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.

Jamil Bakhtawar explains.

An ancient Roman painting from the House of Vettii in Pompeii, showing the death of Pentheus from Euripides’ Bacchae.

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.


Ancient comedies

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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