Greek Tragedy: Definition

1. An Attic* tragedy is a self-contained piece of heroic myth, poetically elaborated in a high style for performance by a chorus of Athenian citizens and two or at the most three actors and intended as a part of the public festival in the sanctuary of Dionysus.  (From Ulrich von Wilamowitz, Einleitung in die griechiesche Tragödie, 1889.)

2. For the dates to which this definition applies, see Time Line.

3. This definition is based on the surviving tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (all fifth century B.C.E.).  These are the only tragedians of whom complete tragedies survive.  Of Aeschylus, seven tragedies survive (the authorship of one of them is disputed), from a total output of 70 to 90 plays.  Of Sophocles, seven tragedies survive, from a total output of 120 plays.  Of Euripides, 18 tragedies and one satyr play survive, from a total output of 90 plays.

4. Wilamowitz' definition has a formal component or at least the suggestion thereof.  In fact, all extant Greek tragedies have a regular form or structure: prologue; parodos (entrance of chorus); alternating dialogue (in scenes or episodes) and choral song-and-dance (stasima; singular: stasimon); exodos (conclusion).  Sometimes a character or characters and the chorus engage in a sung dialogue (kommos).  Sometimes a character will have a solo song.  Singing was accompanied by a double pipe (a reed instrument called the aulos).

5. Wilamowitz' definition also points to the civic and ritual context.  In fact, Greek tragedies were performed as part of the annual civic festival in honor of Dionysus called the City Dionysia.  The venue was the Theater of Dionysus.

In perhaps the 430s B.C.E., tragedies were performed also at another Athenian festival in honor of Dionysus, the Lenaea, in another place in Athens.  Tragedies were also performed in some of the towns in Attica* outside of Athens.

Comedies were also performed at the two festivals in Athens just named; and these dramatic events were only a part of a larger program that included processions, sacrifices, and libations.  The civic context of tragedy has received a great deal of attention from scholars in the past twenty years.

The performances of tragedy were organized as a competition among the tragedians.  The city regulated the choice of the tragedians (three for the City Dionysia; two for the Lenaea) and all aspects of the performance.

At the City Dionysia, each tragedian competed with three tragedies and a satyr play.  The three tragedies could be, but were not necessarily, linked thematically and/or sequentially in order to constitute a trilogy.  (The Oresteia is the only extant trilogy.)  At the Lenaea, each tragedian competed with two tragedies.

6. Wilamowitz' definition implicitly distinguishes between heroic myth and tragedy.  The former was narrative, whether informal (probably everyone knew and could tell the stories) or in epic or in choral lyric verse.  The older Greek epics that survive are the ones attibuted to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which have to do with the Trojan War.  But there were also epics about the city of Thebes, and several tragedies derive from Theban epic.  In order to understand a Greek tragedy, it sometimes useful to know the epic version(s) of the myth of which the tragedian is dramatizing a particular part.

*Adjectival form of "Attica," the name of the territory in which Athens was located.