The theatre of Ancient Greece evolved from religious rites, which date back to at least 1200 BC. At that time primitive tribes populated Greece. In northern Greece, in an area called Thrace, a cult arose that worshipped Dionysus, the god of human and agricultural fertility. The Cult of Dionysus practiced ritual celebrations that involved uninhibited dancing and emotional displays that created an altered mental state. This altered state was known as ecstasies, from which the word ecstasy is derived. Dionysiac, hysteria and catharsis also derive from Greek words for emotional release. Ecstasy was an important concept to the Greeks, who would come to see theatre as a way of releasing powerful emotions.
Though it met with resistance, the cult spread south through the tribes of Greece over the ensuing six centuries. During this time the rites of Dionysus became mainstream and more civilized. By 600 BC they were practiced every spring throughout much of Greece, which was by then divided into city-states, separate nations centered on major cities and regions.
A key part of the rites of Dionysus was the dithyramb. The dithyramb was an ode to Dionysus. It was usually performed by a chorus of fifty men dressed as satyrs—mythological half-human, half-goat servants of Dionysus. They played drums, lyres and flutes, and chanted as they danced around an effigy of Dionysus. Although it began as a purely religious ceremony, like a hymn in the middle of a mass, over time the dithyramb would evolve into stories, drama and the play form.
In 600 BC, Arion of Mehtymna wrote down formal lyrics for the dithyramb. Some time during the next 75 years, Thespis of Attica added an actor who interacted with the chorus. This actor was called the protagonist, from which the modern word protagonist is derived, meaning the main character of a drama. The word thespian, meaning actor, also derives from Thespis. Thespis is credited as well with inventing the touring acting troupe, since he toured Greece with a group of actors in a cart that doubled as a stage.
Athenian Drama Competitions
In 534 BC, the ruler of Athens, Pisistratus, changed the Dionysian Festivals and instituted drama competitions. Thespis 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 the competitors and the choregos, wealthy patrons who financed the productions. Even in ancient Greece, arts funding was a tax shelter: In return for funding a production, the choregos would pay no taxes that year.
During this time, major theatres were constructed, notably the theatre at Delphi, the Epidavros 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. During their heyday, the competitions drew as many as 30,000 spectators. The words theatre and amphitheatre derive from the Greek word theatron, which referred to the wooden spectator stands erected on those hillsides. Similarly, the word orchestra is derived from the Greek word for a platform between the raised stage and the audience on which the chorus was situated.
How Plays Were Performed
Plays were performed in the daytime. The annual drama competitions in Athens took most of the day, and were spread out over several days. Actors probably wore little or no makeup. Instead they carried masks with exaggerated facial expressions. They also wore cothornos, or buskins, which were leather boots laced up to the knees. There was little or no scenery. Initially, most of the action took place in the orchestra. Later on, as the importance shifted from the chorus to the characters, the action moved to the stage. For more information on the Tragedian myths on which many of the plays are based, click here.
Aeschylus, the First Playwright
Until 484 BC the Athenian drama competitions consisted of a trilogy of dithyrambs and a satyr play. These were still more choral than dramatic. But around 484 BC there appeared on the Athenian theatre scene a playwright named Aeschylus, who turned the dithyramb into drama. He added a second actor (the antagonist) to interact with the first, 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 Clitemnestra, and the pursuit of justice by Agamemnon’s children Orestes and Electra. Thematically, the trilogy is about the tragedy of human arrogance or hubris—the hubris required to murder a person for personal gain, as Clitemnestra and her lover Aegisthus do, as well as the hubris to in turn hunt down and kill them, as Orestes and Electra do. When in the end, Orestes and Electra are brought to trial themselves by the Furies, vengeful emissaries of the gods, 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.
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, and it was his plays that Aristotle used 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. In Electra, the hunted murderer Aegisthus finds a body under a blanket is Orestes, the man who has relentlessly hunted him and his lover, Clitemnestra; he is relieved that he has escaped justice. However, when he lifts the blanket he discovers the body is that of his lover Clitemnestra. Orestes has indeed caught up with him. Sophocles’ plays are about the folly of arrogance and the wisdom of accepting fate.
In all, Sophocles won 20 dramatic 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 resembles today’s attitudes more than those of fifth-century BC. 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, criticized religion, and portrayed society’s forgotten—women, slaves, 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. A cynic about human nature, he became a bookish recluse and died in 406 BC, two years before Sophocles.