THEATER AND DRAMA IN ANCIENT GREECE

THEATER AND DRAMA IN ANCIENT GREECE

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Roman mosaic of Greek drama
The Greeks are regarded as the inventors of drama. The Egyptians produced simple plays about the pharaoh’s birth at his crowning and plays about resurrection at the pharaoh’s funeral. The Greeks produced complex dramas, with developed characters, themes and plots that are still present in drama today. With its elaborate masks and costumes and rigidly formalized music, Greek drama has been described as a cross between Japanese Noh theater and grand opera.

The word “drama” is derived from Greek words meaning “to do” or “to act.” There have traditionally been two types of plays: 1) tragedies (plays with a tragic ending) and comedies (plays that are funny). Explaining why comedies exist is easy: people like to be entertained and amused. Understanding why tragedies exist is more difficult to grasp. Aristotle explains that at least part of the attraction is the purging effect of releasing emotion while watching a play.

Greek dramas never had more than three actors on stage at one time. Action in the plays was held to a minimum and violence occurred only offstage. Music was supplied by a flutist who led the chorus. The chorus ceremoniously entered and exited at the opening and closing of a play.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The fact that every Greek city of any size had a theatre and sometimes more than one (Attica had several) is an indication of their importance to the community. The theatre offered an experience which brought together elements of myth, ritual, religion, dance, music and literature. It provided a forum for the exchange of ideas, an opportunity to escape from the sometimes harsh realities of everyday life and an occasion to see and be seen. It also had some of the hallmarks of an endurance contest since someone who attended a full festival of plays, and many did, listened to perhaps 20,000 lines of poetry while seated on hard wooden or stone benches. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Our interest in the theater connects us intimately with the ancient Greeks and Romans.Nearly every Greek and Roman city of note had an open-air theater, the seats arranged in tiers with a lovely view of the surrounding landscape. Here the Greeks sat and watched the plays first of Aeschylus, Sophokles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, and of Menander and the later playwrights.” [Source: Colette Hemingway, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org]

Wild Dionysus Festivals

To pay their respect to Dionysus, the citizens of Athens, and other city-states, held a winter-time festival in which a large phallus was erected and displayed. After competitions were held to see who could empty their jug of wine the quickest, a procession from the sea to the city was held with flute players, garland bearers and honored citizens dressed as satyrs and maenads (nymphs), which were often paired together. At the end of the procession a bull was sacrificed symbolizing the fertility god's marriage to the queen of the city. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

The word “maenad” is derived from the same root that gave us the words “manic” and “madness”. Maenads were subjects of numerous vase paintings. Like Dionysus himself they often depicted with a crown of iv and fawn skins draped over one shoulder. To express the speed and wildness of their movement the figures in the vase images had flying tresses and cocked back head. Their limbs were often in awkward positions, suggesting drunkenness.

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Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Dedication to Bacchus

The main purveyors of the Dionysus fertility cult "These drunken devotees of Dionysus," wrote Boorstin, "filled with their god, felt no pain or fatigue, for they possessed the powers of the god himself. And they enjoyed one another to the rhythm of drum and pipe. At the climax of their mad dances the maenads, with their bare hands would tear apart some little animal that they had nourished at their breast. Then, as Euripides observed, they would enjoy 'the banquet of raw flesh.' On some occasions, it was said, they tore apart a tender child as if it were a fawn'"μ

One time the maenads got so involved in what they were doing they had to be rescued from a snow storm in which they were found dancing in clothes frozen solid. On another occasion a government official that forbade the worship of Dionysus was bewitched into dressing up like a maenad and enticed into one of their orgies. When the maenads discovered him, he was torn to pieces until only a severed head remained.μ

It is not totally clear whether the maenad dances were based purely on mythology and were acted out by festival goers or whether there were really episodes of mass hysteria, triggered perhaps by disease and pent up frustration by women living in a male-dominate society. On at least one occasion these dances were banned and an effort was made to chancel the energy into something else such as poetry reading contests.

See Separate Article on Festivals

Other Ancient Greek Festivals

There were two major festival for Athenian women every year: The Thesmophoria promoted fertility and honored Persephone with piglet sacrifices and the offering of mass-produced statues of the goddess to receive her blessing. The Adonia honored Aphrodite's lover Adonis. It was a riotous festival in which lovers had openly licentious affairs and seeds were planting to mark the beginning of the planting season.

