In the Ancient Greek way of life, culture played a dominant role in the social lives of the people. Along with the Olympics and other athletic activities, going to the theatre and watching various dramas and plays formed a major aspect of the Ancient Greek way of life. As with most other social engagements, religion was a major influencer in the cultural life of the Ancient Greeks as well. The Ancient Greek Theatre evolved from certain religious rites and rituals which date back to at least 1200 BCE. Greek Theatre history began with festivals honoring their gods and goddesses and had close and inseparable links with Ancient Greek mythology. Dionysus was honored with a festival called “City Dionysia”. The content of most of the plays continued to be religious, in nature.
The theatre, drama, plays, and masques were some of the main items of the Ancient Greek cultural and social lives. They were more than just mere entertainment ideas.
Ancient Greek Theatre
By 600 BCE, Ancient Greece got divided into various city-states. These city-states were mainly separate nations centered in major cities and regions. The most prominent city-state among them was Athens, where most of the population (at least 150,000 people) lived. Athens was the main center for these Ancient Greek theatrical traditions. Athenians spread these festivals to its numerous allies in order to promote a common identity. It was here that the “Rites of Dionysus” evolved into what we know today as the theatre. Since Athens was located in a region called Attica, Ancient Greek and Athenian Theatre are sometimes referred to as Attic Theatre.
Theatre of Dionysus
As plays were an important part of the cultural festivals of the Ancient Greeks, almost every Ancient Greek city had a theatre. The Ancient Greeks enjoyed singing and dancing. The theatres were built on hillsides in the open air and had the good capacity and could often hold more than 18,000 spectators.
The theatres were built in a semi-circular shape with rows of tiered stone seating around them. In the center of the theatre was a circular dancing floor where the orchestra was performed, with an altar for sacrifices dedicated to Dionysus. The stage was a raised area within this circle.
At the early Ancient Greek festivals, the actors, directors, and dramatists were all the same person. After some time, only three actors were allowed to perform in each play. All the actors were men. Even women characters were depicted by the men. Later few non-speaking roles were allowed to perform on stage.
Due to the limited number of actors allowed on stage, the chorus evolved into a very active part of Ancient Greek theatre. Music was often played during the chorus’ delivery of its lines. Such was the passion of the Ancient Greeks towards their singing and dancing.
Theatrical Form of the Plays
In the Ancient Greek period, buildings were called a theatre. The theatres were large, open-air structures constructed on the slopes of hills. They consisted of three main elements: the orchestra, the scene, and the audience. During this time the actors had to use loud hand gestures and be very loud in their speech so as to make themselves audible to their audience as there were no microphones or any such devices.
The actors used exaggerated masks and colorful and decorative costumes to make themselves visible to the audience. This was a necessary feature because the audience sat far away from the stage and could not view it properly. These masks were usually made of linen or cork. The shape of the mask amplified the actor’s voice, making his words audible to the audience. The plays were either sung or spoken in rhyme. The prose was not much in fashion in this period. Thus most of the content was composed in verse.
The drama was taken very seriously by the people of Ancient Greece and for them, a part of the entertainment was a process of investigating the world they lived in and identifying the true meaning of being human.
Some Famous Ancient Greek Playwrights
Aeschylus (525 BCE to 455 BCE) is considered to be the father of Greek tragedy. He wrote around seventy plays in total, of which only seven survive in the present times. Aristotle credited him for introducing the second character to collaborate with the chorus in the Ancient Greek plays.
Aristophanes (446 BCE to 386 BCE) is regarded as the father of Greek comedy. He wrote somewhat forty plays of which only eleven survive in the present times. He wrote during the period which was known as Old Comedy.
Euripedes (480 BCE to 406 BCE) was one of the three great tragedy playwrights of the Classical Greece period. He wrote close to ninety plays of which less than twenty survive to this date.
Sophocles (496 BCE to 405 BCE) has been credited by Euripedes for introducing the third character in the acting fraternity. He wrote around a hundred and twenty plays of which only seven survive in modern times. His “Oedipus The King” is regarded by many as the greatest of all tragedies ever penned down.