The Relationship Between Athenian and Medieval English Theatre and Their Governments

By Nicholas Splendoria ’23

The following work was created for THE 101-10: Drama, Stage, and Society I.

Throughout history, one of the most important and influential theatres was the theatrical institutions run by Athens in Ancient Greece. The playwrights, staging techniques, acting innovations, and theatrical repertoire comprise some of the most important elements of theatre history. The Greeks had a love for theatre; they cherished it and saw it as a way to honor the gods and enrich the culture in which they had so much pride. Although Athens fell and theatre was picked up by successive societies, the advent of Christianity made theatre taboo, with it no longer being respected by citizens and their leaders. As Christianity began to dominate the European continent, it outlawed theatre for its “sinful” qualities and condemned actors and those involved with the craft throughout the Middle Ages. This idea of theatre was prominent until the Medieval Ages, when priests, exploring ways to better engage their congregations, began experimenting with stylized forms of religious scenes. As these scenes gained popularity, the Church slowly legalized more theatrical performances, including the morality play, the other subject of this essay. These morality plays were very different from their Greek predecessors, and the cultures, morals, and overall societies that the Ancient Greeks and Medieval Europeans performed in were also very different. Despite these differences, theatre served a similar purpose in each culture, mainly acting as propaganda for the power structures. By reinforcing the legitimacy of the state, giving citizens power in the production process, and crafting stories that focused on the accepted and revered morals of the state, theatre served as a way to not only enrich the culture, but as an effective tool for socialization. For the purposes of this essay, the definition of propaganda will come from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, which describes propaganda as “ the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping… an institution, (or) a cause” (Merriam-Webster), with Athens and the Catholic Church seeking to preserve their own institutions and religious beliefs.

The legacy of Athens extends beyond just being a theatrical hub, it is also lauded as the world’s first democracy, allowing its citizens, which was a narrow part of the population, to govern themselves. One of the hallmarks of democracy, both past and present, is free speech and the ability to express one’s own ideas and opinions. In ancient Athens, it was even more imperative that public officials have the ability to speak freely, as “the political health of the city hinged on the ability of large numbers of its citizens to listen attentively to others… and to articulate their own views convincingly in private and in public,” livening public discourse (Bakewell 260). With no institutions that were disseminating news or opinions to the public, the citizens needed a forum where they could engage in the act of listening and learning from current events and the opinions of their fellow citizens. Theatre gave them this forum and became a valuable tool of the state. It helped educate public officials on a vast range of issues, from morality to law and politics. To do this, tragedies used “the stories of gods and heroic humans that had been transmitted orally by the early epic poets” as a vehicle to convey the issues of the day (Gainor, et al. 6). These stories focused on the great moments of Greek history, from the pantheon of revered gods to the heroes that exemplified what good citizenship looked like. Plays like Aeschylus’ ​Agamemnon​ focus on the self-destructive pride of a once-great king, Sophocles’ ​Oedipus Rex​ discuss fate and not trying to change the gods’ will, and Aristophanes’ ​Lysistrata satirized the war between Sparta and Athens, and showed how a marginalized group could affect positive political change. Thus, by educating public officials through plays, they were also able to instill loyalty and patriotism with uniquely Greek themes. 

Another way that the state was able to get involved in theatre was to give individual citizens a stake in the endeavors of theatre. Before diving deeper into this point, it is important to note which citizens were directly involved in the production of theatrical performances. Though a majority of the ​polis, Greek citizens, were of the working class and commoners, the citizens that were being sought out to help produce plays were the elites, those who wielded enormous amounts of money, and therefore power and influence. It is also important to note that the government was broken into many levels, but the one that is important to theatre is the magistrates. The magistrates were a group of seven-hundred citizens who were chosen by lot, dealt with the finances of the city-state, and were subject to intensive screening before and after assuming office. The tragedies “were chosen by the magistrates in a competition and funded by a special levy… on the richest citizens,” essentially putting a wealth tax on them specifically for theatre (Bakewell 261). This process gave some of the highest-ranking government officials an important role in choosing what is being performed, and the richest citizens a reason to want to see the plays succeed and do well. It is worth noting that this process did not happen in a vacuum but was subject to public scrutiny and discussion. Theatre was one of Athens’s pride and joy, and it provided entertainment to thousands of citizens during one of their most important festivals, that which celebrated Dionysus. It brought thousands of citizens together, and the city-state was alit with gossip and tales about the performances. Citizens took notice of who was choosing the plays and who was funding them. The government, knowing it already had the general population’s attention, capitalized on it and turned a good portion of the attention to the elite who were producing the shows, attempting to create allegiance to the elites and leaders of Athens. Athens “buzzed for months with talk of the coming productions,” and they eagerly awaited what plays the magistrates chose and what sets and costumes the levy would buy (Bakewell 261). The general public already had a vested interest in theatre and giving the roles of funding and producing the plays to the elites strengthened the power structure that already existed within the city. 

