre had stadium—style e seating. Awnings stretched over the top to protect the audience from the elements.
9. Periaktoi, three-sided devices that could be rotated, were used to indicate changes in location by showing different designs. Some believe a backdrop was used as well.
10. The Atellan farce, the oldest form of Roman comedy, was based on improvisation and stock characters and included lewd jokes.
11. Gnaeus Naevius (270-201 B.C.) is the first Roman dramatist of whom there is record. The two most popular Roman comedy playwrights were Platutus and Terence.
12. Seneca (4 B.C.—65 A.D.) wrote the only Roman tragedies still in existence. His plays were adaptations of Greek tragedies, but were closet dramas, written to be recited rather than produced as plays. They contained a great deal of violence, with elaborate speeches, soliloquies, asides, and sensationalism.
13. After the fourth century A.D., largely because of the influence of the Christian church, the theatre lost popularity until the tenth century.
1. The mystery plays referred to in this chapter are similar to Christian mystery plays, but they are the religious plays of ancient Mesopotamia— celebrating the sacred marriage between gods and men.
2. A prologue is an opening speech or poem, which comments on the action and gives information regarding the location, time, and situation of the play. The prologue became popular again during the Elizabethan period. Paired with an epilogue, which closed the action, this convention was extensively used during the Restoration. The use of the prologue lasted well into the eighteenth century, but it disappeared during the nineteenth century. Prologues and epilogues were often used to make witty commentaries on political and social conditions.
3. Dionysus (Bacchus in Roman mythology) was the Greek god of wine, whose worship took many forms. For example, it was believed that women would withdraw for a time into the wild amid experience a mystical communion with nature. It was also believed that Dionysus would die and be reborn each year, thus the rites surrounding his patronage were related to fertility.
KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
The entire action of this classical tragedy by Sophocles is set in
the ancient city of Thebes. This setting does not change because
unity of place was one of the most important characteristics of
Greek tragedies. Thebes is presented as a city in the grip of a
crisis. A deadly plague has transformed this city into a barren
land. It is against the backdrop of this sterile and desolate land
that the tragedy unfolds itself.
King Oedipus - the king of Thebes. A man ruled by a fate,
according to which he is to murder his father and marry his own
mother. Oedipus is unaware of the fact that he has already
committed these dreadful acts. He is highly intelligent, short of
temper, and impetuous.
Jocasta - the queen of Thebes. She is Oedipus' wife as well as his
mother but is as ignorant about the latter fact as is Oedipus. She is
a good and loving queen who does not hesitate to speak her mind.
Creon - Jocasta's brother. He is a responsible and loyal Theban
citizen. Judicious, rational, and consistent in nature, he acts as a
foil to the more impulsive Oedipus.
Tiresias - The blind prophet of Thebes, Tiresias has been blessed
with immortality. He is the only one in Thebes who is aware of
the facts of Oedipus' life.
Chorus - The Chorus plays a very important role in Greek
tragedies by providing background information, commenting on
the action of the play and revealing the psychological and
emotional tenor of the action. In Oedipus Rex, the chorus is
formed of Theban citizens who witness Oedipus' tragedy. They
are a link between the actors and the audience because they voice
the emotions, anxieties and concerns of the people watching the
A Corinthian Shepherd - An old man from Corinth, who brings
the news of the Corinthian king's death. He is also the man who
had presented the infant Oedipus to the Corinthian ruler after he
had been abandoned by the Theban shepherd.
A Theban Shepherd - another old man who was a confidante of
King Laius. He is the sole witness of Laius' murder and also the
one to hand over the infant Oedipus to the Corinthian Shepherd.
Although both these shepherds are minor characters in the
tragedy, they do play a major part in unraveling the mystery of
Oedipus' birth and Laius' murder.
The two daughters of Oedipus - Antigone and Ismene make an
appearance in the play although they are not assigned any
A messenger, priests, attendants are the other minor characters.
