The Agonistic Dialogical Approach


English: Thucydides IV 36-41

Thucydides IV 36-41 (Credit: Wikipedia)

Wed Apr 8 23:16:17 2009
There are some interesting things happening with the development of drama during the age of Pericles that parallel similar changes happening in other areas of culture at roughly the same time. There seems to be a general change from a narrative voice to a more agonistic dialogical approach that can be seen in philosophy, history and especially in poetry—-which led to the development of the tragedy.


Early philosophy looked for that most basic substance that was the “single, moving, infinite first principle of all existing things” as described in a typical fragment of Anaximenes (Olympiodorus, On the Divine and Sacred Art). In the age of Pericles, the Sophists looked to rhetoric and argument to establish what we can know. The following generation of Plato and Xenophon would express philosophical ideas in dialogues, where interlocutors establish and express their ideas through argument and debate. Thucydides structured his History of the Peloponnesian War around a series of dialogues and debates between the participants.


This tendency can also be seen in changes to poetic form that led to the creation of tragedy. Earlier Greek verse forms, the Epic and Lyric, used a single narrative voice. The choral Ode had alternating perspectives in the strophe and antistrophe and the Dithyramb alternated between a single speaker and chorus. This is probably the reason they served as models for early dramatic poetry. The earliest surviving tragedy is Aeschylus’ Persians from 479 BCE. This tragedy includes parts for two speakers and chorus but lacks the sense of agon we see developed in later drama. The three parts present a unified narrative, almost as if you had divided an epic or ode into three sections for recitation. The exchange between Atossa, the Messenger and the Chorus could just as easily be read by a single voice and could easily be presented in the same manner as a Pindaric Ode.


By the time of Aschylus’ Oresteia trilogy in 458 BCE, there is a clear sense of agon between the central characters. Agamemnon and Clytaemestra function as clearly differentiated and opposed protagonist and antagonist in the initial episode of Agamemnon. These are not two expressions of the same idea but diametrically opposed views that are presented and argued over. This conflict of words and views that takes place on stage will prefigure and suggest the even larger physical confrontation that will soon take place off stage.


It should come as no surprise that the democratic and litigious Athenian society might develop the strong agonistic and dialogic tendencies in many of their cultural expressions, including philosophy, history and especially tragedy.




~ by severalfourmany on April 8, 2009.

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