Greek theater was dominated by the works of five playwrights. Many of the great tragedies extant today were prize-winning works by Aeschylus (525-24 b.c. to 456-55), Sophocles (497 b.c. to 406), and Euripides (circa 484 b.c. to 407-06) and the famous comedies by Aristophanes (circa 447 b.c. to somewhere between 386-80) and Menander (342-41 b.c. to 290), among others.
Although the exact origins of Greek drama cannot be known with absolute certainty, most scholars believe its roots can be traced to the worship of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine. Members of the cult of Dionysus practiced assorted religious rituals, including the dithyramb, possibly as far back as 1200 b.c. Although scholars do not fully understand the dithyramb, they speculate that the ritual involved a type of choric poetry, accompanied by dancers and flute playing. The choir, which numbered fifty persons, assumed roles of satyrs and maenads in honor of Dionysus. The cult and its rituals spread widely over the centuries, until most of Greece celebrated it. And as it spread across the nation, religious elements diminished and theatrical elements were expanded. In the sixth century b.c. great tellers of Homeric tales began to recite in public contests before audiences. Nowhere was this activity more prominent than in Athens, the densely populated cultural center of Greece. Sometime during the 6th century, a synthesis was achieved: a choir member, perhaps inspired by the epic presenters, stepped away from the others and their song and recited his own lines. His name was Thespis and, in asserting his individuality from the rest of the choir, he became the first actor. In 534 Thespis won first place in the drama competition at Athens's magnificent religious festival called the City Dionysia, which had been established four years earlier and would soon become an annual event. Scholars differ in their assessments regarding the nature of these very early plays, with some calling them little more than choric, and others deeming them fledgling tragedies. The satyr-play, which served as raucous, comic relief after the performance of three serious dramas in a row, first appeared in 501 b.c. The scale of the theater grew rapidly: the Theatre of Dionysus located near the Acropolis seated 17,000 and Plato estimated that some 30,000 spectators viewed various portions of the Dionysian festival's dramas.
Of the playwrights mentioned above, Aeschylus is credited with refining drama into an art form. His first victory in the City Dionysia was in 484 and he dominated the event for decades. He introduced the second actor on stage and this enabled an expanded story line, with more potential for conflict and dramatic situations. His work made great use of myth and legend and he included gods among his main characters. The second great writer of tragedy was Sophocles. His first victory in the City Dionysia contest was in 468; Sophocles was the first significant competitor to Aeschylus and is responsible for introducing three actors on stage at the same time. He did not neglect the potential of the ensemble and is noted for advancing characterization to a previously unheard of level. His irony-laced tragedies stress human interaction with other humans more so than relations between humans and gods. The last of the great Greek tragedians was Euripides, who first competed in 455. Although he did not achieve the popularity of Aeschylus or Sophocles in his own lifetime, possibly due to his emphasis on more realistic people and situations, Euripides's Medea (431 b.c.) is regarded as one of the finest achievements in the history of drama, and he is probably the most popular of the Greek playwrights today. Aristophanes was the first master of comedy, a dramatic form of unknown origin; scholars believe it likely has roots similar to tragedy. Aristophanes is the best representative of the period known as Old Comedy; the comedies of this time were highly political in nature, satiric, and fantastic. These evolved through a posited stage of Middle Comedy, arriving at New Comedy, represented by the last great Greek dramatist, Menander. Menander is silent on politics; his plays, which have been compared to modern era farces, deal with common people, their problems, and their romantic situations.
Modern thinking regarding the origin of Greek tragedy was advanced in 1872 by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, where he proposed that its roots were in ritual and the cult of Dionysus. And although specific details of this theory remain in dispute, by and large, the majority of modern scholars subscribe to this point of view. A contemporary of Nietsche's, A. E. Haigh, explores many aspects of the festivals of Dionysus. J. R. Green discusses how drama changed as the written word became important in Greek society. Leo Aylen also examines Greek theater's origins, with an emphasis on the influences of war and religion. The impact of war can hardly be overstated: many of the greatest tragedies were written when Athens was at war with either Persia or Sparta, and Greece's defeat by the Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War profoundly affected its theater. However, despite considerable research, there is also a critical point of view that questions many of the accepted theories regarding Greek theater. For example, Clifford Ashby is skeptical of the conclusions reached by the majority of scholars, insisting that not enough facts are available to allow certainty regarding the nature and origins of Greek theater.
