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Essay/Term paper: The theater of dionysus

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Theater

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The Theater of Dionysus

The Theater of Dionysus was Europe's first theater, and stood immediately below
the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. It was originally built in the late 5th
century B.C. The theater was an outdoor auditorium in the shape of a great
semicircle on the slope of the Acropolis, with rows of seats on which about
eighteen thousand spectators could comfortably seat. The front rows consisted of
marble chairs, and were the only seats in the theater that had a back support.
The priests of Dionysus and the chief magistrates of Athens reserved these rows.
Priests claimed 50 of the 67 front row seats, then came the officials, the
guests of honor, then finally the ordinary citizens of Athens. Beyond the front
row, stood a circular space called the orchestra where the Chorus would sing and
dance, and in the center of which stood the alter of Dionysus. The orchestra
level was around 3 meters higher than the shrine. Behind the orchestra, there
lied a heavy rectangular foundation known as the stage on which the actors would
perform their section of the play. The back of the stage had a building painted
to look like the front of a temple or a palace. Here, the actors would retire
when they were not needed on stage or would go to when they had to change their
costumes. Above lay the deep blue sky, behind it was the Acropolis, and seen in
the distance was the olive colored hills and lush green of the forests that

The theater was built as a result of the Athenian's religious practice in honor
of the god, Dionysos, who personified both wine and fruitfulness. Long before
the theater itself was built, an annual ceremonial festival was held for
Dionysus in the same spot. This ancient ceremony was performed by choruses of
men who sang and danced in the god's honor. Spectators would gather in a circle
to watch these dancers; that was the way that the theater took its circular
shape. When the theater was built, the performers only sang and danced about
the stories of Dionysus's life, then later the stories of other gods and heroes.
The stories were told in the form of a song, chanted at first by all who took
place, then later by a chorus of about fifty performers. During the intervals
of a song, the leader would recite part of the story himself. As time passed,
these recitations became more and more important, as it eventually overtook the
chorus. They were now presented by two or three people, while the chorus
consisted of only fifteen performers. A maximum of three speakers were allowed
on stage at once, and only one story was told during one performance. The
chorus, although less important, still set the atmosphere for the play, and as
well gave the audience a time of relief from a tragedy.
The Festival of Dionysus was a great dramatic one that was held during
March and April inside the theater. Three poets were chosen every year, and
each wrote a series of three tragedies based on some well-known Greek legend.
Originally, admission to the theater was free, but as the crowds grew, the
leaders realized that a small entrance fee would be economically beneficial for
the theater. Several plays were given in one day, and a prize was awarded to
the best, so the audience was obligated to start at dawn and would remain until
sunset. While watching the plays, the Athenian audience was very critical as
they would bluntly show their signs of approval or disapproval by their applause,
or lack thereof. The legends and traditions from which most of the Greek plays
took their plots were well known to the Athenians. They were stories honoring
some great event or explaining some religious observance. These legends were
chosen by the different dramatists, each of whom brought forth a different side
of the story to enforce some particular lesson he wished to teach the audience.
The plays were written in poetry which deeply stirred the emotions of the
audience. It gave the Athenians much to think about their eternal problems of
human life and conduct, and the proper relationship between humans and gods.

Each play followed certain guidelines which created the culture of the theater.
When the play began, only three actors were allowed on stage at once. They
would usually wear very elaborate costumes, and on their feet would be a strange
looking wooden sole called a buskin. This would add about six inches to their
height to make them look taller and more impressive to the audience. A facial
mask would also be worn to identify whom the character was, and the moods and
feelings that the character portrayed. The mask included a wide mouth to
project the voice of the actors so that everyone in the immense audience would
be able to hear what the actor had to say. The actors would change their masks
as they changed their characters. There were no curtains used, even though the
plays were not divided into different acts. When there was a pause in action,
the Chorus would fill up the time with their songs. When a tragedy was
performed, the final calamity would never be shown on stage, but a messenger
would appear to give the audience an account of what had happened.

The creation of drama and the theater was a very large stepping stone for the
Greeks, as it showed surrounding and future societies many things about the
Greek beliefs, lifestyles, and culture. The building of the theater itself
showed their degree of engineering and architectural ability that they used in
creating their structures. It also showed that they had a vague form of
understanding the way that acoustics work, as all the seats, no matter where
they were, could hear the sounds from the stage. The plays that were performed
gave an insight on Greek history and mythology. Naturally, they would not have
performed any plays which did not interest the audience. They would only
display what they believed to be important for civilians to know, such as their
heritage and religious beliefs. Finally, the innovation of the drama and the
theater undeniably confirmed their absolute belief in religion, as the theater
would never have come about if it weren't for the worship of Dionysus by the


1) Powell, Anton, Ancient Greece. Facts on File, Inc., 1989.

2) Onians, John, Art and Thought in the Hellenistic Age. Thames and Hudson
Ltd., 1979.

3) Mills, Dorothy, The Book of the Ancient Greeks. G.P Putnam's Sons, 1977.

4) Skipp, Victor, Out of the Ancient World. Penguin Books, 1967.

5) Erim, Kenan, Aphrodisias, the City of Love. Facts on File Publications,


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