Origin of Greek theatre
Origin of Greek theatre
Origins – Sources – how do we know
Extant plays (from 3 writers of Tragedy, and 1 writer of comedy)
Fragments of other plays copied by writers at the time.
Records of dramas (scattered)
Commentaries (such as Aristotle)
Archeological remains of buildings
Visual art - primarily from vase painting
Therefore, the conclusions we make are highly conjectural, but we can discuss the
standard accepted views of Greek theatre.
Drama emerged out of religion
Dionysus: god ecstasy & fertility
– Ec/stasy : Greek for out/stand, so things which
take people “out of themselves” ie – sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll,
– Wine, theatre, abandon, dance, ecstasy, sex (fertility) –
hence the importance of the phallus in Dionysian parades
By the sixth century B.C., the cult of Dionysus had spread from
the east across all of Greece.
Very popular particularly among women – the only time they
were allowed to let themselves go in the repressive patriarchal
- beginning, little
The Dionysian ceremonies, simple at the
by little became noisy and orgiastic.
The enthusiasts were strolling holding the phallus in front of
them, accompanied by flute, drums and forminx, eating the
raw fleshes of the animals sacrificed to Dionysus.
The parade was a chorus of about 50 young men singing
Hymns or DITHYRAMBS
Lyric poems and songs (like Hymns).
sung by groups of men praising the gifts of
These became the “chorus” of the later dramas
Later one or two would have leading parts in the
stories that were told (the first “actors” or
“hypokrites” – answerers
The Athenian Thespis is credited with first introducing this
solo role in 6th century (since then actors are also called
Birth of Tragedy
According to Greek tradition, the actor and playwright Thespis invented the
drama when he augmented the chorus of the dithyramb (religious Hymns at the
festival of Dionysus with a single actor who wore masks to portray several
With the possibility of dialogue between the actor and the chorus, more complex
themes and modes of storytelling could be developed.
In 534 BC, at Athens' first dramatic festival, one of Thespis' tragedies won the
prize. (Derived from the Greek tragos, meaning “goat,” the term tragedy may
have referred to a goat as the prize or as an animal sacrifice made at the
festival, or myths that the baby Dionysus was turned into a goat and raised
among them to protect him from Hera, his father’s (Zeus’s) jealous wife.
Thereafter, tragedies were performed annually as part of the festival of
Actors in Greek Theatre
At first in dithyramb, there were no actors.
Thespis was the poet who introduced the first “soloist” - called hypocrite or
answerer in greek, Aeschylus the second and Sophocles the third one. The
hypocrits were always men
At the beginning the actors have been chosen by the poets (they -sometimesplayed the roles themselves).
Later, when theatre competition became tough, the need of professional actors
emerged. Some actors tended to attach themselves to a poet.
Still in the 5th century, when the success of a production depended on the
actors as well, they were being chosen by the State.
Playwrights originally acted, but by 449 B.C. with the contests for tragic actors,
Three types/genres of drama
Drama was classified according to three
different types or genres:
• satyr plays
The word "tragedy" refers primarily to tragic drama:
The hero suffers some serious misfortune which is logically connected with
the hero's actions.
Tragedy stresses the vulnerability of human beings whose suffering is
brought on by a combination of human and divine actions.
Relationships between men and the gods plagued by problems.
Greek comedy probably grew from the often satirical choruses of the feast of Dionysus.
Aristophanes* targeted the abuses of politicians and the destructiveness of war in
comedies of great wit.
What is satire? How is it used today? What are some examples of modern satire?
Satire: Writing or art which exposes the follies of its subject (for example, individuals,
organizations, or states) to ridicule, often as an intended means of provoking or
*Aristophanes was the greatest comic writer of his day. (5th century BC)
Satyr* plays were short, slapstick pieces characterized by a chorus of satyrs (half men, half
beasts) who act as a farcical backdrop to the traditional mythological heroes of tragedy.
*Satyr is an uninhibited creature who is half goat, half man. Satyrs show "animal nature" and
were forest dwellers associated with Dionysus, god of wine, procreation, and of drama.
It was the custom to act a satyric drama after a set of three tragedies, on each of the 3 or 4
days of the theatre competition (the city Dionysia) thus the seriousness of the preceding
plays was relieved.
Dominant in early tragedies (so main actors could change roles)
By Euripides, chorus only loosely related to the action
Size : from 50 in the 6th century to 12 or 15 in the 5th century .
Generally believed to be 15 by the time of Sophocles and Euripides.
Entered with stately march, sometimes singing or in small groups (the parados).
Choral passages sung and danced in unison, sometimes divided into two groups.
Sometimes exchanged dialog with the main characters, rarely individual speaking
The leader of the chorus was in the middle of the first row, and was a professional dancer
and singer. The rest of the chorus consisted of amatures chosen by the playwright and paid
by the sponsor (choregos) – the producer who hoped to win favour and votes in elections by
The chorus, was considered to be the mouthpiece of society (in its humble form) and
morality, and they were suffering along with the heroes. Its role (very important at first) was
fading during the time.
an agent: gives advice, asks, takes part
establishes ethical framework, sets up standard by which action will be judged
ideal spectator - reacts as playwright hopes audience would
sets mood and heightens dramatic effects
adds movement, spectacle, song, and dance
rhythmical function - pauses / paces the action so that the audience can reflect
Greek Drama and Theatre - The Festivals
Unlike the proto-dramatic rites and pageants, Greek drama is secular in
City Dionysia Theatre festival since ca. 550 BC- held in spring
Lenaia Held in the depth of winter (usually only locals attended because
of the difficulty of travelling to Athens in mid winter)
Choregos Producer wealthy citizen in charge of financing and organizing
the training of a chorus- gained brownie points with the voter for it
archon (city/state official in charge of organizing the festival)
odeon (building adjacent to the theatre)
Day 1: three to five comedies; days 2-4: three tragedies and one satyr
play by the same poet and choregos EACH day.