At this point, it is important to turn to the plays and analyze the tragedies that were both an important educational tool for public officials and entertainment to thousands of Athenians. The play that is examined here is the classic tragedy ​Antigone by Sophocles. It is one of the more popular Greek tragedies and has stood the test of time, gaining relevance during the beginning of the Iraq war. Though modern scholars and theatregoers often see the show as an example of feminine power and feminism, when it was performed, it sent a different message. Its contents are a warning to public officials and the people: public officials must, to some degree, listen to the will of the people and enact laws that respect time honored traditions, while the people must always put the will of the gods above those of their mortal rulers. This might seem contrary to common sense, but the Greeks placed a large amount of importance on their religion, and in their eyes, the gods had huge leverage in their lives. Antigone demonstrates this with her own words when she tells Kreon, the tyrannical ruler of Thebes, that it “wasn’t ​Zeus ​who issued me [Antigone] this order. And Justice—who lives below—was not involved” in the decision to pass a law banning the burial of her brother, who was viewed as a traitor in the eyes of Kreon (Sophocles 153). This is evidence that one of the main themes Sophocles embedded in the play, the idea of respecting the law of the gods over the law of men, was important to Athenian society. Aside from being important to Athenian society, it was also important enough that chief officials deemed it appropriate that the public officials, who themselves were probably theatre goers, see this theme played out onstage. 

It is important to note that, although Athenian tragedies were geared towards the civic leaders of the city-state, that average Athenians were also meant to learn from these plays. They made up the clear majority of those who lived in Athens, and the chief government officers wanted to use plays as a time to speak to the politicians and their constituents alike. One way they did this was by giving characters who represented the common folks, like the chorus or Antigone herself, a large part in the plays, using them as a means to push the plot forward, and weave the themes into the tragedy. The chorus was meant to stand in for the common people, and they played a very important role in accelerating the plot and making a connection to the everyday Athenians who saw shows. By having some choruses be portrayed as women or older citizens, it gives all segments of society a way to relate to the plays, and more importantly, it gives civic lessons to learn and relate. In the tragedy, when it is certain that Antigone will be punished by Kreon, the leader of the chorus concurs with Antigone that “this sight (of injustice) also drives ​me ​outside the law … [and that] your pious conduct might deserve some praise” for pushing back against Kreon (Sophocles 162, 164). The chorus, which is a proxy for the commoners, is praising someone who defies a tyrannical ruler, sending a message to those watching that this is necessary if the government takes too much power and defies the gods. Thus, it also acts as a warning that conduct that goes against the state religion will not be tolerated or welcomed by anyone, public official and average people alike. Since it reinforces these ideas, it is reasonable to argue that this is propaganda for the Athenian government. Though propaganda is not typically attributed to this historical period, the use of theatre to reinforce certain aspects of Athenian society is what propaganda’s purpose is, and it was effective. Citizens enjoyed these tragedies and it was an effective tool of socialization, being entertaining and informative on ideal conduct, as well as further reinforcing the deeply held religious beliefs of the state. 

