Ancient Greek Theatre & Culture
Ancient Greek Theatre
Greek theatre began in the 6th century BCE in Athens with the performance of tragedy plays at religious festivals. These, in turn, inspired the genre of Greek comedy plays.
The two types of Greek drama would be hugely popular and performances spread around the Mediterranean and influenced Hellenistic and Roman theatre.
As a consequence of their lasting popularity, the works of such great playwrights as Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes formed the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based.
In a similar way, the architecture of the ancient Greek theatre has continued to inspire the design of theatres today
The Origins of Tragedy
The exact origins of tragedy (tragōida) are debated amongst scholars. Some have linked the rise of the genre to an earlier art form, the lyrical performance of epic poetry.
Others suggest a strong link with the rituals performed in the worship of Dionysos such as the sacrifice of goats – a song ritual called trag-ōdia – and the wearing of masks.
Indeed, Dionysos became known as the god of theatre and perhaps there is another connection – the drinking rites which resulted in the worshippers losing full control of their emotions and in effect becoming another person, much as actors (hupokritai) hope to do when performing.
The music and dance of Dionysiac ritual was most evident in the role of the chorus and the music provided by an aulos player, but rhythmic elements were also preserved in the use of first, trochaic tetrameter and then iambic trimeter in the delivery of the spoken words.
A Tragedy Play
Plays were performed in an open-air theatre (theatron) with wonderful acoustics and seemingly open to all of the male populace (the presence of women is contested).
From the mid-5th century BCE entrance was free. The plot of a tragedy was almost always inspired by episodes from Greek mythology, which we must remember were often a part of Greek religion.
As a consequence of this serious subject matter, which often dealt with moral right and wrongs and tragic no-win dilemmas, violence was not permitted on the stage, and the death of a character had to be heard from offstage and not seen. Similarly, at least in the early stages of the genre, the poet could not make comments or political statements through his play.
Culture, Music, Theater
Playwrights who regularly wrote plays in competition became famous, and the three most successful were Aeschylus (c. 525 – c. 456 BCE), Sophocles (c. 496-406 BCE), and Euripides (c. 484-407 BCE).
Aeschylus was known for his innovation, adding a second actor and more dialogue, and even creating sequels.
He described his work as ‘morsels from the feast of Homer’ (Burn 206). Sophocles was extremely popular and added a third actor to the performance as wells as painted scenery.
Euripides was celebrated for his clever dialogues, realism, and habit of posing awkward questions to the audience with his thought-provoking treatment of common themes.
The plays of these three were re-performed and even copied into scripts for ‘mass’ publication and study as part of every child’s education.
Greek Comedy – Origins
The precise origins of Greek comedy plays are lost in the mists of prehistory, but the activity of men dressing as and mimicking others must surely go back a long way before written records.
The first indications of such activity in the Greek world come from pottery, where decoration in the 6th century BCE frequently represented actors dressed as horses, satyrs, and dancers in exaggerated costumes.
Another early source of comedy is the poems of Archilochus (7th century BCE) and Hipponax (6th century BCE) which contain crude and explicit sexual humour.
A third origin, and cited as such by Aristotle, lies in the phallic songs which were sung during Dionysiac festivals.
What is Greek theatre?
Greek theatre is a form of performance art where a limited number of actors and a chorus conduct a tragedy or comedy based on the works of ancient playwrights.
Greek theatre typically has as its theme stories from Greek mythology or comedic situations where real ancient Greek politicians and others are made fun of.
Who created Greek theatre?
Greek theatre evolved from religious ceremonies where participants wore masks and sang songs in honour of gods like Dionysos.
The actor Thespis (c. 520 BCE) is credited with being the first actor to speak to the audience and change costumes during the performance. This is why actors are sometimes called ‘thespians’ even today.
What are the two types of Greek plays?
Greek theatre was either tragedy or comedy. Tragedy plays saw three actors and a 15-person chorus perform stories from Greek mythology and religion.
Greek comedy plays poked fun at Greek culture and personalities; they involved actors and the chorus wearing extravagant and amusing costumes.