Protagonist: Oedipus, the king of Thebes, is the protagonist of
the play. Oedipus is born with a terrible prophecy to kill his own
father and marry his mother. To prevent this from happening,
Oedipus' father orders the baby to be killed but instead he is given
to a childless king and queen who raise him as if he were their
own. In attempting to deny his fate, Oedipus runs away from who
he is and yet ironically ends up in the homeland of his origins,
ruling as king and marrying his mother. When he finally realizes
the truth of the prophecy, Oedipus must accept his punishment
and his limitations as a man.
Antagonist: The antagonist in this classical Greek tragedy is Fate.
The awful fate with which Oedipus is born is his greatest enemy.
Despite attempting to flee his fate, Oedipus ends up doing exactly
what it predicts and then having to confront the consequences of
Oedipus' destiny is engendered by Oedipus' own character
defects: his temper and impulsive nature and his pride (hubris) as
well as his erroneous judgment (hamartia) all contribute to his
eventual downfall. These character defects are governed by his
fate and in turn aid his fate to take its course towards his
Thus, Oedipus' fate as well as his hamartia work as the
antagonists in this tragedy.
Climax: The character flaws of the protagonist Oedipus work in
tandem with fate to take the tragedy to its climax. Oedipus, in his
eagerness to solve the mystery of Laius' murder and later in order
to find the facts about his birth carries out an investigation. His
wife and others advise him not to do so as the results may be
unpleasant. But the stubborn Oedipus does not take their advice.
The climax occurs at the point when he realizes that fate has
played itself out and in his ignorance he has killed his father and
married his mother. This realization marks the climax of the play.
Outcome: The outcome of this climax is that Jocasta, Oedipus'
mother/wife commits suicide, as she is unable to bear the burden
of her abhorrent existence. Oedipus is devastated and blinds
himself as a punishment. He only wants to be exiled from Thebes,
destroyed and vanquished. Through his pain and suffering,
Oedipus is humbled yet he also gains self-knowledge, as he
knows who he is and where he is from.
The entire action of the play is set in the city of Thebes, which is
in the grip of a deadly plague at the start of the play. The reason
for the plague is that Laius' murderer has not been punished. Laius
was the ruler of Thebes before the present King (Oedipus) and
was supposedly killed during a journey by a group of robbers. The
gods at Delphi threaten that unless the murderer is caught and
tried, Thebes will continue to suffer. This is the background
against which the entire drama unfolds. The present king of
Thebes, Oedipus, firmly resolves to find the murderer and
prosecute him. He prohibits his people from withholding any
information about the man in question. He himself curses the
The old prophet Tiresias is also summoned by Oedipus to be
consulted over the matter, but his meeting with Tiresias takes an
ugly turn. Tiresias refuses to reveal anything to Oedipus because
he is aware of the dreadful fact that it is the ignorant Oedipus
himself who has murdered Laius and that Laius was Oedipus'
father and that he is married to his own mother.
He prefers to keep silent as he does not want to be the cause of
Oedipus' ruin. Oedipus, on the other hand, interprets Tiresias'
silence as treachery. He labels him a villain and a conspirator
along with Creon. Later, the angry Tiresias leaves, warning that
Oedipus will cause his own
A confrontation between Oedipus and Creon erupts. Creon is
distraught by Oedipus' impulsive behavior. As the investigations
into Laius' murder proceed, the fact that a sole witness is alive
comes to light. Oedipus sends for this man, who is an old
Meanwhile, the plot takes a new turn when a messenger from
Corinth brings the news that the Corinthian king Polybus is dead.
He asks Oedipus to take up the kingship of Corinth. But, Oedipus
expresses his reluctance, as he fears his fate according to which he
will marry his own mother. The Corinthian shepherd tries to
pacify him by revealing the fact that Oedipus was the adopted son
of the Corinthian king and queen. He also states that Oedipus'
birthplace is in fact Thebes. This twist is significant because
Oedipus now wants to find the truth out about his parentage.
