Greek Theater


Theater and drama in Ancient Greece took form in about 5th century BCE, with the
Sopocles, 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 heroís
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 menís 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
heroís 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, Aeschulus, 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.

Aristotleís analysis of tragedy began with a description of the effect such a
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 most all

Greek tragedies is similar to Oedipus Rex. Such plays are divided in to 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 lifeís 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 poetís 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 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 chorusí part was
gradually reduced, and the dialogue of the actors became increasingly important.

The word "chorus" meant "dance or "dancing ground", which was how
dance evolved into the 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 audienceís 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. he
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 replace by the sudden
appearance of a rich uncle, the discovery or 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 Glousterís 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 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 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 poetís views on most 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 man with eminent faults emphasized for the
audienceís 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 which 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 more timid than old comedy, having many less
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 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. Menanderís 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.

Bibliography

1. Lucas, F.L., Greek Tragedy and Comedy, New York: The Viking Press, 1967.

2. McAvoy, William, Dramatic Tragedy, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1971.

3. Murray, Gilbert, Euripides and His Age, New York: Oxford University Press,

1955. 4. Reinhold, Meyer, Ph.D., Essentials of Greek and Roman Classics, New

York: Barronís Educational Series, Inc., 1960. 5. Trawick, Buckner B., World

Literature, Volume I: Greek, Roman, Oriental and Medieval William McAvoy,

Dramatic Tragedy, 1971, p. ix Ibid., p. x William McAvoy, Dramatic Tragedy,

1971, p. xi Ibid., p. vii Meyer Reinhold, Ph.D., Essentials of Greek and Roman

Classics, 1960, p.60 F.L. Lucas, Greek Tragedy and Comedy, 1968, p. 3 Ibid., p.

9 Ibid., p. 10 Ibid., p. 10 Gilbert Murray, Euripides and His Age, 1955, p. 145

F.L. Lucas, Greek Tragedy and Comedy, 1968, p. 12 Ibid., p.62 Gilbert Murray,

Euripides and His Age, 1955, p.146 Gilbert Murray, Euripides and His Age, 1955,
p. 153 F.L. Lucas, Greek Tragedy and Comedy, 1968, p. 12 Buckner B. Trawick,

World Literature, Volume I: Greek, Roman, Oriental and Medieval Classics, 1958,
p. 76 Meyer Reinhold, Ph.D., Essentials of Greek and Roman Classics, 1960, p.

114 Ibid., p. 238 Ibid., p. 253 Buckner B. Trawick, World Literature, Volume I:

Greek, Roman, Oriental and Medieval Classics, 1958, p. 76 Meyer Reinhold, Ph.D.,

Essentials of Greek and Roman Classics, 1960, p. 254