Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ancient Greek Theatre

Ancient Greek Theatre

Origins of Ancient Greek Theatre

Ancient Greek Theatre had its origins in the dances, stories and rituals which worshiped Gods. Around 1200 BC religious rituals started to evolve in Thrace in Northern Greece which worshipped the god of fertility and procreation, Dionysus. The rituals surrounding the ‘Cult of Dionysus’ included sacrifices, wearing of masks, group dances and emotional altered states of release called ‘ecstasis’. Often the rituals involved the offering up of a tragic hero in stories or incantations to the God Dionysus. Soon after this time, the rites of Dionysus became mainstream and more formalised and symbolic. The death of a tragic hero was offered up to the gods rather than the sacrifice of animals like goats. By 600 BC these ceremonies were practised in spring throughout much of Greece and had evolved  (at least in Arion in Corinth) into ritual dithyrambic choruses.
Around 540 BC Pisistratus, tyrant of Athens, started the festival of the Greater Dionysia. This festival involved the telling of heroic stories and ritual dances being performed in a more formal and secular way, An essential part of the rites of Dionysus was the dithyramb. The word means 'choric hymn'. This chant or hymn was probably introduced into Greece and early accompanied of these chants probably were done by mimic gestures and, music. In its earliest form it was lead off by the leader of a group of dancers, who were probably dressed as satyrs (mythological half-human, half- goat servants of Dionysus) dancing around an altar. The choric rhythm was probably performed by a chorus of about fifty men.

The Development of Ancient Greek Dramatic Form
By 500 BC, the dithyramb was central to competitive performances at festivals. The dithyramb and the writing of dithyramb was popular with poets and with this popularity the subject matter of dithyramb started to include stories from all periods of Greek history, mythology and folk tales.
Around 534 BC, the poet and chorus leader, Thespis of Attica added an actor who interacted with the chorus but stepped out from the Chorus to tell, narrate or act out the story. This actor was called the protagonist, meaning the main character of a drama. This is where we get the modern term 'Thespians' meaning actor. In 534 BC, the ruler of Athens, Pisistratus, changed the Dionysian Festivals and instituted drama competitions. Thespis is said to have won the first competition in 534 BC. In the ensuing 50 years, the competitions became popular annual events. A government authority called the archon would choose and organise the competitors and the staging and arrange for the choregos or wealthy patrons to put money behind the production of certain plays and paying for the chorus. In this sense archons were the first directors in theatre. You may ask yourself why would rich patrons put money into these productions. Well, even in ancient Greece, backing productions attracted huge tax concessions so the funding of the arts was a way of tax avoidance. In return for funding a production, the choregos would pay no taxes that year.
The Development of Ancient Greek Theatre Amphitheatres
By 500BC, theatre spaces had started to evolve into specialist amphitheatre spaces and were constructed and many of these were constructed in a style similar to those seen today in the ruins of the theatre at Delphi, the Attic Theatre and the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. The Theatre of Dionysus, built at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, could seat 17,000 people but some evidence suggests some venues could hold 30,000 people. The words amphitheatre and theatre come from the Ancient Greek word theatron, which referred to the seating or auditorium or wooden audience stands which were normally assembled on a hillside. Later stone seats were cut into some hillsides. The word orchestra comes from the Ancient Greek word for a platform where the chorus stood which was situated between the stage and the audience.
Plays and Performances
Ancient Greek plays were performed during the daytime and in Athens, annual drama competitions would be performed over four to seven days. Plays would go for about 90 minutes for each play. Actors probably wore little or no makeup. Instead, they carried masks with exaggerated facial expressions which indicated the gender, age, character and morals of the character being played. These were often made of wood covered in linen cloth. We learn much of what we know about Ancient Greek masks from Julius Plydeukes (2nd c. AD) who wrote about them but drew on many books from previous authors. Actors also wore cothornos, or buskins, which were platformed or elevated leather boots laced up to the knees. There was little or no scenery but later Ancient Greek drama used some elaborate stage devices like cranes. Initially, most of the action took place in the orchestra. Later, as the importance shifted from the chorus to the characters, the action moved to the stage.

The development of the Tragedy

Between 600 and 500 BC, the dithyramb had evolved into new forms, most notably the tragedy and the ‘satyr’ play. Tragedy, derived from the Greek words tragos (goat) and ode (song), told a story that was intended to teach religious lessons. Much like Biblical parables, tragedies were designed to show the right and wrong paths in life. Tragedies were not simply plays with bad endings, nor were they simply spectacles devised to ‘make 'em laugh and make 'em cry.’ Tragedy was viewed as a form of ritual purification, Aristotle's catharsis, which gives rise to pathos, another Greek word, meaning 'instructive suffering'. They depicted the life voyages of people who steered themselves or who were steered by fate on collision courses with society, life's rules, orsimply fate. The tragic protagonist is one who refuses out of either weakness or strength to acquiesce to fate: what for us now might better be described as the objective realities of life. Most often, the protagonist's main fault is hubris, a Greek, and English word meaning false or overweening arrogance. It could be the arrogance of not accepting ones destiny (i.e. as in Oedipus Rex), the arrogance of assuming the right to kill (Agamemnon), or the arrogance of assuming the right to seek vengeance (Orestes). Whatever the root cause, the protagonist's ultimate collision with fate, reality, or society is inevitable and irrevocable.

