The Greeks Began it all
The Old Testament tells us that Cain was the first murderer on earth when he slew his brother Abel on account of sibling rivalry, and that Daniel was the original detective when he deduced, by the imprint of footsteps in the dust, that the Babylonian priests habitually purloined Ba’al’s offerings. But it was the Ancient Greeks who, in the fifth century BC, created the earliest stage villains and heroes and established many motives of theatrical criminal behavior: desire, jealousy, avarice, revenge, lust for power. These have been copied throughout the centuries and are still applicable in modern dramaturgy.In Prometheus Bound (c. 480 BC), the great tragedian Aeschylus (525-456 BC) introduced the first stage murderer—none other than Zeus, king of Olympus, who, with his mighty weapon the thunderbolt, sent the titan Prometheus to Hades for having “stolen fire from the gods and given it to man.” In 463 BC, Aeschylus penned and produced The Danaid Tetralogy, the first known theatrical piece to portray a mass murder. The plot is based on the myth of the Danaids, the fifty daughters of Danaus who attempted to flee from Egypt to avoid incestuous marriage to their cousins, the fifty sons of Aegyptus. When their escape is foiled, Danaus and his daughters plot to murder the bridegrooms on their wedding night. The women are then put to trial, the earliest courtroom drama on record. The goddess Aphrodite appears and restores peace in the cause of the “sacred marriage of Heaven and Earth.”Aeschylus went on to dramatize the first staged domestic homicide: Oresteia (458 BC) begins with Queen Clytemnestra of Argos awaiting the return of her husband, Agamemnon, from the Trojan War. She is in mourning, for Agamemnon has sacrificed their daughter. Her sorrow is compounded by jealousy when Agamemnon brings with him a captive concubine, Cassandra. Moments after the triumphant monarch enters the palace, the chorus of town elders—and the audience—hear agonized screams. When the doors are thrown open, Clytemnestra stands next to the butchered bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, brandishing a bloody axe.Crime begets crime. Oresteia continues with a succession of murders as Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, and daughter, Electra, guided by divine avengers, the Furies, proceed to kill Clytemnestra and her paramour, Aegisthus. In a picturesque trial scene, Orestes is accused of murder, facing ten juror-judges who take up their positions between the audience and the actors and produce a “not guilty” verdict.
Following Aeschylus, newcomer Sophocles (496-406 BC) created a series of blood-splattered poetic tragedies. Women of Trachis (c. 450 BC) graphically describes four murders committed by Heracles. At the end, the national hero himself becomes a victim. His wife, Deineira, anguished over having to share him with a younger woman, dyes a gorgeous robe with poisonous blood, places it in a wooden box, and sends it to Heracles as a gift. Soon a messenger arrives to describe how the robe “clung to his ribs…pain tore at his bones—and then the venom sank its fangs into him, gorging on his flesh.”
Lethal poison became the favorite instrument of stage homicide in the works of Christopher Marlowe (The Jew of Malta, c. 1598), William Shakespeare (Richard III, c. 1593; King John, mid-1590s), John Webster (The White Devil, 1612; The Duchess of Malfi, 1613), Victor Hugo (Hernani, 1830; Lucretia Borgia, 1833; Ruy Blas, 1838), Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins (No Thoroughfare, 1867), and, in the twentieth century, among many others, Leo Tolstoy (The Power of Darkness, 1902), Somerset Maugham (The Sacred Flame, 1928), Clare Boothe (Margin for Error, 1939), Joseph Kesselring (Arsenic and Old Lace, 1941), Albert Camus (Caligula, 1945), Jean Cocteau (The Eagle Has Two Heads, 1946), Jean Genet (The Maids, 1947), Michael Gilbert (A Clean Kill, 1959; A Shot in Question, 1963), Joe Orton (Loot, 1966), Jeffrey Archer (Beyond Reasonable Doubt, 1987), and Charles Busch (Shanghai Moon, 1999). Cyanide potassium, hyoscine, coninine, poisonous herbs, and overdoses of strong medicine are the deadly means utilized in many Agatha Christie plays.
Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (c. 429 BC), perhaps the masterpiece of the ancient theater, is the first staged whodunit. King Oedipus investigates the cause of a pestilence that is devouring the city of Thebes. Upon the interrogation of witnesses, Oedipus uncovers step by step that unwittingly he had killed his father—an angry old man who had nearly run him down with his chariot—and married his mother, Jocasta, queen of Thebes. Horrified by the unexpected denouement, Oedipus gouges out his eyes with Jocasta’s brooches.
The unmasking of an investigator as the culprit serves as the surprising climax in several twentieth-century thrillers: Roi Cooper Mergue’s Under Cover (1914), Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat (1920), Guy Bolton and Max Marcin’s The Nightcap (1921), Edgar Wallace’s The Ringer (1926), Jack de Leon and Jack Celestin’s The Man at Six (1928), and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (1952).
Unlike his predecessors, the upstart playwright Euripides (c. 484-406 BC) presented mythical heroes as ordinary, flawed people, and expressed skepticism about the “divine justice” of the gods. He was the author of ninety-two plays, of which Medea (431 BC) is arguably the best of the lot. When Jason, her long-time lover, plans to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth, Medea proves the adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned: she fatally stabs their two children, “to vex” his heart, and escapes the city in a chariot drawn by dragons. Euripides’ The Bacchae (405 BC) begins with a group of joyful women gathered on Mount Cithaeron for the traditional orgiastic rites of worship to Dionysus, the god of wine. The play ends with the first theatrical illustration of a lynching mob: the women, “their hair loose about their shoulders,” suddenly descend the mountain, attack a herd of grazing cows, and rip them to shreds with bare hands. They then demolish a line of guards, surround King Pentheus and, possessed, “strip the flesh from his ribs; one and all, with blood-bespattered hands, they played ball with the flesh of Pentheus.”
In a lighter vein, the comedy playwright Aristophanes undertook to throw satirical darts at institutions and prominent people of the era, mostly ridiculing the Athenian legal system and courts. The main characters of Wasps (422 BC) are a father, Lovecleon, who is obsessed by joining a jury day in and day out, and his son, Hatecleon, who attempts to keep the old man at home, bolting the doors and assigning the household slaves to keep watch. Much of the humor comes from the sly devices adopted by Lovecleon to outwit his guards—crawling through the chimney, dangling down a rope, tucking himself beneath the stomach of a donkey—all foiled. Aristophanes dabbled in trial plays—notably Women at the Thesmophoria (411 BC) and The Frogs (405 BC)—a genre that took wing during the Middle Ages in a series of liturgical dramas of which The Trial of Joseph and Mary and Trials Before Pilate and Herod were typical, and has since become a permanent stage fixture.
Early trial plays include William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1595), the anonymous A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608), and The Devil’s Law Case (c. 1620) by John Webster. The pomp and ceremony of the courts—civil, religious, military—were reproduced in numerous twentieth-century plays of which the better known ones are perhaps Madame X (1908) by Alexandre Bisson, Justice (1910) by John Galsworthy, Saint Joan (1923) by George Bernard Shaw, The Trial of Mary Dugan (1927) by Bayard Veiller, Night of January 16th (1935) by Ayn Rand, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1939) by Stephen Vincent Benét, Witness for the Prosecution (1953) by Agatha Christie, The Crucible (1953) by Arthur Miller, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1953) by Herman Wouk, Inherit the Wind (1955) by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Compulsion (1957) by Meyer Levin, The Man in the Glass Booth (1967) by Robert Shaw, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1971) by Daniel Berrigan, A Few Good Men (1989) by Aaron Sorkin, and The Laramie Project (2000) by Moises Kaufman.
