Introduction to Ancient Greek Theater

by Alfred J. Drake

General Studies:

Easterling, P.E. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Herington, John. Aeschylus. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.
Kaufmann, Walter. Tragedy and Philosophy.
Ley, Graham. A Short Introduction to Ancient Greek Theater. Chicago: U of C, 1991.
McLeish, K. A Guide to Greek Theatre and Drama. London: Methuen, 2003.
Pomeroy, Sarah. et al. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Festivals: Classical theater flourished mainly from 475-400 BCE. The Festivals of Dionysus at Athens were called the City Dionysia, which was held in March or April, and the Lenaea, which was held in January.

The God of Honor: Dionysus was an Olympian god, and the Greeks celebrated his rites in the dithyramb. In mythology, his followers were satyrs and mainades, or ecstatic females. We sometimes call him the god of ecstasy, and as Kenneth MacLeish says, he "supervis[ed] the moment when human beings surrender to unstoppable, irrational feeling or impulse" (1-2). His agents are wine, song, and dance. Song and dance were important to Dionysian rites, and the participants apparently wore masks.

At the festivals, three tragic writers would compete and so would three or five comedic playwrights. The idea was that each tragedian would present three plays and a satyr play; sometimes the three plays were linked in a trilogy, like the Oresteia. So the audience had a great deal of play going to do during the festival seasons; the activities may have gone on for three or four days, with perhaps four or five plays per day. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival provides something like this pace.

Organization: How were the festivals organized? Well, the magistrate was chosen every year by lot – the archon. Then, dramatists would apply to the magistrate for a chorus, and if they obtained a chorus, that meant that they had been chosen as one of the three tragic playwrights. After that affair was settled, wealthy private citizens known as choregoi served as producers for each playwright. The state paid for the actors, and the choregos paid chorus' training and costumes. So there was both state and private involvement in the production of a tragedy or comedy.

The Playwrights: Aeschylus 525-456 BCE / Sophocles 496-406 BCE / Euripides 485-406 BCE. Aeschylus composed about 80 dramas, Sophocles about 120, Euripides perhaps about 90. Aristophanes probably wrote about 40 comedies. Dramatists who wrote tragedies did not compose comedies, and vice versa. The playwright was called a didaskalos, a teacher or trainer because he trained the chorus who were to sing and dance. As drama developed, the playwright also took care of the scripts and the music. He was something like a modern director, and may at times have acted in his own plays, especially in the early stages of his career. A successful dramatist could win prizes, but generally, playwrights were able to support themselves independently by land-holdings. Sophocles, for example, was a prominent citizen – he served as a general and treasurer. Aeschylus was an esteemed soldier against the Persian Empire, and his tombstone is said to have recorded his military service, not his prowess as a playwright.

The Theater: The theater for the City or Great Dionysia was located on the south slope of the citadel of Athens, the Acropolis. (To examine a later reconstruction, visit the Didaskalia Home Page, click on "Study Area" in the top menu bar, and then click on "The Theatre of Dionysus.") The theater had three parts:

Theatron: this was for seating around 14,000 spectators; it was probably at first of wood, but later it was of stone.

Orchestra: this was for the chorus to sing and dance in and for the actors, when their function was developed.

Skene: this was at first a tent-like structure that served as a scene-building, and it had a door for entrances and exits. The Oresteia requires one, though perhaps the earliest plays didn't.

Costume was important, too, because it could be used to determine factors like status, gender, and age.

Chorus: The chorus remained important in drama, especially in Aeschylus. At some point, a choregos (legend says it was "Thespis," hence actors are "thespians") stepped forth and became the first actor, or answerer (hypocrites). So the composer was the first participant to turn choral celebration into what we call drama, with a plot and interaction between characters. Apparently Aeschylus or Sophocles added a third actor. The former's early plays required only two actors, but even that was enough to make for interesting exchanges between the chorus and the actors and, to some extent, between the actors and each other. With three actors, of course, the possibilities for true dramatic dialogue and action are impressive.

Audience: Would have consisted mostly of male citizens—the ones who ran Athenian democracy by participating in the Assembly. There would probably have been very few, if any, slaves or women present, and perhaps some resident aliens or "metics" and visiting dignitaries. Drama was surely a male-centered affair, as was the political life of Athens. Public speaking was vital in democratic Athens—anyone who was someone in the legal/political system needed to know how to move and convince fairly large numbers of men. Theater and political life, as we can see from Aeschylus, were in fact closely connected: the same skills were required, and the same class of people participated (male kyrioi, or heads of households who also performed military service). So while the stuff of tragedy seems almost always to have been the ancient myth cycles, the audience watching the plays would have felt themselves drawn in by the dramatists' updating of their significance for the major concerns of the 5th-century BCE present.

The Era. That present was, of course, the age of the great statesman Pericles (495-429 BCE), who drove home the movement towards full Athenian democracy from 461 BCE onwards and who at the same time furthered a disastrous course of imperial protection and aggression that had ensued from victory in the Persian Wars around 500 BCE. Greek tragedy grew to maturity in the period extending from the battles of Marathon on land in 490 BCE and the naval engagement at Salamis in 480 BCE, on through the Second Peloponnesian War from 431-404 BCE, in which the Athenians lost to Sparta the empire they had gained during half a century of glory following the victories over Persia. Athens' supremacy didn't last long as such things go, but it burned brightly while it lasted, and festival drama, along with architecture, sculpture, and philosophy, was among its greatest accomplishments. So the dramas took place in one of the most exciting times in Western history – both heady and unsettling at the same time, shot through with violence, democratic and artistic flowering, victory, and great loss.