Revisiting Greek Drama, Part 1: From Religious Ritual to Theatrical Pageantry

Note:  This post uses Refreshed English vocabulary and orthography.

This is the first blog post in a three-part series about Ancient Greek Drama and how it inspired me to write my play, No More Trojan Wennen. This three-part series will run on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, April 16, 17, & 18, 2021. It will be followed by selections from Voices from Troy, a series of monologues from No More Trojan Wennen, which will be posted on this site between Monday, April 19, and Friday, April 30, the last day of National Poetry Month.

Greetings from Justicea!

Spring is in full force in Justicea, and yellow is anything but mellow!  April is the month when forsythias, like rambunctious Maenads, run wild over the fields and through the woodlands, scattering their sunny brilliance upon the newly awakened landscape.

National Poetry Month in the USA

As fields across the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere welcome this first full month of the new solar cycle with Nature’s colorful exuberance, so poets and poetry lovers across my other country, the United States, celebrate April with National Poetry Month. Poems, both well-known and original, pop up like daffodils on social media feeds, the beauty of their rhymes and rhythms, sounds and similes, or freewheeling free verse shared by their posters with friends and family throughout the fifty states and beyond. 

As I am April-born and a poet, these additional factors unite with spring’s return to make me feel particularly energized at this time of year. (Those into Astrology might say it’s the cardinal energy of my sun sign, Aries, at work!)  Whatever the cause, I dig out my old writings and start working on new ones in April.

The City Dionysia in Ancient Athens

And as I am a playwright and a history buff as well as a poet, my imagination also looks beyond the borders of my own time and place and travels back to spring days over 2,500 years ago. I find myself sitting in the audience of an amphitheater atop the Acropolis in the city-state of Athens. The City Dionysia, an annual play competition in honor of Dionysius, the Greek God of Wine, is in full swing, and I imagine myself watching the premiere productions of the works of the first great Western dramatists—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides!

Greek Theater: The Child of Religious Ritual

Theater in the West, born in Ancient Greece, was the offspring of religious ritual. Its raison-d’être was worship; its duty, to honor the god most associated with ecstasy, both emotional and physical.—A god whose ruckus cult followers, the Maenads, were known to run through the fields and woodlands in wild abandon, participating in a form of passionate piety that later religions would prohibit as perversion. Yes, in the womb of religious ritual honoring this god of heightened emotional awareness and earthy sensuousness was theater conceived, and through the performance of these Dionysian rites of spring was the pageantry of theater birthed into the Western World!

Characteristics of Greek Theater

Greek dramas were sacred spectacles of song, dance, and dialogue. They featured larger-than-life characters engaged in life-or-death conflicts. They employed elevated yet understandable language in direct debates that addressed the primal and enduring themes of humin existence: love and hate, war and peace, loyalty and betrayal, reward and revenge. They were replete with soaring emotions, invocations both devout and doubtful, and the beating of chests in cathartic lamentation. Here, the sacred space dedicated to the exaltation of one unseen deity was transformed into the stage on which the exploration of all that was sensibly humin could be conducted and observed. Indeed, the pageantry of theater was tied to the ritual of religion from its very inception!

Continuing Ties Between Religion & Theater

After the fall of the great Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, its cultural successor, the family ties between religious ritual and theatrical pageantry continued on in the Christian Passion Plays of the Medieval Period in Western Europe. Even in our present day when Christianity is on the decline and Secularism is on the rise, we keep alive the tradition of exploring our values and searching for meaning through dramatic representations of humin life, now more often presented in the form of feature films and television programs rather than as staged plays.

Regardless of the medium in which we find it, drama still moves us today as it did 2,500 years ago in the Theatre of Dionysius atop the Acropolis. Borne of a religious ritual dedicated to an immortal figure both decadent and divine, the dramatic representation of humin thought and interaction through performed monologue and dialogue has remains one of the most powerful and popular pageants through which we mortals continue to come to a better understanding of ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live!

Coming Up: About Revisiting Greek Drama, Part 2

Tomorrow, in Part 2 of this three-part series on Revisiting Greek Drama, I will reveal how my dissatisfaction with the passivity of the femele characters portrayed in The Trojan [Wennen] of Euripides inspired me to write No More Trojan Wennen, my own version of decisions made and actions taken in the aftermath of the Trojan War. 

Peace & Siblinghood,

Justy DeForest, GFJ Blogger

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