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Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Vintage Festival

During Thesmophoria, an annual Athenian event to honor Demeter and Persephone, women and men who required to abstain from sex and fast for three days. Women erected bowers made of branches and sat there during their fast. On the third day they carried serpent-shaped images thought to have magical powers and entered caves to claim decayed bodied of piglets left the previous years. Pigs were sacred animals to Demeter. The piglet remains were laid on an Thesmphoria altar with offerings, launching a party with feasting, dancing and praying. This rite also featured little girls dressed up as bears.

Ancient Greek Theaters

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “In the fourth century B.C. cities began to build stone theatres. In fact one of the most characteristic buildings found in any ancient Greek city of any importance was a quality theatre. Audiences in Athens who had attended presentations by the masters of the Greek stage- Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides- had been seated on wooden benches lining the south slope of the Acropolis. Their descendants had a better environment. The typical Greek theatre was built into the slope of a hillside which provided support for the curving banks of stone seats that faced the stage. Most patrons brought their own seat cushions to these open air structures since watching plays during a festival period was somewhat of an endurance contest. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca *|*]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Greek theater consisted essentially of the orchestra, the flat dancing floor of the chorus, and the theatron, the actual structure of the theater building. Since theaters in antiquity were frequently modified and rebuilt, the surviving remains offer little clear evidence of the nature of the theatrical space available to the Classical dramatists in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. There is no physical evidence for a circular orchestra earlier than that of the great theater at Epidauros dated to around 330 B.C.” [Source: Colette Hemingway, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org]

“Most likely, the audience in fifth-century B.C. Athens was seated close to the stage in a rectilinear arrangement, such as appears at the well-preserved theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this early period in Greek drama, the stage and most probably the skene (stage building) were made of wood. Vase paintings depicting Greek comedy from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. suggest that the stage stood about a meter high with a flight of steps in the center. The actors entered from either side and from a central door in the skene, which also housed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform with sets of scenes. A mechane, or crane, located at the right end of the stage, was used to hoist gods and heroes through the air onto the stage. Greek dramatists surely made the most of the extreme contrasts between the gods up high and the actors on stage, and between the dark interior of the stage building and the bright daylight.” \^/

At the 8000-seat marble amphitheater in Aphrodisias in Asia Minor, audiences watched masked and robed actors perform dramas about conspiring slaves and two-timing wives. When the show was over the audience was discouraged out of a gate called the vomitorium .

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Epidaurus Theater

The Epidaurus Theater in Epidaurus (70 kilometers south of Corinth) is the most famous and best preserved ancient amphitheater theater in Greece. Built into a hillside surrounded by trees in the 4th century B.C., the theater has a circular stage. The acoustics are so good it is said an actor's whisper can be heard in the back row — a tribute to the the theater’s famous architect Polykleitos, the Younger. Plays are still regularly performed there. Its fifty-five rows of seats could accommodate up to 12,000 people, considerably more than can squeeze into an average city theater which, typically, has seating for 5000 people. *|*

How is it possible for music and voices to be heard with such clarity in the back rows? Limestone seats form an acoustics filler that hushes low-frequency background noises such as the murmur of the crowd and reflects high-frequency noises of the performers on stage off the seats and back towards the seated audience members. The theater is also very steeply sloped (30 to 34 degrees). This is creates a shorter path for direct sound with few interferences in that direct path. [Source: MCT, Georgia Institute of Technology]

Theater in Athens

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “In the theater the Athenians have portrait statues of poets, both tragic and comic, but they are mostly of undistinguished persons. With the exception of Menander no poet of comedy represented here won a reputation, but tragedy has two illustrious representatives, Euripides and Sophocles. There is a legend that after the death of Sophocles the Lacedaemonians invaded Attica, and their commander saw in a vision Dionysus, who bade him honor, with all the customary honors of the dead, the new Siren. He interpreted the dream as referring to Sophocles and his poetry, and down to the present day men are wont to liken to a Siren whatever is charming in both poetry and prose. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“The likeness of Aeschylus is, I think, much later than his death and than the painting which depicts the action at Marathon Aeschylus himself said that when a youth he slept while watching grapes in a field, and that Dionysus appeared and bade him write tragedy. When day came, in obedience to the vision, he made an attempt and hereafter found composing quite easy. Such were his words. On the South wall, as it is called, of the Acropolis, which faces the theater, there is dedicated a gilded head of Medusa the Gorgon, and round it is wrought an aegis. At the top of the theater is a cave in the rocks under the Acropolis. This also has a tripod over it, wherein are Apollo and Artemis slaying the children of Niobe. This Niobe I myself saw when I had gone up to Mount Sipylus. When you are near it is a beetling crag, with not the slightest resemblance to a woman, mourning or otherwise; but if you go further away you will think you see a woman in tears, with head bowed down.”

