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An actor with bloodstains on her hands and neck sits on a table, arms wide, shouting at the sky.

Greek Theatre: At A Glance

If the origins of the dramatic arts are all Greek to you, here’s a quick overview of the essentials.

  • The fifth century BCE was the golden age of Greek Tragedy in Athens.
  • Once a year, major cities held a festival called the City Dionysia to worship Dionysos, the god of wine and revelry.
  • The word “theatre” comes from the Greek theáomai – “to see / observe”. An open-air théatron (literally a “place for viewing”) brought together as many as 15,000 philosophers, politicians, poets, artists and scientists from Ancient Greece’s independent city-states, many of which had different views on politics and culture.
  • At the City Dionysia, playwrights pitted their work against one another in competition. Each presented a trilogy of tragedies, followed by a comic ‘satyr’ play. The only surviving trilogy is The Oresteia, with which Aeschylus won the competition in 485 BCE (performed alongside his satyr play Proteus, which has not survived).
  • Judges chose the winners based on audience response, and victorious playwrights received a wreath of ivy. The three most famous Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, all won numerous competitions—some against each other.
  • No one knows the precise etymology of the word “tragedy”, which literally translates as “goat song.” Early choruses are said to have performed in goat skins, winning playwrights may have been awarded a goat as a prize—or there might be another explanation altogether.
  • In early theatre, 50 men known as a khoros (“chorus”) would collectively sing and dance dithyramb, hymns to honour Dionysos.
  • Tradition holds that in 534 BCE, the poet Thespis (whose name is the root of the term “thespian”) stepped out from the chorus to deliver the first individual speech, becoming the first actor (“hypocrite”) in Greek drama.
  • Aeschylus changed theatrical convention, reducing the chorus to 12 players and adding more actors. While the chorus initially represented the reactions and views of the polis (“city-state”), playwrights began using the group to express characters’ hidden emotional and psychological experiences, explore political ideas, eventually integrating the chorus as a character within the drama.
  • In performance, masks created a unified chorus, while allowing actors to play multiple roles. Exaggerated facial features masks helped the audience to determine a character’s sex, age, social status and emotional register, even from a distance. No physical masks remain, but some painted vases and sculptures show actors holding them after a performance.
  • Little is known about costumes in Ancient Greece. As with masks, actors were likely to have been heavily disguised in tunics and cloaks that would signifycharacter gender, age, social status and class. Tragic actors wore boots called cothurneses that elevated them above comedic actors.
  • Most Greek plays have been lost. Of more than 300 known tragedies, only 30* complete plays have survived—six* by Aeschylus, seven by Sophocles and 18 by Euripides. The single surviving satyr play is Euripides’ Cyclops. Of the comedies, 11 survive, all by Aristophanes.

*A possible addition to Aeschylus’ surviving plays is Prometheus Bound, but this is disputed.

Spring Awakening Tech 177 - Credit Marc Brenner