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The Spectacle of Tragedy

Even though scenery on the stage was sparse, a good tragedy presented a vivid spectacle1. The chorus wore elaborate, decorative costumes and trained hard to perform intricate dance routines2. The actors, who wore masks3, used broad gestures and booming voices to reach the upper tier of seats.4 A powerful voice was crucial to a tragic actor because words represented the heart of a tragedy, in which dialogue and long speeches were far more common than physical action. Special effects were, however, part of the spectacle. For example, a crane allowed actors playing the roles of gods to fly suddenly onto stage, like superheroes in a modern movie. The actors playing the lead roles, called the protagonists5 (“first competitors”), were also competing against each other for the designation of best actor. So important was it to have a first-rate lead actor to provide a successful tragedy that protagonists were assigned by lot to the competing playwrights of the year to give all three of them an equal chance to have the finest cast. Great protagonists, who had to have prodigious vocal skills, became enormously popular figures, although, unlike many playwrights, they were not usually aristocrats and generally did not move in upper-class social circles, or, if they did have aristocratic friends, they were not on an equal footing with them in terms of social status.

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