Coincidentally, the sole
witness of Laius' murder is also the man
who had handed over the infant Oedipus to the Corinthian
shepherd. This man holds the key to the mystery of Oedipus'
birth. Oedipus persuades him to speak up. Finally this Theban
shepherd reveals the horrifying fact that Oedipus was the son of
Laius and Jocasta. This crucial moment, when Oedipus realizes
the truth about his parentage, is an important feature in any well-
made tragedy. This is the anagnorisis or the recognition point. At
this stage, the protagonist realizes the truth of a situation,
discovers another character's identity or learns an unknown fact
about his own self. What follows anagnorisis is peripetia or the
reversal, where the opposite of what was planned or expected by
the protagonist, occurs. In Oedipus Rex all the noble intentions of
the protagonist to investigate Laius' murder lead to his own
A shattered Jocasta commits suicide by hanging herself and
Oedipus, unable to see his wretched existence, blinds himself.
Oedipus' curse falls on himself, and he wishes to leave Thebes. In
a pathetic condition, he pleads with Creon to banish him from the
The play ends with Creon's wise words to Oedipus. He says,
"Seek not to have your way in all things,
Where you had your way before,
Your mastery broke before the end."
The major theme explored in Oedipus Rex is that fate and
character are intertwined. Oedipus is not only fated to perform
such detestable acts but his very behavior (which leads him to
doing these) determines his fate. The crimes that he committed
against his father and mother were repugnant but not as detestable
as that of ignoring the very signs, which could have averted the
tragedy. By not paying heed to the oracle or following up on the
rumors about his heritage, Oedipus set into motion the fate that
was ordained him. His presumption and arrogance about who he
was lead to his fall. Sophocles believed that humans have free will
yet they are limited by a larger order that controls all things. By
going against the larger cosmic order, Oedipus' fate was
determined. Ultimately, it is Oedipus who chooses his path, the
one of ignorance rather than clarity, and in doing so, he must take
responsibility for his actions.
A minor theme is that of self-knowledge as being a key to
understanding one's place in the universe. It is only through
Oedipus' inquiry into his heritage that he discovers the painful
truth of who he is and what it means to be human. Although he
must abdicate the throne, abandon his family, and destroy his
family as well as his sight, Oedipus is given the insight of self-
knowledge. His blindness therefore becomes ironic as it is only
when he loses his sight that he actually gains the insight into
himself he did not have before.
The mood of the play from the beginning to the end is of
devastation, destruction and gloom. The play opens with Thebes
suffering from a severe plague due to an unresolved murder. This
mood of suffering and pollution is emphasized as the play proceeds.
That the whole kingdom must
suffer for the sins of one
man reveals how dynamic the universe in Greek tragedy is.
Everything is interconnected and vindication must be sought in
order for the kingdom to regain its normalcy. The suffering which
begins as a phenomenon in the kingdom eventually concentrates
on the pain and suffering of the royal family.
The Greeks did not permit comic interludes in tragedies, as they
would dilute the effect of the tragedy. In such a case, the ultimate
aim of a tragedy, that being catharsis, would become impossible.
Therefore, even in Oedipus, there are no comic scenes. The
somber, sad, and disturbed mood dominates the entire play.
Chronologically, Sophocles was the second in the triumvirate of
great Greek playwrights, the others being Aeschylus and
Euripides. Born in 496 B.C. in the rural suburb of Colonus near
Athens, he lived there through most of the fifth century B.C.
dying in 406 B.C. Though his father, Sophilius, owned an arms
factory in Athens, Sophocles showed little or no interest in
political and military affairs. Instead, he became well-versed in
the competitive rites of Athenian culture, and, as a youth, won
prizes in wrestling and music. At age fifteen, he led the Choral
paean to celebrate the famous Greek victory over the Persians at
Sophocles produced his first set of plays in 468 B.C. They were
immediately successful, and he was awarded the coveted first
place at the Dionysian festival that took place every spring,
winning over his own mentor, Aeschylus. He went on to win the
first prize on at least 18 to 20 occasions and ranked second several
other times. Ironically, his greatest play, Oedipus the King,
managed only a second place, perhaps due to biased judging.
