The Real Meaning of Protagonist

Posted by: Tom Pappas
Category: Leader's Workout

Art and Drama as Competition

Every talent must unfold itself in fighting: that is the command of Hellenic popular pedagogy. . . . And just as the youths were educated through contests, their educators were also engaged in contests with each other. The great musical masters, Pindar and Simonides, stood side by side, mistrustful and jealous; in the spirit of contest, the sophist . . . meets another sophist; even the . . . drama was meted out to the people only in the form of a tremendous wrestling among the great musical and dramatic artists. . . .”Even the artist hates the artist.” . . . The Greek knows the artist only as engaged in a personal fight.

— [My emphasis] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Homer’s Contest” FT, (as annotated in The Olympics of the Mind chapter of The Olympics and Philosophy)


Contesting others, in friendly and not-so-friendly strife, was pervasive in ancient Greek society. Let’s explore how artistic creators went head to head to contest each other for a prize.

Nietzsche accurately assessed the unique ancient Greek institution of competition.

One of Nietzsche’s earliest essays is called “Homer’s Contest. In this essay he discusses and advocates creative forms of striving found in ancient Greece. For Nietzsche, the Greek’s culture of competition was generative producing great philosophy, drama, music and art.
Christa Davis Acampora, professor of philosophy, wrote in the opening essay and translation of “Homer’s Contest:” “The agonisitic element is a condition Nietzsche sought to revive. Nietzsche advocated a “curriuculum of competition” through which Greek culture would be surpassed in a creative wrestling with ancient accomplishments.” (Note: Re/Introducing “Homer’s Contest”, translation and opening essay of Nietzsche’s “Homer’s Contest”
What, for example, is of special artistic significance in Plato’s dialogues is for the most part the result of a contest with the art of the orators, the sophists, and the dramatists of his time, invented for the purpose of enabling him to say in the end: “Look, I too can do what my great rivals can do; I can do it better than they. No Protagoras has invented myths as beautiful as mine; no dramatist such a vivid and captivating whole as my Symposium ; no orator has written orations like those in my Gorgias – and now I repudiate all this entirely and condemn all imitative art. Only the contest made me a poet, a sophist, an orator .[My emphasis]

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “Homer’s Contest” (as annotated in The Olympics of the Mind chapter of The Olympics and Philosophy)
So much of Greek social life was fueled by a relentless pursuit of competitive excellence. Pericles, the famous Athenian stateman during the Peloponnesian war, confirmed the competitive spirit also pertained to social pursuits. Speaking to his fellow Athenians he said “When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits. There are various kinds of contests
(agônes) and sacrifices regularly throughout the year.” [Thucydides 2:38, translation Rex Warner via Paul Cartledge]
The theater was another venue for the Greek competitive spirit. The Athenians had a festival called the Great Dionysia in honor of the Greek god Dionysus. This was an annual festival displaying tragedies and comedies. Here, in the ninth month of the Athenian calendar, playwrights competed against each other. These creative competitions were held in outdoor theaters. One estimate has it that these theaters held up to 17,000 spectators.
Paul Cartledge, classicist known for his books on Sparta, sheds light on the surprising competitive nature of these dramas. Far from being a safe, relaxed environment for these thespians to express their creative inspiration, ancient theater was a platform for competition. Take a look at all the elements of a Greek tragedy:
  • The lead actors in tragedies were known as protagonists. This Greek word literally means “first competitor.” The two support actors were call ‘’second,” and “third competitors.”
  • “Central to the plot was the agôn or debate, in whose resolution lay the core drama.”’
  • The protagonist of the tragedy “did not only compete metaphorically with the plays he acted…he alone was eligible to compete literally for the acting prize.”
  • There was also a competition between choregoi – who were known as
    the chorus masters or directors.
  • And finally, there was competition between the plays or groups of plays, which were judged by a democratic procedur
    – from Greek Religions and Society , chapter 5 – The Greek religious festivals, Paul Cartledge, Clare
College, Cambridge.
This emphasis on competition by actors, chorus directors and playwrights may seem strange and a bit excessive to our modern sensibilities. Surely those of us who have been to a Broadway play in New York City or a show at London’s’ West End district didn’t think of competition as we enjoyed a creative experience. But to the Greeks this was quite normal. Of course, they would agree that only one protagonist should receive the acting prize. At their Olympic festival only the winner received a prize.
Author: Tom Pappas

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