The gods and goddesses were never far from the affairs of humans in ancient Greece. Restless deities ventured forth regularly from Mount Olympus to exact tribute and to meddle in human events, often with tragic consequences. The interweaving of classical Greek myth and history inspired the work of the earliest playwrights and is reflected in the legacy of drama and comedy we have from those ancient days.
Partying with Dionysus
Greek theater began in a wash of spilled wine and sacrificial bull's blood and it lives on in the bloody dramas and bawdy comedies we watch today. The first plays were performances at the annual festival called City Dionysia, to honor Dionysus, god of wine, harvest, the arts and fertility. Playwriting competitions gave us the immortal works of the Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Menander and others, whose stories and characters continue to inspire dramas and comedies. Aristophanes great comic refutation of war, "Lysistrata," has no gods as characters but Olympian influence is woven throughout the entire dialogue, from the opening at Pan’s shrine, to the oaths sworn to Aphrodite, to invocations of Adonis, Poseidon, Artemis, Apollo and a host of lesser gods and goddesses. Humans act but they call on Demeter, Athena and other deities to justify their actions at every point in the play.
Gods and goddesses could, and often did, alter the course of the narrative by stepping into the hero's quest or struggle. In the second play of Aeschylus' great trilogy, the "Oresteia," the son of Agamemnon, Orestes, kills Clytemnestra, his mother, in revenge for her murder of Agamemnon. In the third play, "The Eumenides," a chorus of hellish Furies pursues Orestes who is finally brought to trial before the gods. Apollo is his defense attorney, the Furies scream for Orestes' blood, and Athena, goddess of wisdom, is the judge. In the end, the Furies are placated, Orestes is spared and the play can be seen as a reflection of growing sophistication in Athenian society. Conflicts could be debated and settled without the imposition of a death penalty or bloody revenge. The intervention of the gods was an instrument to resolve disputes and transgressions with debate and compromise -- at least on stage.
Sophocles won first prize at the City Dionysia for his tragedy, "Antigone," which grappled with the violation of the laws of the gods, moral sacrifice and divine retribution. In the play, a young woman refuses to comply with the edict of her uncle, King Creon, that her brother, who died in battle against the king, be left to rot, unburied on the plain outside Thebes. The Greeks believed that an abandoned body was condemned to wander forever, denied the company of the gods. Creon sentences Antigone to death, despite the pleas of her fiancé, his son. The play's dialogue concerns the unwritten laws of the gods versus the laws of men. Antigone's own father, Oedipus, had violated moral law by murdering his father and marrying his mother, a precursor of the war. Creon's son and wife commit suicide at Antigone's death sentence and the play ends with a prophecy of plague and political unrest that will destroy his city and his reign.
Euripides and the God Machine
Deus ex machina means "god from the machine" and, even in ancient Athens, where the playwright Euripides made frequent use of it, the device was looked down on as a cheap shortcut to resolve the conflict in a play. Playwrights employed a crane to fly the gods in for a last-minute save, which might include the rescue of a doomed character. In "Medea," Euripides introduces a dragon-drawn chariot, sent by the god Helios, to whisk Medea away to safety, the children she has murdered in revenge for Jason’s infidelity clutched in her arms. The phrase deus ex machina is still used to describe a miraculous, externally-imposed and arbitrary plot resolution.
- PBS: The Origins of Theatre - The First Plays
- PBS: The Different Types of Greek Drama and Their Importance
- Utah State University: Classical Drama and Society: Classical Greek Tragedy
- Kennedy Center Arts Edge: City Dionysia
- NYC Education Net: Plot Summary: Antigone
- The Reader's Encyclopedia of World Drama; ed. John Gassner, et al
- The Stoa Consortium: Euripides' Medea
- The Concise History of Theatre; Phyllis Hartnoll
- The Drama: Traditional and Modern; Mark Goldman, et al
- World Masterpieces, Volume 1; Maynard Mack, general editor
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images