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The Performance of Tragedy

The most important presentations of tragedy at Athens took place once a year as part of a competition at the city's main festival1 in honor of the god Dionysus.2 For this festival, one of Athens' magistrates chose three playwrights to present four plays each. Three were tragedies and one a satyr play3, the latter so named because it featured actors portraying the half-human, half-animal (horse or goat) creatures called satyrs4. Satyr plays presented versions of the solemn stories of tragedy that were infused with humor and even farce. A board of citizen judges5 awarded first, second, and third prizes to the competing playwrights at the end of the festival. The performance of Athenian tragedies bore little resemblance to conventional modern theater productions. They took place during the daytime in an outdoor theater sacred to Dionysus,6built into the slope of the southern hillside of Athens' acropolis. This theater of Dionysus held around 14,000 spectators overlooking an open, circular area in front of a slightly raised stage platform. To ensure fairness in the competition, all tragedies were required to have the same size cast, all of whom were men: three actors to play the speaking roles of all male and female characters and fifteen chorus members. Although the chorus' leader sometimes engaged in dialogue with the actors, the chorus primarily performed songs and dances in the circular area in front of the stage, called the orchestra (“dancing area”). Since all the actors' lines were in verse with special rhythms, the musical aspect of the chorus' role enhanced the overall poetic nature of Athenian tragedy.

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