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Theatre History (Part 1)

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Origins   ::   Greek   ::   Roman & Medieval   ::   Commedia Dell 'Arte   ::   Activities

The Greek Theatre

(NOTE: Before doing this lesson, please read Oedipus the King , found in the Readings section of this website—see the blue bar on the left. Oedipus the King is also a play required for the Tragedy unit in the "Huh? Theatre: The Basics" section and also the Directing unit in the Performing Arts of Theatre section).

Why study the Greeks? Only because our system of arts, philosophy, architecture and government are based on ancient Greek culture. Is that a good enough reason? Have you ever wondered how we got our ideas of justice and democracy? Ever wondered why our government buildings look like Greek architecture? Because our society discovered the Greeks and Romans during the Rennaissance and thought they were pretty groovy, so we copied them.

The Festival of Dionysus

It all began with booze and sex. Well, that's putting it a bit brash, but Greek theatre centered around the Festival of Dionysus: the god of wine and fertility.

At the festival, held in Athens, a playwriting competition was held. There were strict rules about these plays:

1. The playwright had to submit a trilogy of three plays. These plays were usually a story that took three plays to tell. The only complete trilogy we have is The Oresteia by Aeschylus (525-456 BC). It is a really masterful play about Agamemnon's murder and the subsequent revenge cycle this puts in place. The story ends when Athena intervenes and sits in judgement, ending the revenge-cycle justice system in favor of a system based on fairness and equity and "blind justice." Incidentally, Athena graces our Supreme Court building today. She holds a scale to show how fair she is. We also have three Oedipus plays by the same playwright: Sophocles. These plays all come from different trilogies, however.

2. The playwright had to include a satyr play (a play about mythical creatures called satyrs—half man, half goat—who told mostly dirty jokes).

Three playwrights came out to be winners more than others: Aeschylus, Sophocles and the younger Euripedes. Sophocles (496-406 BC) won the most blue ribbons, but Euripedes (480-406 BC) was more attractive to scholars during the Rennaissance, so they preserved more of his plays. He is still the most popular of the three. His plays not only feature gods and noble people, but regular folks inhabit his plays, and he seems to give them all equal footing right next to the gods. And remember, Aeschylus' The Oresteia is the only extant full trilogy that ended up being preserved.

At first, the plays were mere dithyrambs : recited story- poems chanted, performed, and sung by a chorus. Then an amazing thing happened: Thespis, an enterprising dithyrambist, began acting out some of the major roles in the dithyrambs he devised. He became Greece's first actor (hence the word thespian, referring to an actor).

Anyone could attend these plays, though if you were wealthy, you got a good seat.

There has been some debate about costumes and masks worn by Greek actors. Recent discoveries show vases with actors holding masks, and the masks are quite realistic. Set design was probably minimal. Scene changes were merely turnings of prisms with painted scenery upstage called periaktoi .

Comedy in Ancient Greece

Comedy was a different matter. The most famous comic playwright was Aristophanes (448-380 BC). Like the tragedians above, his plays are still performed today. Perhaps the most popular is Lysistrata , a play about women who are so fed up with their men at war all the time they refuse to have sex with their husbands until they stop. It works of course.

Aristophanes liked satire, and he made great fun of politicians, other playwrights like Aeschylus and Euripedes, scholars, and others. Great fun was had by all.

Later, a playwright named Menander (342-391 BC) would become the most famous playwright. We have only one of his plays in full. Since Menander wrote plays so much later, his plays belong to New Comedy while Aristophanes' plays are recognized as Old Comedy. Old Comedy is generally accepted as more literary and "better" than New Comedy—but try telling that to Menander.

The End

In 404 BC, the Spartans overran Athens, putting an end to the drama competitions and most of Athen's cultural life. Bummer.

After that, Alexander the Great came along, and then others.

But later, the Romans would discover the greatness of Athens' culture, and they would copy it and "improve" it. The Romans, after discovering a Greek theatre, would make it BIGGER, for example. But we'll approach the Romans later.

More information:

The following site contains some great information about Greek Theatre. Check it out!

A cheesy interactive Flash movie with some good basic information.

Workbook Entry
Ancient Greek Theatre

In the 1980s, a famous avant garde theatre director adapted a different play of Sophocles about Oedipus the King, called Oedipus at Colonus , to a more modern, and he felt, appropriate type of drama: a gospel musical. He felt that gospel music, though clearly not what the ancient Greeks listened to, was still equivalent in terms of the desired effect on the audience that the ancient Greek playwrights desired and that ancient Greek audiences experienced. What you do think? Is Gospel at Colonus similar in effect to ancient Greek plays? List some reasons pro and con and then select one or the other and defend your position. This should only take a paragraph or two.

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 06). Theatre History (Part 1). Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License