Early Greek Theaters

To accommodate large crowds at festivals, open theaters were built in the 5th century B.C. The first Greek theaters were probably nothing more than wooden benches placed around the outside of an agora where dramas were acted out. Greece and Asia Minor were blessed with a hilly landscape and the Greek theaters that replaced the makeshift market stages were usually carved into the sides of hills.

At first wooden benches were set up, but later they were replaced by stone or marble seats. The first theaters had a circular orchestra for singers and dancers. This followed the tradition of the early Dionysus festivals when the merrymakers danced around a maypole, altar or image of a god. Theaters built later on had a vomitorium , so named because it discouraged the audience after a performance. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]**

There are 120 ancient theater scattered around Greece. Most have curved rows of concentric seats. In back of the orchestra was a hall-like building with changing rooms and support for the scenery.

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Greek theater

Origins of Ancient Greek Drama

Ironically, the early forms of the Greek dramatic arts, which puts so many of us to sleep, sprung up out orgiastic Dionysian rites. The first phase of the metamorphosis began in the 7th century B.C. when the frantic dances of the maenads evolved into choral songs called dithyrambs. Dithyrambs were performed by a "circular chorus" of 50 men and boys who sang and danced around an altar in the orchestra area of a theater.

Tribal choruses competed against one another in festivals sponsored by wealthy citizens. The first prize was a bull and a tripod dedicated to Dionysus, second prize was an amphora of wine, and third prize was a goat. At this point in time music, poetry and drama were essentially the same thing and the subjects of the poem-songs were the Greek myths and episodes from the Iliad and Odyssey . Fertility festivals started dying out around this time because the harvests and rains they promised to deliver failed to arrive. See Wild Dionysian Festivals Above [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Greek theatre had its origins in religious ritual. The god Dionysus, often associated in modern minds only with wine and revelry, was also an agrarian deity, with aspects reminiscent of the Egyptian god, Osiris. Like Osiris, he was twice-born, the second time from the thigh of Zeus, father of gods and men. Celebrations linked to planting and harvesting began in ancient times right on the floor where the grain would be separated from its stalk. It was an opportunity to exhibit the Greek love of dance and music, to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and perhaps to partake of the beverage with which Dionysus is most associated. Some of the nomenclature used in the theatre clearly had its origins on the threshing floor. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca *|*]

“Greek plays were presented within the context of a Dionysian festival structured along the lines of athletic festivals held at Olympia, Nemea and Delphi, and were of a similar duration. Civic authorities were responsible for organizing the event and it was presided over by the priest of Dionysus. The play itself took place in the open air and, most often, at the base of a sloping hillside which provided each tier of seats with an unimpeded view. In earlier times plain, wooden benches were simply aligned in a semi-circular fashion surrounding the circular orchestra space, at the centre of which stood the altar of Dionysus. In later years, the theatre architecture became much more sophisticated culminating in structures such as the magnificent theatre of Epidaurus, whose acoustics (and those of other Greek theatres) was so much admired. Even a whisper on stage can be clearly heard in the highest row of seats. But it was not in the splendour of these stone theatres however that rapt audiences were first enthralled by the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, These theatres weren’t built until much later. *|*

“In Athens, the Greater Dionysia festival took place in March (There were several other festivals of Dionysus throughout the year.), celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring. During this festival four days of plays were presented, each with no breaks or intermissions. The first day was devoted to comedies submitted by five different playwrights; the next three days to tragedies- with a daily satyr play thrown in for light relief. The winners got prizes- a plain ivy wreath- as well as undisclosed honoraria. *|*

“Seating was on a first-come, first-serve basis, although there was a centre row block of seats reserved for V.I.P’s, including the priests of Dionysus. In the early days admission was free. Later on, there was an admission charge (and some bronze tickets have survived), although that was waived for the poor. There were some large theatres capable of accommodating 15,000 or so spectators but most theatres were considerably smaller than that. Lines were delivered on stage, in the orchestra area, although most action (murders and such) took place off-stage, out of sight of the audience. There were very few props, scenery or backdrops; audiences were expected to use their imagination. *|*

Development of Ancient Greek Drama

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fat woman
The development of drama took place on two fronts. First was the introduction of an audience. At a Dionysus festival most everyone was a participant in the events. A choral music festival, in contrast, was entertainment, with large numbers of people watching the events and not dancing or singing themselves. The next important step was the introduction of "actors"---people who stepped out of the chorus, bringing the singing to a halt, and acting out a skit.

