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The Ancient Greek Theater

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Ancient Greek theatre was a “… mixture of myth, legend, philosophy, social commentary, poetry, dance, music, public participation, and visual splendor.” (Cohen 64) It started as part of a religious ceremony at the Dionysus festival. This festival celebrated the birth of the wine god, Dionysus and the great grapes that made the wine. It was performed at an orgia, the four tribal festivals every year. It was also known as the “Festival of the Wine Jugs” and “Old Dionysia,” as stated by Cohen.

The ancient Greek theater was made of three parts. It had an Orchestra, the Scene that is the stage, and the main theater, which was known as the Koilon.  The Orchestra was a circular place, which was situated in front of the Skene. An altar known as the Thymeli was placed at the center of the Orchestra. In later plays the leader of the chorus who was known as koryphaios would be standing here during the performance. Though some archaeological research and evidence show that some of the orchestras existing in Athens which belonged to the period of ancient Greek theater were rectangular in shape;  it was the circular ones, which were dominant. These circular ones were the closest to the dionyssiac cult, which considered that the circle had supernatural powers. In the early years the performance took part from the orchestra to the skene, that is right in front of the skene- this was called the Proscenia, meaning pro+scene=situated in front of the skene.

The part of the Skene which faced the audience, served as the background and this was decorated as a Temple or a Palace. There were one or three entrances for the actors in the Skene. Later on the skeneography developed (i.e. theatrical painting). These were placed on the background on painted tables and had themes like the woods, the army etc.

Now between the skene and the seats, there was the Parodoi . These were two entrances, one on the right and one on the left. The chorus and the persons coming from outside that is not from the background (the Palace or the Temple) used the Parodoi. Both the entrances had their own meanings. If a person entered from the right parodos, it was understood that he was coming from the city or the port. If he entered from the left meant that he had come from the fields. Behind the Skene there were two buildings with doors. These might extend the Proscenio and the decoration, representing the theme of the scene or they may present another theme. Along the back of the skene all along was a narrow raised platform. This was the Logeion. This area was designed for the actors, for it separated them from the chorus. It is a sure fact that this took place in the Hellenistic period, for there are no records stating this in the classical theaters. In the classical theaters all performance took place on the orchestra itself.

The Skene had a flat roof, which was dedicated to the Gods. It was called the Theologion. Theos means God. The auditorium of the Greek theater was called the Koilon. It was called so because of its shape. Before the Koilon was built the spectators would sit round the Orchestra. Later they built the Koilon, which was semi-circular in shape, and it was built around the orchestra. First it was built of wood and then later on of stone. It was divided into, the upper Diazoma and the lower Diazoma. The front seats were reserved for the officials and the priests who were called the Proedria. The priest of Elefthereos Dionyssos was the most honorable spectator of the theater. Till the 5th century except for the Orchestra, all other parts of the theater were made of wood and were mobile, but by the end of the 5th century permanent Skenes and Koilon were constucted. The props a) the Aeorema was a crane by which the Gods used to appear on the scene. b) the Periactoi were two prismatic pillars, which were put on the left and right side of the skene. c) the Ekeclema, which was a wheeled platform on which the dead bodies of people were shown to the audience. In Greek theater suicides and murder were never shown to the audience. All these props were stored inside the permanent Skene.

The indoor theaters were known as Odeia. Musical performance and tragical proagones took place here.

It is in the cult of Dionysus that we find the roots of ancient Greek theater.

Dionysus was the God of wine and fertility. He was one of the Olympian deities honored by the Greek. His followers were the satyrs, known to be drunken half-animal, half-human creatures, and the maenads who are considered as “mad women”. There is the Diontsiac myth. “ Dionysos is not involved in many myths in the archaic and classical periods. But there is one that is told of various places in roughly the same form. Dionysos arrives from abroad but is rejected by the ruler or ruling family, and so he inflicts on the family a frenzy that results in the females becoming maenads in the wild.” (Silk,284)

 In ancient Greek times, Dionysus’ followers sometimes assumed these roles; they pretended to be satyrs or maenads in their religious rituals, which resulted in a lot of singing, drinking, and dancing in honor of their God Dionysus. This celebration usually took place in December in the countryside and in March in the city, and they could start only after certain rituals were completed. In Athens, for instance, a wooden statue of Dionysus would be taken from Eleutherai to the city. When the statue arrived at the city it would be taken to one of the God’s sanctuaries and here a bull would be killed in his honor.  The performance of a dithyramb, that is a song dedicated to Dionysus, would also take place at this time. The members of the Dionysiac cult always told and sang of the myths, which centered on their God. Through singing and dancing as a chorus they brought out their stories. This was their traditional way of acting till one day about 2,500 years ago in the sixth century BC, a man named Thespis, a Dionysian priest, stepped out of the chorus and acted a role. He thus became the first actor. Thespis acted out a Dionysiac myth this time not through a song but by spoken dialogue. Thus the beginning of Greek tragedy took birth. He is considered to be the first actor and the first playwright.

