Tuesday, February 12, 2019

'The play speaks to the polis' - Goldhill

From Simon Goldhill, Aeschylus: The Oresteia, 18-19 (pdf of entire book here):

What of the audience of the drama? The spectators perhaps as many as 16,000 - were ranged in wedge-shaped sections in the amphitheatre. The front seats were reserved for dignitaries. It is also likely that the seating was arranged by tribal division, with each tribe seated in a particular wedge. The theatre thus mapped the city in its space as it addressed the city in its plays. Over the years, foreigners attended the Great Dionysia with increasing frequency, and, after the transfer of the treasury from Delos, the ambassadors who brought the tribute to Athens sat in the theatre to watch its display. Unfortunately, we do not have any decisive piece of evidence that can demonstrate whether women were allowed in the theatre. Scholars debate the issue at length, but without a consensus. One thing is clear, however: if there were any women there, they were in the vast minority and were not the 'proper or intended' audience (Henderson). Greek tragedy, with its all-male cast, all-male producers and writers and male audience, remains a citizen affair.

Orestes, Elektra, Pylades - Campanian 330 BC
With masked male actors, a singing, dancing, masked male chorus, a vast audience seated according to the formal sociopolitical divisions of the state, in a five-day festival in honour of the god Dionysus, a festival whose ceremonies are replete with social and cultural significance ... the contexts of Greek tragedy are far removed, indeed, from Western bourgeois theatre, tragedy's heir.

So, then, Greek tragedy should not be viewed simply as an aesthetic, emotional or ritual experience (although it is all three of these). It is also an event that places the tensions and ambiguities of a rapidly developing political and cultural system in the public domain to be contested. What is more, the Oresteia itself ends, unlike all other extant tragedies, in the centre of the democratic polis of Athens, its law-court. The play speaks to the polis. The Oresteia is in the full sense of the term apolitical drama; and awaits your — our — verdict.

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