Sophocles also staged his plays at the "henaea", the annual feast
of the wine-vats held each January in Athens after 450 B.C. The
feast included elaborate processions, rituals, and dramatic
Sophocles learned much of his art from Aeschylus, the "father of
Greek tragedy," but developed his own innovations to Greek
drama. He increased the chorus strength from 12 to 15, included
the use of painted scenery on stage, and introduced a third actor as
a key figure in the play. (Aeschylus sometime used a third actor,
but in a rather limited role.)
Of the more than 120 Sophoclean plays written over a 60 year
span, only the titles of about 110 of them are known.
Unfortunately, only seven plays have survived intact into modern
times. Their probable chronological order is as follows: Ajax and
the Trachiniae/Women of Trachis pre-date Antigone (441 B.C.);
Electra and Oedipus Tyranus / Oedipus the King followed; and
Philoctetes is safely dated to 409 B.C. His last play Oedipus epi
Kotonoi /Oedipus At Colonus was written when he was 90. Parts
of his satyr play Ichneutae / The Trackers were discovered as
recently as 1907.
Sophocles had two sons. The first was Iophon, the tragedian, by
his legal wife, Nicostrate. Later in life, he had a second son
Agathon (father of the younger Sophocles), by his mistress,
Theoris of Sicyon. Literary critics have speculated that his final
work Oedipus At Colonus was intended as a retort to his eldest
son, Iophon, who during a legal dispute over the family property
had accused Sophocles of being senile. To counter this
accusation, the great dramatist recited before the court an ode
from this play and proved his sanity. The play was produced
posthumously on stage by his grandson (also called Sophocles
"the younger") in 401 B.C., five years after Sophocles' death. In
fact, Sophocles died just a few months after his great
contemporary and fellow-playwright, Euripides, in whose honor
he wrote his famous elegiac chorus. On the eve of the Dionysian
festival in 406 B.C., Sophocles, with his actors and chorus,
appeared in mourning garb (not wearing the usual garlands) and
recited it before an audience that was deeply touched by its
The major part of Sophocles'
life coincided with the Golden Age
of ancient Greece, when it was an undisputed imperial power and
a great center of culture and learning. Some of the great
contemporary statesmen who ruled Athens in this period of
immense prosperity, such as Cimon and Pericles. were friends of
Sophocles. Though he was never tempted to seek honors and
fortunes in high places, he was twice elected
"strategos"/"general", once under Pericles and later with Nicias.
As one of the ten generals, he led the Athenian expedition in the
Simian war of 441- 438 B.C. He also presided over the Athenian
treasury during these battle-stricken years. In 413 B.C., after a
failed attempt by Athens to topple Sicily, he became one of the
Proubloi (or "special commissioners") mainly due to his
widespread fame and popularity after writing the play Antigone.
Reliable contemporary reports reveal that Sophocles was
charming, handsome, and wealthy. He had a wide circle of
friends, among them Pericles and Herodotus, the great historian to
whom he wrote a poem. The Greeks regarded Sophocles as a kind
of tragic Homer, hailed him as the favorite of the gods, and
honored him with state sacrifices long after his death. (This was
not only for his great plays, but for the fact that when the cult of
Asclepius, god of healing, was introduced in Athens, Sophocles
housed the sacred snake, symbolizing the god, until the temple
was ready). In his comedy Rogs (405 B.C.), Aristophanes has
Dionysius go down to Hades to ask Euripides to remind the
people of Athens what Greek drama was. When asked why he did
not ask Sophocles, the character says that since Sophocles had
been "contented among the living, he will be contented among the
dead." Phyrnicus, the ancient biographer, agreed that Sophocles'
life was happy and that he enjoyed all his faculties to the very
end. Aristotle considered Sophocles to be the greatest tragedian.
Matthew Arnold, the 19th century poet and critic, praised
Sophocles as a man "who saw life steadily and saw it whole."
