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Greek Theater

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At some point, everyone should experience live performance. It’s fun. I recently saw a production of Sophokles’ Antigone. It was bad. Ok, that wasn’t a great endorsement for live performance. But seeing the play made me think about the difficulty of trying to perform a 2000 year old Greek tragedy for a modern American audience. Despite my less-than-impressed reaction, it was testament to the legacy we inherited from the ancient Greek theater.

Much of our information on the Greek theater comes from the period where it was at its height of popularity—at Athens, during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. The three great tragedians, Sophokles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, wrote the majority of the surviving plays. The comic Aristophanes provides the bulk of surviving comedies. Satyr plays were a mix of tragedy and comedy, and made up the third form of staged drama. While most of our information comes from this period, drama pre-dates it. By how much, we don’t know. We are not entirely sure on when, who, or how drama and theater originated. We don’t know shit. Welcome to Classics.

Fortunately, we can pass the buck on this one, because the Athenians themselves weren’t very sure of the origins either. Various authors speculated over the different aspects of theater, including when and who invented each part. One favored explanation is drama grew out of rituals associated with the god Dionysus, starting in the 7th century BCE, and took a more coherent and recognizable form around the mid-6th century BCE. From several sources, Arion of Methymna is credited with producing the first drama, composed of a sung dithyramb and chorus around 625 BCE. Other sources refer to Thespis of Ikarion as the first (or second) playwright in 532 BCE, and the inventor of “acting”—which is why actors today are called “thespians”.

Other names have been dropped in playing roles in the invention. Epigenes of Sicyion is mentioned in the Suda (a 10th century CE encyclopedia) as the first tragic poet. Cleisthenes gets credit for transferring the tragic chorus to Dionysus, having supposedly previously being rites for Adrastrus. Peisistratus founded the Greater Dionysia, also called the City Dionysia, which is when a lot of the plays were staged during the heyday of Athenian theater.

While the origins of drama and theater are still unclear, what is undeniable is tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays become a well-known and recognizable feature of Athenian society. Staging the plays occurred in much the same way they are done today, albeit with some differences. Greek theaters were built all over, in many cities. They look exactly liked you’d think. The all-stone design allowed for longevity in their construction, which is why many survive in decent condition today. Earlier theaters were built of wood, but being exposed to the elements (all theaters were outdoors) meant they were high maintenance, and none survive—let that be a lesson if you want something to survive for 2000 years , don’t build it out of wood.

From The Ancient Theater Archive, Whitman College.

This theater is older than your mom. Barely.

No more than three actors were used, regardless of how many speaking roles there were, whether tragedy or comedy. At the City Dionysia, playwrights competed for both fame and prizes, and unlike today, were primarily funded by the state. The theater itself can be broken into four parts; the “theatron” is where the spectators sat. The “orchestra” was a circular area in front of the stage where the chorus would dance, sing, and perform their roles. The “parodos” were passageways where the chorus or actors would enter and leave the stage. Finally, there was the “skene”, a small building directly behind the stage; it usually had a set of doors for actors to enter and exit, could be decorated to embrace the scenery, and had a roof where actors could climb when they played divine roles—the “deus ex machina” or “god from the machine” could literally be a crane to raise or lower actors from the roof of the skene to the floor.


Because the actors were in the open and conventions limited the number of performers, actors wore masks (think of the famous happy/sad actor masks) and costumes to display different characters. As a rule, each time the actor enters and leaves the stage, they take on a new character, usually accompanied by a wardrobe and mask change. The skene became quite useful in hiding actors “backstage” while they changed masks and costumes.

The plays themselves were usually divided into various sections of more or less recognizable pieces. They usually started with a prologue spoken by one or two characters that set the scene and introduced the play. They had three big “acts” for your beginning, middle, and end. Chorus speeches and dances filled the rest of the play, typically done between acts as transition pieces.

Unlike modern theater, Greek plays followed meter—even the spoken parts. This is similar to the Homeric poems, which we sometimes forget were in meter too. Iambic trimeter was the standard for dialogue, and trochaic tetrameter was the preferred form for the chorus’ songs. Musical theater and opera are the closest comparisons popular in today’s world. This is probably the most untranslatable aspect of ancient Greek theater, Greek being a fairly musical language, and the flow of dialogue spoken in meter becomes apparent only through the experience of hearing it. A similar problem with translation exists, with some people trying to translate the plays or metered works like the Homeric poems using meter or rhyming patterns, while others ignore these features and translate into straight prose. Basically, we tend to suck at capturing the true “essence” of these plays.