Persae [Persians] 472 b.c.
Seven against Thebes c. 467 b.c.
Oresteia 458 b.c.
Prometheus Vinctus [Prometheus Bound] date unknown
Acharnians 425 b.c.
Wasps 422 b.c.
Peace I 421 b.c.
Clouds II c. 418 b.c.
Birds 414 b.c.
Lysistrata 411 b.c.
Frogs 405 b.c.
Alcestis 438 b.c.
Medea 431 b.c.
Hippolytus with a Garland 428 b.c.
Andromache c. 424 b.c.
Electra c. 420 b.c.
Heracles c. 416 b.c.
Bacchae c. 406 b.c.
Samia [The Samian Woman or The Woman from Samos] c. 321-08 b.c.
Dyskolos [The Grouch] 316 b.c.
Perikeiromene [The Shorn Girl] c. 314-10 b.c.
Epitrepontes [The Arbitrants] c. 304
Aias [Ajax] date unknown
Antigone 442-41 b.c.
Electra c. 425-10 b.c.
Oedipus tyrranus [Oedipus the King or Oedipus Rex] 425? b.c.
Oedipus Coloneus [Oedipus at Colonus] 401 b.c.
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SOURCE: Haigh, A. E. “Dramatic Contests at Athens.” In The Attic Theatre: A Description of the Stage and Theatre of the Athenians, and of the Dramatic Performances at Athens, pp. 1-36. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1889.
[In the following excerpt, Haigh describes the festivals celebrating Dionysus, particularly their drama contests.]
DRAMATIC CONTESTS AT ATHENS.
1. GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE ATTIC DRAMA.
The ancient Athenian drama was in many respects unlike any kind of dramatic performance that we are accustomed to in modern times. The difference extended not only to the character of the plays themselves, and the manner in which they were presented upon the stage, but also to the circumstances under which the production took place. In order to form an accurate conception of the external features of the old Greek drama it will be necessary to dismiss from the mind many of the associations with which the modern stage is connected. In the first place, the luxury of having theatrical entertainments at every season of the year was a thing never heard of among the ancient Athenians. The dramatic performances at Athens, instead of being spread over the whole year, were confined within very limited periods. They were restricted to the two great festivals of Dionysus, the Lenaea and the City Dionysia. It is true that at these festivals the...
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SOURCE: Aylen, Leo. “Historical Summary.” In The Greek Theater, pp. 30-40. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1985.
[In the following essay, Aylen traces the development of Greek theater, including the effect of military defeats and changing religious attitudes.]
The history of the Greek theater is, as I have said, the history of a hundred years or so of life, twelve hundred years of imitation. To study the life and how it died is the center of all study of the Greek theater. But it may be as well to precede this with a summary of the main events that affected the development of the theater, as a background to the plays we possess.1
In 534 b.c., the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus founded the festival of the City Dionysia, whose main purpose was the presentation of plays and dithyrambs as a sacred competition.2 During the preceding century a form of dance drama had been developed to considerable subtlety, mainly in the Dorian parts of Greece. During the thirty years in which Pisistratus had been in power, an Athenian poet-choreographer called Thespis had developed this dance drama in the countryside of Attica, and he had then introduced spoken prologues and interludes between dances and thereby extended the possibilities of storytelling in this new art form, which had clearly become very popular by the time it was made the center of the new festival...
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SOURCE: Arnott, Peter D. “Character and Continuity.” In Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre, pp. 162-92. London: Routledge, 1989.
[In the following essay, Arnott contends that, because actors played multiple roles in the same production, some continuity in Greek theater was provided by the mask and costume, but that any given dramatic situation was meant to be taken essentially in isolation.]
We have suggested that, far from providing the rigid format that the neo-classicists attributed to it, the Greek theatre furnished an ambience that was infinitely flexible. In this imaginative world, the normal laws of time and space were suspended. Both were controlled by the wit of the dramatist.
To a large extent, this free-floating environment conditions plots that are themselves flexible, and can reshape themselves at will, no less than the setting does. We see this most conspicuously in comedy, which does not even have the parameters of a known story to act as a controlling factor. In Aristophanes, the plot may change direction without warning. The first half of The Frogs is built on Dionysus' passionate desire to resurrect Euripides. This motivates his journey to the Underworld, and carries him through many hazards to the gates of Hades. Only Euripides will do. He has no time for any other dramatist.
