Greek theater was very different fromwhat we call theater today. It was, first of all, part of a religiousfestival. To attend a performance of one of these plays was an actof worship, not entertainment or intellectual pastime. But it isdifficult for us to even begin to understand this aspect of theGreek theater, because the religion in question was very differentfrom modern religions. The god celebrated by the performances ofthese plays was Dionysus, a deity who lived in the wild and wasknown for his subversive revelry. The worship of Dionysus was associatedwith an ecstasy that bordered on madness. Dionysus, whose cult wasthat of drunkenness and sexuality, little resembles modern imagesof God.
A second way in which Greek theater was different frommodern theater is in its cultural centrality: every citizen attendedthese plays. Greek plays were put on at annual festivals (at thebeginning of spring, the season of Dionysus), often for as manyas 15,000 spectators at once. They dazzledviewers with their special effects, singing, and dancing, as wellas with their beautiful language. At the end of each year’s festivals,judges would vote to decide which playwright’s play was the best.
I really like the Theban plays, and I look forward to the day I get to read them in full. I got to read/study parts of them when I did a Greek Mythology summer course, and really loved the character of Antigone.
Sophocles lived a long life, but not long enough to witnessthe downfall of his Athens. Toward the end of his life, Athens became entangledin a war with other city-states jealous of its prosperity and power,a war that would end the glorious century during which Sophocleslived. This political fall also marked an artistic fall, for the uniqueart of Greek theater began to fade and eventually died. Since then,we have had nothing like it. Nonetheless, we still try to read it, andwe often misunderstand it by thinking of it in terms of the categoriesand 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 theseplays calls not only for analysis, but also for imagination.