The Ancient Grecian Empire commenced around 700 B.C.E. with festivals honoring their pantheon of gods and goddesses. The Ancient Greeks honored Dionysus, the god of wine, on special occasions with an unusual celebration called the “City Dionysia.” The festival consisted of drunken men outfitted in goat skins that sang and played choruses to welcome Dionysus. Goat skins were regarded as sexually potent; therefore, inducing passionate lust during the ceremony, which appeased Dionysus. Tribes hosted competitions against one another in order to win a highly regarded prize. Four of the festivals hosted in Athens were only presented at “City Dionysia.” Scholars have theorized that the Greeks rooted their celebrations after the festival honoring Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead.
The Greeks entertained large crowd gatherings during these Greek festivals by dramatizing scripted plays, oftentimes with only one person acting and directing the transition of each scene. As the playwrights evolved, a handful of actors produced on-stage performances consisting of a live chorus and musical background. The chorus accentuated Grecian theater dynamics, because of the limited number of actors allowed on-stage during each performance. Additionally, the chorus harmoniously merged with the musical background and commented on the action of the play.
Early Greek theater focused on tragic themes that still resonate with contemporary audiences. The word “tragedy” translates from “goat song,” a phrase rooted in the Dionysus festival of dancing around sacrificial goats for a prize. The original Greek tragedies centered on mythology or historical significance that portrayed the antagonist's search for the meaning of life. Other times, playwrights focused the overall tragedy on the nature of the gods and goddesses. Each surviving tragedy began with a prologue that explained the following action in each corresponding scene. Subsequently, the chorus introduced the paradox, a transition whereby the audience becomes familiar with the characters, exposition, and overall mood of the setting. Finally, the exodus implies the departure of the chorus and characters derived through the play's duration.
Some of the oldest surviving tragedies in the world were written by three renowned Greek playwrights. Aeschylus composed several notable tragedies, including “The Persians,” and the “Oresteia” trilogy. Aeschylus was the first to introduce a second actor during on-stage performances. Sophocles wrote seven popular tragedies including “Antigone,” “Electra,” and “Oedipus Rex” to name a few. Sophocles won twenty-four awards for his plays, and, when competing against fellow playwrights, never ranked lower than second place. Sophocles introduced a third actor during on-stage performances, adjusted the choral membership to fifteen, and was the first to include painted backdrops. Euripedes composed over ninety plays, with roughly eighteen surviving pieces studied and incorporated by contemporary playwrights, including “Medea,” “Hercules,” and “The Trojan Women.” Critics lambasted Euripedes' questionable values presented during his on-stage performances, oftentimes depicting varying psychological archetypes not explored by previous playwrights. Many authors modeled Euripedes' experimentalism centuries after his death.
The Grecian playwrights also injected humor into certain aspects of theater. Comedy has no specified origins; however, many scholars believe it started from imitation. Popular comedians competed during the Athenian festivals, including Aristophanes, who authored more than forty plays. Among his eleven surviving plays included a controversial script entitled “Lysistrata,” a tale about a strong, independent woman who leads a female-based coalition against the war in Greece. Despite the limited number of surviving tragedies and comedies, the Greeks greatly influenced the development of drama in the Western world.
Follow these links to learn more about Ancient Greek Drama and Theater:
- Theatre and Drama in Ancient Greece – A short and concise summary of the significant role theater played during the reign of the Ancient Greek Empire.
- Ancient Greek Theater – An educational web page providing a brief introduction to Ancient Greek theater, including a timeline, its origins, structure, and theater dynamics of each play.
- Introduction to Theatre -- Ancient Greek Theatre – A module covering a variety of objectives related to Greek theater, including its origins, qualities, tragedy plays, satire plays, comedies, and actor dynamics.
- Tragedy: the Basics – A profile exploring the basics of Greek tragedies.
- The Art of Ancient Greek Theater (Getty Villa Exhibitions) – An exhibition display of Ancient Grecian artwork and plays.
- An Overview of Classical Greek Drama – As the name implies, an overview of Classical Greek drama that includes information on the structure housing each main event.
- Structure of the Greek Theater – A detailed description of the stage structure used to perform on-stage plays during one of the four festivals held in Ancient Greece.
- Greek - Roman Theatre Glossary (Ancient Theatre Archive Project) – A comprehensive glossary to Ancient Greek and Roman theater-related terminology.
- Greek Tragic Conventions – An authoritarian source covering aspects of the theater presented at the four festivals held in Ancient Greece, including the attribution to Dionysus, the three tragicians, and the overall mythology behind tragedy.
- Greek Theater and Society – A survey and materials exploring Ancient Greek theater and the society that produced it.
- Early Theatre: Greek, Roman and Medieval – A series of academic questions related to early theater.
- Greek Theater Timeline – A timeline development of Ancient Greek drama starting from the 7th century B.C.E. and ending during the 4th century B.C.E.
- The Athens Dialogues – An analysis and presentation on "The Case of the Tauric Iphigenia."
- Background on Ancient Greek Theatre – A brief introduction to Ancient Greek theater, including a general background, origins, misconceptions, and types of Ancient Greek plays still in existence.
by: Vaughn Johnson