The fifth century begins with authentic names and shows more positive progress toward an imposing achievement. By this time the country festivals of Dionysus had been taken up by the city. As early as the middle of the sixth century the god had been brought in pomp to Athens, and a precinct was consecrated to him at the southeast slope of the Acropolis. Beside his temple the ground was smoothed and laid out in a great dancing circle—orchestra—with an altar in the center. The spectators, or theatron, were ranged on the slope of the Acropolis. Opposite at some distance from the circle, was the temple, and beyond that Mt. Hymettus made a distant background. There was no scenery except what nature had thus provided, but a convention soon arose whereby it was understood that an actor entering from the right of the spectators came from the city or the immediate vicinity, whereas one coming from the left came from some distant country.

The early composers of tragedy—for the author composed music, invented dance steps, and trained the chorus to sing—were content with one actor who by changing mask and costume in a neighboring booth (skênê) could take different rôles. The chorus leader was his interlocutor and bore the most difficult part, if we may judge from the plays of Æschylus. Among the earliest poets was Phrynichus, noted for his lofty patriotism, for the sweetness of his lyrics, for vigorous inventiveness—which dared on one occasion to employ a historical theme, “The Fall of Miletus”—and for the introduction of female rôles among those assigned to the actor. The progress, as Aristotle emphasizes, was slow and tentative, and it is clear that the audience did not willingly allow any wide departure from the limits imposed by the religious origin and occasion of the performance. More than once the conservative complaint, “This has nothing to do with Dionysus,” would restrain an author from breaking too hurriedly with tradition, and the high purpose and seriousness of tragedy was due not so much to any latent germ at its beginning—for comedy had the same popular origin in the vintage festival—as to the serious intent and deep religious conviction of the poets of the time, whose minds were also impressed by the gravity of the coming conflict with Persia.

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