Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: Greek Theater


Origins of Greek Theater

  • Greek theater was established during the fifth century b.c.e. as the world's first theatrical culture.
  • Initially, Greek theater was based on religious rituals including funeral services, festivals celebrating the seasons or individual gods, processions and competitions, or patronage at heroic tombs.
  • Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) proposed that Greek theater had emerged from worship of Dionysus, god of wine, fertility, and pleasure.
    Dionysian ceremonies included a chorus and protagonist (korphaisos) who sang and danced hymns known as dithyrambs.
    Rhapsodes were public performances of stories told about the gods and mythical heroes.
  • Thespis was the first Greek playwright (sixth century b.c.e.), perhaps the world's first actor, and perhaps the name from which the word “thespian” is derived.
  • The city Dionysia hosted the first drama competitions (600 b.c.e.) for dithyrambic performances. Thespis, the first recorded winner for a tragedy (534 b.c.e.) introduced plays to the competition.
  • Hypokrites means “actor” in Greek and, after Thespis began writing, refers to the ability to play an imaginary role and engage in dialogue with other characters.

Greek Tragedy

  • The word “tragedy” may originate from a Greek phrase meaning “goat song,” which may relate to goat sacrifices.
  • Choral performers of dithyrambs were known as tragoidoi, another suggested source for the word “tragedy.”
  • After the fifth century b.c.e., dramatists in the competition were required to submit three tragic plays and one satirical play. After 486 b.c.e. comedies were added.
  • The earliest surviving plays are written by AESCHYLUS (ca. 525–ca. 456 b.c.e.), SOPHOCLES (ca. 496–406 b.c.e.), and EURIPIDES (480–ca. 406 b.c.e.).
  • Hamartia refers to the error of judgment or mistaken action that characterizes all tragic protagonists.
  • In tragic plays, the chorus functions as the community perspective and comments on the protagonists' actions, gives background on mythology, and pushes for a return to civic order.
  • Greek tragedies are comprised of a parodos (choral prologue that sets the opening scene), epeisodia (main actor dialogue), stasima (choral song without interaction), and exodus (choral exit and play's end).
  • Initially choral dialogue with the protagonist used elevated style but was replaced by Euripides' time with common dialects.
  • Euripides' Cyclops is the only complete surviving satirical play.

Greek Comedy

  • Comedy probably originated from phallic rituals in which groups of men wore phallic objects and animal masks.
  • The only early comedy playwright whose works remain intact is ARISTOPHANES (ca. 450–ca. 385 b.c.e.), whose works often deal with sexual themes.
  • Comedies differ from tragedies and satires in that their subject matter is not the gods and heroes of Greek mythology but instead everyday life in contemporary Athens (e.g., the Peloponnesian war with Sparta and public figures such as the philosopher Socrates).
    The chorus of comedy often represents animals or inanimate objects (e.g., Aristophanes' plays have titles such as The Frogs, The Wasps, and The Clouds).
  • In addition to the tragic cycle consisting of parodos (choral prologue that sets the opening scene), epeisodia (main actor dialogue), stasima (choral song without interaction), and exodus (choral exit and play's end), Old Comedies also included a choral section called parabasis in which the chorus addresses the audience directly, discussing political and social problems and praising the playwright.
  • Satyr plays were employed to provide comic relief at the end of a series of tragedies to uplift the audience's mood.

The Greek Stage

  • Plays were performed in amphitheaters that held up to 17,000 viewers and contained an orchestra ( “dancing place”), a thymele (a raised stone used as an altar or table), a skene (a place where actors could change masks and costumes and, through one or several doors, appear and disappear from the stage), and a proskenion (the main playing area in front of the skene, and the basis for the modern word “proscenium”).
  • Playwrights placed messengers and other figures on the skene's roof to describe battles and other scenes they pretended to see on its other side. This stage device was called teichoskopeia or “watching from a wall.”
  • Since all violence took place offstage to shield viewers, an ekkyklema (rolling platform) was used to roll a murdered character onto the stage.
  • Mechane were cranes employed to have gods appear in mid-air as deus ex machine (literally, “god from a machine”) who resolved plays with disciplinary action or wisdom.
  • Leaders in the Athenian government, called archon eponymos, selected among the wealthy citizens a choregos, or producer, who would provide the funds for the chorus, while the city government provided the funds for the playwright and the leading actors.
  • Choruses included 12–15 members, while early plays used only two or three actors who played several parts in the play.
    Only men were allowed to act in plays, though women and servants could attend performances.
  • Due to large theater sizes, simple costumes, and masks that covered players' facial expressions, actors relied a lot on gesture to demonstrate action.
  • Flutes were the most important instruments providing a play's music.

Theater and Athenian Democracy

  • During the period when Greek theater emerged, Greece was divided into city-states ruled by kings and nobles.
  • Athens' primary role in defeating the Persians (in the Persian Wars of 492–449 b.c.e.) made it the cultural and artistic center of the Greek city-states.
  • The decline of Greek tragedy parallels the decline of Greek democracy as a result of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 b.c.e.); afterwards New Comedy—dominated by Menander (ca. 342–292 b.c.e.)—began to flourish.

Greek Theories of Drama

  • Plato and Aristotle were the first major theorists of Greek drama.
  • Plato criticized drama as being too interested in mimicking the world rather than in pursuing the truth of things' true essence.
  • Aristotle's Poetics deals with tragedy's religious origins, the role of the protagonist, and the function of the chorus.
  • Aristotle notes six elements of theater: plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle.
  • Aristotle finds unified action (defined during the Renaissance as unity of action, place, and time) to be crucial in tragedy, as well as such plot elements as reversals (peripeteia) and the epiphany or moment of recognition (anagnorisis).
  • Aristotle defines tragedy's main purpose as catharsis, in which emotions are cleansed and the audience is educated on civic morals by feeling fear and pity for the play's characters.