We do not know much about the origin of Greek theater. The plays that survive all date from the 5th century BCE, but tragedy had been performed in Athens for at least decades before the earliest play, and the actual roots of drama reach even farther back. The word drama itself comes from a verb meaning “to do” or “to act.” Thus, a drama is simply something acted. The two most important influences on Athenian drama were the epics of Homer and the tradition of narrative lyric poetry performed by large choruses.
Homer and Epic Poems
The ancient Greeks traced all their literary traditions back to the author of two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey . Although we now know that these were the products of an oral tradition, the Greeks believed that the blind poet Homer had written both works. The Iliad , which narrates just a little of the Trojan War, was considered by the philosopher Aristotle to be the parent of tragedy, and very many Greek tragedies took their subject matter from the heroes portrayed in the Iliad . Although they do not survive, other epic poems told the myths of the city of Thebes and the fall of its ruling house—the subject matter of the Oedipus Rex.
While tragedy takes much of its subject matter from epic, its closest relatives in form were the long lyric poems sung by large choruses. In fact, some scholars have speculated that the chorus leader of the lyric poems evolved into a main character, then was replaced by a new chorus leader; the final result could have been a form with a chorus, chorus leader, and main character. Dialogue arising between these three speakers may have grown into the dramatic action of the first Greek plays.
It is interesting to note that the lyric poems continued to be an important form in their own right even as drama became popular. At the Great Dionysia, one of the major festivals of Athens, performance of the dithyramb (a special kind of lyric poem dedicated to the god Dionysus) was as important as the performance of plays. Each of the ten tribes of Athens submitted an entry in the contest and was represented by a chorus of up to fifty men.