How has Greek theatre influenced modern entertainment?
Greek theatre has influenced modern entertainment in many areas. Actors with costumes, special effects, the use of satire, and even the shape of the theatre itself are all lasting influences.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus / Herodion theater, Athens Greece
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is one of the most emblematic ancient Greece theaters. Located just underneath the Acropolis Hill, it is an imposing landmark of Athens.
This majestic theatre was commissioned between 160-174 AD by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy orator, philosopher and writer. The theater was built in memory of his wife, Regilla, and could accommodate around 5,000 people.
Herodion was partly destroyed during the Heruli invasion in 267 AD. It remained abandoned for several centuries, and was gradually incorporated within the fortifications of the city of Athens.
The first excavations began in the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the beautiful ancient site was restored. Since then, it has hosted numerous performances, concerts and shows, often with world-famous artists.
Originally, the Herodion was covered with a lavish wooden roof, which has not survived. Fortunately, the impressive arches are still in place, providing a fabulous background for performers.
Concerts and other shows are held in Herodion during spring, summer and autumn. Some of them are part of the Athens & Epidaurus festival, and you can book your tickets in advance. In addition, there are usually plenty of other events.
Apart from rare exceptions, Herodion is only accessible during these performances. There are few experiences in Athens that are as special as attending a show in this amazing theatre, so don’t miss it!
If there are no shows when you visit, you can have a great view from above when you visit the Acropolis.
Ancient theatre of Thoriko, Attica
You may have never heard of the outdoor Greek theater of Thoriko, or Thoricus, which doesn’t often feature in Greek itineraries. However, this theatre is considered to be the oldest theatre in Greece which still exists in its original form.
The ancient theater of Thoriko is estimated to have been built between 525 – 480 BC. Unlike theatres that were built later, its layout wasn’t semi-circular, but oval-shaped, with a rectangular orchestra.
It is estimated that its maximum capacity was 3,200 spectators.
Excavations have shown that the site used to be a limestone quarry. Due to the consistent mining, it was gradually shaped into a flattened area that was used for the citizens’ assemblies.
Eventually, the theatre was not only used for performances, but also for teaching of drama and other functions
There is no fence or entrance fee to the site, so you can visit the ancient ruins anytime of the day.
The theatre of Thoriko is a short drive away from the famous temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio, so you can combine them in the same trip.
Other important landmarks in the area include the mineral-extracting facilities of Lavrio, a cemetery, and a small temple dedicated to Dionysus.
What mortal hath not heard of him who shared a wife with Zeus, Amphitryon of Argos, whom on a day Alcaeus, son of Perseus begat, Amphitryon the father of Heracles?
He it was dwelt here in Thebes, where from the sowing of the dragon’s teeth grew up a crop of earth-born giants; for of these Ares saved a scanty band, and their children’s children people the city of Cadmus.
Hence sprung Creon, son of Menoeceus, king of this land; and Creon became the father of this lady Megara, whom once all Cadmus’ race escorted with the glad music of lutes at her wedding, in the day that Heracles,
illustrious chief, led her to my halls. Now he, my son, left Thebes where I was settled, left his wife Megara and her kin, eager to make his home in Argolis,
in that walled town which the Cyclopes built,hence I am exiled for the slaying of Electryon; so he, wishing to lighten my affliction and to find a home in his own land, did offer
Eurystheu mighty price for my recall, even to free the world of savage monsters, whether it was that Hera goaded him to submit to this, or that fate was leagued against him.
The Electra of Euripides has the distinction of being, perhaps, the best abused, and, one might add, not the best understood, of ancient tragedies. “A singular monument of poetical, or rather unpoetical perversity;”
“the very worst of all his pieces;” are, for instance, the phrases applied to it by Schlegel. Considering that he judged it by the standards of conventional classicism, he could scarcely have arrived at any different conclusion. For it is essentially, and perhaps consciously, a protest against those standards. So,
indeed, is the tragedy of The Trojan Women; but on very different lines. The Electra has none of the imaginative splendour, the vastness, the intense poetry, of that wonderful work.
