35 Ancient Greek Theatre

The 4th century stone version of the Theatre of Dionysos Eleuthereus, on the slopes of the acropolis of Athens. The theatre was orginally constructed in the 6th century BCE. Mark Cartwright | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Greek theatre began in the 6th century BCE in Athens with the performance of tragedy plays at religious festivals. These, in turn, inspired the genre of Greek comedy plays. The two types of Greek drama would be hugely popular and performances spread around the Mediterranean and influenced Hellenistic and Roman theatre. Thus, the works of such great playwrights as Sophocles and Aristophanes formed the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based.

Plays were performed in an open-air theatre (theatron) with wonderful acoustics and seemingly open to all of the male populace (the presence of women is contested). From the mid-5th century BCE entrance was free. The plot of a tragedy was almost always inspired by episodes from Greek mythology, which we must remember were often a part of Greek religion. As a consequence of this serious subject matter, which often dealt with moral right and wrongs and tragic no-win dilemmas, violence was not permitted on the stage, and the death of a character had to be heard from offstage and not seen. Similarly, at least in the early stages of the genre, the poet could not make comments or political statements through his play.

A stone version of a mask used in Greek comic theatre. Contorted features were typical in theatre masks and this one represents a slave. Pentellic marble (2nd century BCE). Found in Athens near the Dipylon Gate Mark Cartwright | CC BY-NS-SA 4.0

The most famous competition for the performance of tragedy was as part of the spring festival of Dionysos Eleuthereus or the City Dionysia in Athens. The archon, a high-ranking official of the city, decided which plays would be performed in competition and which citizens would act as chorēgoi and have the honour of funding their production while the state paid the poet and lead actors. Each selected poet would submit three tragedies and one satyr play, a type of short parody performance on a theme from mythology with a chorus of satyrs, the wild followers of Dionysos. The plays were judged on the day by a panel, and the prize for the winner of such competitions, besides honour and prestige, was often a bronze tripod cauldron. From 449 BCE there were also prizes for the leading actors (prōtagōnistēs).

The precise origins of Greek comedy plays are lost in the mists of prehistory, but the activity of men dressing as and mimicking others must surely go back a long way before written records. The first indications of such activity in the Greek world come from pottery, where decoration in the 6th century BCE frequently represented actors dressed as horses, satyrs, and dancers in exaggerated costumes. Another early source of comedy is the poems of Archilochus (7th century BCE) and Hipponax (6th century BCE) which contain crude and explicit sexual humour. A third origin, and cited as such by Aristotle, lies in the phallic songs which were sung during Dionysiac festivals.

Playwrights who regularly wrote plays in competition became famous, and the three most successful were Aeschylus (c. 525–c. 456 BCE), Sophocles (c. 496–406 BCE), and Euripides (c. 484–407 BCE). Aeschylus was known for his innovation, adding a second actor and more dialogue, and even creating sequels. He described his work as ‘morsels from the feast of Homer’ (Burn 206). Sophocles was extremely popular and added a third actor to the performance as wells as painted scenery. Euripides was celebrated for his clever dialogues, realism, and habit of posing awkward questions to the audience with his thought-provoking treatment of common themes. The plays of these three were re-performed and even copied into scripts for ‘mass’ publication and study as part of every child’s education.(20)


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