Free Critical Thinking About Greek Tragedies: Theater Arts Analysis & Including “The Last Song”
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During the time of the ancient Greeks the theatrical tales and stories weaved by the artisans of the time such as Sophocles, and others, essentially reflected the major moods of either comedy or tragedy. According to one source these ancient Greek sources of theater actually represent the birthplace and wellspring of modern drama, according to one educational source, and informs the Western world’s understanding of centralizing its role to include the integration of politics, society, and religion (“Introduction to Greek Theatre”). While it is true, according to the same aforementioned source, that Athens was the 5th Century B.C. center as a city-politic and among the first democratized places which allowed the arts to thrive, not everyone was included in the enjoyment of these freedoms. It is important to understand that such participation was limited to the elite – or rather privileged – handfuls of citizens, thus excluding slaves, women, and other non-citizen types.
It is within this background one must tackle an analysis of any discussion involving Greek tragedies, by any of the great artisans of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. Religious rituals and beliefs were deeply entrenched in the arts of stories thereby acted out, providing the basis for what many assign to television shows, plays, and movies of today. This paper will show the differences between the ancient Greek tragedies by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. The analysis progresses forward by giving two examples of the tragedies depicted by Oedipus the King and his daughter Antigone. In drawing comparisons between these ancient Greek dramas and their modern-day components, the discussion shall turn to the play and book by Nicolas Sparks entitled, The Last Song in devising a theatrical-based comparison to the modern-day tragedy of the young girl Ronnie who summarily ignores her father three years in anger over her parents’ ill-fated and messy divorce.
Obviously the ancient Greek tragedy tales were told via the perceptual lens of the writers themselves. Therefore the theatrical craftsmen of Euripides and Aeschylus, for example, crafted their dramas when making historical epics such as ‘Persians’ or ‘Electra.’ Certain mythic and religious portrayals marked the Greek tragedies which the viewers of the time understood all too well. In other words, the audience at the time were quite familiar with the tragedy-mythic episodic qualities of these ancient Greek dramas of the 5th and 6th Century BC stemming from the “center of Athens,” which “Greek dramatic poetry” had reached its height in development culminating in a “peak at the end of the 6th Century” (“Ancient Greek Theater”). The influence on Western cultural dramatics has been mentioned, and must be reiterated here again. The nexus binding these ancient Greek tragedy dramas historically correlate to today’s modern “literature and outlined the elements of dramatic literature to this day” (“Ancient Greek Theater”). Amidst the festivals, masks, and poetry contests such dramatists like Euripides and Aeschylus, must rely upon an understanding about the survival of their works in the first place.
While it may be evident, one must remember that the ancient Greek tragedy plays were, well – written in Greek. Also, given the factor that they had to survive the dusty centuries-long trail of discovery, plays a role as well. What do we know so far, then? Modern scholars and theater arts experts have learned that the three: Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus were primarily the most popular of the tragedy playwrights. The backdrop of their plays and dramatic displays occurred with the accepted idea that scientific explanations for weather, sun, moon, and other natural phenomenal experiences could only be explained by magic and the supernatural. Thus, the importance of mythical threads running through their tales, which is an immense distinction from modern-day dramas of tragedy. Today’s sophisticated world finds that even lay persons understand the basic of how rain clouds condense with temperature constrictions to produce rain. This proved not so, back in the ancient day. According to one academic source, Euripides had won “five Contests,” but we only have “seventeen of his approximate 90 tragedies” (“Early Theatre: Greek, Roman and Medieval”). Deciphering these writings have also shown problematic, in certain cases.
One journal article constructs just one such argument. Research expert Hartwig explains that in the case of one of Euripides writings, there is a discrepancy in the translated manuscript having to do with punctuation – and the fact that the character in question in one line 525, noting: “consideration of the overall meaning of the lineleaves only a tenuous logical connection between them” (479). Herein, you are able to recognize the complexity in recovering the plays’ written meaning, context, and interpretation which is generally not problematic in modern tragedies – whether plays, films, or depicted in literature. Furthermore, the tragedy plays of Euripides and Aeschylus reflect what is known in playwright circles as “a contrived ending,” which is a fancy way to mean that the outcome of problem situations is unresolved by the characters, but rather thrust upon them by the playwright (“Early Theatre: Greek, Roman and Medieval”). In other words, no clever revelation in the ancient Greek tragedy dramatic tradition will have allowed any of the players (cast) to brilliantly figure out an answer to their woes or difficulties. This aspect differs and compares to the sophistication of modern-day tragedies, like in The Last Song, where real-life human characters are not searching for a magical relief or explanation from the ‘gods’ but rather experience their angst in trying to cope.