The Form of Tragedy

The traditional tragedy in Aeschylus' time (circa 475 BC) consisted of the following parts:

1. Prologue, which described the situation and set the scene

2. Parados, an ode sung by the chorus as it made its entrance

3. Five dramatic scenes, each followed by a Komos, an exchange of laments by the chorus and the protagonist

4. Exodus, the climax and conclusion

For Aristotle, what was important to Ancient Greek Tragedy was the arousing of fear and emotion, purging (catharsis) - the unities: unity of time place and character - Pathos (Greek for instructive suffering) which has come to mean the quality in something that arouses sympathy. Often used today to describe something sad but not necessarily tragic. Satyrs, trilogies of tragedies were interrupted by satyr plays (which made fun of characters in the tragedies around them). Hence the word tragedy. Comedy from Komodos which means 'merrymaking,' and 'singer.'

The Process of Production of an Ancient Greek Play for a Festival
The following timeline and account is intended to give a fair indication of the processes involved in putting on plays for a festival in Ancient Greece. 

  1. Around July-September, poets decided what four stories they would use for their four plays. Three had to be tragedy and one a satyr (a comedy based on a myth). Some poets decided to make their three tragic plays into a sequence or trilogy based on the same characters or stories. The poet then writes up a synopsis of these plays and may write a couple of versed speeches.
  2. Around October, poets would submit their play outlines for entry in competition in festivals to be held in late March for festival competitions such as the City Dionysia. These outlines were submitted to the archon eponymos. The archon eponymos then makes a decision on which three poets will get funding and thus what twelve plays will be performed at the next festival.
  3. Around December, the archon would contact successful poets and tell them what choregos (a wealthy Athenian citizen who would finance the production) he had paired them with. The choregos would pay for the chorus, the three actors and the set and costumes. The poet would also find out at this point, the three actors who had been chosen for their production.
  4. By January, the three poets have finished writing four plays each. The poets sometimes had access to public or private collections of scrolls of ancient history and myths. The plays were sent off so that about six copies could be made. This was all done by scribes who hand copied each play with great accuracy.
  5. The poet then wrote the music for chorus and then the poet would start working with the chorus on the dance and gestural movements for the plays. In this sense the poet was playwright, composer director and choreographer.
  6. By February, the poet has started to work with the actors as well as the chorus. Sometimes the choregos took a more central role in production but mostly directorial and choreographic decision were left up to the poet. Costumes and masks are ordered and made. Sometimes costumes and masks were not bought new but adjusted and remade. The poet continues rehearsals.
  7. Around late February, the Boule (the greater city council made up of 500 citizens) drew up a list of the ten kritai (judges) representing the ten Athenian tribes.
  8. Soon after the new moon appears on the 6th or 7th day of Elaphebolion, the Proagon starts. This is was the preparation ceremony where the poets, the archon, the choregos, the chorus and the actors all met together. The poets would probably have one day where they would have the amphitheatre to rehearse.
  9. On the 9th day of Elaphebolion when the moon had moved into its first quarter (around March 23 to March 28th), the City Dionysia would begin. On the first night of the festival, a statue of Dionysus would be paraded through Athens by flaming torchlight and would be placed at the theatre of Dionysus. The parade would include dignitaries and the choregoi. A contest of dithyramb usually happened on the first day and then on the second or third day, the play competition began in earnest with the tragedies.
  10. Soon after dawn, a piglet or goat was normally sacrificed at the altar. The yearly tribute or taxes would then be laid out before the altar. The honourable citizens and war heroes of the previous year would then be named. Then the 10,000 to 17,000 people would enter the theatron (theatre or auditorium). This was mostly made up of Athenian men, but female citizens, some children, metics (non-citizens) and foreigners were allowed to see tragedies. Women were not allowed to attend performances of satyr or comedy. The tragedies were normally performed first and the satyr in the late afternoon.
  11. In the afternoon of the last day of the City Dionysia (just before the full moon), the prizes would be awarded. First, second and third (last) place in the tragedy play competition would be announced. The winning poet/playwright of tragedy was given a wreath of ivy.
Aeschylus, the First Playwright
Until 484 BC the Athenian drama competitions consisted of a trilogy of dithyrambs and a satyr play. Their style of presentation was choral rather than dramatic. However, around 484 BC there appeared on the Athenian theatre scene a playwright named Aeschylus. Aeschylus turned the dithyramb into drama. He added a second actor (the antagonist) to interact with the first. He introduced props and scenery and reduced the chorus from 50 to 12. Aeschylus' Persians, written in 472 BC, is the earliest play in existence. Aeschylus' crowning work was The Oresteia, a trilogy of tragedies first performed in 458 BC. They tell the legend of Agamemnon, the Greek war hero who was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, and the pursuit of justice by his children, Orestes and Electra. Thematically, the trilogy is about the tragedy of excessive human pride, arrogance or hubris. This hubris is required to murder a person for personal gain, as Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus do, as well as the hubris to in turn hunt down and kill them, as Orestes and Electra do. In the end, the Furies, vengeful emissaries of the gods, themselves bring Orestes and Electra to trial. Aeschylus makes a point that has been echoed by historians and dramatists, psychologists and crime writers for centuries since: that the root of evil and suffering is usually human arrogance. On a dramatic level, the plays convey the suffering of a family torn apart by patricide and matricide. Look at the video version translated into English by Paul Harrison.