This dramatic innovation paved the way for Sophocles, Shakespeare, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Steven Spielberg. It enabled the audience too look upon actors and believe, for moments at a time, that they were different individuals than the people they really were, and they were acting out events that could be taking place in a different time. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Some scholars credit the success and influence of Greek drama to The Capture of Miletus , a forgotten play by a forgotten playwright named Phyrnichus that was produced for the Dionysian festival in 492 B.C. The play was about a famous battle between Greeks and Persians lost by the Greeks that took place two year earlier. The play made audiences so depressed that laws were passed forbidding plays based on real life events. With a few exceptions, dramas after that were largely based on a rich supply of myths and famous stories.

Plutarch wrote in “The Life of Solon”, 29 (A.D. 110): “Thespis, at this time [c. 560 B.C.], beginning to act tragedies, and the thing, because it was new, taking very much with the multitude, though it was not yet made a matter of competition, Solon, being by nature fond of hearing and learning something new, and now, in his old age, living idly, and enjoying himself, indeed, with music and with wine, went to see Thespis himself, as the ancient custom was, act: and after the play was done, he addressed him, and asked him if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people; and Thespis replying that it was no harm to say or do so in play, Solon vehemently struck his staff against the ground: "Ah," said he, "if we honor and commend such play as this, we shall find it some day in our business."” [Source: Plutarch, “Plutarch's Lives,” (The "Dryden Plutarch"), (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910)]

Demosthenes wrote in “Against Midias”, '21.16-18 (c. 360 B.C.): “The sacred apparel---for all apparel provided for use at a festival I regard as being sacred until after it has been used---and the golden crowns, which I ordered for the decoration of the chorus, he plotted to destroy, men of Athens, by a nocturnal raid on the premises of my goldsmith. But not content with this, men of Athens, he actually corrupted the trainer of my chorus; and if Telephanes, the flute-player, had not proved the staunchest friend to me, if he had not seen through the fellow's game and sent him about his business, if he had not felt it his duty to train the chorus and weld them into shape himself, we could not have taken part in the competition, Athenians; the chorus would have come in untrained and we should have been covered with ignominy....he bribed the crowned Archon himself; he banded the choristers against me; he bawled and threatened, standing beside the umpires as they took the oath, he blocked the gangways from the wings.” [Source: Demosthenes, “The Orations of Demosthenes Against Leptines, Midias, Androtion, and Aristocrates,” Charles Rann Kennedy, trans., (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1889)]

Aristotle wrote in “Poetics,” 1449b (340 B.C.): “Indeed it is only quite late in its history that the archon granted a chorus for a comic poet; before that they were volunteers. Comedy had already taken certain forms before there is any mention of those who are called its poets. Who introduced masks or prologues, the number of actors, and so on, is not known. Plot-making originally came from Sicily, and of the Athenian poets Crates was the first to give up the lampooning form and to generalize his dialogue and plots. Epic poetry agreed with tragedy only in so far as it was a metrical representation of heroic action...And then as regards length, tragedy tends to fall within a single revolution of the sun...although originally the practice was the same in tragedy as in epic poetry. Consequently, any one who knows about tragedy, good and bad, knows about epics too, since tragedy has all the elements of epic poetry, though the elements of tragedy are not all present in the epic. Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude--by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions.” [Source: Aristotle, “The Poetics of Aristotle,” 4th Ed., Samuel Henry Butcher, trans., (London: Macmillan, 1917)]

Ancient Greek Actors

In Greek plays, there were no actresses; all roles were played by men wearing masks made of wood or cork. Actors worked long hours. Some trilogies were written to be performed in their entirety in one day.

Actors routinely wore conspicuously short costumes with massive woolen phalluses hanging out the bottom. The first actor was a man named Hyprocites (the word hypocrite was first used around Chaucer's time).

