RECORDS AND PRESERVATION OF GREEK PLAYS

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 64-5.

THE archons of Athens kept records of the contests at both the city festivals, giving the names of the choregoi (citizens appointed to defray part of the expenses of the production), the poet-teachers (called didascaloi), the actors, plays, and victors in the contests. Aristotle published these records in the fourth century. In the meantime, special copies of the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had been preserved. The rapid growth of theaters all over the Hellenic world made the business of providing plays, both old and new, an important one. With the need of many new plays appeared the "adapters" and manipulators, who so corrupted the texts of the poets that the Athenians were forced to pass a law prohibiting the making of any change in the original version. When this law was passed, authorized copies of the plays were made; and whenever one of them was given, a public secretary was appointed to attend, with official copy in hand, to note any deviation from the genuine text. The producer who permitted such maltreatment of the lines was punished. Fragments of plays were often preserved, however, by the process of "contamination," -- a frequent practice of Latin producers -- which consisted of taking two Greek plays and combining them to make one Latin play.

In the third century before our era a collection of tragedies and satyr plays was made for the library at Alexandria. Scholars of that city also drew up a canon of famous writers, probably for educational purposes; and the works of the writers included in the canon were preserved in numerous copies. Many catalogues, chronological lists and yearly records must also have been published and placed in the libraries of the known world, together with authorized copies of the original works. But nearly all such copies, lists and catalogues have disappeared. The modern world owes the preservation of such plays as we have to the teachers and grammarians of the early Christian centuries, especially to those at Byzantium. Nearly a thousand years after the Oedipus was written, probably in the fifth century of our era, certain plays were selected for study in the schools. Seven were taken from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, eight (or nine if Rhesus be included) from Euripides, and eleven from Aristophanes. Ten more from Euripides were preserved by other means. The dramas so selected were supplied with commentaries (scholia) and were given in the regular courses of study during the Middle Ages. Consequently these plays were reproduced in many copies.

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