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To the Ancient Greeks, theater was a form of entertainment taken very seriously. People would come from all across the Greek world to attend the popular theaters held in open air amphitheaters. In their glory days, some amphitheaters could hold crowds of up to 15,000 people, and some were so acoustically precise that a coin dropped at the center of the performance circle could be heard perfectly in the back row. The theater was a place where politics, religion, the human condition, popular figures, and legends were all discussed and performed with great enthusiasm.
The origin of the dramatic arts in Greece can be found in Athens, where ancient hymns were sung in honor of their gods. These hymns were later adapted into choral processions where participants would dress up in costumes and masks. Eventually, certain members of the chorus evolved to take special roles within the procession, but they were not yet actors in the way we understand the term today. That development would come in the 6th century B.C., when the tyrant Pisistratus, who, at the time, ruled the city of Athens, established a series of public festivals.
Greek Theatre, Taormina, Sicily ( Wikimedia Commons )
The festival of Dionysus
One of these festivals was called the 'City Dionysia’. It was a festival of entertainment held in honor of the god of wine and fertility Dionysus and featured competitions in music, singing, dance and poetry. The revelry-filled event was led by drunken men dressed up in rough goat skins (goats were thought to be sexually potent). Some scholars even believe the Greeks patterned their celebrations after the traditional Egyptian pageants honoring Osiris.
In the 6th century B.C. a priest of Dionysus, named Thespis, introduced a new element that is considered to be the birth of theater. He is considered to be the first Greek "actor" and the originator of ‘the Greek tragedy’. Actors in the west, ever since, have been calling themselves Thespians.
Comedies and tragedies
The two most popular Greek plays were comedies and tragedies. They were viewed as completely separate genres, and plays did not merge aspects of the two. Tragedy plays told a story that was intended to teach religious lessons. Most Greek tragedies are based on mythology or history and deal with a characters' search for meaning in life and the nature of the gods. The earliest known Greek tragedy was Persians, produced in 472 B.C. by Aeschylus.
Greek comedy consisted of two periods. Old Comedy was represented by the poets Cratinus and Aristophanes. It used three actors, and a chorus that sung, danced, and sometime participated in the dialogue. The second period, New Comedy, was represented by the Greek dramatist Menander and consisted of the use of mistaken identities, ironic situations, ordinary characters and wit.
The starting point of modern western theater is often credited to the Greeks. Highly decorated masks were worn during feasts and celebrations as well as during funeral rites and religious ceremonies. These masks were constructed out of lightweight organic material, such as linen or cork, and copied from marble or bronze faceplates. Sometimes a wig was attached to the top of the mask. The mask was then painted; usually brown to represent a man and white for a woman. There were two holes for the eyes, large enough for the actor to see the audience but small enough so as not to allow the audience to see him. The shape of the masks amplified the actor’s voice, making his words easier for the audience to hear.
Mosaic, shown Gargoyles in form of Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. ( Wikimedia Commons )
There were several practical reasons for using masks in the theater. Due to the sheer size of the amphitheaters they were performing in, exaggerated costumes and masks with bright colors were much more visible to a distant member of the crowd than a regular face. Masks were also worn for transformation into character. There were only two or three actors present in each production, so masks allowed for quick character changes between scenes. Masks were tools for the audience to learn something about the character, whether it be a huge beard and roaring mouth to represent the conquering hero, or curved nose and sunken eyes to represent the trickster. Tragic masks carried mournful or pained expressions, comic masks were seen smiling or leering.
Masks allowed gender, class, and age to be easily conveyed. Men would often wear female masks, along with a wooden attachment that represented female breasts.
The performance stage
For a stage, the Greeks used the existing landscape around them. They found hillsides with large open spaces to construct stone amphitheaters with open sides and staggered rows of seats. Theater buildings were called “theatrons” or “seeing places”, and consisted of three main elements: the orchestra, the skene, and the audience. The centerpiece of the theater, called the orchestra, was a large circular or rectangular area where the play, dance, religious rites and acting took place. The orchestra was placed on a level terrace at the base of a hill. Adjacent to it were doorways for actors and chorus members called paodio. These were tall arches that opened onto the orchestra in which the performers entered.
Ancient Greek theater in Delos ( Wikimedia Commons )
Situated behind the orchestra was the skene: a large rectangular building used as a backstage. In the beginning, the skene was a tent or hut but later it became a permanent stone structure. Here, actors would change their costumes and masks and these structures were sometimes painted to serve as backdrops. Rising from the circle of the orchestra was the audience.
Layout of ancient Greek theater. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Because of the theater’s close connection with religion, they were often located in or near sanctuaries. For example, the Theater of Dionysus in Athens was situated in the sacred precinct of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis.
One particular theater, built to honor the god Dionysus, was called Epidaurus. It was the greatest theater in the western world and is considered a feat of engineering by today’s standards. Fifty five semi-circular rows of seats were built into the hillside with such precision that the theater has perfect acoustics. Named after the god of medicine, Asklepios, in ancient times, it was believed that Epidaurus (and theaters in general) had beneficial effects on mental and physical health. It was viewed as an important healing center and is considered to be the cradle of medicinal arts. Two and a half thousand years later, it is still in use and is the largest of the surviving Greek theaters.
For example, in 2018 the theater is set to host a series of modern presentations of ancient comedies and dramas. Some of the plays presented this year include : The Acharnians by Aristophanes (29 – 30 June), Agamemnon by Aeschylus (6 – 7July), The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus (6 – 7July), Electra by Sophocles (20 – 21 July), Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes (27 -28 July), Orestes by Euripides (3 – 4 August), Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (3 -4 August), The Frogs by Aristophanes, (10 & 11 August), and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles (17 – 18 August).
The theater of Epidaurus ( Wikimedia Commons )
Featured image: Ancient Greek theater (Segesta). Wikimedia Commons .
By Bryan Hill
"Ancient Greek Theater." Greek Theater. http://www.ancientgreece.com/s/Theater/
"Greek Theater." Crystalinks. http://www.crystalinks.com/greektheater.html
"Theater and Drama in Ancient Greece." CWU.edu. http://www.cwu.edu/~robinsos/ppages/resources/Theater_History/Theahis_2.html
"The Origins of Theater - The First Actor." PBS. http://www.pbs.org/empires/thegreeks/background/24a_p1.html
"Epidaurus Archaeological Site." Ancient Greece.org. http://ancient-greece.org/archaeology/epidauros.html
Ancient Greek Theatre
The Greek theatre history began with festivals honoring their gods. A god, Dionysus, was honored with a festival called by "City Dionysia". In Athens, during this festival, men used to perform songs to welcome Dionysus. Plays were only presented at City Dionysia festival.
Athens was the main center for these theatrical traditions. Athenians spread these festivals to its numerous allies in order to promote a common identity.
At the early Greek festivals, the actors, directors, and dramatists were all the same person. After some time, only three actors were allowed to perform in each play. Later few non-speaking roles were allowed to perform on-stage. Due to limited number of actors allowed on-stage, the chorus evolved into a very active part of Greek theatre. Music was often played during the chorus' delivery of its lines.
Panoramic view of the Greek theatre at Epidaurus.
Tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays were the theatrical forms.
Tragedy and comedy were viewed as completely separate genres. Satyr plays dealt with the mythological subject in comic manner. Aristotle's Poetics sets out a thesis about the perfect structure for tragedy.
Thespis is considered to be the first Greek "actor" and originator of tragedy (which means "goat song", perhaps referring to goats sacrificed to Dionysus before performances, or to goat-skins worn by the performers.) However, his importance is disputed, and Thespis is sometimes listed as late as sixteenth in the chronological order of Greek tragedians.
