The Theatre of Ancient Greece, or ancient Greek drama, is a theatrical culture that flourished in ancient Greece between c. 550 and c. 220 BC. The city-state of Athens, which became a significant cultural, political and military power during this period, was its centre, where it was institutionalized as part of a festival called the Dionysia, which honored the god Dionysus. Tragedy (late 6th century BC), comedy (486 BC), and the satyr play were the three dramatic genres to emerge there. Athens exported the festival to its numerous colonies and allies in order to promote a common cultural identity. Western theatre originated in Athens and its drama has had a significant and sustained impact on Western culture as a whole.
The word τραγῳδία (tragoidia), from which the word “tragedy” is derived, is a portmanteau of two Greek words: (tragos) or “goat” and (ode) meaning “song”, from (aeidein), “to sing”. This etymology indicates a link with the practices of the ancient Dionysian cults. It is impossible, however, to know with certainty how these fertility rituals became the basis for tragedy and comedy.
Martin Litchfield West speculates that early Greek religion and theatre, which are inter-related, especially the Orphic Mysteries, was heavily influenced by CentralAsian shamanistic practices. A large number of Orphic graffiti unearthed inOlbia seems to testify that the colony was one major point of contact. Eli Rozik points out that the shaman, as such, is seen as a prototypical actor influencing the rituals of early Greek theatre.
Greek tragedy as we know it was made in Athens some years before 532 BC, when Thespis was the earliest recorded actor. Being a winner of the first theatrical contest held at Athens, he was the exarchon, or leader, of the dithyrambsperformed in and around Attica, especially at the rural Dionysia. By Thespis’ time the dithyramb had evolved far away from its cult roots. Under the influence of heroic epic, Doric choral lyric and the innovations of the poet Arion, it had become a narrative, ballad-like genre. Because of these, Thespis is often called the “Father of Tragedy”; however, his importance is disputed, and Thespis is sometimes listed as late as 16th in the chronological order of Greek tragedians; the statesman Solon, for example, is credited with creating poems in which characters speak with their own voice, and spoken recitations, known as rhapsodes, of Homer’s epics were popular in festivals prior to 534 BC. Thus, Thespis’s true contribution to drama is unclear at best, but his name has been immortalized as a common term for performer—a “thespian.”
The dramatic performances were important to the Athenians – this is made clear by the creation of a tragedy competition and festival in the City Dionysia. This was organized possibly to foster loyalty among the tribes of Attica (recently created by Cleisthenes). The festival was created roughly around 508 BC. While no drama texts exist from the sixth century BC, we do know the names of three competitors besides Thespis: Choerilus, Pratinas, and Phrynichus. Each is credited with different innovations in the field. Read the rest of this entry