A Little History of Greek Theater

Comedy and Tragedy masks
Comedy and Tragedy and Masks - brought to us by Greek Theater!. Ryan Burke

The plays of Ancient Greece ask questions that are still surprisingly relevant to our lives today:

  • Should we follow the rule of law or our own moral code?
  • Do we have free will?
  • How should we respond to injustice?
  • What do I do if I encounter a Cyclops?

Okay, maybe that last one does apply to today's society. However, most of the dramas and comedies of Ancient Greece (the ones that have survived, that is) continue to entertain and enlighten contemporary audiences.

Ancient Greek playwrights Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes wrote plays that have been translated into hundreds of languages and are still studied and performed thousands of years after the deaths of these men.

Greek Theater Study Guide

Allow me to introduce you to About.com's divinely intelligent N. S. Gill. Her invaluable study guide to Greek Theater provides compelling and concise information about the lives and times of the playwrights, the ancient ceremonial procedures, and the theaters themselves.

In particular, I highly recommend the following articles:

The Roots of Greek Theater

Most historians theorize that the dramatic arts evolved from religious ceremonies. Certainly, there are many religious elements in the surviving plays. Most of the works of  Sophocles consist of retellings of religious-based myths.

Many other plays also make specific references to the Gods. During some plays, the Gods of Olympus directly interact with the characters.

Other elements within the dramas reveal the religious origins of Greek Drama:

  • Ceremonial masks
  • A Chorus (performers who speak in unison and comment on the play's actions and meanings)
  • A religious altar on the stage
  • Consultations with oracles said to be able to commune with deities

Early performances involved a large Greek chorus collectively telling (or singing) a story. Gradually, this theatrical/mythical group branched out to include multiple characters - individuals who acted out the story with the chorus as "back-up."

Thespis: The World's First Actor?

History and legends suggest that a man named Thespis was the very first actor. At least, he was the first actor known to go out on stage and speak by himself. According to Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb, authors of Living Theater, Thespis lived during the middle of the 6th century B.C. Thespis is "customarily credited with transforming the dithyramb into tragedy by stepping out of the dithyrambic chorus and becoming an actor." Before Thespis came around, the theater of the western world was more akin to a chorus that recited religious poetry in unison. It was Thespis who wrote his own script, put on different masks to represent characters, and recited lines not with the chorus, but as an individual.

And Thespis wasn't just performing in front of a few curious audience members and local villagers. He stood in the middle of a large circular area of stone (We would call it a stage, but back then it was known as the orchestra), surrounded by an amphitheater with over 15,000 seats, all of them filled with Greek citizens.

Attending a theatrical performance was a communal experience. Theater festivals were holy days wherein all businesses, even wars between city-states, came to a halt. And every man (maybe even every woman, but historians are still bickering about that) sat on uncomfortable planks of wood, waiting to be entertaining, hoping to be enlightened, straining to listen, and squinting to see. Thousands of Greeks gathered together to watch a performance by Thespis, a performance that would deviate from the norm, that featured (for the first time) characters instead of just a collective chorus.

It's not hard to figure out that Thespis, the man credited with being the world's first known and named actor, is where the word "Thespian" comes from. Actors are often called Thespians and since the early 1900s, millions of high school theatre students have been inducted into an organization called The International Thespian Society.

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Bradford, Wade. "A Little History of Greek Theater." ThoughtCo, May. 22, 2016, thoughtco.com/history-of-greek-theater-2713182. Bradford, Wade. (2016, May 22). A Little History of Greek Theater. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-greek-theater-2713182 Bradford, Wade. "A Little History of Greek Theater." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-greek-theater-2713182 (accessed November 24, 2017).