Greek theater was very different from what we call theater today. It was, first of all, part of a religious festival. To attend a performance of one of these plays was an act of worship, not entertainment or intellectual pastime. But it is difficult for us to even begin to understand this aspect of the Greek theater, because the religion in question was very different from modern religions. The god celebrated by the performances of these plays was Dionysus, a deity who lived in the wild and was known for his subversive revelry. The worship of Dionysus was associated with an ecstasy that bordered on madness. Dionysus, whose cult was that of drunkenness and sexuality, little resembles modern images of God.
A second way in which Greek theater was different from modern theater is in its cultural centrality: every citizen attended these plays. Greek plays were put on at annual festivals (at the beginning of spring, the season of Dionysus), often for as many as 15,000 spectators at once. They dazzled viewers with their special effects, singing, and dancing, as well as with their beautiful language. At the end of each year’s festivals, judges would vote to decide which playwright’s play was the best.
In these competitions, Sophocles was king. It is thought that he won the first prize at the Athenian festival eighteen times. Far from being a tortured artist working at the fringes of society, Sophocles was among the most popular and well-respected men of his day. Like most good Athenians, Sophocles was involved with the political and military affairs of Athenian democracy. He did stints as a city treasurer and as a naval officer, and throughout his life he was a close friend of the foremost statesman of the day, Pericles. At the same time, Sophocles wrote prolifically. He is believed to have authored 123 plays, only seven of which have survived.
Sophocles lived a long life, but not long enough to witness the downfall of his Athens. Toward the end of his life, Athens became entangled in a war with other city-states jealous of its prosperity and power, a war that would end the glorious century during which Sophocles lived. This political fall also marked an artistic fall, for the unique art of Greek theater began to fade and eventually died. Since then, we have had nothing like it. Nonetheless, we still try to read it, and we often misunderstand it by thinking of it in terms of the categories and assumptions of our own arts. Greek theater still needs to be read, but we must not forget that, because it is so alien to us, reading these plays calls not only for analysis, but also for imagination.
Antigone was probably the first of the three Theban plays that Sophocles wrote, although the events dramatized in it happen last. Antigone is one of the first heroines in literature, a woman who fights against a male power structure, exhibiting greater bravery than any of the men who scorn her. Antigone is not only a feminist play but a radical one as well, making rebellion against authority appear splendid and noble. If we think of Antigone as something merely ancient, we make the same error as the Nazi censors who allowed Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone to be performed, mistaking one of the most powerful texts of the French Resistance for something harmlessly academic.
Oedipus the King
The story of Oedipus was well known to Sophocles’ audience. Oedipus arrives at Thebes a stranger and finds the town under the curse of the Sphinx, who will not free the city unless her riddle is answered. Oedipus solves the riddle and, since the king has recently been murdered, becomes the king and marries the queen. In time, he comes to learn that he is actually a Theban, the king’s son, cast out of Thebes as a baby. He has killed his father and married his mother. Horrified, he blinds himself and leaves Thebes forever.
The story was not invented by Sophocles. Quite the opposite: the play’s most powerful effects often depend on the fact that the audience already knows the story. Since the first performance of Oedipus Rex, the story has fascinated critics just as it fascinated Sophocles. Aristotle used this play and its plot as the supreme example of tragedy. Sigmund Freud famously based his theory of the “Oedipal Complex” on this story, claiming that every boy has a latent desire to kill his father and sleep with his mother. The story of Oedipus has given birth to innumerable fascinating variations, but we should not forget that this play is one of the variations, not the original story itself.
Oedipus at Colonus
Beginning with the arrival of Oedipus in Colonus after years of wandering, Oedipus at Colonus ends with Antigone setting off toward her own fate in Thebes. In and of itself, Oedipus at Colonus is not a tragedy; it hardly even has a plot in the normal sense of the word. Thought to have been written toward the end of Sophocles’ life and the conclusion of the Golden Age of Athens, Oedipus at Colonus, the last of the Oedipus plays, is a quiet and religious play, one that does not attempt the dramatic fireworks of the others. Written after Antigone, the play for which it might be seen as a kind of prequel, Oedipus at Colonus seems not to look forward to the suffering that envelops that play but back upon it, as though it has already been surmounted.
