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Medea | Context

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Ancient Greek Theater

The drama festivals where tragedies such as Medea were performed began as gatherings to honor the wine god Dionysus. At the earliest festivals, large groups would dance and sing hymns praising the god. This was the earliest form of the chorus. Then, in the 6th century BCE, Thespis, a poet, became the first actor when he joined in and interacted with the chorus. (It is from Thespis's name that the word thespian emerged, which means "actor.")

For more than a century, theatrical productions continued to feature very few actors, with just the playwright and later two and then three actors portraying all the characters. All of the actors were men. They wore masks with exaggerated expressions and used dramatic gestures that could be seen by the entire audience in the vast open-air theaters of the day. These theaters were constructed with steep fan-shaped walls of seats holding as many as 14,000 viewers looking down toward a raised stage. This construction helped the large audience to hear the dialogue. It is also believed that the mouthpieces of the masks may have been similar in structure to megaphones in order to project the actors' voices.

As time passed the chorus shrank in size and became less involved in the action. Instead, the chorus acted as an observer of the characters and their actions. Like narrators, the chorus described parts of the plot that happened outside of the play's action, interpreted the emotions of the characters, and commented on the action. The chorus recited and sometimes sang its lines in unison, though at times the chorus leader would speak alone. In addition, the chorus would dance. It moved in a circular motion in one direction for the strophe, or first part of its song, and then reversed direction for the second part of the song, called the antistrophe. In Greek comedy the chorus eventually disappeared, to be replaced by intermittent singing.

Dramatic Structure of Greek Tragedies

In ancient Greece tragedies were performed in one sitting, so they did not have the acts, scenes, or intermissions of modern theater. The dramatic structure often given to Greek tragedies follows: prologos (introduction to the topic), parados (choreographed entrance of the chorus, who chant the background to the present story), episode (a dialogue scene between characters—including the chorus—in which they describe action that has occurred elsewhere), stasimon (the chorus's comment on the scene and the action described), and exodos (final comment by the chorus giving the moral of the play). Medea follows this structure.

The Dionysia

Medea was first performed at the Dionysia, a famous Athenian drama festival. It grew in popularity in the 5th century and included dramatic competitions. The three best-known Greek tragic playwrights of the time were Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Many of their tragedies, like Medea, were based on Greek mythology. Even though Athenian audiences knew these stories, Greek tragedy added theatrical elements, thought-provoking dialogues, and moral dilemmas to the familiar myths. At the Dionysia in 432, Euripedes's submission of Medea received third place, which may have reflected its unconventional treatment of a familiar story. As the British classical scholar Gilbert Murray put it, "Athenians in 432 [BCE] had not yet learn[ed] to understand or tolerate such work as this."

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