Aristotle's Poetics contain the earliest known theory about the origins of Greek theatre. He says that tragedy evolved from dithyrambs, songs sung in praise of Dionysus at the Dionysia each year. The dithyrambs may have begun as frenzied improvisations but in the 600s BC, the poet Arion is credited with developing the dithyramb into a formalized narrative sung by a chorus.
Three well-known Greek tragedy playwrights of the fifth century are Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus.
Comedy was also an important part of ancient Greek theatre. Comedy plays were derived from imitation there are no traces of its origin. Aristophanes wrote most of the comedy plays. Out of these 11 plays survived - Lysistrata, a humorous tale about a strong woman who leads a female coalition to end war in Greece.
Theatre buildings were called a theatron. The theaters were large, open-air structures constructed on the slopes of hills. They consisted of three main elements: the orchestra, the skene, and the audience.
Orchestra: A large circular or rectangular area at the center part of the theatre, where the play, dance, religious rites, acting used to take place.
Skene: A large rectangular building situated behind the orchestra, used as a backstage. Actors could change their costumes and masks. Earlier the skene was a tent or hut, later it became a permanent stone structure. These structures were sometimes painted to serve as backdrops.
Rising from the circle of the orchestra was the audience. The theatres were originally built on a very large scale to accommodate the large number of people on stage, as well as the large number of people in the audience, up to fourteen thousand.
The cast of a Greek play in the Dionysia was comprised of amateurs, not professionals (all male).
Ancient Greek actors had to gesture grandly so that the entire audience could see and hear the story. However most Greek theatres were cleverly constructed to transmit even the smallest sound to any seat.
The actors were so far away from the audience that without the aid of exaggerated costumes and masks.
The masks were made of linen or cork, so none have survived. Tragic masks carried mournful or pained expressions, while comic masks were smiling or leering.
The shape of the mask amplified the actor's voice, making his words easier for the audience to hear.
Ancient Greek theatre layout
A lot has been written about the architecture of Ancient Greek theatres. While rectangular and oval-shaped theatres existed, the most common layout was semi-circular. This arrangement consisted of several rows of tiered seating, ensuring better visibility and acoustics for all members of the audience.
The focal point of the theatre was the stage where performers appeared, known as the orchestra. Normally, there was an altar on the stage, where sacrifices were made to the patron god.
The seats were typically made of wood, stone or marble. In many cases, the original wooden seats were eventually replaced by stone or marble seats, that were more weather-resistant.
Often, the seats closest to the orchestra were reserved for officials and other prominent citizens. Marble seats with inscriptions of the officials’ names are still visible in many theatres around Greece.
Dionysus and ancient theater in Greece
Let’s look a little further into the god who was behind this unique form of art.
At around 600 BC, the cult of the God Dionysus was introduced in the powerful city-state of Athens. The tyrant Peisistratos, who was the ruler of Athens at the time, launched a new festival in his honour.
This major multi-day event was named Dionysia, and soon became extremely important for Athenians. It involved processions, chanting and sacrifices, but its highlights were theatrical plays and competitions. The first distinct types of theatre that flourished in Ancient Athens were tragedy, comedy and satyr play.
Prominent Greek tragedians, namely Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, wrote some of their best-known works for the Dionysia festivals. In fact, up until the Hellenistic period, each tragedy was written to honour Dionysus and only played once.
As a rule, ancient Greek theatrical shows consisted of a mix of speech, dance and music. All actors, dancers and other people involved in the performances were male.
During the shows, performers wore costumes and solid face masks. The latter were made of several materials, like wood, leather, or a mix of fabric and a thin layer of plaster. As the audience was often far from the stage, the actors had to use expressive and exaggerated gestures.
The cult of Dionysus and ancient theatre
So, who exactly was this infamous deity? Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was one of Zeus’ out-of-wedlock children. His origins may be somewhere in the lands of Ancient Phrygia or Lydia, both in modern Turkey.
Although he was not one of the twelve Olympians, he has great significance among the pantheon of Ancient Greek gods.
In contrast to his half-brother Apollo, Dionysus had a dark side. He was the protector of grape harvest, wine and fertility, but also drunkenness, insanity and theatre.
Overall, the cult of Dionysus was connected to occult practices, religious ecstasy, and secret rituals. In fact, little information has been discovered. Much of the Dionysian Mysteries remains exactly that – a mystery.
Remember the solid masks worn on the theatre stage? They were very carefully thought through. The actors could, literally, hide their true feelings behind a mask. They could then enter a state of frenzied ecstasy, which was further induced by the rhythmical music.
This state of trance was just in line with the obscure rituals of the Dionysian cult. Any similarities to modern-day practices and events, like for example the carnival, might not be entirely coincidental!
Greek ancient theatre – What does “theatre” actually mean?
And now some geeky information about the word “theatre” itself!
The word “theatre” derives from the ancient Greek word theatron (θέατρον). Originally, this word was used to describe the audience. Later, it encompassed the actual stage, the whole of the ancient Greek theatre, and also the performance itself.
Like other words beginning with the Greek letter θ, “theatre” is connected to the human mind and its mysteries. It’s no coincidence that the words God (Θεός), miracle (θαύμα) and therapy / cure (θεραπεία) all start with the same letter.
Ancient Greek theaters were sometimes built in sacred sites called Asklepieia. These sites were the equivalent of modern-day hospitals, or treatment centres.
God’s synergy was necessary for people to be cured at the Asklepieia, perhaps in the form of a miracle. The theatres were built to honour the gods, who would help people get well.
And now for the twist! Ancient Greeks treated the mind, the body and the soul (psyche, or ψυχή) in a holistic way. Unless the soul was healed, the body would remain sick. As a result, watching theatrical performances was an integral part of the therapeutic procedure for patients.
In other words, ancient theaters were not only a place for entertainment and fun. Theatres were created in order to guide, and eventually cure, the soul. The ancient Greek word “ψυχαγωγία”, very loosely translated into “entertainment”, means exactly that – guiding of the soul. This was the primary purpose of the theatre. We could perhaps call it ancient art therapy!
Theatres of Ancient Greece
Today, it is possible to visit many Ancient Greece theatres. In fact, some of them host concerts, dance shows, performances and other events.
If you are going to Greece in summer, by all means look out for information. Watching a performance in one of Greece’s theatres is an absolutely unforgettable experience!
Here are some of the most famous Greek theaters:
- Theatre of Dionysus in Athens
- Herodion theater Athens Greece
- Ancient theatre of Thoriko
- Ancient theater of Epidaurus
- Delphi theatre in Greece
- Ancient theatre of Dodoni
- Theatre in Ancient Delos
- Ancient theatre of Argos
- Theatre of Ancient Messene
There are plenty of other important Greek ancient theatres all around the country. These include the theatres of Lindos (Rhodes), Aigeira (Peloponnese), Thebes (Viotia), Santorini, Milos, Kassopi (Preveza), Avdira (Xanthi), Corinth and many more.
The theatre of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey
In addition, you can visit theatres of the ancient world in other nearby countries, like Italy, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Albania, Tunisia and Jordan. Most of those were constructed during the Hellenistic or Roman era.
For now, let’s look at the best ancient theatres in Greece.
Theatre of Dionysus in Athens
This is where it all began! Built to honour Dionysus, this was the most important theatre in Ancient Athens. Fittingly, it was built right underneath the slopes of the Acropolis.
The theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus was first constructed between 560 – 530 BC, about a hundred years before the Parthenon. This makes it the oldest theatre in the world. It was at first made of wood, and the seats were laid out on a scaffolding.
