Ancient Greek Theater Basics

The Greek Chorus and the Features of Tragedies and Comedies

Bronze sculptures of ancient Greek drama masks represent comedy and tragedy atop marble columns

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The conventional theater of Shakespeare ("Romeo and Juliet") or Oscar Wilde ("The Importance of Being Earnest") features discrete acts subdivided into scenes and casts of characters engaged in dialogue with one another. This easy to grasp structure and familiar format comes from ancient Greece, where drama originally had no individual speaking parts.

Structure and Origins

The English word "theater" comes from theatron, the viewing area for the Greek audience. Theatrical performances were outdoors, often on hillsides, and featured men in the roles of women and actors wearing masks and costumes. Performances were religious, political, and always competitive. Scholars debate the origins of Greek drama, but perhaps it developed from religious ritual worship by a chorus of singing and dancing men—possibly dressed as horses—connected with the festive vegetation god, Dionysus. Thespis, namesake of the term "thespian" for an actor, supposedly is either the first person to appear onstage in character, or casted the first speaking role; maybe he gave it to the chorêgos, leader of the chorus.

Choral training was the responsibility of a chorêgos, selected by an archon, one of the top officials in Athens. This duty to train the chorus was like a tax on the wealthy citizens, and being members of a chorus (choreutai) was also part of Greek civic education. The chorêgos provided all the equipment, costumes, props, and trainers for the roughly dozen choreutai. Such preparation might last for six months and at the end, if he were lucky, the chorêgos would fund a feast to celebrate winning the prize. The chorêgos and playwrights of winning productions garnered great prestige.

Greek Chorus

The chorus was the central feature of Greek drama. Composed of similarly costumed men, they performed on the dancing floor (orchestra), located beneath or in front of the stage. They enter during the first choral song (parodos) from two entrance ramps (parodoi) on either side of the orchestra, and remain for the entire performance, observing and commenting on the action. From the orchestra, the leader (coryphaeus) speaks the choral dialogue, consisting of long, formal speeches in verse. The final scene (exodus) of Greek tragedy is one of dialogue.

Scenes of dialogue (episodes) alternate with more choral song (stasimon). In this way, the stasimon is like darkening the theater or drawing the curtains between acts. To modern readers of Greek tragedy, the statismon seem easy to overlook, interludes interrupting the action. Likewise, the ancient actor (hypokrites, "the one who answers the chorus' questions") often ignores the chorus. Though they couldn't control hypokrites' behavior, the chorus had a personality, was crucial to winning the competition for best set of tragedies, and could be important in the action, depending on the play. Aristotle said they should be regarded as hypokrites.

Tragedy

Greek tragedy revolves around a tragic hero whose misfortune causes intense suffering resolved by one of Aristotle's tragic qualities, catharsis: a relieving, cleansing, and emotional release. Performances were part of an estimated five-day religious festival in honor of Dionysus. This Great Dionysia festival—during the Attic month of Elaphebolion, from the end of March to mid-April—was perhaps instituted ca. BCE 535 by the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus.

Festivals centered on agones, or competitions, where three tragic playwrights competed to win the prize for the best series of three tragedies and a satyr play. Thespis, credited with the first speaking role, won that first competition. Although the subject matter was usually mythological, the first surviving full play was "The Persians" by Aeschylus, based on recent history rather than myth. Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles are the three famous, great writers of Greek tragedy whose contributions to the genre survive.

There were rarely more than a chorus and three actors, regardless of how many roles were played. Actors changed their appearance in the skene. Violence usually occurred offstage, too. Playing multiple roles, a hypokrites wore masks because the theaters were so capacious that the back rows couldn't read their facial expressions. Although such large theatres had impressive acoustics, the actors needed good vocal projection to perform well behind their masks.

Comedy

Greek comedy comes from Attica—the country around Athens—and is often called Attic Comedy. It is divided into what is known as Old Comedy and New Comedy. Old Comedy tended to examine political and allegorical topics, while New Comedy looked at personal and domestic themes. For comparison, compare a late night talk show about current events and satire when thinking of Old, and a primetime sitcom about relationships, romance, and family when thinking about New. Thousands of years later, restoration comedy performances can also be traced to New Comedy.

Aristophanes wrote mostly Old Comedy. He is the last and primary Old Comedy writer whose works survive. New Comedy, almost a century later, is represented by Menander. We have much less of his work: many fragments and "Dyskolos," a nearly complete, prize-winning comedy. Euripides is also considered an important influence on the development of New Comedy.

Legacy in Rome

Roman theater has a tradition of derivative comedy, and their comedy writers followed New Comedy. Plautus and Terence were the most influential Roman writers of comedy—fabula palliata, a genre of drama converted from Greek to Roman—and their plots influenced some of Shakespeare's work. Plautus also inspired the 20th century's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Other Romans (including Naevius and Ennius), adapting the Greek tradition, wrote tragedy in Latin. Those tragedies unfortunately have not survived. For extant Roman tragedy we turn to Seneca, who may have intended his works for readings rather than performances in the theater.

Resources and Further Reading