LITERARY / HISTORICAL
Although originally stemming from the "Dionysia" or religious
festivals dedicated to Dionysius, the God of Wine, Greek tragedy
was solemn, poetic, and philosophic in tone. Plays such as the
ones about Oedipus often told the tale of a central
character/protagonist who was an admirable but, not necessarily, a
perfect person. This individual was often confronted by hostile
forces from both outside (the fates or gods) and within (individual
free will, pride, etc.). The protagonist often had to make difficult
moral/ethical choices in order to resolve these conflicts. If the
protagonist's struggle ended in defeat or death, the play was
labeled a tragedy. Most Greek tragedies were based on myths and,
as Aristotle says, were "an imitation of an action" that was both
serious and complete in itself.
Tragedies were marked by
certain common elements. They
consisted of a series of dramatic episodes linked by choral odes,
chanted by an on-stage chorus of 12 -15 persons. This chorus
often commented on the dramatic action or analyzed, in their own
fashion, the pattern of events and the behavior of the central
character/characters. They sang, danced, and recited the choral
odes and lyrics to the accompaniment of such musical instruments
as the lyre or flute (which Dionysus himself is known to have
played). The main episodes were performed by, at the most, three
actors who could appear simultaneously on stage. Men played
both men and women's parts and the three central actors shared all
the roles in a play. Masks were worn to depict the kind of
characters they represented, such as an aging man or a young
woman. The use of masks was a way to surrender or submerge
one's own identity -- a principle basic to all Dionysian rituals.
For a clearer idea of how Greek tragedy works, one must refer to
Aristotle's definitive comments given in his great critical treatise
about Greek drama, entitled The Poetics (circa 335 B.C.). It deals
with theories of Greek tragedy as seen in the finest plays of
Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These principles of classical
Greek tragedy have influenced almost all the later tragic
dramatists of the Western world. Though modern tragedy often
deviates widely from the Greek classical norms, it still
acknowledges the universality of Aristotle's fundamental
concepts, especially his ability to pinpoint those elements in
human nature that are, always and everywhere, responsible for
tragedy in life.
Aristotle's View of
In his Poetics, Aristotle claims that comedy shows man to be
worse than what he is in real life. In tragedy, however, man is
represented as better than he is in actual life. He defines tragedy
as "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a
certain magnitude; in a language embellished with each kind of
artistic ornament . . . in the form of action, not narrative; with
incidents arousing pity and fear, and has as its goal a catharsis of
emotions. Thus, he identifies six major features of tragic drama:
Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Melody.
For Aristotle the most
important part of tragedy is the Plot or
Action, which is the structure of the incidents. Plot is the very
life-blood of tragic drama. Without action, there can be no
tragedy, though it is sometimes possible to have a tragedy without
character. Any tragic drama must be long enough to depict a
reversal, or a change from good fortune to bad in the central
figure. It must be so constituted that all its parts combine to form
a unified and organic whole.
Character is the second most significant feature; it gives tragedy
its moral dimension. The central personage in tragedy must be
morally good, of fitting heroic stature, true-to-life, and consistent
in action. The change in the fortune of the central figure must be
from good to bad, from prosperity and success to adversity and
failure. This downfall is often the consequence of a fatal flaw in a
character or an error in judgment, which in Greek is called
"Hamartia". The failure of the tragic hero/heroine is also due to
"hubris" or a false sense of pride in the character's own secure
The tragic dramatist must choose suitably heroic characters and
place them in a well-constructed plot which aims at the imitation
of such actions as will excite pity and fear in the audience. These
twin emotions are the distinctive effects that tragedy aims to
invoke. The downfall of a noble, well-renowned, prosperous, and
basically good person naturally evokes pity "for his/her
misfortune;" it also evokes terror or fear that such misfortunes can
easily overtake any human. This leads to an effect of catharsis or
purging of the very emotions of pity and terror evoked by tragedy.
Because of this catharsis, tragedy has a psychological, as well as a
social, dimension since it provides an outlet for undesirable
Aristotle also draws a
distinction between simple and complex
plots. He states that more profound tragedy ensues when the
playwright skillfully manipulates the actions in a complex plot.
