Greek Influence on the Modern Day Theater
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The Greek invented the idea, or concept, of theater in the 6th century B.C. The first known formal theater was built in Athens between 550 and 534 B.C., although the oldest theater in the world is in the palace at Knossos in the northern Crete. The Ancient Greek’s way of theater and its many accomplishments greatly influenced the modern day theater and entertainment. Staring with the evolution of theater and how it evolved from religious groups in ancient Greece. There were also many great playwrights, such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who opened the doors to a world of art. Even the construction of a play and the major types of plays, such as tragedy and comedy, are still used to this day. The way the characters or actors and costume evolved from such a simple plan to a extremely difficult and complicated design. Finally the influence Greek theater has had on the modern day and how it continues to influence the way of the modern theater. These are all important factors that still, to this day, influence theater and the way theater is presented. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Western theatre was born in Athens, Greece.
Between 600 and 200 BC, the ancient Athenians created a theatre culture whose form, technique and terminology have lasted two millennia, and they created plays that are still considered among the greatest works of world drama. (Nardo 10) Their achievement is truly remarkable when one considers that there have been only two other periods in the history of theatre that could be said to approach the greatness of ancient Athens – Elizabethan England and, perhaps the Twentieth Century. The greatest playwright of Elizabethan England was Shakespeare, but Athens produced at least five equally great playwrights. The Twentieth Century produced thousands of fine plays and films, but their form and often their content are based on the innovations of the ancient Athenians. The theatre of Ancient Greece evolved from religious rites which date back to at least 1200 BC. At that time, Greece was run by tribes. In northern Greece, in an area called Thrace, a cult arose that worshipped Dionysus, the god of fertility and procreation.
This Cult of Dionysus, which probably originated in Asia Minor, practiced ritual celebrations which may have included alcoholic intoxication, orgies, human and animal sacrifices, and perhaps even hysterical rampages by women called maenads. The cult’s most controversial practice involved, it is believed, and uninhibited dancing and emotional displays that created an altered mental state. This altered state was known as ‘ecstasies’, from which the word ecstasy is derived. (Nardo 203) Ecstasy was an important religious concept to the Greeks, who would come to see theatre as a way of releasing powerful emotions through its ritual power. Though it met with resistance, the cult spread south through the tribes of Greece over the ensuing six centuries. During this time, the rites of Dionysus became mainstream and more formalized and symbolic. The death of a tragic hero was offered up to god and man rather than the sacrifice of say, a goat. (Oates xvii) By 600 BC these ceremonies were practiced in spring throughout much of Greece. An essential part of the rites of Dionysus was the dithyramb. The word means ‘choric hymn’.
This chant or hymn was probably introduced into Greece early accompanied by mimic gestures and, probably, music. It began as a part of a purely religious ceremony, like a hymn in the middle of a mass describing the adventures of Dionysus. In its earliest form it was lead off by the leader of a band of revelers, a group of dancers, probably dressed as satyrs dancing around an altar. It was probably performed by a chorus of about fifty men dressed as satyrs — mythological half-human, half- goat servants of Dionysus. They may have played drums, lyres and flutes, and chanted as they danced around an effigy of Dionysus. Some accounts say they also wore phallus-like headgear. It was given a regular form and raised to the rank of artistic poetry in about 600 BC. Introduced into Athens shortly before 500 BC, dithyramb was soon recognized as one of the competitive subjects at the various Athenian festivals. For more than a generation after its introduction the dithyramb attracted the most famous poets of the day. By this time, however, it had ceased to concern itself exclusively with the adventures of Dionysus and begun to choose its subjects from all periods of Greek mythology. In this way, over time the dithyramb would evolve into stories in ‘play’ form: drama.
This continued to evolve in an ethic and proper manner leading to the modern day. Without this base, theater would not be what it is today. There are many great play writes from ancient Greece who left strong influences on the modern day. They established nearly all the theatrical practices and traditions used today. (Nardo 10) The main three who are most commonly known are, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. Sophocles, who lived from 497 to about 406, is the second of the three great Athenian tragic poets, and the one with whose plays people are most familiar, the names of Ajax, Antigone, and Oedipus are well-known. Of his 118 plays, however, only seven remain, in which people are confronted with extremely difficult situations. It is said that to express his ideas, he had to change the way tragedies were played, by adding a third (and once even a fourth) actor, and enlarging the chorus. Sophocles was also active in Athenian politics. In 441/440, 428, and 423/422 he served as army commander, and after the defeat at Sicily, he was given special responsibilities to lead Athens out of this crisis (Bieber, 2).
