Greek Theater Study Guide

The Greek Chorus and the Features of Tragedies and Comedies

Theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy on Roman mosaic.
Theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy on Roman mosaic.

The conventional theater of Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde (e.g. The Importance of Being Earnest) has discrete acts subdivided into scenes, with a cast of characters engaged in dialogue with one another. It's hard to believe that this easy to understand and familiar format comes from the ancient Greeks whose drama originally had no individual speaking parts.

Scholars debate the origins of Greek drama, but it is thought that drama developed out of a form of religious, ritual worship by a chorus of (singing and dancing) men, possibly dressed as horses, connected with the vegetation god Dionysus. Thespis, from whose name comes the term 'thespian' for someone interested in acting, is supposed to be the man responsible for giving the first speaking role to someone. Perhaps he gave it to the leader of the chorus.

The three famous Greek tragedians whose works survive, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, made further contributions to the genre of tragedy.

Aristophanes, a writer of comedy, wrote mostly what is known as Old Comedy. He is the last old comedy writer whose works survive. New Comedy, almost a century later, is represented by Menander. We have much less of his works: many fragments, and one almost complete, prize-winning comedy, Dyskolos.

Roman Theater

Rome has a tradition of derivative comedy. Plautus and Terence were the most influential writers of the Romans' Fabula Palliata) comedy. Shakespeare used some of their plots in his comedies. Plautus was even the inspiration for the 20th century's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. There were also Romans (including Naevius and Ennius) who, adapting the Greek tradition, wrote tragedy in Latin. Unfortunately, their tragedies haven't survived. For extant Roman tragedy we can read Seneca; however, Seneca may have intended his plays for readings rather than performances in the theater.

Features of Ancient Greek Tragedy

  • Suffering: Tragedy revolves around a tragic hero who suffers misfortune.
  • Cleansing: Aristotle wrote about the qualities of tragedy, which include a catharsis or cleansing.
  • Religious: Greek tragedy was performed as part of an estimated 5-day Athenian religious festival, which may have been instituted by the tyrant Peisistratus in the second half of the sixth century B.C.
  • Honored Dionysus: The Great Dionysia, the name of this festival, was held in the Attic month of Elaphebolion, from the end of March to mid-April.
  • Competitions: The dramatic festivals were centered around competitions, agones.
  • Prizes: Three tragic playwrights competed for the prize for the best series of three tragedies and a satyr play.
  • Myth: The subject matter was usually from mythology.
  • History: The first surviving full play was not mythological, but the recent history-based play The Persians, by Aeschylus.
  • Not bloody: Violence usually occurred offstage.
  • The original Thespian: The first competition is thought to have been held in 535 B.C. at which time Thespis, the person credited with the first speaking role, won.
  • Limitations: There were rarely more than a chorus and 3 actors, regardless of how many roles were played. Actors changed their appearance in the skene.
  • Why Masks?: The theaters were so capacious that actors couldn't count on people in the back rows seeing their facial expressions; hence, masks.
  • No microphones needed: Actors needed good projecting voices, but the theaters also had impressive acoustics.

Aspects of Greek Comedy

  • Greek Comedy is divided into Old and New. 
  • Since the only Greek comedy comes from Attica — the country around Athens — it is often called Attic Comedy.
  • Old Comedy tended to examine political and allegorical topics while New Comedy looked at personal and domestic themes. For comparison, think of the The Daily Show vs How I Met Your Mother.
  • Euripides (one of the 3 great writers of tragedy) is considered an important influence on the development of New Comedy.
  • The primary writer of Old Comedy is Aristophanes; the primary figure for New Comedy is Menander.
  • The Roman comedy writers followed Greek New Comedy.
  • The relatively modern "Comedy of Manners" can be traced to Greek New Comedy.

General Information on the Greek Theater

  • Theatrical performances were religious and political.
  • Always competitive, the winning Greek choregos and playwrights accrued great prestige.
  • Men played the role of women.
  • Actors wore masks and costumes.
  • Performances were outdoors often on hillsides.
  • The word "theater" comes from the word theatron which was the viewing area for the Greek audience.

The 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 the stage.

The chorus stayed in the orchestra for the duration of the performance  from which vantage point they observed and commented on the action of the actors. Dialogue consisted of long, formal speeches in verse. Choral training was the responsibility of a chorus leader (choregus), selected by an archon, one of the top officials in Athens.

This responsibility to train the chorus was like a tax on the wealthy citizens. The choregus provided all the equipment, costumes, props, and trainers for the roughly, dozen chorus members (choreutai). This preparation might last for 6 months. At the end, if the choregus was lucky, he would then have to fund a celebratory feast for winning the prize.

To modern readers of Greek tragedy, the chorus may seem an interlude between the main action -- a section to gloss over. The ancient actor (hypokrites, literally the one who answers the chorus' questions), likewise, might ignore the advice of the chorus. Yet the chorus was crucial to winning the competition for best set of tragedies. Aristotle says the chorus should be regarded as one of the actors. The chorus had a personality and could be important in the action, depending on the play, according to Rabinowutz in Greek Tragedy, but even so, they couldn't prevent the 1,2, or 3 actors from doing what they would. Being a member of a chorus was also part of the Greek civic education process.

The chorus enters the orchestra during the parados, from the two ramps known as paradoi on either side of the orchestra. Once there, the leader, coryphaeus, speaks the choral dialogue. Scenes of dialogue (episdoes) alternate with choral song, which is called stasimon. In this way the stasimon is like the darkening of the theater or curtains down between acts. The final scene (exodus) of Greek tragedy is one of dialogue.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Review: "Greek Tragedy," by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz
  • Ancient Greek Theater
  • Barbara F. McManus Greek Tragedy
  • "Choral Identity in Greek Tragedy," Helene Foley. Classical Philology Vol. 98, No. 1 (Jan., 2003), pp. 1-30.
  • "'Nothing to Do with Dionysus': Tragedy Misconceived as Ritual," by Scott Scullion. The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 52, No. 1 (2002), pp. 102-137.
  • "The Determination of Episodes in Greek Tragedy," Joe Park Poe. The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 114, No. 3. (Autumn, 1993), pp. 343-396.
  • "The Origin of Greek Tragedy in the Light of Dramatic Technique," Donald Clive Stuart. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 47. (1916), pp. 173-204.
  • "The Physis of Comedy," Erich Segal. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 77. (1973), pp. 129-136.
  • "The Shape of Greek Tragedy," L. H. G. Greenwood. Greece & Rome, Vol. 6, No. 16. (Oct., 1936), pp. 31-40.
  • Theatre
  • "The Dramatic Role of the Chorus in Sophocles," by G. M. Kirkwood. Phoenix, Vol. 8, No. 1. (Spring, 1954), pp. 1-22.