Summer School 2005: Jenny March on unseen drama

Dr Jenny March

Unseen drama in Greek Tragedy.

A lecture delivered to the Association for Latin Teaching Summer School
in Royal Holloway College, July 2005

The subject under discussion

Greek tragedy is full of 'dramatic' events, including violence, revenge, murder, suicide and blinding. Some of the violence happens on stage, but how do tragedians convey off-stage events?

The stage setting

Imagine what the audience in fifth century Athens would see: a bare scene, simple and spare. The skene building with its central door usually represents a house or a palace. There are exceptions. Euripides in his Electra has a cottage, and Sophocles has Ajax's hut and Philoctetes' cave.


Masked actors made for simplicity. There was no possibility of nuances of meaning as in our theatre, and more than ever in film and TV, where much can be conveyed by the lift of an eyebrow. Remember the size of a Greek theatre, where the audience might number 15,000. With many spectators many metres away from the actors, there was no opportunity for visual subtlety.

Occasionally an actor might change his character's mask – In Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus must have a 'blinded' mask for his final appearance, with the cheeks and beard dripping with blood. Sometimes the mask may not change, but the meaning that the audience reads into its expression may alter. In Euripides Bacchae, the smiling mask of the god Dionysus seems at first to convey friendliness. By the time King Pentheus is dressed for his fatal walk up to Mount Cithaeron, where he will find death at the hands of the women and particularly his own mother, the god's smile is seen as menacing.


Props were few but significant. They usually relate to a past or future event, probably one that takes place offstage. They are implicit with hidden meaning. Aeschylus and Euripides used props effectively, e.g.

  • Agamemnon – the crimson carpet is blood-red, looking back to the blood shed at Troy and the blood of Iphigenia whom he sacrificed, and looking forward to his own blood which will be shed very soon.
  • Medea – the casket containing the poisoned robe. It had magic in it. It is a reminder of Medea's other murders, e.g. of her brother.
  • Bacchae – Pentheus' head carried by Agave. A powerful prop.

But Sophocles was master of the prop.

  • Electra – the urn, believed to contain the ashes of Orestes. Electra mourns over it, while Orestes is by her side. It is a moving moment when she turns from the (supposed) dead Orestes in urn and takes the living Orestes in her arms.
  • Ajax – the sword given by Agamemnon is a reminder of Ajax's heroic past.
  • Philoctetes – the great bow, once belonging to Heracles. Whoever holds the bow holds the power.
  • Nessos' shirt, sign of his ancient hatred.

Exits and entrances

There were two particular places: The central doorway in skene, and the eisodoi at either end of the skene.

  1. The doorway:

    • Exits:
      When characters go out through this, it is often the gateway to an offstage death. In OT Jocasta goes in; Oedipus thinks she is proud, but she knows the truth, and goes in to kill herself.
      In Antigone, Creon's wife Eurydice also goes silently through the door to kill herself.
    • Entrances:
      In OT, Oedipus makes two contrasting entrances, first as the confident successful king, secondly as a blinded failure.
    • Control of the doors:
      Who controls the doors? In Agamemnon, Cassandra sees Clytemnestra as guardian of doors (of Hades!). Oedipus walks through the door into Clytemnestra's clutches. (Lovely stuff!)
  2. The Eisodoi: the audience see characters coming long before they arrive on stage. Who is it? Suspense. What is the bad news? (As it often was)

How do we learn about what happens off stage?

  1. Plain reporting

    (excluding messenger speeches). A character tells of off-stage events, e.g.:

    • Creon in OT reports on his visit to Delphi and what the oracle said.
    • The Guard in Antigone reports on Antigone coming to scatter earth on her brother's corpse.
    • Agamemnon does not have messenger speech, but much is reported, e.g. Clytemnestra tells of the chain of beacons announcing the fall of Troy, a soldier tells the chorus the details of the war and the fall of Troy, and when Agamemnon arrives he tells more.
    • Choral songs: Euripides in Electra has a chorus telling about Helle and Phrixus and the golden ram; but in Aeschylus the chorus fills in vast amounts of off-stage background. It is the simplest way, but the least dramatic.
  2. The Ekkuklema (a wheeled platform to show bodies killed off-stage), and similar dramatic devices.

    We hear, and then see, what has happened. e.g.

    • Agamemnon: We hear Agamemnon's screams – the chorus discuss what is to be done – then we see Clytemnestra with axe (or sword – both are in the Greek text). She tells what she has done, as we see the bodies and the net in which Agamemnon was entrapped.
    • Oedipus Tyrannus: We hear of Oedipus' self-blinding from a messenger, and then see him.
    • Sometimes character stands at the doorway and tells us what is happening within. This is a sophisticated variation on the usual report. E.g.

