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Greek, Roman, and Modern-day Drama

Updated: Nov 13, 2018

By: Gabriela Sanchez CWF '18

Studying Classics can be difficult at times because it feels as though everything we read is so distant from us. We often have to do research of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures in order to understand the context behind many of the things we read, otherwise they make no sense to us. It is often the case, however, that we realize that our modern culture holds manifestations, however small, of these ancient cultures from which so many cultures came.

I am currently taking a Roman Comedy course and learning very much about the differences between the Roman and Greek takes on drama. In Greek culture, drama is one of the best forms of art because of its relation to the god Dionysus. Dionysus is said to have brought drama to Greece, so by means of acting and performing plays, Greeks lauded him. Greek actors were highly esteemed and also paid well. Greeks loved drama as both a profession and an art, and theatrical festivals were regarded as religious events, so simply partaking in the festivals was a way of praising the god Dionysus.

Romans, on the other hand, were very reluctant to accept theatre as a part of their culture. Even though they adopted a great part of Greek culture, there was a strong push against drama. In Rome, drama was admired as an art but despised as a profession. Roman actors were never Roman citizens; some were slaves and some were freeborn. Similar to Greek actors, Roman actors were paid, and slaves could theoretically buy their own freedom, but most of the profit made from acting (by a slave) was expected to be shared with his slave owner. If a Roman citizen wanted to act, he could either not be paid as an actor, or he could renounce his citizenship and be paid. Even Roscius, a famous actor who was born a slave, became so rich from acting that he bought his own knighthood, but after doing so he could no longer take money for acting as it would render him infamis because of the law that prohibited Roman citizens from being paid for acting.

Think of movies in which the plot revolves around a young man or woman who graduates high school having been involved in theatre all throughout school and decides to be an actor. The parents are always so upset because "what kind of a life can an aspiring actor have?" Even today, when my friend told his father that he wanted to be an actor, his father told him that he would never be able to provide for his future family being an actor. In some sense, this mirrors the Roman take on drama: admired as an art, but despised as a profession. Of course, actors are paid exceedingly well and not hated for what they do, and not all parents are so reluctant to accept acting as their child's profession, only some.

It was just interesting to note how drama has changed from its origin in 700 BC Greece to 240 BC Rome to 2018 all around the world. This was interesting to me in light of my Catholic worldview because it is a concrete example of how Hellenization and Romanism have influenced modern day society in ways that one might not consider. While we do not partake in Bacchic revealing once a year at Dionysia, but we might have a glass of wine before going to see a play or an opera, or during intermission even. I think that these two takes on drama support a Catholic worldview in that both cultures considered how the plays performed would influence their audiences and the actors themselves. Plato mentions that theatre could be detrimental to one’s character when performing a character with poor morals. Similarly, actors today face the issue of ‘becoming’ their character versus simply pretending to be their character. Many actors refuse roles because they are not willing to become or act like someone whose values contradict their own.

I think this can easily be related to the way we ought to take care of ourselves in regards to what we watch and with whom we spend time such that our Catholic worldview is always nourishing and never abandoned or deprived!

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