For example, the Ronnie character in The Last Song contemplates her inner feelings and reactions, Sparks writes – as reflected in the opening Prologue section of the book “wondering” about the Pastor’s appearance at the Church, and internally day-dreaming as she notices the “waves breaking over the beach,” if the Pastor still observed the intricacies of light streaming into his “stained-glass window” environment (1). Right away the modern-day version of dramatic tragedies as shown in The Last Song, characters are rendered with more realistic flesh-and-blood human qualities and intelligent sensibilities. This is not to suggest that ancient Greeks were stupid, or had not logical qualities at all, but certainly the comparison is reasonable given the ways primitively created stories and performances were presented by Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus.
The heavy-handed circumstances of Oedipus the King in Thebes, a setting written and arranged by ancient Greek tragedy playwright Sophocles, indicates a clear example of the bold foreground of troubles as opposed to a more disturbingly underlying ‘background’ quality of modern-day tragedies. King Oedipus’s life begins very dramatically, a throw-away baby found by a slave from another Kingdom away from Thebes, grows up and learns of his fateful adoption. Progressing on his quest in life, Sophocles paints the horrific news amidst the city “now suffering from corruption and plague” wherein the kingly protagonist discovers himself (in sickened fashion) to have unknowingly “married his own mother,” when subsequently she hangs herself inside the palace walls (“A Teacher’s Guide to Sophocles: The Complete Plays”). After being granted exile back to Creon, Oedipus’s ‘fate’ is left to the gods. See? This difference between the ancient Greek tragedies strongly highlights the comparison to its modern tragedy contemporary-dramatic counterparts in theatrical arts.
In other words, one might easily consider or characterize the Greek tragedies as overly dramatic, or as melodramatic even though the situations were horrific and understandably very dreadful and appalling. Dreadful and horrendous situations exist in modern tragedies, like the story crafted by Nicolas Sparks in The Last Song, in which Ronnie is so intensely disappointed over her father’s abandonment of herself, mother, and family that she literally imprisons herself emotionally by avoiding speaking to her father for three years, and stops engaging in her own piano-playing since it reminded her of her dad’s talents. Sparks writes about the strangeness of Ronnie’s cessation to play, since “Her dad, once a teacher at Julliard, had been her teacher as well” (“The Last Song,” 9). Unlike the ancient Greek tragedies’ plays, modern dramatically tragic literature is driven by character choices, thoughts, and how they feel and think. The Athenian playwrights of old simply left whatever outcomes up to the gods, and blind fate to shape the ‘resolutions’ in the stories they created. For this reason it is important to keep in mind that at the time the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus were written, people needed to relate to what they were viewing. In order to accomplish grasping an understanding that was realistic to them at the time of their era, the plays emphasized man’s relationship to natural forces as victims to whims of the gods.
Also, keep in mind that the Greek plays were separate from religious ceremonies although culturally influenced by them. This separation from the straight-up religious rites and rituals actually distinctively formed the ‘drama’ as a theatrical entity standing alone. Also, back then, no actors or “thespians” (as they were called) were not elevated to stardom like we do with celebrities (actors) today. According to one expert source on the matter, the ancient Greek drama tragedies were performed “by a chorus which sang and danced the stories” (“Introduction to Greek Theatre”). Obviously we can relate to pure musicals and stage productions of live venues in theater houses today, or even on the silver screen of films and movies, but back in that ancient day – the only thing Greeks could relate to, were the tragedies presented in the choral group-like depictions, with no individualized character performances.
