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.
More is known about Phrynichus. He won his first competition between 511 BC and 508 BC. He produced tragedies on themes and subjects later exploited in the golden age such as the Danaids, Phoenician Women and Alcestis. He was the first poet we know of to use a historical subject – his Fall of Miletus, produced in 493-2, chronicled the fate of the town of Miletus after it was conquered by the Persians. Herodotus reports that “the Athenians made clear their deep grief for the taking of Miletus in many ways, but especially in this: when Phrynichus wrote a play entitled “The Fall of Miletus” and produced it, the whole theatre fell to weeping; they fined Phrynichus a thousand drachmas for bringing to mind a calamity that affected them so personally, and forbade the performance of that play forever.” He is also thought to be the first to use female characters (though not female performers).
Until the Hellenistic period, all tragedies were unique pieces written in honor of Dionysus and played only once, so that today we primarily have the pieces that were still remembered well enough to have been repeated when the repetition of old tragedies became fashionable (the accidents of survival, as well as the subjective tastes of the Hellenistic librarians later in Greek history, also played a role in what survived from this period).
After the Great Destruction of Athens by the Persian Empire in 480 BC, the town and acropolis were rebuilt, and theatre became formalized and an even more major part of Athenian culture and civic pride. This century is normally regarded as the Golden Age of Greek drama. The centre-piece of the annual Dionysia, which took place once in winter and once in spring, was a competition between three tragic playwrights at the Theatre of Dionysus. Each submitted three tragedies, plus a satyr play (a comic, burlesque version of a mythological subject). Beginning in a first competition in 486 BC, each playwright also submitted a comedy. Aristotle claimed that Aeschylus added the second actor, and that Sophoclesintroduced the third. Apparently the Greek playwrights never used more than three actors based on what is known about Greek theatre.
Tragedy and comedy were viewed as completely separate genres, and no plays ever merged aspects of the two. Satyr plays dealt with the mythological subject matter of the tragedies, but in a purely comedic manner. However, as they were written over a century after the Athenian Golden Age, it is not known whether dramatists such as Sophocles and Euripides would have thought about their plays in the same terms.
The power of Athens declined following its defeat in the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans. From that time on, the theatre started performing old tragedies again. Although its theatrical traditions seem to have lost their vitality, Greek theatre continued into the Hellenistic period (the period following Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century BC). However, the primary Hellenistic theatrical form was not tragedy but ‘New Comedy’, comic episodes about the lives of ordinary citizens. The only extant playwright from the period is Menander. One of New Comedy’s most important contributions was its influence on Roman comedy, an influence that can be seen in the surviving works of Plautus and Terence.
The plays had a chorus of up to fifty people, who performed the plays in verse accompanied by music, beginning in the morning and lasting until the evening. The performance space was a simple semi-circular space, the orchestra, where the chorus danced and sang. The orchestra, which had an average diameter of 78 feet, was situated on a flattened terrace at the foot of a hill, the slope of which produced a natural theatron, literally “watching place”. Later, the term “theatre” came to be applied to the whole area of theatron, orchestra, and skené. The choregos was the head chorus member who could enter the story as a character able to interact with the characters of a play.
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. Mathematics played a large role in the construction of these theatres, as their designers had to be able to create acoustics in them such that the actors’ voices could be heard throughout the theatre, including the very top row of seats. The Greeks’ understanding of acoustics compares very favourably with the current state of the art, as even with the invention of microphones, there are very few modern large theatres that have truly good acoustics. The first seats in Greek theatres (other than just sitting on the ground) were wooden, but around 499 BC the practice of inlaying stone blocks into the side of the hill to create permanent, stable seating became more common. They were called the “prohedria” and reserved for priests and a few most respected citizens.
In 465 BC, the playwrights began using a backdrop or scenic wall, which hung or stood behind the orchestra, which also served as an area where actors could change their costumes. It was known as the skênê (from which the word “scene” derives). The death of a character was always heard behind the skênê, for it was considered inappropriate to show a killing in view of the audience. In 425 BC a stone scene wall, called a paraskenia, became a common supplement to skênê in the theatres. A paraskenia was a long wall with projecting sides, which may have had doorways for entrances and exits. Just behind the paraskenia was the proskenion. The proskenion (“in front of the scene”) was columned, and was similar to the modern day proscenium.
Greek theatres also had entrances for the actors and chorus members called parodoi. The parodoi (plural of parodos) were tall arches that opened onto the orchestra, through which the performers entered. In between the parodoi and the orchestra lay the eisodoi, through which actors entered and exited. By the end of the 5th century BC, around the time of the Peloponnesian War, the skênê, the back wall, was two stories high. The upper story was called the episkenion. Some theatres also had a raised speaking place on the orchestra called the logeion