There’s a clear link between the origin of the play and what’s known as western philosophy. A few philosophers and playwrights developed the principles, the techniques and devices in storytelling (including films, books and plays alike) that we use today.
Philosophy on its own, just means the solving of problems – Big problems, with broad subjects like; existence, knowledge, language and reason. It can be applied to all sorts of things.
Why are plays so important?
Being able to read or write was not something just anyone could do a few thousand years ago. Even if people were telling stories, unless they could shout very loudly or write them down, not many people would hear them except through word of mouth which means there was a lot lost in translation.
Luckily for us, some storytellers did end up finding ways to write their stories down. But, it was hard enough finding anyone that could write, so imagine trying to find anyone that could read!
Someone eventually saw a niche in the market though, and figured that those who could read, could read stories out loud to a group of people… and so it began. Plays.
Have a guess where it all started… Did you guess Ancient Greece? Gold star for you!
The first Plays were performed in Athens in the Theatre of Dionysus around 500 BC and they consisted of one actor called the Protagonist who told a story with the help of a Chorus (a group of people). A man called Thespis was apparently the first ever man who went on stage and acted as a character. He even went on Tour after winning one of the first documented theatre competitions. Ha! Imagine that, Thespis on Tour! People loved him and he was a complete celebrity – like Thespis Depp or Brad Thespis.
As time went on, the Tyrants and Politicians (same difference really) would buy their people’s favour by building theatres or sponsoring plays and employing playwrights to write for them.
Plays were so popular that within years there were Theatres popping up all over the place. But it didn’t stop at reading out loud, these were exciting times and once the ideas started rolling, they just snowballed.
A Playwright called Aeschylus (aka The Father of Tragedy), decided to change the game. He added a Second Guy to help tell the story. So there were 2 men telling the story and less chorus! The second person became known as the Antagonist. Aeschylus literally introduced the Conflict amongst his Characters. This is where storytelling evolved into something really complex.
We had our first Goodie and Baddie on stage.
So, Aeschylus had a student called Sophocles. You will never guess what he did… OK, you might. Well, he introduced a THIRD GUY!
Sophocles did other great things too but the competition was tough by now and he was overtaken by Euripides.
More of Euripides’ work survived because it was more popular than Aeschylus & Sophocles’. He was all about the representation of traditional mythical heroes as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. That’s because us lot in the audience loved to be able to imagine our plain-Jane selves as heroes.
Anyway, then there was Socrates who happened to be a this great mind-blowing philosopher who, in 407, met Plato. Plato abandons his first ambitions of being a playwright and becomes Socrates student and personal biographer.
Then! After ALL that comes along Aristotle. Aristotle begins studies at Plato’s Academy and becomes his student and with that, the first ever Play-Writing Manual was written.
“Tragedy is a form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear. Its action should be single and complete, presenting a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments, and it should be written in poetry embellished with every kind of artistic expression.” – Poetics, Aristotle
It was written by Aristotle called and was called Poetics . It was like the beginning of Literary Theory. It talks about the elements found in storytelling and shows where they appear in Plays.
It documents the start of literary theory as we understand it today. It supports the close connection between philosophical thinking applied in plays, stories and films.
The link between plays and western thinking is clear when you see how closely these men all worked together. The stories that were told and the impact they had were an insight into our psyche at the time and much of it is still relevant today. The Greeks explored the world they lived in and what it meant to be human through the Plays they watched and the reason the rest of us in the western world did the same is because we could identify with each other through them.
Stories go hand in hand with philosophy because they’re our way of thinking about those big subjects – existence, knowledge, language and reason.
There were only really three types of Play at first. Comedy, Tragedy and Satyr. Poetics outlines them all in the introduction however the main subject of the book is Tragedy (there may have been a second book which covered Comedy but it’s thought to have been lost).
The Comedies mainly made fun out of the men in power (and their vanity). The Tragedies were about Love and Loss, pride and abuse of Power. Typically the Protagonist would do something really bad and be arrogant or foolish. But, as he realises what he has done, his world falls apart around him.
Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are thought of as the Three Great Playwrights of Tragedy.
The Satyr plays were short skits which played between the acts of Tragedies and they mocked the misfortune of the Tragedies characters. The origins of the play and what you can find from the public interaction with them is how important they were to the culture in Greece and subsequently the rest of the world.
We may think we have evolved and grown but even now when it comes to most of what happened in all those Plays written in the few hundred years after 600 BC we still find the stories are relatable. Why? Because they are stories about the human condition and they were written by philosophers that shaped our history, way of thinking and perspective.
Thousands of years on we can identify with the stories they left us – so what does that say about the films and stories we see and hear today? How relatable will they be to the future generations?
Thespis, c. 6th century BCE (exact dates unknown)
Aeschylus, c. 525 BCE – 455 BCE
Sophocles, c. 497 – 406 BCE
Euripides, c. 480 – 406 BCE
Socrates, c. 469 – 399 BCE
Plato, c. 427- 348 BCE
Aristotle 384 – 322 BCE