Moving away from Athens, the focus shifts to England during the Middle Ages, where theatre was undergoing a revival and was again appropriated by the state. The dominant political force in most of western Europe during this period was the Roman Catholic Church, which had a monopoly on political power and faith. Though initially hostile to theatre, the Church approved the use of performances at Easter—strictly in the context of the Holy Mass—with priests and other ordained ministers acting as the different women who cannot find the body of Jesus at the tomb. Over time, the plays became increasingly popular, leading to their expansion and their being performed outside of church buildings. Though the content still needed to be religious, the cast of characters expanded to include God, angels, devils, the seven deadly sins, the virtues that the Church approved, and a stand-in for humanity. Like how Athenian tragedies served a civic purpose—educating public officials—the plays of Medieval England that were performed in public also served civic purposes. As the Middle Ages progressed, there became a growing middle and lower class, as well as a nobility that retained wealth and status while a large section of society went without many amenities and comforts. With these economic issues, there were concerns that the commoners “‘would rise in revolt once again’ as they had done in 1381” paired with “‘increased… discontent of those forced to serve their lords’ and upper nobility (Sturges 84). To combat social discontent, playwrights inserted “the medieval political hierarchy—king, duke, knight, and rightful lord—which is thus naturalized and stabilized by means of the divine” throughout the plays (Sturges 94). By having divine characters speak and laud the nobility and the ruling class, it creates an aura of holiness around them. If there are God’s personal messengers—angels—blessing and speaking about the importance of the rulers, it deflects economic discontent from them, as they must be good if God has favored them. When looking at The ​Castle of Perseverance, the play opens angels blessing the nobles and civil rulers, driving home the idea that the nobility deserved blessing and protection from God, and thus respect from average citizens. This idea will be explored more deeply in succeeding paragraphs, with the quote from the play added for context. Thus, by closely linking nobility and God in a play that was attended by large crowds of particularly uneducated citizens, it protects them from blame, solidifying support and innocence for the political leaders of medieval society. 

Like how the Magistrates involved the wealthiest Athenians in the production of the tragedies, the Church used similar tactics. The working class took up a broad variety of occupations, and they often organized into guilds, which standardized a field of work. The productions were “financed by prosperous guilds and engineered by skilled craftsmen… [creating] performances… with special effects and elaborate technical devices” that would impress and entertain the crowd (Gainor, et al. 28). Getting the wealthiest citizens to finance the show and the most influential civic organizations to help craft the performances tried to mimic a similar outcome to that of Athens’s use of wealthy citizens. Arguably, it would be even more effective for medieval society. Athens, although it often ran into conflict with other city-states, always saw its residents and citizens acting patriotic, never really dissenting against the rulers. As Antigone’s chorus showed, its citizens, though unhappy, were instructed not to act violently, which worked for the most part. Medieval England did not have this context. Patriotism and nationalism were not a huge concept, as the country was mostly regional, and ties to the Catholic Church were more important than ties to country and ruler. Therefore, peasants who were discontented and unhappy were more apt to rebel and violently revolt. By associating pleasurable entertainment, which were fairly uncommon for those living during the Middle Ages, with the elite, it cultivates a sense of respect and gratitude towards them. These feelings would hopefully deter peasants and commoners from acting violently to their economic situation, even if those who helped produce their plays were profiting at their expense. For the elite, it gives them an incentive to want to see the plays succeed and see them reflect and uphold the doctrines and laws of the Catholic Church, which could provide protection to the nobles. Though immense wealth is often seen as a so-called “un-Christian” characteristic, the Church, who itself amassed a large amount of worldly riches, could justify and provide protection to the elite. One example of the means the Church used to protect the elite will be discussed during the examination of a medieval Catholic play.

The play in question is ​The Castle of Perseverance​, one of the oldest and best-preserved English morality plays from the Middle Ages. One of the main ways that the plays communicated their themes and messages to their audiences were by explicitly telling and explaining them. In Greek tragedies, characterization was the primary tool for sharing themes with the audiences and went down a more creative and abstract path to portray its themes. That is not to say that characterization was not a key element to morality plays, because it was an important technique, but characterization was not the main vehicle for the themes in morality plays. The reasons for this could have been, among other things, that the playwrights knew their audiences well and knew that they would most likely be uneducated and illiterate. For the messages to be as potent as possible, it is effective to show and tell the audience what is happening, explaining why it is important as well as what that means for the characters and audiences alike. In a society where everyone outside of the noble class was illiterate and uneducated, having clear-cut characters that teach lessons without nuance and elaboration was an effective, almost necessary, way to teach the masses. As mentioned before about the Church providing some protections to the nobles, one protection was by including them in the propaganda plays. The opening of ​The Castle of Perseverance ​introduces the technique of directly telling the audience, with the Heralds being very open about how the audience should feel and for what they should look. Regarding the elite, in the very first paragraph, the herald asks for God’s blessing:

Glorious God, in all degrees Lord most of might, 
That heaven and earth made of nought, both sea and land — 
The angels in heaven to serve him bright, 
And Mankind in middle-earth he made with his hand —
And our lovely Lady, that is a lantern of light, 
Save our liege lord the king, the leader of this land, 
And all the nobles of this realm, teach them the right, 
And all the good commoners of this town that before us stand 
In this place. 