      • Euripides' Hippolytus: Phaedra overhears Hippolytus telling off-stage what he feels about her.
      • Sophocles' Electra: Electra is outside the palace keeping guard against the arrival of Aegisthus, while Orestes is killing Clytemnestra. She tells us what is happening. Clytemnestra cries “Where is Aegistheus?” The audience looks at the eisodoi. But then Orestes enters with dripping sword and tells the story. Then Aegisthus does enter, and Electra fools him with double meanings, making him think that the shrouded body (really of Clytemnestra) which has been brought out onto the stage is that of Orestes: Electra tells Aegisthus that ” the strangers have 'fallen upon' their hostess.” The moment at the end of the play when Aegisthus lifts the shroud and sees the truth has been called 'the most glorious moment of pure theatre in all Greek tragedy'.
      • Euripides' Medea: The audience hears the death cries of Medea's two children, and expects the doors to open and the ekkuklema to show the bodies. All eyes are on the doors. Then comes surprise at hearing Medea on the mechane (crane) in her dragon chariot with the slaughtered boys.
      • Euripides' Hippolytus – after the account of his chariot crash, his mangled body is brought in, and he dies on stage.
      • Sophocles' Antigone – Eurydice's death is reported, and then her body is brought in for Creon to mourn.
      • Euripides' Bacchae – Cadmus brings in bits of the torn body of Pentheus.
  3. Messenger speeches:

    These are a trade-mark of Sophocles and Euripides, but particular of Euripides, the master of the messenger speech.

    The messenger is usually anonymous (except in Sophocles' Electra, where the lying speech is spoken by the tutor). It often comes at turning point:

    • Meanads on Cithaeron
    • Haemon's death
    • Oedipus' blinding.

    Audiences must have looked forward to the Messenger Speech. There was always time for it. Medea, for example, should flee for her life after arranging the deaths of Creon and the proncess, but stays and insists on hearing the whole messenger speech recounting the grisly murders.

    Sophocles plays with our expectation of the messenger speech in Ajax. In Ajax's 'deception speech', using beautiful language, he talks of going down to the sea to fix his sword in the sand. He goes out. The Chorus sings. Then a messenger enters, and we expect to hear of the suicide. But the report is that Ajax is safe. Finally Ajax comes on stage and commits suicide in full view of all.

    So, audiences enjoyed messenger speeches. But do they make more effective theatre than showing the action? Dr March argued that, given the limitations of the ancient theatre, they do. In our own day, film can show wonderful action, e.g. the battles in Lord of the Rings. On the simple Greek stage, however, the messenger speech was more effective. How?

    1. It gave fluidity of time and space.
      Lot of events, taking place anywhere, could be compressed into the single speech. E.g.

      • Sophocles' Electra: the tutor's (lying) speech recounted several days of the Games, culminating in Orestes' death.
      • Euripides' Bacchae: the messenger's speech included Pentheus' long walk to the mountain, and his long stay on top of a pine tree, before his violent end.
      • Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus: the events reported took place just inside the palace
      • Aeschylus' Persae: the battle of Salamis took place far away from Persia.
    2. The events recounted were not limited to only three actors.
      In the Persae, there were ships and men galore; in Sophocles' Electra there was the whole audience at the games.
    3. Supernatural events were possible
      Within the conventions of Greek theatre Sophocles could have shown Haemon attacking Creon and killing himself. Talthybius' account of death of Polyxena in Hecuba could instead have been staged. Sophocles could have shown the death of Aegisthus.

      Euripides could have shown the poisonings in Medea, but not in the way the messenger describes them. The Princess puts on robe and admires herself in a mirror. That would be easily staged. But to show the robe melting her flesh, and then her father's, would need cinema special effects.

      So the messenger speech makes in possible for the dramatist to make us 'see' much worse events.
      Dr March's favourite messenger speech is that in Euripides' Bacchae. The moment of Pentheus appealing to his mother would be stageable, but the rest? Possibly the chorus could surround Pentheus and limbs could be thrown out of the melee, but appealing to the imagination is more effective.

    4. The messenger speech means that we know everything clearly, and focus on what the playwright wants us to see.
      E.g. in Oedipus Tyrannus Sophocles turns our attention away from Jocasta to Oedipus. We understand why it is happening. The description of Oedipus' self-blinding is so much effective than the blinding of ?? in King Lear, when we are likely to turn our eyes away from the horror.

      The dramatist controls the amount of horror he wishes us to experience. Compare Hippolytus' suffering in his chariot accident, when the bull from the sea panics his horses, in Euripides (4 lines) with Seneca's gory details. A film would show the whole terrible scene, as Seneca does. But Euripides didn't want that effect. Euripides can make us see and feel just what he wants us to see and feel.