Above: Roman mosaic depicting a tragic mask in the midst of fruits, flowers and garlands, from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, 2nd c. BCE.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Marie-Lan Nguyen. License: Public domain.

The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition

Margaret Alexiou, 2nd ed. 1974

This book has long since been established as a classic in several fields. This is the only generic and diachronic study of learned and popular lament and its socio-cultural contexts throughout Greek tradition in which a great diversity of sources are integrated to offer a comprehensive and penetrating synthesis. Its interdisciplinary orientation and broad scope have rendered this work an indispensable reference work for classicists, byzantinists, neohellenists, folklorists, and anthropologists. Now a second edition, revised by Dimitrios Yatromanolakis and Panagiotis Roilos, has been made available. This new edition also includes a valuable up-to-date bibliography on ritual lament and death in Greek culture.

Theatrical Space and Historical Place in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus

Lowell Edmunds, 1997

While Greek tragedies are often studied as works of literature, they are less frequently examined as products of the social and political environment in which they were created. Rarely, too, are the visual and spatial aspects of these plays given careful consideration. In this detailed and innovative book, Lowell Edmunds combines two readings of the Oedipus at Colonus to arrive at a new way of looking at Greek tragedy. Edmunds sets forth a semiotic theory of theatrical space, and then applies this theory to the visual and spatial dimensions of the Oedipus at Colonus. In his historical analysis, Edmunds describes the Athenian revolution of 411 B.C.E. and its effect on Colonus. The book includes an appendix on the life of Sophocles and the reception of the Oedipus at Colonus. Edmunds' unique approach to the Oedipus at Colonus. makes this an important book for students and scholars of semiotics, Greek tragedy, and theatrical performance.

Choral Mediations in Greek Tragedy

ed. Renaud Gagné & Marianne Govers Hopman, Year

This volume explores how the choruses of Ancient Greek tragedy creatively combined media and discourses to generate their own specific forms of meaning. The contributors analyse choruses as fictional, religious and civic performers; as combinations of text, song and dance; and as objects of reflection in themselves, in relation and contrast to the choruses of comedy and melic poetry. Drawing on earlier analyses of the social context of Greek drama, the non-textual dimensions of tragedy, and the relations between dramatic and melic choruses, the chapters explore the uses of various analytic tools in allowing us better to capture the specificity of the tragic chorus. Special attention is given to the physicality of choral dancing, musical interactions between choruses and actors, the trajectories of reception, and the treatment of time and space in the odes.

Attic red-figure kylix (drinking cup) depicting Oedipus pondering the riddle of the Sphinx; ca. 470-460 BCE. Source: Flickr.
Creator: Nick Thompson. License: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Greek Tragedy: Suffering Under the Sun

Edith Hall, 2010

This is an invaluable introduction to ancient Greek tragedy which discusses every surviving play in detail and provides all the background information necessary for understanding the context and content of the plays. Edith Hall argues that the essential feature of the genre is that it always depicts terrible human suffering and death, but in a way that invites philosophical enquiry into their causes and effects, This enquiry was played out in the bright sunlight of open-air theatre, which became a key marker of the boundary between living and dead. The first half of the book is divided into four chapters which address the social and physical contexts in which the plays were performed, the contribution of the poets, actors, funders, and audiences, the poetic composition of the texts, their performance conventions, main themes, and focus on religion, politics, and the family. The second half consists of individual essays on each of the surviving thirty-three plays by the Greek tragedians, and an account of the recent performance of Greek tragic theatre and tragic fragments. An up-to-date 'Suggestions for further reading' is included.

Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature

Gail Holst-Warhaft, 1995

In this book, Holst-Warhaft investigates the power and meaning of the ancient lament, especially women's mourning of the dead, and sets out to discover why legislation was introduced to curb these laments in antiquity. An investigation of laments ranging from New Guinea to Greece suggests that this essentially female art form gave women considerable power over the rituals of death. The threat they posed to the Greek state caused them to be appropriated by male writers including the tragedians. Holst-Warhaft argues that the loss of the traditional lament in Greece and other countries not only deprives women of their traditional control over the rituals of death but leaves all mourners impoverished.

Ancient Greek tragedy has been an inspiration to Western culture, but the way it was first performed has long remained in question. In this book, Graham Ley provides an illuminating discussion of key issues relating to the use of the playing space and the nature of the chorus, offering a distinctive impression of the performance of Greek tragedy in the fifth century BCE. Drawing on evidence from the surviving texts of tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Ley explains how scenes with actors were played in the open ground of the orchestra, often considered as exclusively the dancing place of the chorus. In reviewing what is known of the music and dance of Greek antiquity, Ley goes on to show that in the original productions the experience of the chorus—expressed in song and dance and in interaction with the characters—remained a vital characteristic in the performance of tragedy. Combining detailed analysis with broader reflections about the nature of ancient Greek tragedy as an art form, this volume—supplemented with a series of illustrative drawings and diagrams—will be a necessary addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in literature, theater, or classical studies.