In order to improve stability and safety, a new theatre was built at around 350 BC. The main materials used were stone and marble, that have stood the test of time.
The new theatre was a fabulous architectural accomplishment, not least due to its size. It is estimated that it could accommodate 17,000 – 19,000 spectators. Its layout with tiered seating took advantage of the natural terrain slope. It was later reproduced in several dozens of theatres around the ancient Greek and Roman world.
More changes and alterations took place over the next centuries, and new architectural elements were introduced. The theatre was severely damaged during the invasion of the Heruli, in 267 AD. It appears that the Dionysia festival continued until 529 AD, when Justinian the Great banned all practices of the ancient world.
In later centuries, other monuments were raised in the area, and the theatre was partially buried. Excavations began in 1862, and much of the thick layer of soil was removed, to reveal the ancient ruins.
Today, the theatre of Dionysus can be visited with your Acropolis ticket. If you look carefully, you will notice inscriptions on the first-row seats.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus / Herodion theater, Athens Greece
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is one of the most emblematic ancient Greece theaters. Located just underneath the Acropolis Hill, it is an imposing landmark of Athens.
This majestic theatre was commissioned between 160-174 AD by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy orator, philosopher and writer. The theater was built in memory of his wife, Regilla, and could accommodate around 5,000 people.
Herodion was partly destroyed during the Heruli invasion in 267 AD. It remained abandoned for several centuries, and was gradually incorporated within the fortifications of the city of Athens.
The first excavations began in the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the beautiful ancient site was restored. Since then, it has hosted numerous performances, concerts and shows, often with world-famous artists.
Originally, the Herodion was covered with a lavish wooden roof, which has not survived. Fortunately, the impressive arches are still in place, providing a fabulous background for performers.
Concerts and other shows are held in Herodion during spring, summer and autumn. Some of them are part of the Athens & Epidaurus festival, and you can book your tickets in advance. In addition, there are usually plenty of other events.
Apart from rare exceptions, Herodion is only accessible during these performances. There are few experiences in Athens that are as special as attending a show in this amazing theatre, so don’t miss it!
If there are no shows when you visit, you can have a great view from above when you visit the Acropolis.
Ancient theatre of Thoriko, Attica
You may have never heard of the outdoor Greek theater of Thoriko, or Thoricus, which doesn’t often feature in Greek itineraries. However, this theatre is considered to be the oldest theatre in Greece which still exists in its original form.
The ancient theater of Thoriko is estimated to have been built between 525 – 480 BC. Unlike theatres that were built later, its layout wasn’t semi-circular, but oval-shaped, with a rectangular orchestra. It is estimated that its maximum capacity was 3,200 spectators.
Excavations have shown that the site used to be a limestone quarry. Due to the consistent mining, it was gradually shaped into a flattened area that was used for the citizens’ assemblies. Eventually, the theatre was not only used for performances, but also for teaching of drama and other functions.
The theatre of Thoriko is a short drive away from the famous temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio, so you can combine them in the same trip.
There is no fence or entrance fee to the site, so you can visit the ancient ruins anytime of the day.
Important landmarks around the area include the mineral-extracting facilities of Lavrio, a cemetery, and a small temple dedicated to Dionysus.
Ancient theater of Epidaurus
The theatre of Epidaurus is one of the most iconic ancient Greek theatres. It can be found within a larger archaeological site, the Sanctuary of Asklepios in the Peloponnese.
Ancient Greeks had done a lot of research on health and therapy. Areas with therapeutic springs were the best places to build large healing centres, called Asklepieia.
Ancient Epidaurus was one of these places. A sanctuary of God Asklepios, the god of healing, was constructed around 380 BC. The site comprised several buildings, including a guesthouse, a treatment centre, a gymnasium, a stadium, baths and a banqueting hall.
The theatre itself was constructed a few decades later. It was built both as a tribute to Asklepios, and a means of providing entertainment to the patients and the carers.
Like other ancient sites in Greece, the theatre of Epidaurus was partially buried under debris. It was excavated in the 1880s, and constitutes the best preserved ancient Greek theatre.
The first thing you will notice when you visit the theatre is the amazing setting. Surrounded by thousands of trees, the location is incredibly peaceful. In addition, the theatre has some of the best acoustics in the world.
During the Athens & Epidaurus festival, performances are held here on most summer weekends. If you can fit this in your itinerary in Greece, by all means do, as it’s a lifetime experience. And even though the theatre has a capacity of 14,000 people, shows can often get sold out, so make sure you reserve your seats well in advance.
Here is some more information about the Ancient theater of Epidaurus. And if you are not visiting Greece anytime soon, the ancient theater features in a couple of movies about Greece!
Delphi theatre in Greece
The archaeological site of Delphi is one of the most visited sites in Greece. Delphi was considered to be the most sacred place in ancient Greece, the so-called “navel of the world”. The setting is absolutely magnificent, so this choice is easily justified!
Apollo, the god of light, music, arts and grace, liberated Delphi from an ancient serpent, Python. To honour the liberator god, a grand sanctuary was built on the slopes of mount Parnassos. This is where the famous oracle, Pythia, delivered her prophecies.
The Ancient theatre of Delphi was one of the largest monuments in the sanctuary. It was made out of local limestone in the 4th century BC, and may have replaced an earlier, wooden construction.
In later centuries, there were extensive restorations and refurbishments, including major works in 160/159 BC. The theatre that has survived had a capacity of around 5,000 people.
Every four years, the Pythian games, an important religious festival, was organized in Delphi to celebrate Apollo. The Games consisted primarily of musical contests, both singing and instrumental music, that were hosted in the Delphi theatre.
Similarly to the Ancient Olympic Games, there were also athletic competitions. These were held in the Delphi stadium, which is a short walk up the hill from the ancient theatre.
The ancient site of Delphi was excavated in the late 1800s. A theatrical performance was held in the theatre in 1927, as part of an ambitious cultural project. However, this was soon discontinued. Due to safety reasons, only a limited number of performances has been held here over the years.
Here is some more information about the Ancient site of Delphi, including how to visit. Going to Delphi is one of the most popular day trips from Athens.
Ancient theatre of Dodoni (Dodona)
The ancient theater of Dodona is one of the largest ancient Greek theatres, with a capacity of around 18,000 people. It is located in the Region of Epirus, a short drive from the picturesque city of Ioannina.
Ancient Dodona was originally a sacred place where Gaia, Mother Earth, was worshipped. Later, it became a sanctuary for Zeus and Dione, a goddess for whom various conflicting stories exist. According to some versions, she was Zeus’ wife, and also the mother of goddess Aphrodite.
Dodoni was also the home of the earliest oracle in Greece, dating from the 3rd millennium BC. This was many centuries before Pythia, the oracle in Delphi, appeared. The first priests were male, but women priestesses appeared in later years.
The sanctuary increased in size and importance during the reign of Pyrrhus, the King of Epirus, in the early 3rd century BC. Several buildings, temples and monuments were built, including a stadium and the massive theatre of Dodoni.
To honour Zeus, Pyrrhus established the Naia Games. The festival consisted of athletic games and theatrical performances, and possibly music competitions and chariot races. The Naia Games took place every four years, one year after the Olympics and one year before the Pythia.
The theatre was reconstructed and restored over the years, and was used as an arena during the Roman Era. It was abandoned around the 4th century AD.
Excavations in the Ancient theatre of Dodoni began in 1875 and are ongoing. Today, performances and other events are occasionally organized in the impressive theatre.
The site can be visited year-round, and is one of the most amazing places to visit in Epirus.