It is a close-knit, powerful, well-constructed play, as realistic as the tragic conventions will allow, intellectual and rebellious. Its psychology reminds one of Browning, or even of Ibsen.
To a fifth-century Greek all history came in the form of legend; and no less than three extant tragedies, Aeschylus’ Libation-Bearers (456 B.C.), Euripides’ Electra (413 B.C.), and Sophocles’
Electra (date unknown: but perhaps the latest of the three) are based on the particular piece of legend or history now before us.
It narrates how the son and daughter of the murdered king, Agamemnon, slew, in due course of revenge, and by Apollo’s express command, their guilty mother and her paramour.
O Bromius, unnumbered are the toils I bear because of thee, no less now than when I was young and hale; first, when thou wert driven mad by Hera and didst leave the mountain nymphs, thy nurses; next, when
in battle with earth-born spearmen I stood beside thee on the right as squire, and slew Enceladus, smiting him full in the middle of his targe with my spear.
Come, though, let me see; must I confess ’twas all a dream? No, by Zeus! since I really showed his spoils to the Bacchic god.
And now am I enduring to the full a toil still worse than those. For when Hera sent forth a race of Tyrrhene pirates against thee, that thou mightest be smuggled far away,
I, as soon as the news reached me, sailed in quest of thee with my children; and, taking the helm myself,
What misfortune is ours! we strain every nerve to get to the crows, do everything we can to that end, and we cannot find our way!
Yes, spectators, our madness is quite different from that of Sacas.
He is not a citizen, and would fain be one at any cost; we, on the contrary, born of an honourable tribe and family and living in the midst of our fellow-citizens, we have fled from our country as hard as ever we could go.
It’s not that we hate it; we recognize it to be great and rich, likewise that everyone has the right to ruin himself paying taxes; but the crickets only chirrup among the fig-trees for a month or two,
whereas the Athenians spend their whole lives in chanting forth judgments from their law-courts. That is why we started off with a basket, a stew-pot and some myrtle boughs!
I pray to the gods for release from this drudgery,this watch-keeping, measured in years, sprawled here
elbows bent, doglike, on top of Agamemnon’s house.I contemplate the congregation of the stars at night,as they bring both winter cold and summer heat to men,
bright masters, constellations splendid in the sky,as in their turns they wane and rise to dominance.
And now I watch for the beacon’s flame, the fire’sgleam, bringing word from Troy, a message of
the city captured; for a woman’s sanguine heart 10will have it so, her counsel more a man’s.
And when I keep this restless bed of mine,all wet with dew, unblessed with watchful dreams, for fear stands guard in place of sleep and keepsmy lids from meeting in security – why thenI make up my mind to sing, or hum a tune,and hope to manufacture so anantidote to myinsomnia, lamenting in tears the fate of this house,administered now far less well than before.
I would good fortune now might bring release from toil 20with the flare of the beacon fire alight in the night.O welcome, ligh
The early tragedies had only one actor who would perform in costume and wear a mask, allowing him to impersonate gods.
Here we can see perhaps the link to earlier religious ritual where proceedings might have been carried out by a priest.
Later, the actor would often speak to the leader of the chorus, a group of up to 15 actors (all male) who sang and danced but did not speak. This innovation is credited to Thespis c. 520 BCE (origin of the word thespian).
The actor also changed costumes during the performance (using a small tent behind the stage, the skēne, which would later develop into a monumental façade) and so break the play into distinct episodes.
Later, these would develop into musical interludes. Eventually, three actors were permitted on stage but no more – a limitation which allowed for equality between poets in competition.
However, a play could have as many non-speaking performers as required, so that plays with greater financial backing could put on a more spectacular production.
Due to the restricted number of actors then, each performer had to take on multiple roles where the use of masks, costumes, voice, and gesture became extremely important.
Competition & Celebrated Playwrights
The most famous competition for the performance of tragedy was as part of the spring festival of Dionysos Eleuthereus or the City Dionysia in Athens.