The Periclean Age
Aeschylus' death in 456 BC coincided with the beginning of the Periclean Age, a period during which Athens' population grew to 150,000, its government embraced democracy (although two-thirds of its population were slaves), and the arts flourished. In a span of 60 years, Thucydides and Herodotus wrote their histories, the sophists, Socrates and Plato expounded their philosophies, and Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes wrote some of the world's best plays.
In 468 BC, Aeschylus was defeated in the tragedy competition by Sophocles. Sophocles' contribution to drama was the addition of a third actor and an emphasis on drama between humans rather than between humans and gods. Sophocles was a fine craftsman. Aristotle used Sophocles' play, Oedipus Rex for his classic analysis of drama, The Poetics. Sophocles' plays are suffused with irony. In The Oedipus Trilogy, Oedipus seeks the truth about his father's murder. The truth that awaits him, however, is that he is the murderer. The following short video gives a short introduction to Ancient Greek Theatre, Sopholces and Oedipus Rex.(Fate, Family and Oedipus Rex)

In all, Sophocles won 20 competitions. Although far behind Sophocles in the medal count with a mere five, Euripides has since eclipsed both Sophocles and Aeschylus in popularity. The modern attraction to him stems largely from his point of view, which finds a strong echo in modern attitudes. His plays were not about Gods or royalty but real people. He placed peasants alongside princes and gave their feelings equal weight. He showed the reality of war, criticised religion, and portrayed the forgotten of society: women, slaves, and the old. Euripides is credited with adding to the dramatic form the prologue, which "set the stage" at the beginning of the play, and the deus ex machina, which wrapped up loose ends at the close. Aside from those devices, there is less contrivance, fate or philosophy in Euripides than in either Aeschylus or Sophocles. There is instead a poignant realism, such as in this scene from the anti-war Trojan Women, in which a grandmother grieves over the daughter and grandson she has outlived. During his life, Euripides was viewed as a heretic and was often lampooned in Aristophanes' comedies. Extremely cynical of human nature, he became a bookish recluse and died in 406 BC, two years before Sophocles.
Tragedy was not the only product of Athens' flourishing theatre culture; comedy also thrived. Not only did the Greeks produce many lasting comedies; they also cast the moulds for many Roman, Elizabethan and modern comedies. The historical development of comedy was not as well recorded as that of tragedy. Aristotle notes in The Poetics that before his own time comedy was considered trivial and common -- though when it was finally recognised as an art form, the orphan suddenly had many fathers: Aristophanes and Old Comedy
Greek comedy had two periods: Old Comedy, represented by Cratinus and Aristophanes; and New Comedy, whose main exponent was Menander. Aristophanes theatrical works were presented at the Athenian festivals. Aristophanes and Cratinus used three actors, a chorus that sung, danced, and sometimes participated in the dialogue. The Chorus's address to the audience reveals the author's opinion. In these speeches, he ridicules the Gods, Athenian institutions, popular and powerful individuals, including Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Given the cultivated and scholarly culture of its ruling elite, Athens invited satire. Aristophanes assumed the task with zeal, aiming his lampoonery at those who stuck their heads above the crowd:
New Comedy
Comedy developed along similar lines as tragedy did, becoming more aimed at the common people and less concerned with its religious origins. By 317 BC, a new form had evolved that resembled modern farces. The use of overt satire, topicality and the pointed lampooning of celebrated characters to be found in Aristophanes' style were replaced by mistaken identities, ironic situations, ordinary characters and wit. This period is called New Comedy, and its two main practitioners were Menander and Phlyates. Menander is the more significant of the two. Most of his plays are now lost, but parts found their way into plays by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence (whom Julius Caesar called "a half-Menander"). From these works they were incorporated into Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, even the writings of St. Paul: "Bad messages belie good manners". In 1905 a manuscript was discovered in Cairo that contained pieces of five Menander plays, and in 1957 a complete play, Diskolos (The Grouch, 317 BC), was unearthed in Egypt. Menander's main contribution was to create a comedy model that greatly influenced later comedy. Unlike Aristophanes, his characters were not celebrities but ordinary people. The chorus in Menander's plays resembled a modern chorus -- singers and dancers who provided filler between acts; Menander sometimes portrayed them as drunken audience members. His characters were classic comedy archetypes, such as the curmudgeonly old man in The Grouch, who would become staples of comedy. Most of all, the style of comedy that Menander created, with its emphasis on mistaken identity, romance and situational humour, became the model for subsequent comedy.