(Anonymous, Lines 1–13)

By directly asking for God’s blessing on the nobles and the king, it is proving the Church’s support of them. Not to mention, the support that the Church gives is not veiled or hidden, it is explicit. Later on in the opening scene, the Heralds drive home a theological point to the audience. The Heralds “thank you [the audience] for all good listening, and of your part in our playing,” acknowledging that they are merely actors (Anonymous, Lines 140-141). Beginning in ancient Rome, the Catholic Church opposed theatre because the actors were committing blasphemy and lying about their identities by portraying biblical and religious figures (Fox). They were also opposed to men dressing up as women for performances (Fox). Considering that the audience saw shows, it was important to make it known that theatre is an act of make-believe, and that the actors were just pretending to be people they were not, not lying about their identity. This was a huge piece of Catholic social theology for hundreds of years, and it was important that it was reinforced to an audience that was being socialized by a theatrical performance. 

Although there are many deep connections between the ways that the Athenians and the English Catholics used theatre as propaganda, there is also an argument to be made that even under governments that could be oppressive and more apt to censorship, theatre still looked to challenge the people in power. Starting with ​Antigone​, the mere fact that it is a strong, independent, female character who openly breaks the law to serve the gods is a powerful statement. Women were not allowed citizenship in Athens and were thus looked at as second-class members of society. Sophocles based the plot around Antigone, with her pushing the story forward and sticking up to a tyrannical leader, not the all-male Greek chorus. As compelling as this argument may seem, especially to modern audiences, it is unfortunately not the case. Though the chorus lauds her for fighting for the gods’ laws, they also tell her that “it was your own hot-headed willfulness that destroyed you,” essentially victim-blaming Antigone, although she was correct in fighting for the laws of the gods. In ​The Castle of Perseverance, although the beginning of the play asked for Heaven’s blessing upon the king and nobles, there are also strong anti-materialistic messages and sentiments throughout the play. Two of the main sins that tempt Mankind in the play are Gluttony and Covetousness. These two sins are considered responsible for the miserly, especially regarding money and other material goods. Yet, these sins being in the play does not make it anti-establishment. These sins had to be in the play as they are deeply rooted in Catholic doctrine as “gateway sins,” or sins that lead people to deeper, more serious sins. Not to mention, having the wealthy and skilled guilds helping produce the shows is a gesture that the Church does not seek to cut ties with those with an abundance of material wealth. 

Although two seemingly different cultures, the ancient Athens and the Medieval Catholic Church in England, used theatre to their advantage; although the Catholic Church took a more hostile approach to theatre, both the Athenians and the Catholics used theatre as propaganda to socialize their citizens and reinforce the state institutions and religions. There seem to be deep connections here, but ​Antigone​ and ​The Castle of Perseverance are only two plays. There are numerous surviving plays from both Greek antiquity and the Catholic Middle Ages, so it is possible that there are even more connections between them. The study of the use of theatre as propaganda is vital to a free society. Citizens have an obligation to be critical when analyzing the different types of media that they consume, and looking to the past for how theatrical propaganda was used is an effective tool for analyzing modern potential theatrical propaganda.

Works Cited

Anonymous, ​The Castle of Perseverance. Trans. Johnston, Alexandria F. E-book, University of Toronto, 1998. 

Bakewell, Geoffrey W. “Tragedy as Democratic Education: The Case of Classical Athens.” Administrative Theory and Praxis, vol. 33, no. 2, 2011, pp. 258-267.

Fox, Brendon. Drama, Stage, and Society I. 31 October 2019. Washington College, Chestertown, MD. Class Lecture. 

Gainor, J. Ellen, et al. ​The Norton Anthology of Drama. Second Edition. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018.

“Propaganda.” ​The Merriam Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam Accessed 9 December 2019.

Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Bagg, Robert. In ​The Norton Anthology of Drama Second Edition, ed. by Ellen J. Gainor, et al. London, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018. 

Sturges, Robert S. ​The Circulation of Power in Medieval Biblical Drama: Theaters of Authority. London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 

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