The ancient Roman dramatists borrowed heavily from the Greeks, populating the action with characters who, though speaking Latin, carried Greek names, attire, and customs. The Rope (c. 211 BC) by Titus Maccius Plautus, set in a town on the northern coast of Africa, is an early play featuring the melodramatic theme of long-lost children whose true identities are unearthed minutes before the final curtain. The complicated plot involves the kidnapping of a baby girl by pirates, a sunken ship, and the discovery of a casket containing tokens of identification.
Plautus’ The Haunted House (c. 200 BC) may be the first work to introduce on stage the motif of a house inhabited by the disembodied spirits of the deceased. The comedy also highlights the stock character of a sly, tricky servant, the forerunner of Ben Jonson’s Mosca, Molière’s Scapin, and Beaumarchais’s Figaro. Nero Wolfe’s sidekick Archie Goodwin is a descendant of these cheeky personages.
It was the Roman Seneca who introduced violent acts to the stage proper. Mad Hercules (c. 54 AD) begins with the appearance of the goddess Juno, who vows to vanquish the popular hero Hercules, son of Jupiter, her husband, the product of one of Jupiter’s extramarital liaisons with mortals. Juno sends the Furies to cast Hercules into a spell of madness, and in a daze he uses his strength to crack the bones of his own three children. When his wife, Megara, attempts to protect them, Hercules bashes her head with a heavy club, tearing skull from body. In Phaedra (c. 60 AD), Seneca presents a pioneering psychological thesis about the destructive power of misplaced love. Phaedra, wife of Theseus, king of Troezen, falls helplessly in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. When Phaedra confesses to him her feelings, Hippolytus is shocked and flees in despair. Phaedra’s old nurse asserts that “crime must be hidden by crime” and suggests that Phaedra accuse Hippolytus of adultery and rape. The wheels of the story now churn relentlessly toward a tragic ending.
Seneca’s Thyestes (60 AD) features a gruesome climax rarely topped. The chain of events begins with two brothers at war with one another over the throne of Argos. The younger, Thyestes, had seduced the wife of the older, Atreus. Atreus wins the civil war, pretends to forgive Thyestes, and invites him and his three sons to a peace banquet. The chorus is elated by the apparent reconciliation, but soon the jubilation turns into a wake. Atreus and his men drag the sons of Thyestes to a grove behind the palace, where they stab and decapitate the innocent siblings. Thyestes is seen at the gala table, inebriated. He does not realize that he has been drinking the mingled blood of his sons. When he lifts the cover of a platter, the heads of the boys are revealed. Chilled with terror, he asks for the bodies to be buried honorably. Gleefully, Atreus informs him that he has munched on his own children. A landmark in theater history, Thyestes served as a model for many blood-and-thunder revenge tragedies that appeared in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English drama. In modern times, the play’s influence is apparent in John Colton’s The Shanghai Gesture (1926); the plot climaxes in a ghastly banquet taking place in a picturesque Chinese brothel.
Amnon Kabatchnik holds a B.S. degree in Theatre and Journalism from Boston University and an M.F.A. degree from the Yale School of Drama. He has been a member of the Director’s Unit with the Actors Studio in New York and has been appointed professor of theatre at several universities, including Stanford University and Ohio State University. Kabatchnik directed numerous dramas, comedies, thrillers and musicals for Off-Broadway, national road companies, resident theatres, summer stock, and abroad. Crime-tinged plays he has staged include Arsenic and Old Lace, Angel Street, Ten Little Indians, Dracula, Sleuth, Wait Until Dark, Dial M for Murder, and A Shot in the Dark. He is the author of Sherlock Holmes on the Stage and four reference books analyzing plays of crime-and-punishment that were produced throughout the 20th century: Blood on the Stage, 1900-1925; 1925-1950; 1950-1975; 1975-2000. His recent book, published in July 2014 by Rowman & Littlefield, is Blood on the Stage, 480 B.C. to 1600 A.D., a prequel examining 50 plays drenched with treachery, bloodshed, and horror performed in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and Elizabethan England — from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.