Ancient Greek Theater

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Ancient Greek Theater


The theater of Dionysus, Athens (Saskia, Ltd.)

1. Timeline of Greek Drama

Although the origins of Greek Tragedy and Comedy are obscure and controversial, our ancient sources allow us to construct a rough chronology of some of the steps in their development. Some of the names and events on the timeline are linked to passages in the next section on the Origins of Greek Drama which provide additional context.

(Works in bold are on the Hum 110 syllabus)

7th Century BC

c. 625         Arion at Corinth produces named dithyrambic choruses.

6th Century BC

  600-570      Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, transfers "tragic choruses" to Dionysus

  540-527      Pisistratus, tyrant of Athens, founds the festival of the Greater Dionysia
  536-533      Thespis puts on tragedy at festival of the Greater Dionysia in Athens
  525         Aeschylus born
  511-508      Phrynichus' first victory in tragedy
c. 500         Pratinus of Phlius introduces the satyr play to Athens

5th Century BC

  499-496      Aeschylus' first dramatic competition

c. 496         Sophocles born
  492         Phrynicus' Capture of Miletus (Miletus was captured by the Persians in 494)
  485         Euripides born
  484         Aeschylus' first dramatic victory
  472         Aeschylus' Persians
  467         Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes
  468         Aeschylus defeated by Sophocles in dramatic competition
  463?        Aeschylus' Suppliant Women
  458         Aeschylus' Oresteia (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides)   
  456         Aeschylus dies
c. 450         Aristophanes born
  447         Parthenon begun in Athens
c. 445         Sophocles' Ajax
  441         Sophocles' Antigone
  438         Euripides' Alcestis
  431-404      Peloponnesian War (Athens and allies vs. Sparta and allies)
  431         Euripides' Medea
c. 429         Sophocles' Oedipus the King
  428         Euripides' Hippolytus
  423         Aristophanes' Clouds
  415         Euripides' Trojan Women
  406         Euripides dies; Sophocles dies
  405         Euripides' Bacchae
  404         Athens loses Peloponnesian War to Sparta
  401         Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus

4th Century BC

  399          Trial and death of Socrates

c. 380's        Plato's Republic includes critique of Greek tragedy and comedy
c. 330's        Aristotle's Poetics includes defense of Greek tragedy and comedy

2. Origins of Greek Drama

Ancient Greeks from the 5th century BC onwards were fascinated by the question of the origins of tragedy and comedy. They were unsure of their exact origins, but Aristotle and a number of other writers proposed theories of how tragedy and comedy developed, and told stories about the people thought to be responsible for their development. Here are some excerpts from Aristotle and other authors which show what the ancient Greeks thought about the origins of tragedy and comedy.

Aristotle on the origins of Tragedy and Comedy


1. Indeed, some say that dramas are so called, because their authors represent the characters as "doing" them (drôntes). And it is on this basis that the Dorians [= the Spartans, etc.] lay claim to the invention of both tragedy and comedy. For comedy is claimed by the Megarians here in Greece, who say it began among them at the time when they became a democracy [c. 580 BC], and by the Megarians of Sicily on the grounds that the poet Epicharmas came from there and was much earlier than Chionides and Magnes; while tragedy is claimed by certain Dorians of the Peloponnese. They offer the words as evidence, noting that outlying villages, called dêmoi by the Athenians, are called kômai by them, and alleging that kômôdoi (comedians) acquired their name, not from kômazein (to revel), but from the fact that, being expelled in disgrace from the city, they wandered from village to village. The Dorians further point out that their word for "to do" is drân, whereas the Athenians use prattein. (Aristotle: Poetics Chapter 3)


2. And in accordance with their individual types of character, poetry split into two kinds, for the graver spirits tended to imitate noble actions and noble persons performing them, and the more frivolous poets the doings of baser persons, and as the more serious poets began by composing hymns and encomia, so these began with lampoons....Thus among the early poets, some became poets of heroic verse and others again of iambic verse. Homer was not only the master poet of the serious vein, unique in the general excellence of his imitations and especially in the dramatic quality he imparts to them, but was also the first to give a glimpse of the idea of comedy [in the Margites]...And once tragedy and comedy had made their appearance, those who were drawn to one or the other of the branches of poetry, true to their natural bias, became either comic poets instead of iambic poets, or tragic poets instead of epic poets because the new types were more important-- i.e. got more favorable attention, than the earlier ones. Whether tragedy has, then, fully realized its possible forms or has not yet done so is a question the answer to which both in the abstract and in relation to the audience [or the theater] may be left for another discussion. Its beginnings, certainly, were in improvisation [autoschediastikês], as were also those for comedy, tragedy originating in impromptus by the leaders of dithyrambic choruses, and comedy in those of the leaders of the phallic performances which still remain customary in many cities. Little by little tragedy grew greater as the poets developed whatever they perceived of its emergent form, and after passing through many changes, it came to a stop, being now in possession of its specific nature [tên hautês phusin]. It was Aeschylus who first increased the number of the actors from one to two and reduced the role of the chorus, giving first place to the dialogue. Sophocles [added] the third actor and [introduced] painted scenery. Again, [there was a change] in magnitude; from little plots and ludicrous language (since the change was from the satyr play), tragedy came only late in its development to assume an air of dignity, and its meter changes from the trochaic tetrameter to the iambic trimeter. Indeed, the reason why they used the tetrameter at first was that their form of poetry was satyric [i.e. for "satyrs"] and hence more oriented toward dancing; but as the spoken parts developed, natural instinct discovered the appropriate meter, since of all metrical forms the iambic trimeter is best adapted for speaking. (This is evident, since in talking with one another we very often utter iambic trimeters, but seldom dactylic hexameters, or if we do we depart from the tonality of normal speech. Again, [there was a change] in the number of episodes -- but as for this and the way in which reportedly each of the other improvements came about, let us take it all as said, since to go through the several details would no doubt be a considerable task. (Aristotle: Poetics Chapter 4)