This new form quickly gained popularity. Pisistratus, an Athenian tyrant constructed a theater in Dionysus honor where tragedy could be performed. This tragedy performance quickly turned into a competition for the best play in 538 BC under Pisistratus reign itself. These plays became very important and they acquired a new meaning, which led to the festivals of Dionysus getting instituted. The very first recorded victory tells that Thespis, won the competition. Thus this festival was not only an occasion to honor Dionysus, but also it provided them an opportunity to take part in an entertainment, which served as a competition too.  Plays have been categorized into two clusters: tragedies and comedies. It was the Greek who first established these terms.

‘Tragos’ in Greek means ‘goat’ and ‘oide’ means song. Thus we get goatsong. This refers to the ancient rural performance where the actor dressed in goatskin in order to perform. As Greek drama developed the word tragedy was applied to all serious plays .To write a tragedy was not simple. The noble character had to come in conflict with forces beyond his or her control. It also has to do with human thought and decisions. A person who gets into trouble after making a lot of foolish decisions does not appear to be tragic. Tragedy requires that the protagonist consciously take a wise decision but falls into a trap from where there is no escape.

Tragedy thus became an established form, and the theater expanded to include satyr and comedy too. “Ancient Greek drama comprises three principal genres: tragedy, satyr drama and comedy. These resemble each other in many ways, and were performed at the same festivals, but each had its own distinguishing features” (Sommerstein, 1.)  It was in 534 BC that tragedy first appeared in the Dionysian festival. Satyr play came in 500 BC and comedy in 486 BC. Most of the Greek plays that have survived till today date from 490BC to 300 BC. The tragedies are attributed to Aeschylus (525-426BC), Sophocles (496-406) and Euripides (485-406 BC). The comedies were written by Aristophanes (450-385) and Menander (342-290). Most of the plays that have survived were clearly written for the stage. Every year three tragic playwrights competed against each other in the city of Athens. This was part of the festival in honor of Dionysus. The plays were performed in the theater dedicated to Dionysus. About three to five comic playwrights competed against each other. The tradition was that a tragic writer wrote three tragic plays and a satyr for presentation whereas a comic playwright wrote only one.

Usually a competition lasted for three to four days as in the 5th century BC, the plays of each author being performed over a span of one day. Tragedies were mainly based on old myths and stories performed by a chorus of twelve members. Later the number increased to a maximum of fifteen members. Costumes and masks were used in order to help the audience figure out who the performers were representing. Costumes represented the social status of the characters whereas the mask depicted the age of the character. These masks were made of wood and cork and it helped to make the actor’s voice louder. The drawback of the mask was that it hid the actor’s facial expressions and the audience had to depend on the gestures and voice of the actor’s to realize and understand the emotions. If the audience was a large, noisy audience, then it became difficult to understand the emotions

The same tragic playwright wrote the satyr play. The characters in these plays were the satyrs (half human, half bestial creatures). They were the disciples of the Dionysus.  The actors performing their parts dressed in full body suits with pieces of wool attached to their bodies.  It is not known how many members were in the chorus in these plays. However, we do know that an older satyr called the Papposilenos conducted it. Though no satyr plays have survived, it is known that it was a blend of crude humor and lively action, and this made it a favorite with the crowd.

Comedy was also an extremely popular form of performance. The first comedic competition at the Dionysian festival took place in 486 B.C. and was won by the playwright Chionides. Though these plays focused on lighthearted subjects, later serious political issues were satirized, promoting new ideas for the existing political system.

Most of the plays passed down the generation through the Oral tradition. Plays were not written to be read, but rather to be seen and heard. These plays were much later published but they were memorized originally. Thus they passed down by word of mouth. All the actors as well as the playwrights were men, as women were not allowed to take part. The playwrights were called ‘didaskalos’ which mean “teacher” or “trainer”. Earlier they simply trained the chorus, but later with solo actors being introduced on the stage, these ‘didaskolas’ took over as writer, composer, chorographer and director.

Those who wanted to present a play at the festival had to ‘apply for a chorus’ to the archon. The archon is the magistrate who is chosen annually. In other words they had to be accepted by the magistrate as one of the competitors either for the tragic plays or for the comic plays. Once the play got chosen the playwright was assigned a producer, some actors and the chorus. A choregos was also assigned to him. A choregos was a private wealthy citizen who would fund the play. The training of the actors, the costumes were all taken care of by the choregos. The state paid the actors in the productions. After six months of training and practice, the play was presented in Athens as part of the Dionysus festival. It was a great honor for the playwright and the producer if the play won at the festival.

