Ancient Greek Theater
By Cara


Break a leg! Theater and drama in Ancient Greece were very different than what it has developed to be today. Both the actors and the theater area were very different from how they are now, and the origins began not at all similar to our drama today.
The two main genres of ancient Greek theater were tragedy and comedy. The three main Greek tragedy playwrights were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (Emory). It is said that the origins of Tragedy plays begin at a festival in honor of the god of wine, Dionysus. (Phillips). The word “tragedy” is derived from the Greek word tragoedia, meaning “goat-song” (Class 201). Goats were usually sacrificed to Dionysus before the plays wecomedy_tragedy.jpgre put on, and the actors usually wore goat-skins and masks during the performances. Tragedies were regularly preformed around late March or early April at Dionysus’s festival. Most tragic plays describe downfalls of the hero or heroine, who try to achieve something beyond what limits prohibit. The restrictions could be a god, nature, or simply human fragility, meaning they can’t physically or mentally handle the situation. The downfall usually occurs through over-self confidence, fate, or again, the gods. The hero usually won’t die at the end, but instead go through a change or revelation as a result of a mistake they made. On the other hand, the origins of Greek comedy are unknown. (Thrumball). Most of the plays were optimistic and were basically focused on society, politics, and war. (Carr) They often made fun of political figures or problems. The style of comedy was very exaggerated and farcical, and often included sexual and sensual references. During the performances, sometimes the audience was addressed and engaged in a discussion of a economic problem. The plays usually ended with the generic “happy ending”, where everyone exits laughing or singing to feast or celebrate. Other categories of plays were put on, for example a satyr play has to do with comedic mythology, but tragedies and comedies were the major forms (Ancient Greece).
In ancient Greece, there were four main playwrights that are still well known today: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were the writers of tragedy, and Aristophanes was the main writer of comedic plays (Emory). It is said that Aeschylus was told to write tragedy plays by the god Dionysus in a dream (Fort and Kates). At the festivals of Dionysus, there were competitions between playwrights, and Aeschylus entered a tragedy play, which failed to win. Aeschylus’s first winning tragedy was composed fifteen years later. After that, he was the winner of the majority of drama related contests. He wrote around 90 plays, however only seven of them survived. Among his surviving works are The Persians, The Supplicants, and Seven Against Thebes. During one drama contest in Athens, Aeschylus was beaten to first prize by Sophocles, who was much younger than him. Sophocles was born into a rich family during the war between the Athenians and the Persians (Carr). Around the age of sixteen, he witnessed the Persians burn down Athens, including his own home. Nevertheless, Sophocles’s tragic plays are full of spirit and hopefulness, and his plays show the triumph of reason and rationality over barbarism and wild anger. It is said that Sophocles wrote about 123 plays, but like Aeschylus, only seven survived. Some of his works include Antigone, Electra, and Philoctetes. Sophocles sometimes competed with Euripides, the youngest of the three tragedy playwrights, and they both had their fair share of wins (Carr) . Euripides too showed rationality and knowledge to overcome situations and conflicts in his plays. (Ancient Greece). Euripides often included a woman character in his comedy, to show irrationality or foolishness, and a sensible man, who usually triumphs in the end. Euripides wrote around 92 plays, however around 80 of them remain. Some of his more significant plays are Hippolytus, Bacchae, and Medea. Aristophanes was the father of Greek comedy, the youngest of the four playwrights. Most of his plays are political satire, meaning they make fun of politics and politicians of his time (Ancient Greece). They sometimes ridiculed generals or leaders, and one play made fun of courts and the jury system. Aristophanes often highlighted certain crises going on at the time, such as war, raids, invasions, and peace. Like the tragedy playwrights, Aristophanes usually preformed at festivals. Out of his 40 works, only eleven remain, such as The Wasps, The Frogs, Peace, and Lysistrata.
The actors in an ancient Greek play were usually not professional but amateur, as the concept of drama and acting was still new to society (Ancient Greece). The leading roles in a performance were called hypocrits, and were always played by men (Phillips). When there was a female hypocrit, a male before their voice changed (before puberty) would usually play the part. Another important part of acting in plays was the chorus. Actors usually played more than one character if their role wasn't too important. The chorus is similar to the narrators of the play, and they sang or simply said information that made the play make sense to the audience. Sometimes the chorus gave background knowledge, or sometimes they just added on to the play like a narrator would to a movie. The chorus was also used if the script called for a crowd of people; they acted as extras in the performance. A large part of the actors was their costumes and mask. Costumes were important to show many things in the play. They showed whether the character was male or female, rich or poor, or maybe what their occupation was. Because the female roles were played by men, the costume helped the audience to believe that the character was supposed to be a woman. Masks, too, were sometimes needed in a performance. Because the audience was often seated far away, masks helped show emotions such as happy, sad, scared, or angry. Also, because the masks were usually very simple, it helped the audience to pay more attention to the actions rather than the faces of the characters. The shape of the mask also amplified the voices sometimes, making the dialogue easier to hear for the far-away audience.
The Greek theater was a large, outdoor structure called a theatron, which means “viewing-place.” (Ancient Greece). This was where the seats for the audience were. The theatron is much like bleachers at a baseball game; it has rows of bench-like seats in a sort of half-circle formation and slopedtheater.jpg uphill. The audience area was very, very large, and could usually seat up to fourteen thousand people (McManus). The orchestra area was in the center of the theatron, on the ground, similar to a stage. The orchestra area was where the dancing, singing, and acting would take place. Behind the orchestra, where was a rectangular building which served as a backstage for the actors, called the skene. In the skene, actors would change costumes and masks, and sometimes the skene was painted to look like a backdrop for the play. Some of the theaters had a route to the roof on top of the skene so actors playing important characters (such as a god) could appear higher. Entrances and exits for the chorus and actors were long ramps placed on the sides of the building called Parodos, and at the beginning and end of the performance, the audience would use them as well.
The exact origins of Greek drama are obscure, but it is known that Greek theater ties in closely with the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine and intoxication. (Engert) Some of the first Greek performances and plays were put on at the annual fertility festival, hosted by Athenians, to honor and celebrate Dionysus’s birth. A religious rite was put on called dithyrambos, an ancient dance in which people chanted to the wine god while (usually) drunk themselves. (Phillips) These religious rites for this Dionysus festival were written down to later become plays. A Greek play would usually consist of three main parts: prologue, chorus, and main scenes. The prologue opened the performance, and was just a simple monologue or speech. The chorus entered next, and following the chorus’s act were the major acts of the play. The plays, both comedy and tragedy, usually showed plots revolving around violence, war and murder, daily life and social life, lust, and betrayal. Some plays also incorporated gods into the plot, as well as the Hero’s Journey.
Ancient Greek theater and drama was very religion oriented, unlike today. Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles were the fathers of Tragedy and Comedy, and overall the fathers of our modern day theater. The roots of everything we consider acting today began in ancient Greece, and learning these roots in researching this paper will help me grow as an actress and help me excel in Drama.



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