Greek Theater Criticism - Essay

A. E. Haigh (essay date 1889)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.]



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 number of plays exhibited was large enough to satisfy the most enthusiastic playgoer. Several days in succession were devoted entirely to the drama, and on each day tragedies and comedies followed one another without intermission from morning till evening. But with the exception of the two festivals of Dionysus there was no other occasion on which plays were acted in the Athenian theatre. There were dramatic exhibitions in the various townships of Attica during the Rural Dionysia; but in Athens itself the drama was restricted to the two periods already mentioned. In fact, as far as regards the time and duration of the performances, the ancient drama had much in common with the modern musical festival, in which at certain fixed seasons several days in succession are devoted entirely to music.

Another vital point of difference lay in the fact that the ancient drama was managed wholly by the state. To provide for the amusement of the people was considered to be one of the regular duties of the government. In England theatres are simply private enterprises. In some foreign countries certain theatres receive subventions from the state, and are subject to a code of rules; but for practical purposes their connexion with the state is only a slight one. But in Athens the superintendence of the annual dramatic performances was just as much a part of the public administration of affairs as was the repair of the dockyards, the equipment of fleets, or the despatch of armies. Poets and actors were both selected by the state. The cost of the performance was a tax upon the richer classes. Every wealthy citizen had in his turn to defray the expenses of a tragedy or a comedy, just as he had to pay for one of the ships of the fleet, or perform any other of the state burdens. The theatre was a public institution for the benefit of the whole people. Every Athenian citizen of whatever degree was entitled to be present at the annual dramatic performances; and if he was too poor to pay the entrance fee, he received the price of admission from the state.

The audience consisted practically of the whole body of the people. In a modern theatre, owing to its limited dimensions, the spectators are few in number, and have no representative character about them. But the theatre of Dionysus at Athens was capable of containing nearly thirty thousand people. Every Athenian attended the performances at the Dionysia as a matter of course. The audience therefore to which the Athenian dramatic poet addressed himself was in reality a gathering of the whole body of his fellow-countrymen. In those days books were not plentiful, and their use was confined to a limited class. The ordinary Athenian depended for his literary pleasures upon the various public performances and recitations of poetical compositions. The drama was therefore much more to him than to a modern playgoer. At the present day, when continual supplies of fresh literature are accessible to every one, it is hard to realise the excitement and expectancy with which an Athenian looked forward to the annual exhibition of dramas at the Dionysia. It was here that his taste for novelty in literature was gratified. It was here that he found an equivalent for the books, magazines, and newspapers of modern civilization. Hence he was able to sit day after day, from morning to evening, listening to tragedy and comedy, without any feeling of satiety. The enthusiasm with which the drama was generally regarded, and the direct manner in which the author was brought into contact with the whole body of his countrymen, contributed to make the vocation of the dramatic writer one of the very greatest importance. The leading tragic poets especially are known to have exercised a most profound influence upon the national mind and character. They were spoken of as the teachers of the people. Their writings were invested with a sort of Homeric sanctity, and appealed to as authorities upon questions of science and morality. Maxims and quotations from their plays were upon every one's lips. Many passages in Plato and Aristophanes prove the enormous influence for good and evil which was exercised by the Greek tragic poets, and there is probably no other instance in history of a drama which was so thoroughly popular, and formed such an essential part of the national life1.

Another prominent characteristic of the Attic stage, which distinguishes it from that of modern times, was the fact that almost every dramatic performance took the form of a contest. In the best period of the Greek drama the production of a play by itself, as a mere exhibition, was a thing unknown. In later times celebrated plays by the great dramatists were sometimes exhibited alone. But in the period covered by the names of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, the only mode of exhibiting plays was by competing in the dramatic contests at the festivals of Dionysus. Prizes were offered by the state. A limited number of poets, after careful selection by the state, were allowed to take part in the competition. The result was decided by a jury publicly appointed. It is curious to notice how strongly implanted in the Greek nature was this passion for anything in the shape of a contest. It is seen in the case of most branches of poetry and music. Dithyrambs were generally produced in competitions at festivals between rival poets and choruses. Recitations of the old epic poems took the form of contests between rhapsodists. Public performances on flute and harp were mostly of the same character. There can be no doubt that the stimulus of rivalry and competition had a considerable effect upon the genius of the poets. It is remarkable in how many instances the Athenian dramatic writers retained the full vigour of their intellect even in extreme old age. For example, the tragedies composed in their latest years by the three great tragic poets show not the slightest symptoms of decaying power. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, one of the most splendid products of the Greek drama, was brought out shortly before the poet's death. The Oedipus Coloneus of Sophocles and the Bacchae of Euripides were both written very late in life. The reason of this extraordinary vitality was no doubt partly due to the excitement caused by the public competitions in the theatre, which acted as a stimulus to the mind, and prevented that decay of power which usually accompanies old age.

