Tragedy and the City

5th-century Athens saw advances in philosophy, rhetoric, literature, science, architecture, and the visual arts; it was a time of almost unparalleled cultural achievement. Tragedy was the premiere literary genre of this period, and it is fitting that the high point of the democracy should be symbolized by a genre of poetry that involves the entire body of citizens. Performed at one of the major festivals of the city, the Great Dionysia, each tragedy was part of a contest. Three playwrights would be chosen by a city official, and each playwright would produce three tragedies and a satyr-play (a kind of farce intended to lighten the mood after three tragedies); all four plays were performed in a single day. The audience consisted of about 15,000 citizens, and the festival itself became a pageant of Athenian power and glory.

We know of many playwrights from this century, but only the works of three men have survived. Fortunately, the three poets we have were universally considered to be the best: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. From Sophocles, who won twenty victories (compared to Aeschylus’ thirteen and Euripides’ four) we have the seven plays chosen by ancient critics as his finest: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, and the so-called “Theban plays,” Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone . These three plays are not a trilogy; they were not written in order or performed together at one festival. In fact, about forty years separates the first play written, Antigone , from the last, Oedipus at Colonus ! Each play, therefore, should be considered a separate work, and while Sophocles alludes to his earlier work, he pursued different goals and used different methods for each one.