The playwright was a personal friend of Pericles and Herodotus of Halicarnassus, all famous Greek generals and play writes. After his death, he received heroic honors. Then there is Euripides, who lived from 485 to 406B.C. His plays are more exuberant than those of Sophocles and Aeschylus, often he has the heroes and heroines face difficult choices, which are finally solved by the sudden appearance of a god. Medea is probably his most famous play, and the Trojan Women can be interpreted as a protest against warfare. At the end of his life, he settled in Macedonia, where he wrote the Bacchae, a shockingly strange tragedy, which has been interpreted in many ways. His greatness was recognized by the comic poet Aristophanes, who gives Euripides many appearances in his plays and often parodies scenes from his tragedies. Lastly, there is Aeschylus, who lived from 525 to 456B.C.Aeschylus is one of the best-known Athenian tragic poets. In his plays, he addresses complex theological problems. For example, in the trilogy Agamemnon – Choephoroi – Eumenides, he describes how the gods punish a family for a series of murders. Aeschylus basic orientation was towards theology and religion. (Oates xxxiii)
The Persians is a superb play, in which the Athenian victory at Salamis is celebrated, written seven years after the event. Aeschylus was highly esteemed, fifty years after his death, the comic poet Aristophanes wrote a play, The Frogs, in which Aeschylus and Euripides are presented as the greatest playwrights. Aeschylus himself did not care about his fame because he wanted to be remembered, not for his tragedies, but for the fact that he had fought at Marathon. In the book, The Greek way, Edith Hamilton states “The great tragic artists of the world are four, and three of them are Greek.” (227). The influence these three artist left for the modern day will continue to live through the many generations to come. The construction of a play and the major types of plays, such as tragedy and comedy, are still used to this day. The construction of a play consisted of the following parts, a Prologue, which described the situation and set the scene then a Parados, an ode sung by the chorus as it made its entrance, Five dramatic scenes, each followed by a Komos, an exchange of laments by the chorus and the protagonist and lastly an Exodus, the climax and conclusion.
These are all major parts to creating a successful play. The first major type of play is Tragedy. Tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some combination of fate, and the will of the gods. The tragic hero’s powerful wish to achieve some goal inevitably encounters limits, usually those of human frailty, the gods, through oracles, prophets, fate, or nature. Aristotle says that the tragic hero should have a flaw and/or make some mistake. The hero need not die at the end, but he / she must undergo a change in fortune. (Hamilton 229) In addition, the tragic hero may achieve some revelation or recognition about human fate, destiny, and the will of the gods. Aristotle quite nicely terms this sort of recognition “a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate.” (Hamilton 230) Greek tragedies were performed in late March or early April at an annual state religious festival in honor of Dionysus. The presentation took the form of a contest between three playwrights, who presented their works on three successive days.
Each playwright would prepare a trilogy of three tragedies, plus an unrelated concluding comic piece called a satyr play. Often, the three plays featured linked stories, but later writers like Euripides may have presented three unrelated plays. Only one complete trilogy has survived, the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The second major type was Comedy. Greek comedy had two periods, Old Comedy, represented by Cratinus and Aristophanes, and New Comedy, whose main exponent was Menander. Aristophanes theatrical works were presented at the Athenian festivals. Aristophanes and Cratinus used three actors, a chorus that sung, danced, and sometimes participated in the dialogue. The Chorus’s address to the audience reveals the author’s opinion. In these speeches, he ridicules the Gods, Athenian institutions, popular and powerful individuals, including Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Given the cultivated and scholarly culture of its ruling elite, Athens invited satire.
The Athenian audiences were well versed in their highbrow culture and must have enjoyed these in-jokes immensely. Aristophanes’ other targets included Aeschylus and Euripides, whom Aristophanes portrayed variously as a windbag and corrupter of youth with his heretical ideas. New Comedy developed along similar lines as tragedy did, becoming more aimed at the common people and less concerned with its religious origins. By 317 BC, a new form had evolved that resembled modern farces. The use of overt satire, topicality and the pointed lampooning of celebrated characters to be found in Aristophanes’ style were replaced by mistaken identities, ironic situations, ordinary characters and wit. This period is called New Comedy, and its two main practitioners were Menander and Phlyates. Menander is the more significant of the two. In The complete Greek Drama Oates states that the “…qualifications of Menander no one can posses…” (xlix) Most of his plays are now lost, but parts found their way into plays by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence (whom Julius Caesar called “a half-Menander”).