Demeter, goddess of the corn and harvest, has one daughter, Persephone, the maiden of spring. Hades, god of the Underworld, kidnaps Persephone and brings her down to be his wife in the Underworld. Grief-stricken and confused, Demeter withholds her gifts from the world, which becomes “a frozen desert.” She comes down to human beings in the form of an elderly woman and is taken in by a woman named Metaneira. At night, Demeter attempts to grant Metaneira’s son immortal youth by secretly anointing the boy with ambrosia and placing him in a hot fire. When Metaneira discovers Demeter putting her son in the fire, she becomes irate. Demeter then sheds her disguise and demands that the people of the town build her a temple.
In this temple, far removed from the other gods in Olympus, Demeter sits in longing for her daughter. The earth, meanwhile, freezes to a bitter cold that threatens mankind’s extinction. Finally, Zeus intervenes by telling Hermes to go down to the underworld and bring Persephone back. Hades knows he must agree to Zeus’s terms, but he gives Persephone a pomegranate seed, knowing that if she eats it she will have to return to him. With her daughter back, Demeter leaves her temple and joins the other gods on Mount Olympus. But because Persephone does eat the pomegranate seed, she must return to the Underworld for four months a year. In these months, Demeter grieves and the earth goes through winter.
Dionysus, son of Zeus and a mortal Theban princess, is the only god whose parents were not both divine. Zeus was madly in love with a mortal, Semele, and he promised her that he would do anything for her. She asked to see him in all his glory as the King of Heaven, and although Zeus knew that it would kill her to see him this way, he held to his word. As Semele died, Zeus took her almost-born child and brought him to be raised by nymphs in a particularly lush, verdant land. Dionysus, the wine-god, thus grows up among rain and foliage, and by the time he is an adult he has rescued his mother from the Underworld and brought her to Olympus, where she has been allowed to reside because she gave birth to a god.
Dionysus, meanwhile, builds a following of mortals known for wearing ivy leaves, running through the forest, and drinking wine. These followers, mostly women, travel with Dionysus to Thebes, the city where Semele lived when she was alive. Penthus, who rules Thebes, becomes quite disturbed by the loud, wine-drinking women and by Dionysus himself. He insults Dionysus, jails him, and refuses to believe that he is dealing with a deity. Dionysus responds by sending Penthus to the hills to meet his clan of female followers. Then, Dionysus shows his cruel power: he makes his followers mad. All the women mistake Penthus for a mountain beast and rush to destroy him. They tear him apart, limb by limb, and Penthus finally understands that he has insulted a god and must pay for that mistake with his life. Once Penthus has been sufficiently torn apart, Dionysus returns his followers to their senses.
Like many myths, the story of Persephone does more than account for a natural phenomenon such as the seasons. This story shows the emotional complexity of Demeter; she is a god who suffers. Persephone too suffers, for every year she must return to the Underworld. These two figures provide touchstones for people who are grappling with death or grief. As for Metaneira, her hospitality is undercut by her anger at Demeter’s generous response.
The story of Persephone also reveals a trend in Greek mythology in which different gods represent different aspects of the natural world. Persephone comes to represent spring, and Demeter represents summer. Zeus, often associated with lightning bolts, remains most powerfully positioned in the sky. By defining characters through natural elements, the Greek myths succeed in making the characters and morals relevant to the everyday person's life.
Many scholars note that the story of Persephone captures the important spirit of the natural process. As the descent and return of the goddess bring about the seasons, so too does her transition resemble the birth-and-death cycle of all living things. One of the most innocent characters in Greek mythology, Persephone shows that youth must eventually grow old and die.
Finally, the story of Persephone revolves around a crucial symbol: the pomegranate seed. Considered the "food of the dead," the fruit suggests the deceptive nature of the Underworld, for although the pomegranate is temptingly sweet and attractive, its power is strong and irreversible.
The story of Dionysus shows the binary nature of this god. Like wine itself, Dionysus can cause extreme joy but also drunken confusion. This dual nature of being man’s benefactor and man’s destroyer is not just a moral reminder about the effects of wine. It expresses a common dichotomy in the myth literature, reflecting the Greek interest in balance. Throughout the mythology, the ideal of balance emerges after characters tend to find trouble when they seek extremes. Gods often punish extreme behavior and reward a balanced, grateful, and graceful way of living.
Dionysus's tale reveals a way in which Greek myths served to enforce a moral code. Although some tales are more complex than others, they tend to hold moral significance for the reader. In this case, the story of Dionysus reminds the reader that bad deeds will be remembered and revenge will ensue.
The Dionysus story is also important because it is one of the few instances in which a character goes into the Underworld and out again. In this case, it takes a god to retrieve the human. Dionysus rescues his mother and experiences a kind of life after death, thus also representing resurrection. A similar feeling might come to pass among someone who has just become sober.