The History of 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 hero's 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 men's 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 hero's 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. Aristotle's 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 life's 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 
poet's 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 

 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 chorus' 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 audience's 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 Glouster's 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 
 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 poet's 
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 audience's 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 
 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. Menander's 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 


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

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: Barron's 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, 

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.

 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


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