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Essay/Term paper: The history of greek theater

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Theater

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The History of Greek Theater

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
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,

3. Murray, Gilbert, Euripides and His Age, New York: Oxford University Press,

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


 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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