 Ancient Greek Theatre Practical Exercises and Discussion

Choric Rhythm Exercises
The group stands in a circle. One person starts a chant which they accompany with a simple action or actions i.e. the person may say say "mee, may, mah" as a chant and this may be accompanied by the hands beating the chest then being flung out. The group repeats the chant and action with leader. The chant and action should be repeated many times until someone else (the new leader) begins another chant and action which the group repeats. This exercise builds group unity as well as exploring the chant and mimed action of the origins of Ancient Greek Theatre.

Group storytelling

Small groups of four, five or six are formed. One group volunteers to go first and stands in a line. The group is given a title to their story and a line that they must repeat as a group in a choric fashion i.e. Title - The Day the World Ended and the chorus line they may keep repeating is "This is the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine." The group starts with saying the choric line all together. Then one person (usually starting on the left works) steps out of the line and starts to improvise telling the story speaking a sentence or two or three. The person then steps back into the line and the group repeats the original choric line. Then another person steps out of the line and continues the story and after their line, they step back in line and the Choric bit is repeated. This continues until the story is finished.

How to make a model of an Ancient Greek Amphitheatre


Large piece of white card (for back wall), about 20cm high X 1m long

Large square piece of card (for base)

A4 sized pieces of white card

Rectangular box about shoe box size (for stage)

Paint & brushes (for scenery & other decorations)


Glue or sticky tape

Materials to make trees, people, etc.


Curve long strip of card into horseshoe shape and stick onto base (either glue flaps or use sticky tape)

Cut A4 cards in half lengthways and crimp to make seats

Stick onto wall and base as shown in diagram, all the way round

Use box as stage as shown; attach a flat piece of card as the scenery. Paint this first with trees, hills, buildings etc.

Add figures, trees and other decorations as desired

Further Reading and Resources on Ancient Greek Theatre


Goldhill, S. 1986. Reading Greek Tragedy. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Heath, M. 1987. The Poetics of Greek Tragedy. Duckworth. London.

Rehm, R. 1992. Greek Tragic Theatre. Routledge. London.

Winkler, J. and Zeitlin, F. 1990. Nothing to Do with Dionysus? Athenian Drama in its Social Context. Princeton University Press. Princeton.

Origins of Greek Drama

Burkert, W. "Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual." Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 7 (1966): 87-121.

Pickard-Cambridge, A.W. Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy (1927) ________, second edition by Webster, T.B.L. (1962)

Winkler, J. "The Ephebes' Song: TragoƮdia and Polis." reprinted in Nothing to Do with Dionysus? (1990)
Taplin, O. The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (1977)

Winnington-Ingram, R.P. Studies in Aeschylus (1983)

Aeschylus (trans. Harrison, T.) The Oresteia. [video of play production]. 

Aeschylus (trans. Harrison, T.) The Oresteia. [video of play production]. 
Gardiner, C.P. The Sophoclean Chorus (1987)

Gellie, G. Sophocles: A Reading (1972)

Winnington-Ingram, R.P. Sophocles: An Interpretation (1980)
Foley, H. Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides (1985)

Halleran, M. Stagecraft in Euripides (1985)

Michelini, A.N. Euripides and the Tragic Tradition (1987)

Segal, C. Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides' Bacchae (1982)

Cartledge, P. Aristophanes and His Theatre of the Absurd (1990)

Konstan, D. Greek Comedy and Ideology (1995)

McLeish, K. The Theatre of Aristophanes. London, 1980.
 Whitman, C.H. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero. Cambridge, MA., 1964.



Austin Theatre. 2012. How to Make a Greek Mask. Austin Theatre Productions. Austin, Texas.

National Theatre Discover. 2013. An Introduction to Greek Theatre. National Theatre. London.

Sophocles.Oedipus Rex. 1957. Tyrone Guthrie Production.(posted 2012).

Williamson, B. 2013. Ancient Greek Theatre Masks. London.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed reading. Well researched and presented article.