The history of Greek theatre

A short introduction

  • Roy Raukema - Faculty of Arts

Greek theatre can be considered as the cradle for theatre as we know it nowadays. Its principles and terminologies are still common within our contemporary arts and vocabulary. The greatest examples are words like drama, tragedy and comedy which still are contemporary terms and genres. Though it remains unclear what the origins of the theatre in Greece were, it was known that it used to be part of religious festivals, just like the Roman theatre later would be.

1. Festivals
2. Greek Drama
2.1. Tragedy
2.2 Comedy
2.3 Satyr Play
3. From Greece to the Roman Empire
4. Sources

1. Festivals

Not all religious festivals would have had theatrical plays, though theatre only took place during festivals. Festivals were dedications to the Greek gods, just like the Romans later would do. There were 12 Greek Gods, of whom the Dionysus was honored during (many, but not all of) the festivals that included theatre. Dionysus was the god of theatre, wine (and it's production process) and fertility. The amount of festivals in Greece that included theatre is unknown. Much of the things we know nowadays about Greek theatre itself is derived from the plays that were held in Athens, but only a few of these plays have survived. It is assumed that the festivals in the other parts of Greece were by and large similar, though with slight differences in traditions [1].

Two Athenian festivals are worth mentioning; the Lenaia and the City (or Great) Dionysia. The Lenaia, or January- festival, was important because of the formal recognition of theatre in 440 B.C., though it was part of the festivals long before that[2]. This festival was important for the creation of comedy in Greek theatre [3].

The City Dionysia was a festival held in Athens in honor of the god Dionysus. This festival originally started in the countryside, to honor the god of winemaking, where it is called Rural Dionysia. This festival was transferred to the city, where its nature probably changed to honoring Dionysus as the god of theatre. The City Dionysia was focused on tragedy[4]. The Theatre of Dionysus, on the slope of the Acropolis in Athens, was built for this festival and might have been able to host 17,000 spectators [5].

An interesting feature of the festivals was that they had a competitive element, quite similar to the Olympic Games. The best actor, the best play, the best musician for instance would be chosen. The winners would get an ivy garland, though it is not known if this is the only price they received. Nevertheless, all participants would receive payment[6].

2. Greek Drama

The Greek word drama means to act. Already in Greek theatre, music (singing), costumes and masks were being used in many plays. Greek drama can roughly be divided into three genres: tragedy, comedy and satyr play. Since only a few plays have survived, only assumptions can be made on the general features of these genres.

2.1 Tragedy

Since not many Greek tragedies have survived, it is hard to give a good overview of the general features of them. There are only 31 known works, by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, which have survived, though these are only be a small fraction of the total amount of tragedies that have been written [7]. One of these plays is the famous Oeidipus Rex by Sophocles, which became infamous by the psychoanalytical concept, described by Sigmund Freud in 1897.

The tragedies were based on history or myths, but the writers were able to adapt the stories or to elaborate on certain elements from these stories. The plays usually start with a prologue, by which the audience gets informed on the events prior to the play. Then the story takes place, usually focused around the climax of the story[8]. In general, some characters die in the end of the story. The characters usually are people from the higher levels of society.

2.2 Comedy

Ancient Greek Comedy can be divided into three parts, ordered chronologically: Old, Middle and New Comedy. It can be seen as the contrary of tragedy. Only 11 Old Comedy works of a single author, named Aristophanes, have survived. Obviously more have been written. Central in his works is political criticism, which also includes the mocking of well-known people[9]. Aristophanes' works usually start with a seemingly ridiculous idea from the one of the protagonists, which eventually comes true. It also includes the “basic” needs and desires of the common people: food, sex, wealth and relaxation. A lot of phallic symbols were used during these plays [10].

It is not clear when exactly Old Comedy starts and Middle Comedy begins, since Aristophanes' last work (Wealth) can be considered as Middle Comedy as well. The main difference between Old and Middle is that mythology is more central in Middle Comedy, instead of political criticism. Also, the mocking of people would not be taking place, but some of the features (like food and sex) would still remain. No complete Middle Comedy work has survived [11].

New Comedy is considered to begin after the death of Alexander the Great, in 323 B.C. The biggest difference between New Comedy and Old and Middle is that New Comedy is more realistic. It is centered in a more contemporaneous situation, in which almost no gods took part; mythology is not a central part[12]. The role of criticism has almost diminished in New Comedy and it had more romantic features, compared to Old and Middle Comedy. The stories were also more complicated[13]. Famous writers include Menander, Diphilus and Philemon. Several of these Greek plays have been adapted and translated into Latin by Terence and Plautus.

2.3 Satyr Play

Though the origins of satyr play are not clear, it is assumed that it is derived from the tragedies. Since there are only a few surviving plays (Euripides' Cyclops is the only complete satyr play that survived), it is difficult to give a general overview. It is however known that writers that wanted to participate in the City Dionysia with a tragedy or a comedy were only allowed to do so if they also submitted a satyr play [14].

Satyr plays are, based on mythology. The difference is that they are less 'serious' as tragedies, more 'shabby'. It mainly ridicules gods or heroes and their adventures, with humor, hinting at sexual acts or nudity and using occasionally obscene language [15,16].

3. From Greece to the Roman Empire

There were a lot of Greek settlements on the coasts of southern Italy and on Sicily. This area was called Magna Graecia (Latin for Great Greece). It was here that the Romans first came into contact with the Greeks and Greek culture. The conquest of the southern parts of the peninsula and Sicily, during the First Punic War with Carthage (261-241 BC), gave the Romans full control over the peninsula. This eventually resulted in the introduction of Greek theatre to Roman theatre [17].

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4. Sources

  1. Hanna M. Roisman, The Encyclopedia of Greek Tragedy , 1st ed, s.v. 'Dramatic Festivals'. Accessed 13-12-2014, via: *Link breaks the page*
  2. F.H. Sandbach, The Comic Theatre of Greece and Rome, 11.
  3. Phyllis Hartnoll, Geschiedenis van het Theater, 11.
  4. F.H. Sandbach, The Comic Theatre of Greece and Rome, 12.
  5. Phyllis Hartnoll, Geschiedenis van het Theater, 9.
  6. F.H. Sandbach, The Comic Theatre of Greece and Rome, 13.
  7. Oscar G. Brockett, History of the Theatre (6th edition), 17.
  8. Oscar G. Brockett, History of the Theatre (6th edition), 18.
  9. Marianne McDonald and Michael Walton, The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, 111.
  10. Oscar G. Brockett, History of the Theatre (6th edition), 21-22.
  11. Marianne McDonald and Michael Walton, The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, 18.
  12. F.H. Sandbach, The Comic Theatre of Greece and Rome, 55.
  13. Marianne McDonald and Michael Walton, The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, 28.
  14. Oscar G. Brockett, History of the Theatre (6th edition), 19-20.
  15. Oscar G. Brockett, History of the Theatre (6th edition), 20.
  16. Hanna M. Roisman, The Encyclopedia of Greek Tragedy, 1st ed, s.v. 'The Satyr Drama'. Accessed 30-12-2014 via: *Link breaks the page*.
  17. Marianne McDonald and Michael Walton, The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, 53.