Theatre in Ancient Delos
Close to the world-famous island of Mykonos, we can find the ruins of Ancient Delos. This is one of the most fascinating ancient sites in Greece, not least because getting there is a small adventure!
In ancient Greek mythology, Delos was the birthplace of two Olympian gods, Apollo and Artemis. The sanctuary of Apollo became a significant place for all Greeks to visit on a pilgrimage.
During the Hellenistic and Roman eras, the island became an important port and commerce hub. Thousands of people from nearby lands came to live here, and monumental buildings were constructed. These included temples, sanctuaries, several public buildings, luxurious private mansions and an impressive cistern.
The theatre in Delos was built between around 314-250 BC and had a capacity of about 6,500 people. The main material used was marble, which reflects the wealth of the island. Like the rest of Delos, it was mostly abandoned over the centuries. The French School at Athens started excavations on the island in 1873, and works are still ongoing.
During the excavations, many of the building blocks of the theatre were removed and placed around the island, without being systematically recorded. As a result, the area around the Greek theatre of Delos is full of large marble pieces.
Even though the theatre is not restored, a handful of performances have been staged here in recent years. For safety reasons, only a few dozen spectators were allowed. Hopefully, future restoration works will allow this incredible theatre to reach its former glory.
For more information on Ancient Delos, including how to visit, check this article.
Ancient theatre of Argos
The impressive ancient theatre of Argos is close to Nafplio in the Peloponnese, only an hour and a half away from Athens.
The theatre of Argos was built in the 4th century BC, alongside many existing temples and sanctuaries. It replaced an older, smaller theatre in the wider area. Its capacity was around 20,000 people, which made it one of the largest theatres in ancient Greece.
During the Hellenistic years, the theatre hosted the Nemean and the Heraean Games. Among other competitions, these games included music and Greek drama performances. The theatre was also used for the citizens’ assemblies.
Heavy reconstruction and many refurbishments took place during the Roman era. An arena was built to host gladiatorial combats and beast fights. Other elements, like safety nets and canopies, were introduced.
The theatre of Argos was abandoned towards the end of the 4th century AD. Unlike other theatres around Greece, it was still visible over the centuries – possibly due to its enormous size and its original construction on a natural mountain slope.
Excavations began in 1890, and the most recent restoration works were completed in 2004. Today, the theatre hosts theatrical performances and concerts on occasion, but can also be visited outside performance hours.
Theatre of Ancient Messene
In my opinion, Ancient Messene is one of the top archaeological sites to visit in Greece. Yet, it’s not as well known as other sites in the Peloponnese, like Olympia or Mycenae.
The town of Ancient Messene was established in 370-369 BC. Its creator was Epaminondas, a general from Thebes who liberated the province of Messinia from the Spartans.
In the next decades, the city was fortified with an exceptionally long stonewall. Two gates and several towers were built along the wall. Other important monuments include several temples and sanctuaries, an Asklepieion, an odeon, an impressive stadium and the theatre of Ancient Messene.
The stone theatre was originally constructed in the 3rd century BC, and had a capacity of around 10,000 people. Apart from the theatrical performances, political assemblies were also held here.
Like other Ancient Greek theatres, it was heavily restored during the Roman era. Refurbishments included the installation of statues and the introduction of architectural elements made of marble.
From the 4th century AD onwards, the theatre fell into decline, and was essentially transformed into a quarry. During the Protobyzantine and Byzantine eras, newer settlements were established in the area, using materials taken from the theatre.
The first on-site excavations began in the late 1800s, and works are ongoing. Important restoration works have happened in the last few decades, and in 2013, the theatre hosted its first performance after 1,700 years. Since then, numerous shows and performances are organized every summer.
Ancient Messene is about 3 hours away from Athens, so can be visited on a day trip. It can also be combined with a stay in Kalamata, a lovely coastal town in the Peloponnese, or perhaps a longer road-trip.
Here is some more information about the impressive site of Ancient Messene.
The concept of Amphitheater – Ancient Greece, or Rome?
The words “theatre” and “amphitheatre” are often used interchangeably. However, they don’t mean exactly the same thing. Here is a fun fact, which explains why the term “ancient Greek amphitheater” isn’t accurate!
Technically speaking, the word “amphitheater” means a circular theatre rather than a semi-circular one. This type of architecture was introduced by the Romans in the 1st century BC.
The best-known example of a Roman amphitheatre is the Colosseum in Rome, which could accommodate tens of thousands of people. You can read more about Roman amphitheaters here.
So, now you know why the phrases “Greece amphitheater” or “amphitheatre Ancient Greece” are not exactly correct!
The art of theatre in Ancient Greece
I hope that this long and geeky article gave you interesting background on Greece! Have you been to any of these theatres, and have you seen any performances? I’d love to read your impressions below!
And since you are here, you might be interested in this article about the best Greek mythology movies!
Hello! I am Vanessa from Athens, and I love helping people discover more about my country. In recent years, I’ve become more interested in our long history. Jeez, it must be a sign of growing up. I loved putting together this article on Ancient Greek Theatres, and I hope that it will inspire you to do your own research!
So four times a year, the Athenians and citizens from all over Greece would gather together to worship Dionysus. The largest and most prolific of these festivals was the City Dionysia, or Great Dionysia, which was held in late March through early April. Here, the Greeks would sing and dance and revel in a state of madness in worship of the god. Goats were sacrificed in his honor. Men would dress up as satyrs. Large amounts of wine would be consumed.
Tragedy began here, at the City Dionysia, in the sixth century B.C.E. Few records are left that date prior to 534 B.C.E., but we do know that at some point a contest was formed to honor the best tragedy. In 534, Athens made the contests official and offered financial support for their production. Once made official, the contests and their winners were recorded by the state, giving us much more detail about the tragic contests.
On the first day of festivities, a large statue of Dionysus was carried from the temple to the Theater of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis. This procession was of much importance to the Athenians and Greeks and large numbers of people attended the parade. The procession itself was a spectacle, and intended as a reenactment of Dionysus' journey to Athens. Once at the theater and prior to the performance of the plays, the theater was sprinkled with the blood of sacrificial pigs for purification.
The festival allowed three playwrights to have their plays performed in the tragic contests. Each contestant was required to submit three tragedies and one satyr play (a form of comedy that required the chorus to dress as the satyr companions of Dionysus). It is assumed that the tragedies were required to be in the form of a trilogy. While only one complete Greek trilogy remains, many of the surviving tragedies seem to have once been a part of a trilogy. The contest lasted for three days, one for each playwright. Each playwright presented all three tragedies and the satyr play in one day. The audiences would spend much of the day in the theater, though Greek plays were shorter than modern plays. After the three days of performances, the winner would be put to a vote.
The Theater in Ancient Greece: Tragedies, Key Playwrights - and Masks
The theater in ancient Greece was a place where politics, religion, popular figures, and legends were all discussed and performed with great enthusiasm. People came from all across the Greek world to attend the popular theaters held in open-air amphitheaters. In the so-called 'glory days' some amphitheaters could accommodate crowds of up to 15,000 people, and some were so acoustically precise that a coin dropped at the center of the performance circle could be heard perfectly in the back row.
The origin of the dramatic arts in Greece was in Athens, where ancient hymns were chanted in honor of the gods. These hymns were later adapted into choral processions where participants would dress up in costumes and enact the narratives. Eventually, certain members of the chorus evolved to carry out exceptional roles within the procession and, hence, Greek theater came to life.
An ancient Roman painting from the House of Vettii in Pompeii, showing the death of Pentheus from Euripides’ Bacchae.
