Greek Drama Historical Context

Historical Context

The City Dionysia
Drama arose out of feasts held in honor of the Greek god Dionysus. By the eighth century B.C., the Greeks had developed elaborate rituals in his honor, which included poetry recitations and a ceremony called the dithyramb. Over time, the dithyramb, which was a special form of verse about Dionysus that was accompanied by song and dance, became the highlight of the festival, and it developed to include tales of other gods and heroes. Beginning about 535 B.C., Athens began to hold annual festivals known as City Dionysia. This festival included a dramatic competition of dithyramb and rhapsodia—Homeric recitation contests. The poet Thespis was the first winner of this contest. His play included dithyramb and rhapsodia, but he expanded these traditional presentations to include a chorus as well. Thespis thus developed a new art form that later became known as theatrical plays.

The performance began with a procession made up of the playwrights, wealthy citizens who funded the festival, choruses, actors, and important public officials. This parade wended its way through the streets of Athens on the first day of the competition. The procession entered the theater, and then the public sacrifice of a bull to Dionysus took place. The competition opened with the dithyrambic contests, and the three tragedies were performed in the ensuing days, each followed by a satyr play. Magistrates responsible for theatrical productions during the City Dionysia were given the responsibility of producing comedies about 487 B.C., though volunteers probably produced them there for some years before that. The comedies were presented at night, after the tragedies. A panel of ten judges selected the top winners.

The City Dionysia remained an integral part of Athens’ culture throughout the city’s Golden Age. Taking place at the end of March, it was a major holiday attraction. Greeks from other city-states were welcome to attend the competition or enter plays in it.

The Age of Pericles
Democracy was born in Athens in the late sixth century...

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