The archon, a high-ranking official of the city, decided which plays would be performed in competition and which citizens would act as chorēgoi and have the honour of funding their production while the state paid the poet and lead actors.
Each selected poet would submit three tragedies and one satyr play, a type of short parody performance on a theme from mythology with a chorus of satyrs, the wild followers of Dionysos.
The plays were judged on the day by a panel, and the prize for the winner of such competitions, besides honour and prestige, was often a bronze tripod cauldron. From 449 BCE there were also prizes for the leading actors
A Comedy Play
Although innovations occurred, a comedy play followed a conventional structure.
The first part was the parados where the Chorus of as many as 24 performers entered and performed a number of song and dance routines.
Dressed to impress, their outlandish costumes could represent anything from giant bees with huge stingers to knights riding another man in imitation of a horse or even a variety of kitchen utensils.
In many cases the play was actually named after the Chorus, e.g., Aristophanes’ The Wasps
The second phase of the show was the agon which was often a witty verbal contest or debate between the principal actors with fantastical plot elements and the fast changing of scenes which may have included some improvisation.
The third part of the play was the parabasis, when the Chorus spoke directly to the audience and even directly spoke for the poet.
The show-stopping finale of a comedy play was the exodos when the Chorus gave another rousing song and dance routine.
As in tragedy plays, all performers were male actors, singers, and dancers. One star performer and two other actors performed all of the speaking parts.
On occasion, a fourth actor was permitted but only if non-instrumental to the plot. Comedy plays allowed the playwright to address more directly events of the moment than the formal genre of tragedy.
The most famous comedy playwrights were Aristophanes (460 – 380 BCE) and Menander (c. 342-291 BCE) who won festival competitions just like the great tragedians.
Their works frequently poked fun at politicians, philosophers, and fellow artists, some of whom were sometimes even in the audience. Menander was also credited with helping to create a different version of comedy plays known as New Comedy (so that previous plays became known as Old Comedy).
He introduced a young romantic lead to plays, which became, along with several other stock types such as a cook and a cunning slave, a popular staple character.
New Comedy also saw more plot twists, suspense, and treatment of common people and their daily problems.
New plays were continuously being written and performed, and with the formation of actors’ guilds in the 3rd century BCE and the mobility of professional troupes, Greek theatre continued to spread across the Mediterranean with theatres becoming a common feature of the urban landscape from Magna Graecia to Asia Minor.
In the Roman world plays were translated and imitated in Latin, and the genre gave rise to a new art form from the 1st century BCE, pantomime, which drew inspiration from the presentation and subject matter of Greek tragedy.
Theatre was now firmly established as a popular form of entertainment and it would endure right up to the present day.
Even the original 5th-century BCE plays have continued to inspire modern theatre audiences with their timeless examination of universal themes as they are regularly re-performed around the world, sometimes, as at Epidaurus, in the original theatres of ancient Greece.
Greece is full of Ancient Greek Theatres! This article sheds some light on the origins and the importance of theatre in Ancient Greece. It also lists some of the theatres you can visit in Greece.
Ancient theatre in Greece
Theatre is one of many forms of art, where a story is acted out to an audience. Typically, a theatrical performance uses elements like speech, singing, dance and music, but also visual arts and other stimuli.
In our days, there are plenty of easily accessible theatrical shows. This wasn’t always the case though. Have you ever wondered how theatre came about?
To answer this question, we need to travel back to Ancient Athens. This is where the art of theatre first appeared in the 6th-5th century BC, among many new ideas and concepts.
Performances were originally introduced as a tribute to a popular god, Dionysus. They were staged in the newly built theatre of Dionysus, right underneath the Acropolis hill.
In the next centuries, and during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, the art of theatre reached many city-states in Greece and beyond.
Theatres of the ancient Greek world were constructed outdoors, often on mountain slopes. Just like the theatre of Dionysus in Athens, they were typically dedicated to a god.
Ancient Greek theatre layout
A lot has been written about the architecture of Ancient Greek theatres. While rectangular and oval-shaped theatres existed, the most common layout was semi-circular.
