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.