But the most conspicuous difference between the ancient and modern drama lay in the essentially religious character of the former. The Athenian drama was not only an amusement for the people: it was also part of a great religious celebration. Throughout its history it never ceased to be closely connected with the religion of the state. It was developed originally out of the songs and hymns in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine. In later times its range was widened, and its tone secularised: but it continued to be performed solely at the festivals of Dionysus. Together with the other contests and ceremonials it was regarded as a celebration in honour of the god. The spectator who sat watching a tragedy or a comedy was not merely providing for his own amusement, but was also joining in an act of worship. Many facts tend to show the sacred character of the festivals of Dionysus, and the performances which accompanied them. The festivals themselves were not mere human institutions, but were established in obedience to the direct commands of the oracle. On these occasions the whole city gave itself up to pleasure, and to the worship of the genial wine-god. For the time being there was an end of business and litigation. Peace and harmony were supposed to prevail universally, and nothing was allowed to disturb the general enjoyment. Distraints for debt were forbidden by law during the continuance of the festival. Prisoners were temporarily released from gaol, to enable them to join in the worship of the god. Assaults and outrages, if committed during the Dionysia, were regarded as offences against religion, and were punished with the utmost severity. The ordinary course of law was not considered sufficient, and they were dealt with under an exceptional process at a special meeting of the Assembly. As a proof of the indignation which was aroused by such violations of the harmony of the festival it is recorded that on one occasion a certain Ctesicles was put to death for merely striking a personal enemy during the procession. To preserve the sanctity of the festival from contamination, no person suffering from civil disability was allowed to take part in a chorus at the Dionysia, or even to superintend the training of it. The performances in the theatre, being the most conspicuous part of the proceedings at the festival, were equally sacred in character. The god Dionysus was supposed to be present in person to witness and enjoy them. This belief was symbolised by a curious old custom. On the evening before the dramatic contests began, the Ephebi used to take the statue of the god out of its shrine, and carry it in procession by torchlight to the theatre, and place it in the orchestra in full view of the stage. There it remained until the end of the festival, in token of the presence of the god. The religious character of the dramatic performances is still further shown by the fact that most of the front seats in the theatre were given up to the priests of the different deities. In the centre of the front row, and in the best seat of all, sat the priest of Dionysus, presiding over the celebrations in honour of the god. The theatre itself was regarded as a temple of Dionysus, and possessed all the sanctity attaching to such a place. Any form of insult committed there during the Dionysia was doubly criminal. Merely to eject a man from a seat he had taken wrongfully was a piece of sacrilege punishable with death. The people who took part in the different contests, the poets, choregi, actors, and singers, were regarded as ministers of the god Dionysus. Their persons and dresses were sacred. To strike a choregus in the theatre, as Meidias struck Demosthenes, was an offence against religion and the gods. In order to understand the outward character and surroundings of the old Greek drama it is most essential to realise the fact that the whole proceedings were part of a religious celebration, and were intended to be an act of homage to the god, as well as an amusement for the people2.


