This document was written by William Ridgeway and originally published in The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of Non-European Races. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915. pp. 1-5.

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.


In discussing the history of dramatic literature, all historians down to a few years since have, without exception, confined their attention to the rise of Greek Drama, to its imitation in Rome, to the Mysteries and Miracles of mediaeval Christianity, to the revival of the classical form, and to its splendid development in the plays of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, Calderon, Corneille, and Racine. Moreover, all writers instead of seeking for the origin of the Drama by a rigid application of the historical and inductive method have approached its study from the a priori standpoint of pure Aesthetics. But as even now the study of art with a few exceptions is almost invariably based on a priori assumptions, little regard being had to the anthropological method, it could hardly have been expected that writers on the drama would have followed other lines.

No matter how widely historians of Greek Tragedy may have differed from each other in details, they were all pretty well agreed that certain main features in its development were firmly established, but, as it turns out, this general agreement was based upon a complete misinterpretation of several vital statements of Aristotle in Poetic, on which of course their theories had been largely based. They held (1) that Tragedy was the invention of the Dorians in certain parts of Peloponnesus, basing this (a) on a passage of Aristotle [1] in which he states nothing of the kind, and (b) on the supposed Doric forms in the choral odes of tragedies, although not a single truly Doric form is found anywhere in such odes; (2) that it arose wholly out of the worship of Dionysus, whom they assumed to be an indigenous Greek deity, although there was a consensus of opinion among all Greek writers from Homer downwards to the contrary, and though Aristotle never mentions Dionysus in connection with Tragedy; (3) that the Satyric drama arose in the same Dorian states out of the rustic and jovial dithyrambs common among the lower classes in the same districts as those in which Tragedy was supposed to have arisen [2], a statement contrary to that supposed to be the doctrine of Aristotle in a famous passage of the Poetic, in reliance on which other scholars maintained that Tragedy has been evolved out of an ancient indigenous gross Satyric drama, but as we have shown elsewhere, Aristotle said nothing of the kind; (4) that the Satyric drama was a kind of comic relief to the tragedy or tragedies to which it was assumed to have always been an adjunct from the earliest times, although it can be shown that Satyric dramas were only brought into Attica after 535 B.C.; (5) that the Thymele had been always solely the altar of Dionysus; (6) it was held that Thespis was the first to have established Tragedy on a proper basis, some holding that his grand step consisted in merely separating the leader from the rest of the Chorus and making him interrupt the Choral parts by some sort of Epic recitation, whilst others held that he was the first to apply to moral purpose the sufferings, often undeserved, of heroes.

A close examination of the available data, scanty as they are, led the present writer in 1904 to the conclusion that most, if not all, of these time-honoured doctrines had no foundation in fact, and that we must completely remodel our views concerning the beginning and development of the Tragic Art.

It was patent that Greek Tragedy in the fifth century before Christ contained two widely different elements--true Tragedy concerned soley with the sufferings and sorrows of heroes and historical personages, and the Satyric drama termed by the Greeks "Sportive Tragedy", concerned solely with Dionysus and his Silens and Satyrs. Furthermore, the Old Comedy which was held by the ancients to be and most certainly was indigenous, was yet regarded by them as wholly distinct from the Satyric drama. Yet if the latter sprang out of the jovial and gross dithyrambs, how did it differ in its origin from Comedy?

As we have already said, the universal misinterpretation of a passage in the Poetic [3] led many to hold that Tragedy proper had grown out of the gross Satyric drama, though none of our extant tragedies is any trace of coarseness in thought or word to be found.

Certain scholars, such as Professor von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff [4], found difficulties in what was assumed to be the doctrine of Aristotle, but never dreamed of inquiring whether the interpretations of Aristotle on which the old theory was based were right. Many scholars assumed that Aristotle's statement that Tragedy had arisen out of the grotesque Satyric drama was wrong, and that the latter had an independent origin in gross rustic dithyrambs. Dr. Reisch [5] re-dished this old doctrine in a paper which was hailed by Dr. L.R. Farnell [6] and Mr. A. Pickard-Cambridge [7] as a new revelation. But Reisch simply repeated the old theory that both Tragedy proper and Satyric Drama were Dionysiac in origin, but each independent from the outset, his only proof of this assertion being a strained rendering of a phrase of Aristotle in which he followed Gomperz.

