Interesting facts about history of Greek theatre
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The beginnings of Greek theatre have been found to have started in the 6th century B.C. Even though this was a long time ago, we still clearly see its effects today in modern dramas. Little is known about early Greek theatre because not much information has survived the centuries. Over time new theories and ideas have arisen around the true nature of Greek theatre but there is a solid basic idea of what Greek theatre involved. Greek theatre heavily influenced the spread of theatre to Rome and the Mediterranean and then ending up as medieval drama. This then transformed later on into what we now know as modern day drama. However what makes it difficult to understand about the entirety of Greek theatre is that it was constantly changing and evolving. The size of the chorus, number of actors, the structure of performances, costume style – all of these aspects changed over the years.
So how does Greek theatre affect modern dramas? In Greek tragedies, you would often see sensitive topics such as war, politics, gender and world violence which is all too similar to today’s dramas. We see this sort of thing in movies, TV shows and sometimes documentaries. One example is the Greek play Ajax written by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. This play has a lot of modern themes such as suicide, politics, and deceit which are all big topics these days.
Greek theatre stages are very similar to modern-day auditoriums. The way the stage is set up is so that the voice of the performer is carried to all members of the audience. This is very common for modern-day auditoriums to make good use of a room’s natural ambiance and echo. The actual shape of the theatre a sort of semi-circle room with a circle in the center. This is where the chorus would perform and the main actors would be in a Skene behind that. This is very similar to what you might see at a concert nowadays. Usually, the performers stand in the center while sometimes there is an image of video playing behind the performers.
Costuming is another major feature of Greek theatre. The costumes that they used were usually quite dull, however, the masks were very dramatic and over the top so that the audience who were far away could still get an idea of what was happening. Masks are still used today in some modern dramas. For example, all the main antagonists in some modern horror films such as “Saw”,”Friday the 13th“ and “Scream” are wearing a scary mask of sorts. The costumes that the Greeks wore were usually robes that were dull brown and white colors. Today, however, it’s all about color and attracting the audience’s eye, as they are a lot closer to the stage.
As for the actual structure of the play usually the performance would begin with one or two of the characters, the chorus would then enter singing and dancing and after that, there would be dialogue. This would usually just continue alternating until the end of the play, the chorus exits singing a song which generally offers words of knowledge connected to the deeds and consequences of the play. This is almost identical to what we call modern-day musicals. Usually, they begin with a character having a self-observation or some sort of small monologue that introduces us to the show then they begin to sing.
Quite a big difference between modern day and ancient Greek theatre is that back then they only had 3 actors no matter the requirement for the performance and the chorus. Very unlike today’s drams which has usually a 10+ cast. One of the largest casts ever in a film is probably in the film ‘Ghandi’ which had over 300 000 extras in the funeral scene. Another large cast production is ‘Lord of the Rings: the return of the king’ had around 20 000 extras participating in the battle scenes. Another difference between modern drama and ancient theatre is that the Greeks only had Male actors, whereas today the entertainment industry has men and women. However, it is more common for the men to be working behind the scenes e.g. directors, stage crew, paparazzi. 77% of Oscar winners are male which shows that it is still not equal to a woman as well.
There were three main types of Greek theatre which were satyr plays, comedy, and most popular tragedy. Mostly a comedy was ironic and made fun of men for their idiocy and narcissism. Today this might look like a sitcom on TV such as “Friends” or even “The Simpsons”. A satyr play was performed between acts of a tragedy and made fun of the troubles of the tragic characters. They were made up of mythical half human, half goat figures, and actors. However barely any of these pieces survived. The final and most important genre of Greek theatre is Tragedy. This genre had to deal with difficult topics such as arrogance, relationships troubles between the gods and man, love and romances, loss, and mistreatment of power. Almost always the main character carries out a horrible crime unintentionally. As the protagonist realizes his mistake, his life seemingly falls apart.
Some of the languages that were used in the 6th Century and around the times of early Greek theatre has survived to this day. The word Thespian for example, which today is a descriptive word for an actor, became part of our language because of the Greek poet Thespis. Aristotle and other Greek legends say that Thespis was a sort of traveling entertainer with a cart that could be converted to a stage and he used to sing and tell stories. He apparently was the first singer and performer to actually play the different character parts of a play or show. He used masks, props, and costumes and he is thought to be the founder of the style of tragedy. Greeks strongly believed in the power of the spoken word and valued it more highly than other forms of communication. These links in our own modern day language remind us of the origins of theatre in the 6th century. Another ancient Greek word we use today is Satyr – which describes a light-hearted ironic style dramatic piece of entertainment, for example, a TV show like “Seinfeld”.