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The Theatre and the Play

The time of this great struggle (5th century B.C.) was a great epoch in world history. About 500 B.C., in India, Buddha was living and was the founder of the great religion which still has millions of followers. A little earlier Confucius was working in China, where he is still venerated; he taught the golden rule, "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." And somewhere about this time the ancient Jewish writings, called the Old Testament, were being put together in Jerusalem. Finally, a famous city On the Tiber -- Rome was now entering on the period of its greatness.

This century (500-400 B.C.) was also the Golden Age of the Greek city-states. The Greeks excelled in governing their cities. They excelled, that is, in "politics," for that word comes from "polis," the Greek word for city-state. At one time or other all the Greek cities passed through Monarchy (the rule of one man), Aristocracy (the rule of the best), Oligarchy (the rule of a few), "Tyranny" (an Eastern word and idea), to Democracy (the rule of the "demos" or people). All (but one) of these forms of government are Greek ideas, expressed in Greek words which still live.

By 500 B.C., in cities like Athens, Sparta, and Corinth, an industrial world was growing up. Slave labour -- which was used throughout ancient times -- was increasing. In time there were five or six slaves to every citizen. The slaves were treated well. They did the work of the house, which was built round an open court. They worked as artisans and teachers, while their masters went to the public meetings, to the theatre, or to the gynmasium to exercise themselves.

A crown of wild olive was the most treasured prize that Greek athletes could win in the Olympic games. It is interesting to note the importance of the olive in Greek life. In domestic life olive oil was used in many varied ways. "It was used for cooking, for washing, and for lighting. No one in Greece (outside fashionable hotels at Athens) eats butter; bread and olives or bread and goats' cheese are their 'bread and butter,' and Herodotus gives a minute description of butter-making, or literally 'cow-cheese-making.' Hence oil is used in almost every dish, and every Greek cook would be lost without it. Again, the Greeks used no soap, but rubbed themselves with oil, and if that was insufficient, put scents on it. Lastly, if they outstayed the sun (which they did far less than we), they had no other light but oil or resinous torches. Hence the multitudes of oil lamps in every classical museum. For each of these purposes thrifty housekeepers used a different quality of oil. The olives were squeezed in presses: the first squeeze produced eating oil, the second anointing oil, the third burning oil, and, finally, the remainder -- skins and all -- was used as fuel."

In the public life of the Greek citizen the theatre was no less important than the elections and the assemblies. The theatre was invented by the Greeks, and all the words connected with it are Greek. At first a Greek theatre was simply a grassy circle (the orchestra), open to the sky, in which the chorus danced and sang in honour of the god of wine. When the orchestra had been marked out, seats were made for the spectators in a semicircle on one side; opposite there was a booth for the actors, and from this booth what we call the stage developed.

No wonder the citizens flocked to the theatre to listen with pride to the story of their great struggle with Persia, as told by the poet AEschylus in his drama The Persians. The poet himself had fought in the war.

Atossa, the wife of Darius, is speaking just before Marathon, and the chorus answers her:

Atossa. Tell me, Persians, if ye may,

Whereabout on Earth's wide bosom Athens lies, as travellers say.

Chorus. Yonder, where our lord, the Sun-god, droops and dwindles, far away.

Atossa. Wherefore was my son desirous Athens 'neath his power to bring?

Chorus. Hellas, then, in all her borders, would be subject to the king.

Atossa. Say: keeps Athens at her bidding such a multitudinous host?

Chorus. Such a host, whose valiant prowess Persia knows of to her cost.

Atossa. And besides their men of valour? Have they wealth enough in store?

Chorus. Yea, a vein by nature treasured in their land, of silver ore.

Atossa. Is it strength to draw the arrow that exalts them thus in might?

Chorus. Not the bow, but the shielded arrow, and the spear for standing fight.

Atossa. Say, what shepherd sways their numbers? who their army's king and lord?

Chorus. They call no man lord or master, buckle under no man's word.

Atossa. Then they ne'er will stand the onset of a strange invading foe.

Chorus. They destroyed Darius' army, great in number, fair in show.

Atossa. Thought of terror for the parents of our warriors now away!