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History of Greek Theater

Drama and Tragedy in Ancient Greece


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 audiences of the 21st century.

Greek Theater Study Guide:

Before I launch into my commentary about the genius of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, 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 life and times of the playwrights, the 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 Sophocles work consists of a retelling of religious-based myths. Many other plays make either makes references to the Gods. During some plays the gods of Olympus directly interact with the characters.
Other elements reveal the religious origins of Greek Drama:

  • Ceremonial masks
  • A Chorus (performers who would speak in unison)
  • A religious altar on the stage

At first, the performances involved a large Greek chorus collectively telling (or singing) a story. Gradually, these theatrical/mythical would eventually develop multiple characters.

Thespis: The World's First Actor?

History and legends suggest that Thespis was the very first actor. At least, he was the first actor 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 was more akin to a chorus that recited religious poetry in unison. It was Thespis who wrote his own script, put on masks to represent characters, and who 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 circular area of stone (we would call it a stage, but then it was known as the orchestra), surrounded by an amphitheater with over 15,000 seats, all of them filled with Greek citizens. Seeing a show 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 an uncomfortable plank of wood, waiting to be entertaining, hoping to be enlightened, straining to listen, squinting to see. Thousands of Greeks waiting 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.

Perhaps Thespis was the first person to truly experience stage fright. Maybe this was the very first time in history that butterflies were in someone's stomach.

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