A festival for the gods
One of the Greek festivals was called the 'City Dionysia’. It was a festival of entertainment held in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, and featured competitions in music, singing, dance, and poetry. The revelry-filled event was conducted by drunken men dressed up in rough goat skins (goats were thought to be sexually potent). The Greeks entertained large crowd gatherings during these festivals by dramatizing scripted plays, often 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.
One particular theater, built to honor Dionysus, was called Epidaurus. It was the greatest theater in the western world and is often considered a pioneer of engineering by today’s standards. Fifty-five semi-circular rows of seats were built into the hillside with such precision that the theater had perfect acoustics. Named after the god of medicine Asklepios, it was believed that the Epidaurus (and theaters in general) had beneficial effects on mental and physical health. It was regarded as an important healing center and is considered to be the cradle of medicinal arts. Two-and-a-half-thousand years later, it is still in use and is among the largest of the surviving Greek theaters.
The Greek tragedy
Little is known about the origins of the Greek tragedy before Aeschylus (c. 525-c. 455 B.C.), the most innovative of the Greek dramatists. His earliest surviving work is 'Persians', which was produced in 472 B.C. The roots of the Greek tragedy, however, are likely embedded in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysus which included processions, religious sacrifices, parades, and competitions. 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.
Of the few surviving Greek tragedies, all but Aeschylus’ Persians draw from heroic myths. The protagonist and the chorus portrayed the heroes who were the objects of religious cult in Attica in the fifth century B.C. Often, the dialogue between the actor and chorus served as a didactic function, linking it to a form of public discourse with debates in the assembly.
Each surviving tragedy began with a prolog that explained the 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. To this day, drama in all its forms still functions as a powerful medium for transmitting ideas.
The exact beginnings of Greek comedic plays are not known. Some historians believe they could have started from the activity of actors mimicking one another as well as making jokes about current plays and more. During the 6th century BCE, the plays started to incorporate scenes involving actors dressed in exaggerated costumes mostly of animals. They would subsequently perform a dance much to the audience’s delight. Various poems involving humor as well as songs would be performed during plays.
Unlike the Greek tragedy, comic performances produced in Athens during the fifth century B.C., the 'Old Comedy', ridiculed mythology and prominent members of Athenian society. There seems to have been no limit to speech or action in the comic exploitation of sex and other bodily functions. Terracotta figurines and vase paintings dated around the time of Aristophanes (450–ca. 387 B.C.) show comic actors wearing grotesque masks and tights with padding on the rump and belly, as well as a leather phallus.
In the second half of the fourth century B.C., 'the New Comedy' of Menander (343–291 B.C.) and his contemporaries presented fresh interpretations to familiar material. In many ways comedy became simpler and tamer, with very little obscenity. The grotesque padding and phallus of the Old Comedy were abandoned in favor of more naturalistic costumes that reflected the playwrights’ modern style. Subtle differentiation of masks worn by the actors paralleled the finer delineation of character in the texts of the New Comedy which dealt with private and family life, social tensions, and the triumph of love in a variety of contexts.
Major playwrights of the time
There were many Greek playwrights, but only the major works of three dramatists have survived: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They wrote plays for the City Dionysia, but the central idea of each of their plays were different.
The plays of Aeschylus explore the dangers of arrogance, the misuse of power and the bloody consequences of revenge. Aeschylus was the first to introduce a second actor during on-stage performances. His trilogy, the Oresteia, explores the chain of revenge set into motion by king Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter in return for a fair wind to take his ships to Troy.
Sophocles wrote seven popular tragedies including “Antigone,” “Electra,” and “Oedipus Rex” to name a few. Sophocles' playwrights are focused around the redemptive power of suffering. A good example of this is the character of Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. He portrayed Oedipus as a good-hearted but headstrong young man who kills his own father without knowing that he is his father, and marries his mother without realizing that she is his biological mother. When he discovers what he has done, he blinds himself in remorse. Sophocles introduced a third actor during on-stage performances and was the first dramatist to include painted backdrops.
Euripides, the last of the three, belongs to a somewhat later generation of Greek thought, and is a far more troubled, questioning and unsatisfied spirit. Euripides was thought of as the most direct of the three in his questioning of Athenian society and its established beliefs. He 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, often 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. 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 heads a female-based coalition against the war in Greece.
Each of these playwrights introduced something new to Athenian drama when their plays were chosen as the best, and it is largely because of these writers that theater developed into the way it has now. Despite the limited number of surviving tragedies and comedies, the Greeks greatly influenced the development of drama in the Western world.
The art behind a mask
It was common practice for Greek actors to use masks. These theatre masks were thought to amplify the actor’s voice and contribute to the theatrical ambiance. They have since become icons of the ancient Greek culture and sought after collectors’ items. Highly decorated masks were worn during feasts and celebrations as well as during funeral rites and religious ceremonies. These masks were constructed out of lightweight organic material, such as linen or cork, and copied from marble or bronze faceplates. Often, a wig was attached to the top of the mask. The mask was then painted usually brown to represent a man and white for a woman. There were two holes for the eyes, large enough for the actor to see the audience but small enough so as not to allow the audience to see him. The shape of the masks amplified the actor’s voice, causing his words to be easier for the audience to hear.
There were several practical reasons for using masks in the theater. Due to the sheer size of the amphitheaters they were performing in, exaggerated costumes and masks with vivid colors were much more visible to a distant member of the crowd than a regular face. Masks were also worn for a transformation into character. There were only two or three actors present in each production, so masks allowed for quick character changes between scenes. Masks were tools for the audience to learn something about the character, whether it be a huge beard and roaring mouth to represent the conquering hero, or curved nose and sunken eyes to represent the trickster. Tragic masks carried mournful or pained expressions, comic masks were seen smiling or leering.
Many masks have survived, as well as literary descriptions of the masks and artistic recreations in frescoes and vase paintings. One can see the evidence of the importance of masks at almost any surviving ancient Greek theater. Statues depicting the grotesquely laughing, crying, or raging masks stare down at innocent viewers, their lips largely engorged and eyes so rounded and saucer-like, one would think the mask itself had a mind of its own.
Theatrics of the stage
The Greek theater stage consisted essentially of the orchestra, a flat dancing floor of the chorus, and the actual structure of the theater building known as the ‘theatron'. Since theaters in antiquity were frequently modified and rebuilt, the surviving remains offer little evidence of the nature of the theatrical space available to 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. 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 initial 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 or a central door in the skene, which also housed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform with sets of scenes. A crane, located at the right end of the stage, was used to hoist gods and heroes through the air onto the stage. Greek dramatists 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.
The city of theater was, indeed, Athens. Athens birthed drama, bred drama, and ultimately was responsible for cultivating it into the most important art of the Classical and Modern world. Greek theater has proven itself to be timeless as it continues to entertain audiences with its ability to portray universal themes. Although many of the plays have been lost through the ages, many of the originals from the 5th and 6th century BCE are regularly performed around the world and are still looked at as the top of their craft.
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Theater of Dionysus
On the south-eastern slopes of the Acropolis, in Athens, was the big Theater of Dionysus, where theatrical performances took place (tragedies and comedies, which were sung and danced) in Athens during the celebrations in honour of the god.
The theater had a capacity for an audience of about 17,000. It was rebuilt in the IV th century by the orator Lykourgos, and consisted of a big cavea (a semi-circular space where the spectators sat, originally on wooden benches and then on limestone steps) carved out of the rock, a circular orchestra (the area for the dancers) and a rectangular stage building.
The first row of seats was reserved for those spectators who, by decree of the assembly, enjoyed the right of proedria, i.e. the right to sit in the front row during the contests of tragedies: they had marble seats, some of can still be seen in situ.