Even though Sparks’ literary theatrical type of written work demonstrates drama, the similarity ends when compared to the Greek tragedies. Characters in Sparks’ work show Ronnie and her ten-year-old younger brother Jonah, as individual characters with ideas, feelings, and actions of their own in which the writer gives them an independent expression to ‘move’ through the story, unencumbered by any particularly dominant hand by the writer. Being a city girl by nature, having been accustomed to living in New York, Ronnie cringes to have to visit North Carolina’s south for the summer. In Chapter 3 Sparks expertise in literary dramatic tragedy, shows Ronnie trying to cope with her feelings of depression when she is at the town’s ‘Wrightsville Beach Seafood Festival’ – and not acting too thrilled, nevertheless she notices “cute guys” scoring points in the volleyball game, and after a “couple of steps, she felt the spectators around her beginning to jostle one anotherShe turned just in time to see one of the players rushing toward her at full speed, his head craning to catch sight of the wayward ballbefore he slammed into her” (“The Last Song,” 27). Her shirt now soiled by the rest of her soda spilled onto it. At this point Ronnie meets Blaze, who gives her the rundown on the thuggish-rogue type guys showing off their manly adolescent shenanigans. The captivating part of this chapter, however, is how delicately and smartly Sparks unfolds Ronnie’s sensitivity to the tragedy of her pain about her parents’ divorce, when her attention is captivated by the abandoned puppies. Instead of blatant melodrama – like in the ancient Greek tragedies – the writer uses his craftsmanship in literature to gently peel away the depths of the character’s feelings.
Also, remember in the Greek tragedies, individuals in terms of character performances, were not singled out since they were depicted in a chorus-fashion of group song and dances. This mode of theatrical performance must has also been reflective of the society’s style of living. Since theater seemed to be an activity of entertainment for the privileged, the common everyday person or rank-and-file humans were not highly regarded for their individuality. And another unique aspect of the Greek tragedy dramas was the way patterns were cast into trilogies. For example, according to one scholar of ancient Greek theatrics, “Aeschylus, the earliest of the three tragic playwrights, built his trilogies around a common plot line,” while his fellow tragic dramatist-artisan, Euripides preferred to usually “build his three plays around a common idea” (“Early Theatre: Greek, Roman and Medieval”). Additionally, and amazing as it seems, Euripides satyr play entitled The Cyclops, has survived its journey from antiquity to today’s storehouses of revered Greek theatrical works, as reported by the same aforementioned source.
Tragedy and comedy renditions were separated not only by subject matter and tone, but by the structure of ancient Greek dramas themselves. For example, according to scholars at Northern State University, the Greek tragedies were characterized by a structure a climactic pattern rather than a kind of style based upon episodes. As you might imagine, the horrific story aspects in these melodramatic ancient theatrical performances were even more intensely captured by presenting them this way. In stark contrast, the ancient Greek comedies based their structure upon episodic functions. The grounding plans, in terms of architecture, seems to have greatly influenced modern Westernized styles of outdoor theatrical structures. The 5th Century Greek theaters in which Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus celebrated festival performances were frequently “temporary wooden” structures wherein “actors and chorus performed on a flat, roughly circular” dirt floor area – the portion of which functioned as an orchestra setting (“Early Theatre: Greek, Roman and Medieval”). As time moved on this became the classic pattern reflected from ancient 4th Century Roman semi-circular forum theaters, and undoubted played out the ‘entertainment’ of Christians’ martyrdom in case of being ripped apart by lions in the theatrical stage venue. Nevertheless, excavations of historical sites confirm the kind of theaters in which the orchestra and skene (scene) sections – which further developed after the time of Grecian early ancient tragedy dramas.
“A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classics Edition of Sophocles: The Complete Plays.” Penguin. Penguin Publishers, n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
“Ancient Greek Theater.” Knowledge. DB KnowledgeDB Must to Know, n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
“Early Theatre: Greek, Roman and Medieval.” 3northern.edu Northern State University, n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
Hartwig, Andrew. “Euripides Ion 525-7: A Case of Interrupted Speech?” Mnemosyne 60.3 (2007): 478-482. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
“Introduction to Greek Theatre.” Oncoursesystems. OnCourse Systems for Education, n.d. [PowerPoint]. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
Sparks, Nicholas. The Last Song. New York: Grand Central Pub., 2009. Print.
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