The art of drama developed in the ancient Greek city-state of Athens in the late sixth century B.C. From the religious chants honoring Dionysus arose the first tragedies, which centered on the gods and Greece’s mythical past. In the fifth century, Greek audiences enjoyed the works of four master playwrights; of these, three—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—were tragedians. The early works focused on the good and evil that existed simultaneously in the world as well as the other contradictory forces of human nature and the outside world. All three tragic playwrights drew their material from Greek myths and legends; they each brought new developments to the art form. Aeschylus, whose Oresteia trilogy examines the common tragic themes of vengeance and justice, brought tragedy to the level of serious literature. Sophocles wrote perhaps the greatest tragic work of all time, Oedipus the King. The last great tragedian, Euripides, questioned traditional values and the ultimate power of the gods. In plays such as Medea and Antigone, Euripides explores the choices that humans make under difficult situations. C. M. Bowra pointed out in his book Classical Greece that “Greek tragedy provides no explicit answers for the sufferings of humanity, but it . . . shows how they happen and how they may be borne.” Indeed, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King expresses a truly sorrowful course of events and how one man, though his life is devastated, forges a new identity and learns to live with himself. The myth of Orestes, as seen in Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy and Euripides’ Orestes introduces other major themes in Greek tragedy, namely justice (divine, personal, and communal) and vengeance.
Comedy most likely also developed out of the same religious rituals as tragedy. Aristophanes was the greatest writer of comedies in the early period known as Old Comedy. He used biting satire in plays such as Birds and Lysistrata to ridicule prominent Athenian figures and current events. Later comedy relied less on satire and mythology and more on human relations among the Greek common people.
Greek drama created an entirely new art form, and over the centuries, the works of these ancient Greek writers have influenced and inspired countless writers, philosophers, musicians, and other artists and thinkers. Greek drama, with its universal themes and situations, continues to hold relevance for modern audiences.
Aeschylus (c. 525–456 B.C.)
Aeschylus was born about 525 B.C., probably in Eleusis. He was the first of the best-known ancient Greek tragic dramatists. He lifted the dramatic presentations from a choral performance to a work of art. He also is significant because he added a second actor on stage, allowing for dialogue, and reduced the number of the chorus from about fifty to about fifteen. With Aeschylus, tragic drama was presented through action, not through recitation. Aeschylus took part in the City Dionysia (a festival for the god Dionysus, involving a procession, a sacrifice of bulls with an accompanying feast, and dramatic competitions), probably for the first time in 499 B.C., and he won it for the first time fifteen years later. His masterpiece is the Oresteia trilogy, which was produced in 458 B.C. His plays are of lasting literary value because of their lyrical language, intricate plots, and universal themes. His language is marked by force, majesty, and emotional intensity as well as by metaphors and figurative speech. He wrote about ninety plays, of which seven have survived. Aeschylus died about 456 B.C. in Gela, Sicily.
Aristophanes (c. 450–385 B.C.)
Aristophanes was born about 450 B.C., possibly on the island Aegina in Greece. His plays are the only examples of Old Comedy (comedy that focuses largely on political satire rather than human relations, the focus of New Comedy) that have survived in their complete form. Aristophanes’ themes and work generally reflected the social, literary, and philosophical life of Athens, and many of his plays were inspired by events of the Peloponnesian War. Eleven of his approximately forty plays survive. Among the most well-known are Birds and Frogs. His appeal lay in his witty dialogue, his satire, and the inventiveness of his comic scenes. Many of his plays are still produced on the modern stage. Aristophanes died about 385 B.C. in Athens, Greece.
Crates (fl. c. 470–450 B.C.)
Flourishing about 470 B.C. in Athens, Crates is considered to be the founder of Greek comedy. According to Aristotle, he abandoned traditional comedy—which centered on invective—and introduced more general stories that relied on welldeveloped plots.
Cratinus (?–c. 420 B.C.)
Cratinus was regarded in antiquity as one of the three great writers of the Old Comedy period. Only fragments of his twenty-seven known plays survive, but they are enough to show that his comedies, like those of Aristophanes, seem to have been a mixture of parodied mythology and reference to contemporary events. For example, Athenian leader Pericles was a frequent subject of Cratinus’s ridicule. He died about 420 B.C.
Epicharmus (c. 530–440 B.C.)
Epicharmus was born about 530 B.C. He is seen as the originator of Sicilian, or Doric, comedy. He is credited with more than fifty plays, but few lines survive. Many of his plays were mythological burlesques: he even satirized the gods. His lively style made his work more akin to New Comedy than the...
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