Photo credits by Alun Salt under CC-BY-SA-2.0.
Statues of the great tragic poets of the Vth century, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, were erected in the theater, by Lykourgos.
Some alterations, such as the marble paving in the orchestra, date to the time of the Roman emperor Nero, who famously sang in this theater in 61 AD.
The stage is decorated with reliefs depicting the myth of Dionysus and his cult: there are pictures of the birth of the god, the characters making up his attendance and gods and heroes paying homage to him.
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The Theater of Dionysus: History
The Theater of Dionysus was Europe’s first theater, and stood immediately below the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. It was originally built in the late 5th century B.C. The theater was an outdoor auditorium in the shape of a great semicircle on the slope of the Acropolis, with rows of seats on which about eighteen thousand spectators could comfortably seat.
The front rows consisted of marble chairs and were the only seats in the theater that had a back support. The priests of Dionysus and the chief magistrates of Athens reserved these rows. Priests claimed 50 of the 67 front row seats, then came the officials, the guests of honor, then finally the ordinary citizens of Athens.
Beyond the front row, stood a circular space called the orchestra where the Chorus would sing and dance, and in the center of which stood, the altar of Dionysus. The orchestra level was around 3 meters higher than the shrine. Behind the orchestra, there lied a heavy rectangular foundation known as the stage on which the actors would perform their section of the play.
The back of the stage had a building painted to look like the front of a temple or a palace. Here, the actors would retire when they were not needed on stage or would go to when they had to change their costumes. Above lay the deep blue sky, behind it was the Acropolis, and seen in the distance were the olive-colored hills and lush green of the forests that surround.
The theater was built as a result of the Athenian’s religious practice in honor of the god, Dionysos, who personified both wine and fruitfulness. Long before the theater itself was built, an annual ceremonial festival was held for Dionysus in the same spot. This ancient ceremony was performed by choruses of men who sang and danced in god’s honor. Spectators would gather in a circle to watch these dancers that was the way that the theater took its circular shape.
When the theater was built, the performers only sang and danced about the stories of Dionysus’s life, then later the stories of other gods and heroes. The stories were told in the form of a song, chanted at first by all who took place, then later by a chorus of about fifty performers. During the intervals of a song, the leader would recite part of the story himself. As time passed, these recitations became more and more important, as they eventually overtook the chorus.
They were now presented by two or three people, while the chorus consisted of only fifteen performers. A maximum of three speakers were allowed on stage at once, and only one story was told during one performance. The chorus, although less important, still set the atmosphere for the play, and as well gave the audience a time of relief from a tragedy.
The Festival of Dionysus was a great dramatic one that was held during March and April inside the theater. Three poets were chosen every year, and each wrote a series of three tragedies based on some well-known Greek legend. Originally, admission to the theater was free, but as the crowds grew, the leaders realized that a small entrance fee would be economically beneficial for the theater. Several plays were given in one day, and a prize was awarded to the best, so the audience was obligated to start at dawn and would remain until sunset.
While watching the plays, the Athenian audience was very critical as they would bluntly show their signs of approval or disapproval by their applause, or lack thereof. The legends and traditions from which most of the Greek plays took their plots were well known to the Athenians. They were stories honoring some great event or explaining some religious observance.
These legends were chosen by the different dramatists, each of whom brought forth a different side of the story to enforce some particular lesson he wished to teach the audience. The plays were written in poetry which deeply stirred the emotions of the audience. It gave the Athenians much to think about their eternal problems of human life and conduct, and the proper relationship between humans and gods.
Each play followed certain guidelines which created the culture of the theater. When the play began, only three actors were allowed on stage at once. They would usually wear very elaborate costumes, and on their feet would be a strange-looking wooden sole called a buskin. This would add about six inches to their height to make them look taller and more impressive to the audience.
A facial mask would also be worn to identify who the character was, and the moods and feelings that the character portrayed. The mask included a wide mouth to project the voice of the actors so that everyone in the immense audience would be able to hear what the actor had to say. The actors would change their masks as they changed their characters.
There were no curtains used, even though the plays were not divided into different acts. When there was a pause in the action, the Chorus would fill up the time with their songs. When a tragedy was performed, the final calamity would never be shown on stage, but a messenger would appear to give the audience an account of what had happened.
The creation of drama and the theater was a very large stepping stone for the Greeks, as it showed surrounding and future societies many things about the Greek beliefs, lifestyles, and culture. The building of the theater itself showed their degree of engineering and architectural ability that they used in creating their structures. It also showed that they had a vague form of understanding the way that acoustics work, as all the seats, no matter where they were, could hear the sounds from the stage.
The plays that were performed gave an insight into Greek history and mythology. Naturally, they would not have performed any plays which did not interest the audience. They would only display what they believed to be important for civilians to know, such as their heritage and religious beliefs. Finally, the innovation of the drama and the theater undeniably confirmed their absolute belief in religion, as the theater would never have come about if it weren’t for the worship of Dionysus by the Athenians.
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History of Greek Theater
Theater and drama in Ancient Greece took form in about 5th century BCE, with Sophocles, the great writer of tragedy. In his plays and those of the same genre, heroes and the ideals of life were depicted and glorified.
It was believed that man should live for honor and fame, his action was courageous and glorious and his life would climax in a great and noble death. Originally, the hero’s recognition was created by selfish behaviors and little thought of service to others.
As the Greeks grew toward city-states and colonization, it became the destiny and ambition of the hero to gain honor by serving his city. The second major characteristic of the early Greek world was the supernatural.
The two worlds were not separate, as the gods lived in the same world as the men, and they interfered in the men’s lives as they chose to. It was the gods who sent suffering and evil to men.
In the plays of Sophocles, the gods brought about the hero’s downfall because of a tragic flaw in the character of the hero. In Greek tragedy, suffering brought knowledge of worldly matters and of the individual. Aristotle attempted to explain how an audience could observe tragic events and still have a pleasurable experience.
Aristotle, by searching the works of writers of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles (whose Oedipus Rex he considered the finest of all Greek tragedies), arrived at his definition of tragedy. This explanation has a profound influence for more than twenty centuries on those writing tragedies, most significantly Shakespeare.
Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy began with a description of the effect such work had on the audience as a “catharsis” or purging of the emotions. He decided that catharsis was the purging of two specific emotions, pity, and fear. The hero has made a mistake due to ignorance, not because of wickedness or corruption. Aristotle used the word “hamartia”, which is the “tragic flaw” or offense committed in ignorance.
For example, Oedipus is ignorant of his true parentage when he commits his fatal deed. Oedipus Rex is one of the stories in a three-part myth called the Thebian cycle. The structure of almost all Greek tragedies is similar to Oedipus Rex. Such plays are divided into five parts, the prologue or introduction, the “Prados” or entrance of the chorus, four-episode or acts separates from one another by “stasimons” or choral odes, and “exodos”, the action after the last stasimon.
These odes are lyric poetry, lines chanted or sung as the chorus moved rhythmically across the orchestra. The lines that accompanied the movement of the chorus in one direction were called “strophe”, the return movement was accompanied by lines called “antistrophe”. The choral ode might contain more than one strophe or antistrophe.
Greek tragedy originated in honor of the god of wine, Dionysus, the patron god of tragedy. The performance took place in an open-air theater. The word tragedy is derived from the term “tragedia” or “goat-song”, named for the goat skins the chorus wore in the performance. The plots came from legends of the Heroic Age. Tragedy grew from a choral lyric, as Aristotle said, tragedy is largely based on life’s pity and splendor. Plays were performed at dramatic festivals, the two main ones being the Feast of the Winepress in January and the City Dionysia at the end of March.
