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WTF is a play cycle – Pt. 3

Going All The Way To The Beginning – What Cycles Meant to the Greeks

Skimming through the index of old theatre history textbooks looking for modern cycle plays I came across the word – Trilogy. Millennials typically think of a trilogy as a collection of books – that eventually turn into blockbuster movies but looking deeper into the root of the word trilogy; began as a series of three tragedies performed one after the other. And bingo, there it was on page 41 of Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb’s Living Theatre – the original extant trilogy – Aeschylus’ The Oresteia.


Around 6th century BC, during the spring time in Athens, in honor of the god Dionysus, Athenians held an extravagant theatre festival called City Dionysia. During this festival a few days were allotted to theatre performances where a single playwright would present per day their newly written tetralogy – three tragedies (trilogy) and one satyr play (a brief satire/tragicomedy). Typically the plays being presented were reworking of well-known myths or stories. At the end of the festival one of the playwrights would be awarded.

At the time of City Dionysia the audience of Greek Theater was men; mainly men who could vote and men who had served in the war. During the time Greek theatre originated there were many wars being fought and that meant many of the early Greek playwrights had been soldiers before they started writing. The better know playwrights – Aeschylus and Sophocles – were veterans who fought with the Athenians in battle during the Persian Wars. Most of the modern Greek writers at that time were all men who utilized their experience of war in the tragedy of their writings.

There is a dramaturgical theory that the idea of Greek theatre was to take veterans who were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the horrors of war and help integrate them back into the laws and morality of the city-state. In other words, the job of theatre was to take soldiers and remind them how to become part of democracy again. Which is why most Greek theatre is focused on characters who are acting on their passions and lust verses characters who living a straight and moral life. In war, the Greek soldiers were taught to act upon their passions and instincts to survive. Whereas in the city-state Greek citizens must abide by the laws and follow common morality. For this reason most Greek plays portray the hero as virginal, creating examples for other more wild men to tame their own and other’s desires and impulses. It was difficult for soldiers to return to a more civilized setting after their war experiences. Greek theatre was treated as a form of therapy from veterans to veterans.


In Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam he compares the soldiers in Homer’s Iliad to the modern veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder of Vietnam. He first looks back to the Greeks stating: “The ancient Greeks had a distinctive therapy of purification, healing, and reintegration that was undertaken as a whole community. We know it as Athenian theater… The Athenians communally reintegrated their returning warriors through recurring participation in rituals of the theater”.

While looking for additional resources on a modern form of theatre therapy I came across a NYC theatre company called Outside the Wire. This Brooklyn based therapy theatre is dedicated to showcasing health and social issues that opens up discussions on difficult subjects like trauma and PTSD. Their overview and mission reads: “It has been suggested that ancient Greek drama was a form of storytelling, communal therapy, and a ritual reintegration for combat veterans by combat veterans…Outside the Wire is a social impact company that uses theater and a variety of other media to address pressing public health and social issues, such as combat- related psychological injury, end of life care, prison reform, political violence and torture, domestic violence, and the destigmatization of the treatment of substance abuse and addiction.” (Outside the Wire Theatre). The use for Athenian therapy theatre is still popular today.


The Greeks used the method of a trilogy, tetralogy, or a cycle to not showcase one story of good moral behavior but used the set of performances as reoccurring situations that the veterans might face during their time of integration back into the city-state.

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