But Aristotle [8] has given us a chronological statement of the various steps in the evolution of Attic Tragedy: (1) Aeschylus added the Second Actor, (2) diminished the parts of the Dance (Chorus), (3) and gave prominence to the dialogue; (4) Sophocles added the Third Actor and (5) Scene-painting, (6) the short plots were succeeded by those of greater length, (7) it was only late that Tragedy got free from grotesque diction by getting rid of Satyric Drama and became completely dignified, and (8) the metre changed from tetrameter to Iambic, for at the outset they used the tetrameter owing to the style of composition being Satyric and more suitable for dancing. These eight metabolae or changes fall into two classes: (a) External--Actors, Chorus, Scenery; (b) Internal--Plot, Diction, and Metre. Now the first five changes in (a) are certainly in chronological order, and all of them are posterior to 499 B.C., when Aeschylus made his first appearance, whilst the three under (b) must be similarly regarded. For the change from the short to the long plot was posterior to the first appearance of Aeschylus in 466 B.C., and as the change in metre to iambic was his work also (since his elder contemporary Phrynicus used the tetrameter almost solely), and as the last is linked grammatically in the Greek very closely to the preceding clause (the freeing of Tragedy from grotesque diction), this last process must fall within the same period as the change of metre, and certainly cannot be earlier than the first half of the fifth century before Christ. This examination shows us that whatever was the modification referred to by Aristotle's words respecting the Satyric drama, this could not have taken place before the first half of the fifth century before Christ, the very period when Tragedy was shaking itself free from the Satyric drama which was finally supplanted by the melodramas, such as Alcestis, which in 438 B.C. took the place of a Satyric drama in a Tetralogy of Euripides. For as the Greek term Tragoedia included both serious Tragedy and 'sportive Tragedy' (the Satyric drama), so long as the truly tragic trilogy was followed by a coarse Satyric drama, Tragedy had not freed itself from 'ludicrous diction' and attained to her full dignity. Aristotle, therefore, is not referring to the first beginnings of Tragedy in the sixth century, but to the state in which Aeschylus found it and from which he lifted it. When therefore he states that "aforetime they had used the tetrameter because the style of composition was Satyric and more appropriate for dancing," he is alluding not to any original development of tragedy proper from the Satyric, but rather to the period later than the introduction into Athens of the Satyric drama by Pratinas of Phlius (circa 525) and when Aeschylus had now come to the front, when still in serious tragedies, such as the Supplices of that poet himself, the dance was hardly lessened in importance, and therefore such plays were a kind of composition which might well be termed orchestikotera (more appropriate for dancing). This harmonizes well with the fact that Thespis, Phrynicus, Pratinas, and Choerilus were all termed dancers by the ancients and that Aeschylus invented many new figures, the fact being that the drama was still merely an operatic performance, such as we shall find in the dramas of India, Burma, China, and Japan. This conclusion is therefore fatal both to the old view that Tragedy arose out of the Satyric drama and the other view newly expounded by Reisch and adopted by Pickard-Cambridge, that Tragedy did not arise out of the Satyric drama, but independently "from the satyr-play-like origin" (von dem satyrspielartigen Ursprung), for both views assume changes which must have taken place at least as early as Epigenes and Thespis.

But far more important is that there is no longer any ground for the supposed contradiction between the statement of Aristotle respecting the relations of Tragedy proper to the Satyric drama and the passage in which he says, "When Tragedy and Comedy came to light the two primary classes of poets still followed their natural bents, the lampooners became writers of Comedy and the Epic poets were succeeded by tragedians, since the Drama was a larger and higher form of art." Aeschylus thus put the truth in a nutshell when he declared that his own plays were but slices from the banquets of Homer. But the Epic is not the oldest form of poetry. Joy and exultation after victory in battle or success in the chase, the outpourings of the anguished heart, the transports of the lover are and ever have been expressed not in set heroic measure, but in lyrical outbursts "with uneven numbers." [9] Such are the rude songs out of which arose the ancient Irish Epics, and such also are those embedded in the Icelandic Sagas. So too when Achilles sang to his harp the "glories of heroes", he was not reciting heroic lays like a rhapsodist, but rather singing rude songs about the deeds of doughty men. As such wild lyrical utterances are subjective and do not "imitate", Aristotle, as the present writer [10] has shown, did not include any discussion of lyrical poetry in the Poetic, but that he felt that it was concomitant with the Epic is proved by his pointing clearly to the few scattered personal expressions of the poet in the Iliad and the Odessey as being outside the Mimetic art.

It is from the lyrical element in the ancient poetry that Aristotle states that Tragedy took its direct rise: "Tragedy arose from the leaders of the dithyramb just as Comedy did from the leaders of the phallic songs which still survive in many of our towns." Though this statement of his has never been challenged, yet the old theory and the newest both alike depend on the assumption that Aristotle meant that the dithyramb was the peculiar apanage of Dionysus, and was never used of any one else. But before we discuss this vital point, let us complete our survey of the various later theories of the origin of Tragedy.



1 Poetic, iii. 3.

2 Mahaffy, History of Greek Literature (1880), vol. i, p. 233.

3 Chap. 4

4 Hercules Furens, pp. 55 sqq.

5 'Zur Vorgeschichte der attischen Tragödie' (Festschrift für Th. Gomperz, Vienna, 1902), pp. 561sqq.

6 The Cults of the Greek States, vol. v, p. 230. Dr. Farnell calls Dr. Reisch "Dr. Fleisch" not only here but on pp. 232 and 233.

7 Classical Review, March 1912, p. 53.

8 W. Ridgeway, 'Three Notes on the Poetic of Aristotle' (Classic Quarterly, vol. vi, 1912, pp. 24-25.

9 W. Ridgeway, Origin of Tragedy, pp. 7-8.

10 'Three Notes on the Poetic of Aristotle' (Classical Quarterly, vol. vi, 1912, pp. 235-41).

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