The Proceeding began with the procession of choruses and actors of the three competing poets. A herald then announced the poet’s names and the titles of their plays.
On this day it was likely that the image of Dionysus was taken in a procession from his temple beside the theater to a point near the road he had once taken to reach Athens from the north, then it was brought back by torch light, amid a carnival celebration, to the theater itself, where his priest occupied the central seat of honor during the performances.
On the first day of the festival there were contests between the choruses, five of men and five of boys. Each chorus consisted of fifty men or boys. On the next three days, a “tragic tetralogy” (group made up of four pieces, a trilogy followed by a satyric drama) was performed each morning. This is compared to the Elizabethan habit of following a tragedy with a jig. During the Peloponnesian Wars, this was followed by a comedy each afternoon.
The Father of the drama was the Thesis of Athens, 535 BC, who created the first actor. The actor performed in intervals between the dancing of the chorus and conversing at times with the leader of the chorus. The tragedy was further developed when new myths became part of the performance, changing the nature of the chorus to a group appropriate to the individual story.
A second actor was added by Aeschylus and a third actor was added by Sophocles, and the number of the chorus was fixed at fifteen. The chorus’ part was gradually reduced, and the dialogue of the actors became increasingly important. The word “chorus” meant “dance or “dancing ground”, which was how the dance evolved into drama. Members of the chorus were characters in the play who commented on the action.
They drew the audience into the play and reflected the audience’s reactions. The Greek plays were performed in open-air theaters. Nocturnal scenes were performed even in sunlight. The area in front of the stages was called the “orchestra”, the area in which the chorus moved and danced. There was no curtain and the play was presented as a whole with no act or scene divisions.
There was a building at the back of the stage called a skene, which represented the front of a palace or temple. It contained a central doorway and two other stage entrances, one at the left and the other at the right, representing the country and the city. Sacrifices were performed at the altar of Dionysus, and the chorus performed in the orchestra, which surrounded the altar.
The theatron, from where the word “theater” is derived, is where the audience sat, built on a hollowed-out hillside. Seated of honor, found in the front and center of the theatron, were for public officials and priests. The seating capacity of the theater was about 17,000.
The audience of about 14,000 was lively, noisy, emotional, and unrestrained. They ate, applauded, cheered, hissed, and kicked their wooden seats in disgust. Small riots were known to break out if the audience was dissatisfied. Women were allowed to be spectators of tragedy, and probably even comedy.
Admission was free or nominal, and the poor were paid for by the state. The Attic dramatists, like the Elizabethans, had a public of all classes. Because of the size of the audience, the actors must also have been physically remote.
The sense of remoteness may have been heightened by masked, statuesque figures of the actors whose acting depended largely on voice gestures and grouping. Since there were only three actors, the same men in the same play had to play double parts. At first, the dramatists themselves acted, like Shakespeare.
Gradually, acting became professionalized. Simple scenery began with Sophocles, but changes of scene were rare and stage properties were also rare, such as an occasional altar, a tomb, or an image of gods. Machinery was used for lightning or thunder or for lifting celestial persons from heaven and back, or for revealing the interior of the stage building.
This was called “deus ex machina”, which means god from the machine, and was a technical device that used a metal crane on top of the skene building, which contained the dressing rooms, from which a dummy was suspended to represent a god. This device was first employed by Euripides to give a miraculous conclusion to a tragedy.
In later romantic literature, this device was no longer used and the miracles supplied by it were replaced by the sudden appearance of a rich uncle, the discovery of new wills, or of infants changed at birth.
Many proprieties of the Greek plays were attached to violence. Therefore, it was a rule that acts of violence must take place off stage. This carried through to the Elizabethan theater which avoided the horrors of men being flayed alive or Glouster’s eyes being put out in full view of an audience (King Lear).
When Medea went inside the house to murder her children, the chorus was left outside, chanting in anguish, to represent the feelings the chorus had and could not act upon, because of their metaphysical existence. The use of music in the theater began very simply consisting of a single flute player that accompanied the chorus. Toward the close of the century, more complicated solo singing was developed by Euripides.
There could-then be large-scale spectacular events, with stage crowds and chariots, particularly in plays by Aeschylus. Greek comedy was derived from two different sources, the more known being the choral element which included ceremonies to stimulate fertility at the festival of Dionysus or in ribald drunken revel in his honor.
The term comedy is actually drawn from “komos”, meaning the song of revelry. The second source of Greek comedy was that from the Sicilian “mimes”, who put on very rude performances where they would make satirical allusions to audience members as they ad-libbed their performances. In the beginning, comedy was frank, indecent, and sexual.
The plots were loosely and carelessly structured and included broad farce and buffoonery. The performers were coarse and obscene while using satire to depict important contemporary moral, social, and political issues of Athenian life. The comedy included a broad satire of well-known persons of that time. Throughout the comedic period in Greece, there were three distinctive eras of comedies as the genre progressed.
Old comedy, which lasted from approximately 450 to 400 BCE, was performed at the festivals of Dionysus following the tragedies. There would be contests between three poets, each exhibiting one comedy. Each comedy troupe would consist of one or two actors and a chorus of twenty-four. The actors wore masks and “soccus”, or sandals, and the chorus often wore fantastic costumes.
Comedies were constructed in five parts, the prologue, where the leading character conceived the “happy idea”, the parodos or entrance of the chorus, the agon, a dramatized debate between the proponent and opponent of the “happy idea” where the opposition was always defeated, the parabasis, the coming forth of the chorus where they directly addressed the audience and aired the poet’s views on almost any matter the poet felt like having expressed, and the episodes, where the “happy idea” was put into practical application.
Aristotle highly criticized comedy, saying that it was just a ridiculous imitation of lower types of men with eminent faults emphasized for the audience’s pleasure, such as a mask worn to show deformity, or for the man to do something like slip and fall on a banana peel. Aristophanes, a comic poet of the old comedy period, wrote comedies that came to represent old comedy, as his style was widely copied by other poets. In his most famous works, he used dramatic satire on some of the most famous philosophers and poets of the era.
In “The Frogs” he ridiculed Euripides, and in “The Clouds” he mocked Socrates. His works followed all the basic principles of old comedy, but he added a facet of cleverness and depth in feeling to his lyrics, in an attempt to appeal to both the emotions and intellect of the audience. Middle comedy, which dominated from 400 to 336 BCE, was very transitional, having aspects of both old comedy and new comedy. It was timider than old comedy, having many fewer sexual gestures and innuendoes.
It was concerned less with people and politics, and more with myths and tragedies. The chorus began its fade into the background, becoming more of an interlude than the important component it used to be. Aristophanes wrote a few works in middle comedy, but the most famous writers of the time were Antiphanes of Athens and Alexis of Thurii, whose compositions have mostly been lost and only very few of their found works have been full extant plays.
In new comedy which lasted from 336 to 250 BCE, satire is almost entirely replaced by social comedy involving the family and individual character development, and the themes of romantic love. A closely-knit plot in new comedy was based on intrigue, identities, relationships, or a combination of these. A subplot was often utilized as well.
The characters in the new comedy are very similar in each work, possibly including a father who is very miser-like, a son who is mistreated but deserving, and other people with stereotypical personas. The chief writer of new comedy was Menander, and as with the prominent writers of the middle comedic era, most of his works have been lost, but other dramatists of the time period, like Terence and Platus, had imitated and adapted his methods.
