A superficial glance at any play contained in The Harvard Classics will at once reveal the prominence of the chorus. To understand this, as well as other features in the structure of a play, we must inquire into the origin of tragedy and comedy.

This inquiry, slight though it must be, is the more essential because it was the constructive genius of the Greeks that discovered and developed the drama as all countries and ages have since known it.

The drama is founded in religion. In the Greek consciousness it had its spring in the worship of Dionysus, who in one of his aspects was a god of the underworld, latest comer into the Greek Pantheon, whose religion had evoked much opposition, and whose story was full of suffering as well as triumph and joy. He represented the life-giving forces of nature; he was god of the vine and of wine, and at the vintage festival the country folk celebrated him in dance and song. They smeared their faces with wine lees and covered their bodies with goatskins, to imitate the goatlike attendants of the god, who were called satyrs. Thus their song, tragoedia, was the “song of the goats,” tragoi, and many years elapsed before it became dignified. Toward the end of the seventh century B. C. the poet Arion of Corinth adapted this folksong to his own purposes and gave it, under the name of dithyramb, something like literary distinction. It was capable of great variety in form and matter, but maintained its characteristic pathos throughout. The chorus gave expression to cries of joy or ejaculations of pity and terror as the story of the god unfolded itself. A refrain, in which the same words were repeated, was a constant element.

The dithyramb remained purely lyric; but during the sixth century, we know not how or through what personality, it underwent a modification of profound importance. Some genius, perhaps Thespis, conceived the idea of impersonating the god or some hero connected with his myth, in the presence of his chorus of worshipers. He wore a mask and carried other properties appropriate to his nature, and with the leader of the chorus interchanged a dialogue which was interrupted from time to time by the comments of the chorus, accompanied by dancing and gestures.

Thespis, whose name has become familiar in all the literatures of Europe, was a native of Icaria, a village in Attica, at the foot of Mt. Pentelicus. The region, excavated by American explorers some years ago, is still known as Dionysos. It lies in a valley which leads to Marathon, and the scanty ruins, hidden among olive groves and vineyards, betray no sign that it is the birthplace of European drama. Thespis exhibited here during the latter half of the sixth century.

None of his works have survived. They were probably merely sketched, not written out, and still followed the method of improvisation which, Aristotle says, was in vogue in the early steps of the drama.

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