Actors wore heavy wooden-soled boots and elaborate and expensive costumes paid for by wealthy citizens who tried to outdo each other in outrageousness and extravagance. After the performance was over the wealthy patrons got to keep the costume.μ

Masks and Drama Contests in Ancient Greece

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drama competition
According to the Canadian Museum of History: Masks "were carved and painted to depict exaggerated expressions of anger, fear, despair, etc. and were switched as the themes of the play required. The masks may have helped in the projection of voices to the uppermost rows. The costuming, for the most part, was comprised of typical clothing although the colours may have been brighter than usual. Thick soles were sometimes worn to give the actors additional height. Comedy clothing was often padded and fitted, by the end of the 5 th century B.C. with huge, red leather phalluses, suggestive of the ribald nature of some comedies. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca *|*]

In 534 B.C. the idea of masks were introduced to help define the persona of the actor by an actor named Thespis who painted his face with white lead and hung flowers from his ears. Masks allowed actors to play many different characters. Chorus members of all dramatic genres wore masks and costumes of characters depicted.

Playwrights competed in fairly frequent contests, meaning they had to be prolific as well as talented. For each competition dramatists were required to write a play about three-fourths of the length of Hamlet. Awards were given out based on the decision of a panel of ten judges. At the Greater Dionysian Festival awards were given in three categories: 1) tragedy, 2) comedy and dithyramb.

As the competitions evolved dithyrambs were replaced with theatrical dramas and there were separate categories for tragedy and comedy. The chorus was incorporated into the dramas and to entertain the audience between the acts. Later the chorus played increasingly insignificant roles and was essentially phased out. Early on many of the actors were amateurs. As time went on professionals began to dominate.

During the Gold Age of Greece, productions of dramas was often paid for by wealthy citizens; attendance was often required for religious reasons; and the state paid the price of admission for the poor.

Politics and Drama in Ancient Greece

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Mary Beard wrote in the New Statesman, “In ancient Athens, politics and theatre went hand in hand. Art, literature and drama blended easily with Athenian imperialism and with the version of "democracy" that underpinned it. Sophocles - the 5th-century BC playwright whose tragedy Oedipus the King was part of the inspiration for Freud's "Oedipus complex" - is a nice example of how the blend worked.[Source: Mary Beard, New Statesman, October 14, 2010]

In 440BC, a few months after his Antigone won first prize at the Athenian drama festival, Sophocles served as one of the commanding officers of an Athenian task force that sailed off to put down a rebellion on the island of Samos. The inhabitants had decided to break away from Athens's empire - the network of Athenian satellite states spread all over the eastern Mediterranean - and they had to be brought back into the fold. The irony was that a few decades earlier, Athens had led Greece to victory against a vast Persian invasion; now, the Athenians had imposed their own tight control over their former allies (which may have left some wondering whether conquest by the Persians might have been the better option). More equal than others

The people of Samos got off lightly. They were brought back by force into "alliance" (as the euphemism was) with Athens but there was no mass enslavement, no massacre of the male population, no occupying garrison permanently stationed there, no confiscation of land, such as we find elsewhere in the Athenian orbit. The penalty paid by the Samians was modest - an imposed democracy, the removal of the island's independent naval deterrent and vast sums to pay in financial compensation over years to come.

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Dionysos_mask
All the same, it is hard to think that one month Sophocles was putting the finishing touches to his great Antigone - a play about ethical conflicts between the individual conscience and the dictates of the state - and the next month he was sailing off to force the Samians to toe the Athenian line once again. Yet, oddly, at the time, there was a common story that he was elected to his military command because of the popular success of Antigone, that celebration of individual liberty. Stage of empire

Or maybe it is not so odd. True, the great tragedies that were acted on the Athenian stage debated all kinds of moral and ethical issues, from incest and matricide to the workings of the divine will. But the festival at which those plays were first performed was one of the most jingoistic moments of Athenian culture - and became increasingly so over the second half of the 5th century, during the period of Sophocles's lifetime.

The plays may have debated the rights and wrongs of the exercise of power, but the rituals that went on just before the performances showed no hesitation whatsoever about Athenian control in the world. The most dramatic of these was the presentation of the tribute in cash from Athens's subject states to the Athenian authorities - deposited, it seems, directly on to the theatre stage. This spectacle, however, was followed by a parade that would have fitted easily into the public ceremonials of Soviet Russia: war orphans, those whose fathers had died fighting for the Athenian empire, were trooped across the stage.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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