Menander’s The Curmudgeon is the only complete extant play known by him to date, and it served as the basis for the later Latin writers to adapt. Adventure, brilliance, invention, romance, and scenic effect, together with delightful lyrics and wisdom, were the gifts of the Greek theater. These conventions strongly affected subsequent plays and playwrights, having put forth influence on theater throughout the centuries.
Ancient World History
This spectacle created by the Greeks involved and enveloped the entire population of a Greek town in secret rites honoring a god, usually Dionysus, whose followers carried phallic symbols, imbibed wine, and were transported to states of ecstasy. In Athens the theater building was considered a temple, and the god was believed to be present for the performances.
The Greeks used the word orgy to describe these rites, in accordance with the original sense of the word as described by the Merriam Webster Dictionary: "secret ceremonial rites held in honor of an ancient Greek or Roman deity and usually characterized by ecstatic singing and dancing".
Nearly all of the parodies, melodies, and mysteries seen or heard in modern times are connected to ancient Greece, where those terms were invented. A parody was a song, or ode, about something (para, "about").
A mystery was a secret religious ceremony. A melody was the tune sung by the chorus. Modern television shows, movies, plays, and many popular songs emerged out of these intense Greek religious rites. This is true whether the movie is a comedy, a tragedy, or a satire.
Origins and Evolution
The popular view is that Greek tragedy evolved out of jovial folk hymns to Dionysus, called dithyrambs, and that the other forms of drama evolved from this. Dithyrambs were composed as early as the seventh century b.c.e., and spread from Athens to many other Greek city-states. A chorus of up to 50 people sang the dithyrambs, and competitions enlivened religious festivals.
Dionysus is also known as Bacchus, the god who roamed the world followed by throngs of crazed women (called Bacchantes or Maenads, from whom we get the term mania). The god and his followers were often found drunk on grape wine, which was held sacred to Dionysus.
Originally, festivals honoring Dionysus took the form of choreographed dances performed by a chorus about an altar on an orchestra, or "dancing ground". This evolved into performances designed to produce such a powerful rush of emotions that the entire audience achieved an intense communal emotional rush known as catharsis, which cleansed and revitalized the people.
Catharsis became one of the hallmarks of performances of tragedy, a word that literally means "goat ode", the goat being the symbol of Dionysus. In contrast, William Ridgeway claims that tragedy arose out of the worship of and communion with the dead.
Since this communion was presided over by Dionysus as well, and since tragedy refers to a symbol of Dionysus, the worship of Dionysus was most likely integral to the inception and performance of tragedy.
The 12- to 50-member chorus, singing, dancing, and critiquing throughout the play, was a major distinguishing facet of Greek tragedy. The chorus was held by some to represent the will and opinions of the society, as if the populace itself were onstage with the chorus, commenting upon and making sense of the action. Many famous Greek dramatists were successful playwrights and actors and were responsible for major innovations in the form of tragedy.
Thespian of Icaria in 534 b.c.e. separated the leader of the chorus from the rest of the group, to become Athens’s first actor, reading the parts of several characters and wearing a different mask for each. Thus, we now call actors thespians, after the man who, for the first time, made a play that consisted of more than simply a chorus.
Aeschylus, a highly honored Greek playwright, added a second actor and stage decorations to his play, while giving costumes to the already masked actors and chorus. His tragedies, such as Prometheus Bound, Agamemnon, and Seven against Thebes, portray humans who are punished by cosmic forces for their misdeeds and failings.
Sophocles, another famous Greek author, added a third actor and in a groundbreaking move gave the actors more emphasis than the chorus. He also added three members to the chorus, bringing the total to 15.
Comedies and satires evolved from tragedy. The oldest known comedies were breaks between tragedies or between parts of a single tragedy, in which exaggerated characters lampooned the tragedy in a spoof that closely followed the format, costumes, and masks of the tragedy.
Soon entire comic plays arose. These are referred to as Old Comedy, referring to comedies performed in the period beginning with Pericles’ establishment of democracy c. 450 b.c.e. Old Comedy followed the strict format of tragedy and included the chorus.
Satire was a third type of Greek drama that bridged the gap between comedy and tragedy. Satire, a word coming from the satyrs sacred to Dionysus, is a term for a play that was performed to make fun of tragedy and lighten the impact of the tragedies the audience had just seen.
The satyrs were odd and amusing creatures who made possible a unique sort of parody of the typical tragedy. The hairy, half-human satyrs had the hoofed, short legs of a goat, together with the goat’s short horns, and the tail and ears of a horse.
The chorus of satyrs was always known to be jovial, bawdy, rustic, and roguish in their humor. Clearly, the illustrious citizens characterized in tragedies should be above such company—which is why it was so amusing to place them in the midst of a carousing chorus of satyrs.
In attempting to fit in with such a crowd, the famous characters had to suffer a certain loss of dignity, and thus, the satire made fun of the tragedy and perhaps also of itself.
Notable authors such as Aristophanes ridiculed and satirized all aspects of the Greek society, particularly the famous, noble, and most upstanding citizens of their day, or even of revered, legendary figures.
His Clouds lampooned the philosopher Socrates as a quarrelsome Sophist, and his Wasps attacked the Athenian courts and their proceedings. In satires the main characters were exaggerated buffoons, who spoke and performed every manner of nonsense.
No aspect of society was sacred in these comedies, and often even the very gods were lampooned. No limits were placed on the extent to which the author could go to ridicule his subject.
Experiencing The Drama
Greeks devoted two to four major religious holidays a year entirely to seeing plays—much as with modern three-day music festivals. Contests were held to determine the best tetralogy, or set of four plays.
Each tetralogy consisted of three tragedies followed by a satire. Each such quartet was performed on a single day, and many would never be repeated during the playwright’s lifetime.
The festivals, called by such names as the Lesser Dionysia and the Greater Dionysia, were believed necessary to keep the cosmos in proper order, to enable the crops to grow, and the people to survive. Since the outlying villages held their own Dionysia on different days, it was possible to attend several such festivals during one season.
These ceremonies were so important that their proper conduct was a major responsibility of the state, which selected the actors and the choruses—and charged wealthy citizens special taxes to defray the costs.
All of Athens attended plays those who could not afford to attend were provided with ticket money by the state. Dwarfing any modern theater, the Dionysian Theater held the whole town—estimates range from 14,000 to upward of 20,000 people. As these people were all Athenians, they were likely more homogenous in their outlook than a modern crowd.
Thus, the playwright could address plays very directly to his audience, making fun of individual Athenians, suggesting a course of action on current issues, referencing an inside joke, or even jokingly accusing someone in the audience of misconduct. The people watched plays from morning to evening, still maintaining an appetite for the subsequent days’ performances.
With a single-minded audience in such rapt attention, leading tragic poets had an enormous opportunity to make an impact upon the people and upon the political process in towns such as Athens. They were thought of as teachers of the populace and bore an incredible responsibility for shaping the character of a powerful nation-state.
As these festivals were established at the urging of an oracle, all legal proceedings and business were put on hold. To disturb the proceedings, to strike the performers, or even to remove a person who had taken the wrong seat would be a crime that might well be punished with death.
The theater was treated like a temple. The high priest of Dionysus was seated in the center of the front row. An altar of Dionysus stood in the orchestral dancing ground, and the audience was seated on stone benches on the hillside. Across the dancing ground was the skene, a building where the actors could change their costumes.
Between the skene and the orchestra was the proskenion, which would later be called a stage. The chorus would parade in military formation up the paradoi, the entrance ramps leading to the proskenion.
Greek drama greatly influenced drama all over Europe throughout Roman times and during the Middle Ages. Many modern movies bear the influences of ancient Greek authors. Modern songs have choruses. Even if some of the religious implications have been dropped, the Greek influence remains.