Complex action achieves its greatest impact through surprises and
astounding revelations. The two devices that give tremendous
power to the plot are what the Greeks called "peripeteia" and
"anagnorisis". Peripeteia is often wrongly translated as a "reversal
of fortune". More correctly, it refers to a reversal of the situation,
where the action turns towards a direction just the opposite of its
original course. Anagnorisis refers to recognition of a
It is a change from a state
of ignorance to one of
knowledge, which produces hate among the characters and the
final downfall of the central character. Such changes shown
through "Peripeteia/Anagnorisis" must be within the limits of
probability and produce the effect of dramatic irony.
Finally, the element of noble Thought gives to tragedy its proper
intellectual point of reference. Diction is the playwright's choice
of appropriate phraseology for effective communication or
maximum effect. Melody and Spectacle are useful
embellishments in a tragic play and can be quite entertaining for
the audience, though sometimes these, especially the element of
spectacle, constitute a distraction from the essence of drama.
Aristotle's theories must not be interpreted as rigid rules since
they were merely observations about contemporary Greek drama.
Taken too literally, strict adherence to the Unities has often
resulted in a stilted, artificial, and rigid drama which Aristotle
would hardly have advocated.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE
Towards the close of Sophocles' life, the glory and power of the
great Athenian state was beginning to show the first signs of
decay. A ten-year war broke out in 431 B.C. between Athens and
Sparta. After it ended in a stalemate, it dragged on for 27 years in
all, either in open or barely contained hostilities. In 428 B.C.,
there was a devastating plague that decimated the Athenian
population and claimed the life of Pericles. Then in 413 B.C.,
Athens lost two armies in its disastrous campaigns in Sicily. Nine
years later (in 404 B.C.), Athens suffered humiliating defeat by
Sophocles was writing the Oedipus plays at a time when Athens
was struggling for its life against disruptive forces inside and
outside of the city-state. As a result, he incorporates into his plays
both the glorious reign of Theseus, founder and hero of Athens,
and the bitter strife ensuing among the nation states of Greece.
The legend of Oedipus
Three of Sophocles' plays, Oedipus, the King , Oedipus At
Colonus, and Antigone, are based on the old Greek legends about
Oedipus and his family. Each of these plays can be better read and
more fully understood when one understands the tragic
consequences that dogged the ruling family of Thebes from the
times of its founding father, Cadmus. Although essentially
regarded as myths, the incidents in the three plays may have had
some basis in facts drawn from ancient Greek history many
centuries before Sophocles' time. Such facts, however, are often
distorted by the passage of time and the oral tradition by which
they were passed from one generation to the next. Thus, they
become part of folklore or legends.
Oedipus was a direct descendant of Cadmus through his son,
Polydorus. The latter begot Labdacus, whose son Laius was the
father of Oedipus. (That is, Oedipus was the grandson of
Labdacus who, in turn, was the grandson of Cadmus). All the
generations of the Cadmus family suffered a tragic fate in one
way or another.
When Laius, great-grandson of Cadmus, loses his kingdom to
Amphion and Zethus, the sons of Zeus and Antiope, he finds
refuge with Pelops, the son of Tantolus. Laius, however, repays
Pelops' kindness in a rather cruel way -- by kidnapping his son
Chrysippus. His ungratefulness brings a curse upon Laius and his
whole family over the next two generations. Laius gets back his
kingdom of Thebes when Amphion and Zethus dies. He then
marries Jocasta, sister of Creon. However, Apollo warns Laius
that his son will kill him one day as punishment for his abduction
of Pelops' son.
In an attempt to avoid the fulfillment of the prophecy, Oedipus'
parents, Laius and Jocasta, give Oedipus to a servant to be taken
to Mount Cithaeron, where he is to be deserted. A spike is driven
through the child's feet to prevent him from crawling away.
However, a shepherd finds the infant and brings him to Polybus
and Merope, King and Queen of Cornish. Being childless, they
adopt this child as their own son and name him Oedipus, which in
Greek means "swollen foot", due to the deformity in his feet.