Perhaps the earliest known theory about how Greek theater originated are to be found in Aristotle’s Poetics. According to him tragedy emerged from dithyrambs. The dithyramb was a song dedicated to Dionysus, which was introduced around the sixth century BC. He gives credit to the poet Arion for developing the dithyramb into its formal narrative song, which could be sung by the chorus. These songs depicted Greek legends and they were staged in a very lively manner. People in the rural area of Greece used to dress themselves in goatskins and dance around to look like the animal. Later on it became more sophisticated and serious. This helped in the progress of Greek tragedy. An ancient Greek play consisted of three major parts. It started with a prologue, which is a simple speech, which introduces the play. Then, the chorus enters. Last, the entire major episodes, scenes or acts, of the play took part.

The very first actor and playwright was Thespis, but none of his plays survive today. He brought about the new style in which a solo actor performed. He acted as the character, and interacted with the chorus who represented the narrator as well as the commentators. His style of dramas came to be known as tragedy, meaning gaotsong, perhaps referring to the goats which were sacrificed to Dionysus or to the fact that the performers wore goatskins while acting. Works of only five of the ancient Greek playwrights survive today. They are as mentioned earlier: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides who were all tragic playwrights, and Aristophanes and Menander who were writers of comedy. All the plays written by all five of them were for presentation at the Dionysus festival.

Aeschylus lived from 525 to 456 BC. He lived in the sixth century BC. He belonged to the village of Icaria. He wrote about eighty plays, both tragedies and satyrs. The play ‘Persians” written by him is the oldest surviving play. He wrote it in 472 BC. According to Aristotle, Aeschylus was responsible for introducing a second actor on the stage. This resulted in dialogue on the stage. Up till now, there had always been only one actor, and all form of dialogue took place between the actor and the chorus or a representative of the chorus, who were a group of dancing singers. The chorus formed the core of the dramatic performance. Aeschylus was also responsible for introducing a definite actor’s apparel. This dress included the three essentials of the tragic costume – the mask, the long-sleeved robe, and the tall buskins (high boots with very thick soles). The greatly improved the settings of the play.

Sophocles, lived from 496 to 406 B.C. He wrote about one hundred and twenty dramas, seven of which have survived. Sophocles was very successful. His best-known play is Oedipus the King, which according to Aristotle was to be considered as the model drama, and Oedipus the model hero. Sophocles was responsible for bringing in the skenographia, or scene painting, therefore he became the first playwright to have a definite background with a theme behind the actors in his plays. He also brought in the third d speaking character into theatrical productions.

Euripides was born in 484 and he died in 406 BC. During this time he wrote ninety plays, eighteen of which are still to be found today. These include seventeen tragedies and one satyr play. Euripides was educated as a free thinker, and as can be seen in his works, he approached the traditional myths as raw material, which he changed and shaped as he pleased. However, in order to keep within the lines and set rules of the established features of the myths, it became necessary for Euripides to use the idea of supernatural intervention in his plays, resulting in scenic changes. Mechanical devices had to be invented that allowed the Gods to appear and disappear quickly.

Aristophanes was a comic writer who lived between 450 and 385 BC. He composed about forty plays in his lifetime. His plays were all comedies, though they were usually addressing very serious political and social issues in direct and crude ways, very much like today’s comedy. The audience enjoyed it. Many comedies would also make fun of members of the audience. They would even attack contemporary political personalities.

Approximately at the time of Alexander the Great, about 330 BC, a new type of comedy replaced the traditional type. It was during that period that Menander, who lived from 342 to 290 BC, wrote over one hundred comedies. The new style of comedy focused on the humor that was found in Athenians’ daily life, rather than concentrating on political issues. This change was partially due to the fact that freedom of speech, which Aristophanes had taken advantage of so well in his comedy, was no longer a right under the domination of Macedonia. Therefore, during this late period in Greek theater, the everyday joys, sorrows, manners, and peculiarities of individual citizens took center stage in Menander’s comedies.

Greek theaters can be grouped into three categories: Athenian, Hellenistic, and Graeco-Roman. Each of these different types came with slight variations in the structure of the performance spaces, as well as in the specifics of the style of the performances.

