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THE GREEK THEATRE
THE ORIGINS OF THE THEATRE, THE FIRST FORM OF PUBLIC AMUSEMENT
 AT a very early stage of their history the Greeks had begun
to collect the poems, which had been written in honor of
their brave ancestors who had driven the Pelasgians out of
Hellas and had destroyed the power of Troy. These poems were
recited in public and everybody came to listen to them. But
the theatre, the form of entertainment which has become almost
a necessary part of our own lives, did not grow out of these
recited heroic tales. It had such a curious origin that I must
tell you something about it in a separate chapter.
The Greeks had always been fond of parades. Every
year they held solemn processions in honor of Dionysos the
God of the wine. As everybody in Greece drank wine (the
Greeks thought water only useful for the purpose of swimming
and sailing) this particular Divinity was as popular as a God
of the Soda-Fountain would be in our own land.
And because the Wine-God was supposed to live in the
vineyards, amidst a merry mob of Satyrs (strange creatures
who were half man and half goat), the crowd that joined the
procession used to wear goat-skins and to hee-haw like real
billy-goats. The Greek word for goat is "tragos" and the
Greek word for singer is "oidos." The singer who meh-mehed
like a goat therefore was called a "tragos-oidos" or goat singer,
and it is this strange name which developed into the modern
 word "Tragedy," which means in the theatrical sense a piece
with an unhappy ending, just as Comedy (which really means
the singing of something "comos" or gay) is the name given
to a play which ends happily.
But how, you will ask, did this noisy chorus of masqueraders,
stamping around like wild goats, ever develop into the
noble tragedies which have filled the theatres of the world for
almost two thousand years?
The connecting link between the goat-singer and Hamlet is
really very simple as I shall show you in a moment.
The singing chorus was very amusing in the beginning and
attracted large crowds of spectators who stood along the side
of the road and laughed. But soon this business of hee-hawing
grew tiresome and the Greeks thought dullness an evil only
comparable to ugliness or sickness. They asked for something
more entertaining. Then an inventive young poet from
the village of Icaria in Attica hit upon a new idea which proved
a tremendous success. He made one of the members of the
goat-chorus step forward and engage in conversation with the
leader of the musicians who marched at the head of the parade
playing upon their pipes of Pan. This individual was allowed
to step out of line. He waved his arms and gesticulated
while he spoke (that is to say he "acted" while the others merely
stood by and sang) and he asked a lot of questions, which the
bandmaster answered according to the roll of papyrus upon
which the poet had written down these answers before the
This rough and ready conversation—the dialogue—which
told the story of Dionysos or one of the other Gods, became
at once popular with the crowd. Henceforth every Dionysian
procession had an "acted scene" and very soon the "acting"
was considered more important than the procession and the
AEschylus, the most successful of all "tragedians" who wrote
no less than eighty plays during his long life (from 526 to 455)
made a bold step forward when he introduced two "actors"
instead of one. A generation later Sophocles increased the
 number of actors to three. When Euripides began to write
his terrible tragedies in the middle of the fifth century, B.C.,
he was allowed as many actors as he liked and when Aristophanes
wrote those famous comedies in which he poked fun at
everybody and everything, including the Gods of Mount Olympus,
the chorus had been reduced to the role of mere bystanders
who were lined up behind the principal performers
and who sang "this is a terrible world" while the hero in the
foreground committed a crime against the will of the Gods.
This new form of dramatic entertainment demanded a
proper setting, and soon every Greek city owned a theatre, cut
out of the rock of a nearby hill. The spectators sat upon
wooden benches and faced a wide circle (our present orchestra
where you pay three dollars and thirty cents for a seat).
Upon this half-circle, which was the stage, the actors and the
chorus took their stand. Behind them there was a tent where
they made up with large clay masks which hid their faces and
which showed the spectators whether the actors were supposed
to be happy and smiling or unhappy and weeping. The Greek
word for tent is "skene" and that is the reason why we talk
of the "scenery" of the stage.
When once the tragedy had become part of Greek life, the
people took it very seriously and never went to the theatre to
give their minds a vacation. A new play became as important
an event as an election and a successful playwright was
received with greater honors than those bestowed upon a general
who had just returned from a famous victory.