While today theater, Broadway, and Hollywood are prominent aspects of our society and culture, in Athens and elsewhere they carried extra public and social importance, in some respects even being functions of the state and government. It is quite likely part of this grew out of the relationship between state and religion, and the historically ritualized religious aspects of theater. Likewise, while the City Dionysia was a big ostentatious display of the might of the Athenian polis, it was still a religious festival for the god Dionysus. Because of the emphasis on ritual, the Greek states, much like the later Romans, controlled the public religious displays to ensure they were done correctly. Hence, the performance of plays became controlled as well.

The playwright submits his play to the Eponymous Archon, one of the chief Athenian magistrates. The Archon then decides which proposals to accept, and assigns a “choregos”, literally “grantor”, to fund the play (see my article on liturgies for how plays were funded and the Athenian tax system worked). During the festival, civil and religious proceedings go on. Libations are poured, a sacrifice is made, and the tribute of all the allied states is laid out on the stage, vast sums of silver and riches put on display to highlight the power of the Athenian Empire.

Then come the plays themselves. In the audience are foreign dignitaries, the Archons, generals, and other leaders of the city, other important and prominent Athenians, and the common folk. A few playwrights would be accepted, and they would compete. In the first row are the priests of Dionysus and the 10 judges. All in all, this was a festive and enjoyable day for everyone involved, but was still a serious and professional event. An upset didn’t just mean bad review, but serious consequences as an insult to the city and god.

A notable case is Aristophanes. Ancient Greek “Old Comedy” was highly political and biting, like Jon Stewart on a particularly hash and unforgiving day. In his first (now lost) play, Babylonians, he was particularly critical against Athenian policy and Kleon, a highly influential politician. Kleon sued Aristophanes, not for personal attacks, but slander against the city in front of foreigners. Although little is known about the incident, and although it does not appear to have impacted the comic’s career (Aristophanes lampooned the event two years later in the Acharnians, his second play, and the Babylonians itself reportedly took second place) it does highlight the high level of professional, religious, and political implications involved. Essentially, it’s like being asked to put on a play by the federal government, and President Obama, various foreign ambassadors, and the Pope are going to be in attendance. Oh, and the gods might get angry if the play is not up to par. No pressure.

Drama was biggest in Athens, thanks both to its sphere of influence and celebrations like the City Dionysia. Plato and Aristotle would write about drama in the 4th century BCE, and Menander’s “New Comedy” would be popular, although all his works only survive in fragments. Perhaps because of the collapse of the Athenian Empire, the rise of Macedon and Alexander the Great, or the sentiments of the Hellenistic Age, the centuries following would not be as prominent for Greek drama. Eventually, Roman drama took over as a major cultural attraction of the Western World.

Greek theater set the stage—pun intended—for much of how we do live performances today. At the very least, Greek theater influenced the Romans in many ways. The theater design itself has basically remained the same over the centuries, and the design served as the inspiration for the Coliseum (also called the Flavian Amphitheater, amphitheater, literally “two theaters” mashed together). When the Romans expanded into Greece, they basically copied Greek theater. The first Roman playwright writing in Latin, Livius Andronicus, simply translated Greek plays. The comedians Terence and Plautus likewise adapted plays from Greek “New Comedy”, i.e., Menander, and when push came to shove, guys like Seneca the Younger simply staged classics like Euripides’ Medea, with his own unique spin.

The Romans, influenced by the Greeks, would in turn influence poets of the Middle Ages, including Shakespeare, and continue right up to the modern day. Of course, the ancient plays themselves have a legacy. “Greek tragedy” has become a phrase on its own and even in 2016, I can attend a showing of Antigone, written in 414 BCE. I can imagine the look of shock on Sophocles’ face if he knew people would still be performing his play almost 2500 years later. But there it is; Greek theater has survived the test of time, and by current indications, will continue well into the future.

Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.


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