The date of the first institution of dramatic contests in Athens may be determined approximately, though the exact year cannot be fixed. During the earlier stages of the development of tragedy and comedy there was nothing in the shape of a contest. The first rude innovations upon the old hymns to Dionysus were mere tentative experiments by individuals, exhibited upon their own responsibility. Thespis has the credit of having introduced tragedy into Athens. At first he was without a rival or competitor, and gave exhibitions of the new form of art merely as a private enterprise. One of these performances is said to have been witnessed by Solon. As Solon died not later than 558 b.c., it follows that Thespis must have begun to exhibit before that date. The progress of tragedy in popular favour was so rapid, that it was speedily accepted as a regular form of entertainment, and public contests were established even during the lifetime of Thespis. Aristophanes says distinctly that Thespis ‘competed’ with his tragedies. The Parian Marble puts the date of the first contest in which Thespis took part, and for which the prize was a goat, between the years 542 and 520 b.c. Suidas gives 535 as the date of the first appearance of Thespis. He is doubtless referring, not to his early exhibitions of the new form of art, but to his first appearance in a regular public contest. If these dates are to be relied upon, it follows that Thespis began his innovations during the first half of the sixth century, and that public competitions in tragedy were established early in the second half. Everything connected with the life and art of Thespis is wrapped in great obscurity, and it is therefore uncertain how far the above traditions can be accepted as true. But at any rate there is no doubt that long before the end of the sixth century contests in tragedy were flourishing in full vigour. The names of three tragic poets, who lived in the generation after Thespis, are recorded. These were Choerilus, Phrynichus, and Pratinas. Choerilus is said to have first ‘engaged in contests’ in the year 523. Phrynichus won the prize for tragedy in 511. In 499 Aeschylus made his first public appearance. His competitors on this occasion were Choerilus and Pratinas. By this time it is probable that the arrangements for the tragic contests had been reduced to a regular system. During the greater part of the fifth century the ordinary rule was for three poets to take part in the competition, and for each poet to exhibit three tragedies and one satyric drama, making four plays in all. It is probable that this rule had already been established when Aeschylus made his first appearance in public. An arrangement of this kind would of course be the growth of time, and during the earlier tragic contests there was no doubt much irregularity in regard to the number of poets competing, and the number of plays exhibited. For instance, Pratinas is said to have brought out fifty plays, thirty-two of which were satyric dramas. He cannot therefore have been accustomed to exhibit three tragedies along with each satyric drama. On the other hand the number of plays ascribed to Choerilus was one hundred and sixty. It follows that during the greater part of his career he must have been accustomed to exhibit as many as four plays annually, else he could not have found occasions for producing so large a number. Hence it is probable that by the time of Aeschylus the system of tragic contests had already been reduced to that shape which afterwards prevailed, and that each poet was expected to produce four plays.

Comedy, as we learn from Aristotle, was much later than tragedy in being recognised by the state. For a long time it was kept up by voluntary enterprise, and not much importance was attached to it. The first Athenian comic poets of note were Chionides and Magnes. Chionides began to exhibit in 487 b.c. It is hardly likely that the date of his first appearance would have been preserved with such accuracy, if comedy had still been merely a private undertaking, without any connexion with the state. There seems therefore to be good ground for assuming that the institution of public contests in comedy was not later than 487 b.c.3 At any rate it cannot have been later than 459 b.c. This is proved by an inscription which records the names of the victors at the City Dionysia, and among them gives the name of the victor in comedy. The exact year to which the inscription refers is unknown, but at any rate it was anterior to 458 b.c. It follows that 459 is the very latest date to which the institution of public contests in comedy can be assigned4.

Speaking roughly then the recognition of tragedy by the state, and the institution of annual competitions, date from the latter half of the sixth century. The similar recognition of comedy dates from the first half of the fifth century. These contests took place at the festivals of Dionysus. The Greek drama was essentially an offshoot of the worship of Dionysus, and throughout its history, as far as Athens was concerned, it continued to retain its close connexion with that worship. In other parts of Greece, when the drama had been fully established as a form of art, dramatic exhibitions were occasionally introduced into festivals with which originally they had no connexion. Thus they were introduced in later times into the Pythian games. But the Athenians were more conservative, and confined the drama to the festivals of Dionysus5. In Athens there were three of these festivals, the Anthesteria, the Great or City Dionysia, and the Lenaea. There were also the Rural Dionysia, celebrated in the various demes of Attica. Of the Athenian festivals the Anthesteria was the oldest. But it had little, if any, connexion with the drama. The important festivals in the history of Greek drama were the City Dionysia and the Lenaea. They were themselves of late origin, and therefore offered a more suitable occasion for the introduction of a new form of art. The date of their institution and development is wrapt in obscurity. Various theories have been started as to their early history, but in the absence of definite facts it seems hardly worth while to hazard conjectures on such a subject. All that is required in an account of the Greek drama is to describe as fully as possible the character of these festivals during the fifth and succeeding centuries, and thus enable the reader to picture to himself the circumstances and surroundings which accompanied an Athenian theatrical performance.