As Oedipus grows up, he
hears rumors that he is not the real son
of King Polybus. After consulting the Delphi oracle about his true
parents, he hears the same prophecy told to his real parents, Laius
and Jocasta. Mistaking his true parents to be Polybus and Merope,
Oedipus leaves Cornish forever and wanders towards Thebes. On
the way, by sheer coincidence, he meets his real father, Laius, at a
place where three roads meet. A quarrel erupts over who has the
right of way. Laius, not being known for his prudence, insults and
strikes Oedipus, who promptly kills him.
Traveling on to Thebes, Oedipus hears that the city is being
plagued by the Sphinx, a monster who poses riddles to travelers
and kills those who cannot answer them. Oedipus confronts the
Sphinx, solving the riddle; subsequently the Sphinx destroys
herself. Hearing of the Sphinx's death, the people of Thebes are
overjoyed and hail Oedipus as their hero. He is crowned the new
king of Thebes and marries the then-widowed queen, Jocasta,
who is actually his mother. During his early years of reign, he and
Jocasta conceive two sons, named Eteocles and Polyneices, and
two daughters, named Antigone and Ismene.
In Homer's poetic version of the story, Jocasta hanged herself
when she discovered she had married her own son, but Oedipus
continued to rule Thebes; however, Sophocles, in his earlier
tragedy Oedipus the King, sets up a more dramatic ending. When
a terrible pestilence and drought plagues the city of Thebes, the
people of Thebes consult the Delphic oracle, who reveals that the
disaster could be averted only if the murderer of Laius is detected
and banished from Thebes. Subsequent events eventually reveal
that it is Oedipus himself who is the son and murderer of Laius. In
shock and shame, Oedipus blinds himself and then exiles himself
In his final wanderings, Oedipus is accompanied by his faithful
daughter, Antigone. He settles at last in Colonus, near Athens,
under the patronage of its kind king, Theseus. Here, he patiently
waits for death to release him from the sad torture of life.
Meanwhile, Thebes is ruled by his two sons who agree to rule in
alternate years. Eteocles takes up rule first but refuses to quit
when it is Polyneices' turn to rule. Because the latter had married
Argeia, daughter of Adrastus, King of Argos, Polyneices asks his
father-in-law to help him reclaim his right to rule Thebes. He also
asks Oedipus to support him, but the old king curses both sons for
their bitter fratricidal enmity and refuses to help either of them.
Polyneices attacks the seven gates of Thebes with an Argive army
led by seven champions, but they are defeated and the two
brothers kill each other, according to the curse of Oedipus upon
them. Creon then becomes King of Thebes and forbids the burial
of Polyneices, dubbing him a traitor. Antigone defies her uncle's
unjust law, tries to bury her brother, and is caught. Creon puts her
to death even though she is to marry his son, Haemon, who also
kills himself. Hearing of this, Creon's wife also commits suicide.
Thus, the curse on the house of Laius is complete. This last part of
the legend featuring Antigone's rebellion against Creon is dealt
with in Sophocles' earlier tragedy Antigone.
Other Oedipus stuff
Oedipus the King, written by Sophocles, is the play on which many of today’s western plays and movies are based.
Sophocles introduced the third actor.
Oedipus follows the structure of a scene(stasimon) followed by a choral ode, sung by 15 chorus members who were employees of the government.
The characters are: Oedipus, the tragic hero; Jocasta, his mom and wife; Laius’s shepherd, who was told to go kill Oedipus; Corinthian shepherd who found the baby on Gethiren; Tiresias, the blind prophet who knew the truth the messenger who found the horrible scene in the palace.
The tragedy is about the fall of a king from on high, he crashes and burns, but the part we like is the quality of his struggle.
The sphinx was the evil monster, part woman, bird, and dog who placed a curse on the city, which Oedipus answered and saved the city.
The riddle was: what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the morning? Answer: man
You must check out your workbook for the drawing of the greek theatre in which the play took place.
The parts to the theatre are: theatron, where the audience sits; the orchestra, the round stamped place where the chorus sang; the skene, or scene building which had three doors; the logeion, which was the forestage; and the altar, where they burned goats.