Menander’s main contribution was to create a comedy model that greatly influenced later comedy. Unlike Aristophanes, his characters were not celebrities but ordinary people. The chorus in Menander’s plays resembled a modern chorus, singers and dancers who provided filler between acts, Menander sometimes portrayed them as drunken audience members. His characters were classic comedy archetypes, such as the curmudgeonly old man in The Grouch, who would become staples of comedy. Most of all, the style of comedy that Menander created, with its emphasis on mistaken identity, romance and situational humor, became the model for subsequent comedy, from the Romans to Shakespeare to Broadway. Showing how the many types of comedy still continue to influence the modern day.
The way the characters or actors and costume evolved from such a simple design to a extremely difficult and complicated design shows how the influence of Greek theater lingers. Nearly all of today’s theatrical conventions, from acting styles and costumes to scenery and the shape of the stages, originated with the Greeks. (Nardo 89) . Costumes have been a very important factor of the production, because they could determine the characters by gender or social status. In the early productions actors have been using body painting. Little by little they started using animal skins, ears, even feathers. When the poets introduced real costumes, they imitated the contemporary dressing, the “chiton” and the “hemateon”. The chiton was made of linen or silk and it was worn long. The hemateon was an exterior cloth, worn over the shoulders. It was usually made of wool. Both chiton and hemateon were decorated depending on the occasion. (Oates 135) For theatrical use the clothes have been more decorated than usually. A main element to the Greek costumes was masks.
The Greek term for mask is persona and was a significant element in the worship of Dionysus at Athens, likely used in ceremonial rites and celebrations. These factors to costume evolved with the times and became more distinct. The Greek influence is still noticeable to this day whether it is the body paint or the brightly colored scarf. The actors themselves have evolved too. Greek theater began with only a chorus, which varied in size from three to fifty. The choruses of men were dressed in goatskins to represent satyrs–beings who were half man and half goat, referring to the God Dionysus. The use of the chorus was more dominant in tragedies than comedies. For the tragedy the chorus was solemn. In comedies it was funny and satirical. The goal of the chorus was to set the mood and heighten dramatic effects. They also added movement, song, and dance to the stage. Most believe the chorus underscored the ideas of the play, provided point-of-view, and focused on issues of the play and implications of the action, established the play’s ethical system, and participated in the action. From there the charters began to separate and become individuals, And the art of acting began to evolve.
“Acting requires a wide range of skills, including vocal projection, clarity of speech, physical expressivity, emotional facility, a well-developed imagination, and the ability to interpret drama. Acting also often demands an ability to employ dialects, accents and body language, improvisation, observation and emulation, mime, and stage combat.” (Bieber 106) Many actors train at length in special programs or colleges to develop these skills, and today the vast majority of professional actors have undergone extensive training. Even though one actor may have years of training, they always strive for more lessons; the cinematic and theatrical world is always changing and because of this, the actor must stay as up to date as possible. Actors and actresses will often have many instructors and teachers for a full range of training involving, but not limited to, singing, scene-work, monologue techniques, audition techniques and partner work. These are all major factors of an actor today. Many of which are influenced by the Greek way of theater The Greek theater has greatly influenced the modern day theater.
It’s said that theatre started the moment a member of the Greek chorus stepped out from the other and sang on his own. (Hamilton 156) So much of the theatre that is done today is meant to hark back to the time when the art was just beginning to be created. The Greeks where also the first to use the wagon on stage, not to mention they had the ability to fly people onto and off of the stage using a giant crane. We also have a hard time mastering the acoustics of a Greek theatre. In allot of ways we are still trying to be as good at theatre as the Greeks where. Most importantly we still use the Greek plot structures in the plays that are written today. The influence is strong and will continue to grow and live through the future generations.
The Ancient Greek’s way of theater and its many accomplishments greatly influenced the modern day theater and entertainment. Staring with the evolution of theater and how it evolved from religious groups in ancient Greece. There were also many great playwrights, such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who opened the doors to a world of art. Even the construction of a play and the major types of plays, such as tragedy and comedy, are still used to this day. The way the characters or actors and costume evolved from such a simple plan to a extremely difficult and complicated design. Finally the influence Greek theater has had on the modern day and how it continues to influence the way of the modern theater. These are all important factors that still, to this day, influence theater and the way theater is presented.