By far the most splendid of the festivals of Dionysus was the Great or City Dionysia. It was called the City Dionysia in opposition to the Lenaea. The significance of the names is not perfectly clear. The Lenaea was so called because it was held in the Lenaeum, or sacred enclosure of Dionysus on the south side of the Acropolis. The contests at this festival were called ‘contests at the Lenaeum.’ On the other hand, contests at the Great Dionysia were called ‘contests in the city.’ But as the Lenaeum was from the earliest times a part of the city, it is difficult to see the reason of the distinction6. And besides this, the contests at the Great Dionysia were, during all the period with which we are acquainted, held in the very same place as those at the Lenaea. The most plausible explanation is as follows. The Lenaea was a small festival; and the whole of the celebrations connected with it took place in or near the Lenaeum. At the Great Dionysia the festivities were on a larger scale; and in addition to the contests in the sacred enclosure of Dionysus there were also other ceremonies in various parts of the city, more especially the chorus in the market-place before the statues of the twelve gods. It is probable therefore that the festival was called the City Dionysia to denote the wider area over which the various celebrations were spread. The date of the City Dionysia can be fixed with a fair amount of certainty. It took place in Elaphebolion, a month which answers to the last half of March and the first half of April. It must have terminated on the 15th, and begun on the 10th or 11th7. It could hardly have lasted less than five days. The long series of performances and celebrations which had to be gone through could not have been packed into a smaller space of time. Whether it extended to six days is a point that cannot be determined.

Before proceeding to describe the dramatic part of the performances at the City Dionysia it may be as well first of all to collect together such information as is attainable concerning the general character of the festival. It was held at a time of year when the spring was just commencing, and the sea had again become navigable. Occasionally stormy weather interfered with the proceedings. In the time of Demetrius the procession through the city was prevented by a heavy fall of snow. But the winter was generally at an end8. The city was full of visitors from all parts of Greece. During the period of Athenian supremacy it was at this season of the year that the allies came to Athens to pay the annual tribute. Ambassadors frequently chose this time for the transaction of public business. There were also the crowds of visitors who were attracted to Athens merely from a desire to see the splendours of the festival. The consequence was that the streets were thronged with strangers, and the city presented an animated appearance in marked contrast to the quietness of the winter festival of the Lenaea9. The Athenians were glad of the opportunity of displaying the magnificence of their city before such a vast concourse of foreign Greeks. The procession through the streets, the sacrifices to the gods, the dithyrambs, the tragedies, and the comedies were all calculated to impress strangers with the wealth and public spirit and literary taste of the Athenians. In addition to the ordinary proceedings of the festival one or two ceremonies of a striking character were introduced for the express purpose of emphasising the power of Athens in the eyes of the visitors. At the commencement of the performances in the theatre the tribute collected from the allies was solemnly deposited in the orchestra in the presence of the assembled multitude. On the same occasion the herald made an announcement concerning the crowns which had been bestowed by foreign states upon Athens or upon Athenian citizens, and the crowns themselves were brought forward and laid in the orchestra beside the tribute10. By scenes of this kind the festival was made an occasion for glorifying Athens in the presence of foreign Greeks. In the fourth century, after the fall of the Athenian Empire, the political splendour of the City Dionysia came to an end. But the magnificence of the spectacle and the vastness of the gathering do not seem to have been in any way diminished. Visitors were attracted from all parts of Greece, not by political business, but by the celebrity of the dramatic exhibitions. Demosthenes speaks of the ‘multitudes of strangers’ who were present, and Aeschines describes the audience at the City Dionysia as consisting of ‘the whole Greek nation11.’ Though Athens was shorn of her political power, the crowds which continued to attend the festival testified to her unimpaired supremacy in art and literature.