This arrangement consisted of several rows of tiered seating, ensuring better visibility and acoustics for all members of the audience.
The focal point of the theatre was the stage where performers appeared, known as the orchestra. Normally, there was an altar on the stage, where sacrifices were made to the patron god.
The seats were typically made of wood, stone or marble. In many cases, the original wooden seats were eventually replaced by stone or marble seats, that were more weather-resistant.
Often, the seats closest to the orchestra were reserved for officials and other prominent citizens. Marble seats with inscriptions of the officials’ names are still visible in many theatres around Greece.
Dionysus and ancient theater in Greece
Let’s look a little further into the god who was behind this unique form of art.
At around 600 BC, the cult of the God Dionysus was introduced in the powerful city-state of Athens. The tyrant Peisistratos, who was the ruler of Athens at the time, launched a new festival in his honour.
This major multi-day event was named Dionysia, and soon became extremely important for Athenians. It involved processions, chanting and sacrifices, but its highlights were theatrical plays and competitions.
The first distinct types of theatre that flourished in Ancient Athens were tragedy, comedy and satyr play.
Prominent Greek tragedians, namely Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, wrote some of their best-known works for the Dionysia festivals.
In fact, up until the Hellenistic period, each tragedy was written to honour Dionysus and only played once.
As a rule, ancient Greek theatrical shows consisted of a mix of speech, dance and music. All actors, dancers and other people involved in the performances were male.
During the shows, performers wore costumes and solid face masks. The latter were made of several materials, like wood, leather, or a mix of fabric and a thin layer of plaster.
As the audience was often far from the stage, the actors had to use expressive and exaggerated gestures
There are plenty of other important Greek ancient theatres all around the country. These include the theatres of Lindos (Rhodes), Aigeira (Peloponnese), Thebes (Viotia), Santorini, Milos, Kassopi (Preveza), Avdira (Xanthi), Corinth and many more.
In addition, you can visit theatres of the ancient world in other nearby countries, like Italy, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Albania, Tunisia and Jordan. Most of those were constructed during the Hellenistic or Roman era.
For now, let’s look at the best ancient theatres in Greece.
Theatre of Dionysus in Athens
This is where it all began! Built to honour Dionysus, this was the most important theatre in Ancient Athens. Fittingly, it was built right underneath the slopes of the Acropolis.
The theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus was first constructed between 560 – 530 BC, about a hundred years before the Parthenon. This makes it the oldest theatre in the world. It was at first made of wood, and the seats were laid out on a scaffolding.
In order to improve stability and safety, a new theatre was built at around 350 BC. The main materials used were stone and marble, that have stood the test of time.
The new theatre was a fabulous architectural accomplishment, not least due to its size. It is estimated that it could accommodate 17,000 – 19,000 spectators.
Its layout with tiered seating took advantage of the natural terrain slope. It was later reproduced in several dozens of theatres around the ancient Greek and Roman world.
More changes and alterations took place over the next centuries, and new architectural elements were introduced. The theatre was severely damaged during the invasion of the Heruli, in 267 AD.
It appears that the Dionysia festival continued until 529 AD, when Justinian the Great banned all practices of the ancient world.
In later centuries, other monuments were raised in the area, and the theatre was partially buried. Excavations began in 1862, and much of the thick layer of soil was removed, to reveal the ancient ruins.
Today, the theatre of Dionysus can be visited with your Acropolis ticket. If you look carefully, you will notice inscriptions on the first-row seats.
The Medea, in spite of its background of wonder and enchantment, is not a romantic play but a tragedy of character and situation.
It deals, so to speak, not with the romance itself, but with the end of the romance, a thing which is so terribly often the reverse of romantic.
For all but the very highest of romances are apt to have just one flaw somewhere, and in the story of Jason and Medea the flaw was of a fatal kind.
The wildness and beauty of the Argo legend run through all Greek literature, from the mass of Corinthian lays older than our present Iliad, which later writers vaguely associate with the name of Eumêlus,
to the Fourth Pythian Ode of Pindar and the beautiful Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. Our poet knows the wildness and the beauty; but it is not these qualities that he specially seeks.