Athenian theater, which took place mainly during the 5th century BC, was focused on religion. The plays had a chorus of up to 50 people, who performed the plays in verse accompanied by music. The performance space was a simple circular space, the orchestra, where the chorus danced and sang. This orchestra, had an average diameter of 78 feet, and it was situated on a flattened terrace at the foot of a hill. The slope of the hill produced a natural theatron, or “watching place”. Later, the term “theater” came to be applied to the whole area, including the theatron, the orchestra, and the skene, or scenery. The theaters were originally built on a very large area to accommodate the large number of people on stage, as well as the large number of people in the audience, which at times used to go up to fourteen thousand. Mathematics played a huge role in the construction of these theaters, as their designers had to create acoustics in them so that the actors’ voices could be heard all over the theater, including the very top row of seats. Many people believe that the ancient Greeks had a better understanding of the science behind acoustics than we do today.

The first seats in Greek theaters were wooden, but around 499 BC stone blocks were laid into the side of the hill to create permanent, seats. In 465 BC, the playwrights began using a backdrop or scenic wall, which hung or stood behind the orchestra, which also served as an area where actors could change their costumes. It was known as the skene. In 425 BC a stone scene wall, called a paraskenia, became a common supplement to skenes in the theaters. A paraskenia was a long wall with projecting sides, which may have had doorways for entrances and exits. Just behind the paraskenia was the proskenion. The proskenion was columned, and was similar to the modern day proscenium. Today’s proscenium is what separates the audience from the stage. Greek theaters also had entrances for the audience called parodoi. The paradoi (plural of parados) were tall arches that came out from the sides of the stage, through which the audience entered. By the end of the 5th century BC, around the time of the Peloponnesian War, the skene, the back wall, was two stories high. The upper story was called the episkenion. Some theaters also had a raised speaking place on the orchestra called the logeion.

Hellenistic theater took place during the 4th century and onward; roughly the same time period as the conquests of Alexander the Great. The hellenistic theater included the same basic parts as the classical theaters: the orchestra, the parados, and the skene. Columns ranging from 13 to 8 feet in height were placed next to the skene. They were typically enclosed by the paraskene. There were painted boards located behind the columns called pinakes. In short, the Hellenistic style theaters included a circular orchestra, an auditorium, pillars, a skene divided into rooms, and a proskene with three doors.

When Greek civilization was coming to an end, Roman ideas were spreading through Greece and the Graeco-Roman Theater evolved. This type of theater was distinctly different from the earlier types, as it incorporated the ideas of the Romans into the Greek theater. This resulted in some specific changes in the design as well as in the plays themselves. Graeco-Roman theaters had larger audience areas, and the bottom level of seats was lowered to the same level as the orchestra. Although Graeco-Roman theaters had a plainer stage area, the background and front edge of the orchestra were elaborate and decorative. More energy was put into making the permanent structure more decorative, than the sets for each play. A new set machinery was also invented at this time.

To make the plays most effective, the actors who played the parts of the Gods had to arrive and leave in a godly fashion, therefore the crane was invented which, allowed them to be flown in and out in a way that was befitting a God. They also started using rolling platforms, for bringing in dead bodies onto the stage, as no violence ever took place on stage. This device was called the ekkuklema. Other inventions such as trap doors for the actors to enter and exit from were also invented. Graeco-Roman plays were mostly comedies, whereas the classical and Hellenistic theater, were mostly tragedies.

The audience often swayed Athenian citizens appointed as judges.  The audience was always an extremely large one. At one time the Dionysian theater held up to 14,000 people, and this of course made the audience very influential.  If the people disliked what was being presented to them they might interrupt it by mocking the actors, yelling, or throwing food.  The spectators might also beat the wooden benches they were sitting on with their hands.  With the possibility of this happening, many playwrights tried to win over their audience through flattery and the distribution of small gifts. The large crowds were extremely loud and in order to get the spectators quieted down and ready for a performance, the actors had to do something interesting and outrageous.

For example, a comedic performer might tell jokes or tease people in the audience.  If there was more than one performer they might get the audience’s attention through horseplay (i.e. yelling, fake fighting, etc.).  Before a dramatic performance a prologue might be given by the playwright, an explanation of the legend he was depicting.  The style of the opening depended largely upon the type of the play to be performed. The entrance and the exits played a very important role in Greek theater. “An entry provides the first impact of features of person, dress, stage-properties and so on; the manner and destination of an exit conjure up the future, the consequences of the scene we have just witnessed.” Taplin 31

Works cited:

  1. Cohen, Robert. Theatre. Fourth Edition. California; Mayfield, 1997
  2. Greek Tragedy in Action; Routledge,2003
  3. Tragedy and the Tragic;Greek, Theater and Beyond, M.S. Silk,Oxford University Press, 1998,(284)
  4. Greek Drama and Dramatists, Alan H. Sommerstein, Routledge,2002 (1)
  5. cyberessays.com
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