Stories about Thespis the Athenian playwright


11. From when Thespis the poet first acted, who produced a play in the city and the prize was a goat... (Marmor Parium, under the year about 534 BC).


12. This is Thespis, who first moulded tragic song, inventing new joys for his villagers, when Bacchus led the wine-smeared (?) chorus, for which a goat was the prize (?) and a basket of Attic figs was a prize too. The young change all this. Length of time will discover many new things. But mine is mine. (Dioscorides, Anth. Pal. VII. 410)


13. The unknown poetry of the tragic Muse Thespis is said to have discovered and to have carried poems on wagons, which they sang and acted, their faces smeared with wine-lees. (Horace, Ars Poetica 275-277)


14. As of old tragedy formerly the chorus by itself performed the whole drama and later Thespis invented a single actor to give the chorus a rest and Aeschylus a second and Sophocles a third, thereby completing tragedy... (Diogenes Laertius III. 56)


15. Thespis: Of the city of Ikarios in Attica, the sixteenth tragic poet after the first tragic poet, Epigenes of Sicyon, but according to some second after Epigenes. Others say he was the first tragic poet. In his first tragedies he anointed his face with white lead, then he shaded his face with purslane in his performance, and after that introduced the use of masks, making them in linen alone. He produced in the 61st Olympiad (536/5-533/2 BC). Mention is made of the following plays: Games of Pelias or Phorbas, Priests, Youths, Pentheus. (The Suda lexicon)


3.  Staging an ancient Greek play

Attending a tragedy or comedy in 5th century BC Athens was in many ways a different experience than attending a play in the United States in the 20th century. To name a few differences, Greek plays were performed in an outdoor theater, used masks, and were almost always performed by a chorus and three actors (no matter how many speaking characters there were in the play, only three actors were used; the actors would go back stage after playing one character, switch masks and costumes, and reappear as another character). Greek plays were performed as part of religious festivals in honor of the god Dionysus, and unless later revived, were performed only once. Plays were funded by the polis, and always presented in competition with other plays, and were voted either the first, second, or third (last) place. Tragedies almost exclusively dealt with stories from the mythic past (there was no "contemporary" tragedy), comedies almost exclusively with contemporary figures and problems.

In what follows, we will run through an imaginary (but as far a possible, accurate) outline of the production of a Greek tragedy in 5th century BC Athens from beginning to end. The outline will bring out some of the features of creating and watching a Greek tragedy that made it a different process than it is today. Staging a play.


4. Greek Theaters


Greek tragedies and comedies were always performed in outdoor theaters. Early Greek theaters were probably little more than open areas in city centers or next to hillsides where the audience, standing or sitting, could watch and listen to the chorus singing about the exploits of a god or hero. From the late 6th century BC to the 4th and 3rd centuries BC there was a gradual evolution towards more elaborate theater structures, but the basic layout of the Greek theater remained the same. The major components of Greek theater are labled on the diagram above.

Orchestra: The orchestra (literally, "dancing space") was normally circular. It was a level space where the chorus would dance, sing, and interact with the actors who were on the stage near the skene. The earliest orchestras were simply made of hard earth, but in the Classical period some orchestras began to be paved with marble and other materials. In the center of the orchestra there was often a thymele, or altar. The orchestra of the theater of Dionysus in Athens was about 60 feet in diameter.

Theatron: The theatron (literally, "viewing-place") is where the spectators sat. The theatron was usually part of hillside overlooking the orchestra, and often wrapped around a large portion of the orchestra (see the diagram above). Spectators in the fifth century BC probably sat on cushions or boards, but by the fourth century the theatron of many Greek theaters had marble seats.

Skene: The skene (literally, "tent") was the building directly behind the stage. During the 5th century, the stage of the theater of Dionysus in Athens was probably raised only two or three steps above the level of the orchestra, and was perhaps 25 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The skene was directly in back of the stage, and was usually decorated as a palace, temple, or other building, depending on the needs of the play. It had at least one set of doors, and actors could make entrances and exits through them. There was also access to the roof of the skene from behind, so that actors playing gods and other characters (such as the Watchman at the beginning of Aeschylus' Agamemnon) could appear on the roof, if needed.

Parodos: The parodoi (literally, "passageways") are the paths by which the chorus and some actors (such as those representing messengers or people returning from abroad) made their entrances and exits. The audience also used them to enter and exit the theater before and after the performance.

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