This takes us through to the parabasis. But when...
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SOURCE: Green, J. R. Introduction to Theatre in Ancient Greek Society, pp. 1-15. London: Routledge, 1994.
[In the following essay, Green examines the transition of Greece from an oral society to a combined oral and written one, the social function of the theater in this environment, and factors contributing to the success of drama.]
Condamnés à expliquer le mystère de leur vie, les hommes ont inventés le théâtre
Louis Jouvet, Témoignages sur le théâtre
To our eyes and ears Greek tragedies seem complex in both structure and thought, yet the establishment of the genre happened almost unbelievably quickly. According to tradition, Thespis first distinguished an actor from the choral group which lay at the basis of tragedy some time about 534 bc.1 Aeschylus, who was born only a decade later, began producing tragedies very early in the fifth century and had his first victory in the dramatic contests in 484 bc. Our earliest surviving tragedy dates to 472 bc, our latest to 405 bc. We have no complete tragedy written after that date and it would seem that scholars of Late Antiquity did not think later pieces worth preserving. Our surviving classical comedies are from an even shorter period. Aristophanes' Acharnians was produced in 425 bc, his Plutus in 388 bc.
If one asks the...
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SOURCE: Ashby, Clifford. “The Limits of Evidence I: The Writings.” In Classical Greek Theatre: New Views of an Old Subject, pp. 1-14. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Ashby argues that the relatively few surviving Greek plays are not necessarily representative and nor are they likely the best theatrically, and that much of what has been written about Greek theater in ancient times is given too much credence by modern scholars.]
Both written and archaeological sources concerning the Greek theatre are generally well known. Ronald Vince has discussed them at some length in Ancient and Medieval Theatre; more recently, Eric Csapo and William J. Slater have covered much the same body of material in The Context of Ancient Drama. It may then seem redundant to chew over the same information …, but one has only to compare the readings by Vince with those of Csapo and Slater to see that each researcher places his own emphasis and interpretation on what is essentially the same body of material. Since my conclusions are based largely upon differing interpretation of the evidence, I hope that I may be forgiven for retracing the admirable work done by the above authors.
There has long been a tendency to enshrine the sketchy and often inaccurate Greek theatre testimonials that survive to the present age....
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SOURCE: Wiles, David. “Gender.” In Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction, pp. 66-88. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Wiles examines the position of women in Greek democracy, in ritual, and as characters in plays, and summarizes assorted feminist critiques of Greek tragedy.]
WOMEN, POLITICS AND MYTH
Amongst our qualities, god's gift of singing to the lyre was not granted us by Apollo, commander of music. Otherwise I'd have sung out my reply to the race of men. The past has as much to tell of woman's lot as it does of males.
(chorus: Medea, 424-30)
The theatre of Athens was created by and for men, yet it is generally thought to contain some of the best female roles in the repertory. The contrast with Shakespearean theatre is a striking one. Why? The question has caused much concern in the late twentieth century.
The first surviving words of dramatic dialogue from the Greek world are actually written by a woman:
Virginity, virginity, you have left me: where have you gone? I shall never return to you, never return.(1)
The singer of the first line represents a bride, and the reply is by an individual or more probably a chorus playing the bride's lost virginity. Sappho wrote this text for a wedding on the...
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Arnott, Peter D. An Introduction to the Greek Theatre. London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1959, 239p.
Includes sections on the origin of Greek theater, the composition and setting of plays, and the audience.
Cole, Susan Guettel. “Procession and Celebration at the Dionysia.” In Theater and Society in the Classical World, edited by Ruth Scodel, pp. 25-38. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993.
Concentrates on long-surviving elements of Dionysian ritual.
Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur, Sir. “The City Dionysia.” In The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, pp. 57-125. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Examines the great Athenian festival held in honor of Dionysus, including its organization and contests.
Riu, Xavier. “The Reading of Old Comedy.” In Dionysism and Comedy, pp. 11-48. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Litlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999.
Proposes an ideology behind Greek comedy, focusing on the works of Aristophanes.
Rothfield, Tom. “A Play in Performance: Role of the Comedian Paramount.” In Classical Comedy: Armoury of Laughter, Democracy's Bastion of Defence: Introducing a Law of Opposites, pp. 3-41. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1999.
Discusses the interaction...
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