Greek Theater


Greek Theater Essay, Research Paper

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 afternoon. 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 performances. 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 audience. 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 centuries.


1. Lucas, F.L., Greek Tragedy and Comedy, New York: The Viking Press, 1967.

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, p.60 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. 76 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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