Vanessa Cazzato

The Invention of Tragedy and its Relation to Earlier Monody

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The Invention of Tragedy and its Relation to Earlier Monody

Greek tragedy is one of the most remarkable innovations of 5th-century Athens and, with democracy, arguably its most enduring legacy to modern Western culture. The debate on the relation between this new poetic genre and pre-existing genres has tended to focus on the genetic issue, that is to say it has tended to speculate on its genealogy as a genre. This is an approach most influentially spearheaded by Aristotle’s influential remarks in his Poetics (1449b) on tragedy’s origins in epic, dithyramb, and satyric choruses – though such theorizing appears to have been roughly contemporaneous with the origin of tragedy itself (cf. e.g. Solon fr. 30a).

The Invention of Tragedy

The debate still rages on what kind of evidence (if any) may have lain behind Aristotle’s remarks, but one more recent approach has been to doubt their reliability and consider them as largely speculation. Viewed in this light, Aristotle’s notions about the birth of tragedy are understood as a reflection of ways of makings sense of this startling innovation which were current in 5th- and 4th-century Greece. Indeed, his theory on the relation of tragedy to epic is just one among many competing explanations current in classical Athens, Southern Italy, and the Peloponnese on the relation between this new poetic genre and other more established ones. This conversation on origins took the form of the identification of first discoverers (e.g. Arion of Methymna or Epigenes of Sicyon), of modifications of earlier performance modes or of formal features such as metre and dialect, and of development from religious practices (the latter two strands overlapping squarely with those most prominent in modern scholarship). Evidently, tragedy lent itself to such debates: there is something inherent in tragedy which inspires speculation on its possible relationship to other genres, forms, and structures/institutions – and the variety of proffered explanations points towards this being something more complicated and subtle than the mere fact of a genetic derivation.

When we flip the question around and look at it from the other end, the kindredness which tragedy displays towards other genres can be usefully regarded as a way of maximizing the communicative power of a new genre by feeding into older genres, either by harnessing their associations and symbolic value, or by facilitating acceptance of a new poetic and ritual form, or by mitigating the subversive potential inherent to this new genre unusual for its tendency to question the larger structures of Greek life (the worlds of gods and men, of the city, of the family, etc.) as well as for its synergistic relation to other innovative institutions of the time, most obviously the political development of democracy with its offshoots such as the courts and the rise of rhetoric.

A recent but already influential volume has looked at one facet of tragedy’s relation to other poetic genres: Laura Swift’s examination of the relationship between tragic and non-tragic choral poetry (The Hidden Chorus, Oxford 2010) has shown how tragedy set itself up and was understood to some degree as a manifestation of a wider culture of choral poetry. A similar approach to tragedy’s relation to non-choral poetry remains unattempted. Yet, as Ippokratis Kantzios has remarked (The Trajectory of Archaic Greek Trimeters, Leiden 2005, p. 160), ‘[i]n a sense, early tragedy is the synthesis or confrontation of two different modes of performance, monodic and choral, both with long traditions and both closely associated with religious practices’.

To be sure, past scholarship has noted the interweaving of traditional and innovative formal aspects between the ‘monodic’ portions of tragedy and monody proper, such as the injection the Attic dialect in the Ionian metrical forms of iambic tetrameter at first and then trimeter (see Arist. Poetics 1449a and cf. Aesch. Pers. and Ag.). But past attempts to probe the question of tragedy’s relation to monody have tended to limit themselves to the genetic question. For instance, Else (The Origin and Early Form of Greek Tragedy, Cambridge MA 1965) identified Solon as the key forerunner of the tragic actor and therefore as indirectly responsible for the emergence of tragedy; according to this view, tragedy is a synthesis of the Homeric heroic stance and Solon’s iambic impersonation. Kantzios (vedi supra) has suggested the benefits of broadening the scope of the debate beyond just Solon to serious iambos in general, while before him Herington (Poetry into Drama, Berkeley 1985) had argued in favour of reaching beyond even iambos to include elegy too (in addition to the more usual suspects of epic and lyric). These insights all point to the usefulness of investigating the relation between tragedy and monody, while at the same time showing up the need for the employment of a more subtle approach to tragedy’s rootedness in pre-existing genres, one which goes beyond the genetic question to include issues such as rhetorical appropriation. The concept of anchoring offers an ideal model for approaching the question. The proposed project thus aims to investigate the relationship between tragedy and monody in a series of articles produced within the broader framework of the OIKOS research programme of Anchoring Innovation.