He takes them almost for granted, and pierces through them to the sheer tragedy that lies below.
THE TROJAN WOMEN
udged by common standards, the Troädes is far from a perfect play; it is scarcely even a good play. It is an intense study of one great situation, with little plot, little construction,
little or no relief or variety. The only movement of the drama is a gradual extinguishing of all the familiar lights of human life,
with, perhaps, at the end, a suggestion that in the utterness of night, when all fears of a possible worse thing are passed,
there is in some sense peace and even glory. But the situation itself has at least this dramatic value, that it is different from what it seems.
The consummation of a great conquest, a thing celebrated in paeans and thanksgivings
the very height of the day-dreams of unregenerate man—it seems to be a great joy, and it is in truth a great misery. It is conquest seen when the thrill of battle is over,
and nothing remains but to wait and think. We feel in the background the presence of the conquerors, sinister and disappointed phantoms; of the conquered men, after long torment,
IFIGENEIA TIS TAVRIS
The Iphigenia in Tauris is not in the modern sense a tragedy; it is a romantic play, beginning
in a tragic atmosphere and moving through perils and escapes to a happy end. To the archaeologist the cause of this lies in the ritual on which the play is based.
All Greek tragedies that we know have as their nucleus something which the Greeks called an Aition—a cause or origin.
They all explain some ritual or observance or commemorate some great event.
Nearly all, as a matter of fact, have for this Aition a Tomb Ritual, as, for instance, the Hippolytus has the worship paid by the Trozenian Maidens at that hero’s grave.
The use of this Tomb Ritual may well explain both the intense shadow of death that normally hangs over the Greek tragedies, and also perhaps the feeling of the Fatality, which is, rightly or wrongly, supposed to be prominent in them.
For if you are actually engaged in commemorating your hero’s funeral, it follows that all through the story, however bright his prospects may seem, you feel that he is bound to die; he cannot escape.
A good many tragedies, however, are built not on Tomb Rituals but on other sacred Aitia: on the foundation of a city, like the Aetnae, the ritual of the torch- race,
like the Prometheus; on some great legendary succouring of the oppressed, like the Suppliant Women of Aeschylus and Euripides.
Lysistrata is the greatest work by Aristophanes. This blank and rash statement is made that it may be rejected.
But first let it be understood that I do not mean it is a better written work than the Birds or the Frogs, or that (to descend to the scale of values that will be naturally imputed to me) it
has any more appeal to the collectors of “curious literature” than the Ecclesiazusae or the Thesmophoriazusae. On the mere grounds of taste I can see an at least equally good case made out for the Birds.
That brightly plumaged fantasy has an aerial wit and colour all its own.
But there are certain works in which a man finds himself at an angle of vision where there is an especially felicitous union of the aesthetic and emotional elements which constitute the basic qualities of his uniqueness.
We recognize these works as being welded into a strange unity, as having a homogeneous texture of ecstasy over them that surpasses any aesthetic surface of harmonic colour,
though that harmony also is understood by the deeper welling of imagery from the core of creative exaltation.
And I think that this occurs in Lysistrata. The intellectual and spiritual tendrils of the poem are more truly interwoven, the operation of their centres more nearly unified; and so the work goes deeper into life.
First in my prayer I honour the goddess who, first of allthe gods, herself gave prophecy, yes, Gaia; then Themis,her daughter, who, according to the myth, succeeded tothe seat of prophecy;
and in the third allotment, noforce put forth, her sister willing, Phoebe took her place,another child of Earth and yet another of the Titan breed.And she it was that gave the privilege to Apollo asa birthday gift,
who there by took himself the name of Phoebus.Accordingly, he left behind the seas of Delos and its reefsto find safe landfall on the busy coasts of Attica and come
to this place to make his home beneath Parnassus’ mount.The children of Hephaestus were his escort then, who did him mighty honour; and they it was that made the road for him, transformed this savage land and made it tame.
The people gave him honours when he came, along with Delphus, lord and guiding master of the land.