Tragedy is from the Greek word tragoidia meaning ‘goat-song’. Hmm, sounds a bit strange but in ancient Greece, groups of men joined together in a chorus to sing poetry, wearing goat-skins. The chorus would tell a story in song, and one man would separate from the chorus to argue against the story – and thus drama was born. This man was known as the protagonist, from protos ‘first’ and agonistes ‘combatant’ – our present word protagonist means ‘champion’ or ‘hero’.
The next step was another man would step forward to argue with the protagonist. This man was known as the antagonist – anti means ‘against’. Antagonist now means ‘opponent’.
The philosopher Aristotle saw the drama of tragedy as a catharsis, what we would now call a release of emotional tension, as after an overwhelming experience, that restores or refreshes the spirit. In psychology, it’s a technique used to relieve tension and anxiety by bringing repressed feelings and fears to consciousness.
Catharsis is – you guessed it – a Greek word. It means ‘cleansing’ or ‘purification’ and I suppose you could say that watching such dramas had a beneficial effect on the psyche of the spectator.
Crisis is from Greek krisis ‘turning point in a disease’ and catastrophe is from kata ‘down’ and strophe ‘turning’ – so a downturn in the wheel of fortune. Disaster is from dys ‘bad’ and astron ‘star’ – an action carried out under an unlucky star.
We may have our Oscars but it has all been done before. Back in 508BC, the Greeks started holding a tragedy competition and festival in the city of Dionysia. In 493-2, a competitor called Phrynichus wrote a play about a historical event which told the story of the town of Miletus after it was conquered by the Persians.
It must have been quite a drama because the historian Herodotus reports that the whole theatre fell to weeping. Phrynichus was fined 1,000 drachmas for reminding the people of such a tragedy and was forbidden from performing the play ever again.
Perhaps luckily for us, these days good dramas aren’t just stories of crisis and catastrophe. Sweeping landscapes, passionate love affairs, and heart-warming friendships are only some of the features of recent popular dramas in film, television, and stage shows. Some of them even have happy endings! What are your favourites?