Chorus under rehearsal for a combined production of the Antigone and Electra of Sophocles at the International School for Creative Theater in Brussels, Belgium.
Source: Flickr. Creator: Lieven SOETE. License: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Is "space" a thing, a container, an abstraction, a metaphor, or a social construct? This much is certain: space is part and parcel of the theater, of what it is and how it works. In this work, noted classicist-director Rush Rehm offers a strikingly original approach to the spatial parameters of Greek tragedy as performed in the open-air theater of Dionysus. Emphasizing the interplay between natural place and fictional setting, between the world visible to the audience and that evoked by individual tragedies, Rehm argues for an ecology of the ancient theater, one that "nests" fifth-century theatrical space within other significant social, political, and religious spaces of Athens. Drawing on the work of James J. Gibson, Kurt Lewin, and Michel Foucault, Rehm crosses a range of disciplines--classics, theater studies, cognitive psychology, archaeology and architectural history, cultural studies, and performance theory--to analyze the phenomenology of space and its transformations in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. His discussion of Athenian theatrical and spatial practice challenges the contemporary view that space represents a "text" to be read, or constitutes a site of structural dualities (e.g., outside-inside, public-private, nature-culture). Chapters on specific tragedies explore the spatial dynamics of homecoming ("space for returns"); the opposed constraints of exile ("eremetic space" devoid of normal community); the power of bodies in extremis to transform their theatrical environment ("space and the body"); the portrayal of characters on the margin ("space and the other"); and the tragic interactions of space and temporality ("space, time, and memory"). An appendix surveys pre-Socratic thought on space and motion, related ideas of Plato and Aristotle, and, as pertinent, later views on space developed by Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Kant, and Einstein. Eloquently written and with Greek texts deftly translated, this book yields rich new insights into our oldest surviving drama.

Performance, Iconography, Reception: Studies in Honour of Oliver Taplin

ed. Martin Revermann & Peter Wilson, 2008

This work assembles twenty-three papers from an international group of scholars who engage with, and develop, the seminal work of Oliver Taplin. Oliver Taplin has for over three decades been at the forefront of innovation in the study of Greek literature, and of the Greek theatre, tragic and comic, in particular. The studies in this volume centre on three key areas - the performance of Greek literature, the interactions between literature and the visual realm of iconography, and the reception and appropriation of Greek literature, and of Greek culture more widely, in subsequent historical periods.

Greek tragedy is one of the most important cultural legacies of the classical world, with a rich and varied history and reception, yet it appears to have its roots in a very particular place and time. The authors of the surviving works of Greek tragic drama-Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides-were all from one city, Athens, and all lived in the fifth century BC; unsurprisingly, it has often been supposed that tragic drama was inherently linked in some way to fifth-century Athens and its democracy. Why then do we refer to tragedy as 'Greek', rather than 'Attic' or 'Athenian', as some scholars have argued? This volume argues that the story of tragedy's development and dissemination is inherently one of travel and that tragedy grew out of, and became part of, a common Greek culture, rather than being explicitly Athenian. Although Athens was a major panhellenic centre, by the fifth century a well-established network of festivals and patrons had grown up to encompass Greek cities and sanctuaries from Sicily to Asia Minor and from North Africa to the Black Sea. The movement of professional poets, actors, and audience members along this circuit allowed for the exchange of poetry in general and tragedy in particular, which came to be performed all over the Greek world and was therefore a panhellenic phenomenon even from the time of the earliest performances. The stories that were dramatized were themselves tales of travel-the epic journeys of heroes such as Heracles, Jason, or Orestes- and the works of the tragedians not only demonstrated how the various peoples of Greece were connected through the wanderings of their ancestors, but also how these connections could be sustained by travelling poets and their acts of retelling.

Below: Limestone funerary relief depicting a man and woman standing before an altar and mourning a dead warrior. It has been suggested that the relief illustrates a scene from Greek tragedy; ca. 325–300 BCE. Source/creator: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Pots and Plays: Interactions Between Tragedy and Greek Vase-Painting of the 4th c. BC

Oliver Taplin, 2007

This interdisciplinary study opens up a fascinating interaction between art and theater. It shows how the mythological vase-paintings of fourth-century B.C. Greeks, especially those settled in southern Italy, are more meaningful for those who had seen the myths enacted in the popular new medium of tragedy. Of some 300 relevant vases, 109 are reproduced and accompanied by a picture-by-picture discussion. This book supplies a rich and unprecedented resource from a neglected treasury of painting.

Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy

David Wiles, 2007

Why did Greek actors in the age of Sophocles always wear masks? In this book, first published in 2007, David Wiles provided the first book-length study of this question. He surveys the evidence of vases and other monuments, arguing that they portray masks as part of a process of transformation, and that masks were never seen in the fifth century as autonomous objects. Wiles goes on to examine experiments with the mask in twentieth-century theatre, tracing a tension between the use of masks for possession and for alienation, and he identifies a preference among modern classical scholars for alienation. Wiles declines to distinguish the political aims of Greek tragedy from its religious aims, and concludes that an understanding of the mask allows us to see how Greek acting was simultaneously text-centred and body-centred. This book challenges orthodox views about how theatre relates to ritual, and provides insight into the creative work of the actor.

We tend to suppose that the ancient Greeks had primitive ideas of the self, of responsibility, freedom, and shame, and that now humanity has advanced from these to a more refined moral consciousness. Bernard Williams's original and radical book questions this picture of Western history. While we are in many ways different from the Greeks, Williams claims that the differences are not to be traced to a shift in these basic conceptions of ethical life. We are more like the ancients than we are prepared to acknowledge, and only when this is understood can we properly grasp our most important differences from them, such as our rejection of slavery. The author is a philosopher, but much of his book is directed to writers such as Homer and the tragedians, whom he discusses as poets and not just as materials for philosophy. At the center of his study is the question of how we can understand Greek tragedy at all, when its world is so far from ours. Williams explains how it is that when the ancients speak, they do not merely tell us about themselves, but about ourselves. In a new foreword A.A. Long explores the impact of this volume in the context of Williams's stunning career.

Ivory mask of Apollo from a 5th c. BCE chryselephantine statue, possibly carved by Phidias. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Carole Raddato. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.