One of the most brilliant spectacles at the City Dionysia was the great procession in honour of Dionysus, which was probably held upon the first day of the festival. Athenians of every class, men, women, and even girls, made a point of being present to witness or take part in it. Vast crowds filled the streets; and the casual encounters which took place on these occasions often served as a foundation to the plots of the New Comedy12. The members of the procession wore brilliantly-coloured garments and ornaments of gold. Many of them had their faces covered with masks. Some were in chariots; others walked on foot. Among the people who took part in the procession were the choregi to the different choruses. For instance, when Demosthenes was choregus, he had a golden crown and mantle made specially for use at the procession. Alcibiades on a similar occasion was dressed in purple, and excited much admiration by his beauty13. It is not improbable that the performers in the various lyric and dramatic competitions also joined in the procession. Part of the show consisted of the trains of victims which were afterwards to be sacrificed to Dionysus. An old inscription records how the Ephebi offered a bull to Dionysus at the City Dionysia, after first taking it round in the procession. Many victims were publicly provided by the state, and many others were doubtless offered by individuals, or by different classes of the population. All these would be conducted round in the procession. Conspicuous among the train of people were the canephori, or virgins bearing upon their heads the baskets containing the sacrificial implements. The procession, in the course of its march, halted in the market-place, and a chorus danced and sung in front of the statues of the twelve gods. Further details concerning the order of the proceedings are nowhere recorded, but it is easy to imagine that the brilliant colours of the procession itself, the vast crowds of spectators, and the splendid public buildings of Athens in the background, combined to form an effective spectacle.

The entertainments provided in the theatre during the City Dionysia were of two kinds. In the first place there were the dramatic competitions, at which tragedies, comedies, and satyric dramas were exhibited. In the second place there were the choral competitions, which consisted of performances of dithyrambs to the accompaniment of the flute. It is most important not to confuse together the details of these two classes of contest. Even in the most recent works upon the Greek drama many mistakes have been caused by filling out the description of the dramatic performances with facts and circumstances which had really nothing to do with them, but applied solely to the choral competitions. At the City Dionysia there were two of these choral competitions, one between choruses of boys, and the other between choruses of men. The choruses were called cyclic choruses, because of the circular form in which they stood. Each of them was composed of fifty members. There were five choruses of boys and five choruses of men, and each chorus was supplied by one of the ten tribes of Attica. In this way all ten tribes took part in one or other of the two competitions. The important point to remember in regard to these dithyrambic choruses is that the contest in which they were engaged was essentially a tribal one. In the dramatic competitions the rivalry was confined to the individual poets and choregi. The choruses were selected indiscriminately from the whole population. But each dithyrambic chorus represented one of the ten tribes. Its choregus was a member of that tribe. The singers were exclusively chosen from the same tribe14. The victory of the chorus was a victory for the tribe to which it belonged. The prize of victory, the tripod, though presented to the choregus, and erected in some public place at his expense, was regarded as appertaining equally to the tribe. In the records of victories with dithyrambic choruses, preserved on inscriptions and elsewhere, the name of the tribe to which the chorus belonged is always given in a prominent position. On the other hand the records of dramatic victories give merely the names of the choregus, the poet, and the principal actor. There is no mention of any tribe15. It follows that the tribes had nothing to do with the dramatic contests. In order to avoid error it is most important to keep this fact clearly in view, that in the dithyrambic contests the competitors were really the ten tribes of Attica, while the drama was a matter with which only individual citizens were concerned.


We come now to the dramatic performances at the City Dionysia. These were of two kinds, tragic and comic. The first point to be considered is the number of the competing poets, and the number of the plays produced, at each celebration of the festival. The most difficult part of the enquiry is that which concerns tragedy during the fifth century. In the fourth century various changes and innovations were introduced, which call for separate consideration. The fifth century stands by itself, and the question as to the number of tragedies produced during that period at each celebration of the City Dionysia is one of considerable intricacy. But it deserves to be considered in detail, as it is of much more interest than a mere question of numbers, and practically involves the whole subject of trilogies and tetralogies. The...

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Leo Aylen (essay date 1985)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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


(The entire section is 5992 words.)

Peter D. Arnott (essay date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12137 words.)

J. R. Green (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9995 words.)

Clifford Ashby (essay date 1999)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5312 words.)

David Wiles (essay date 2000)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.]



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.


(The entire section is 8125 words.)