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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

This page last modified: November 16, 2007

Ancient Greek Theatre

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:


Everything we think we know from the Ancient Greek theatre, and about the origins of theatre, comes from the following sources:

From the 5th century B.C.:

Three Playwrights: (214)



From the 4th century B.C., there are some lengthy extant fragments of some of the 100 plus plays of :

This period was called the period of New Comedy (Aristophanes was Old Comedy)
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Sources of information for theatre origins and Greek theatre:

8th century B.C. -- the first drama in recorded history.

By 5th century B.C. The "polis" or city-state was the governing unit.

Athens was the strongest polis for art and literature - the first democracy -- all could participate (citizens -- no women, slaves, or foreigners)

Pericles (c. 460-430 B.C.) -- "first citizen" of Athens -- led Athens in the "Golden Age of Greece" -- "Age of Pericles" -- he emphasized culture --architecture, art, and drama

Had temples and public building built, including the Theatre of Dionysus (Dionysus) and the Parthenon

Athens was defeated in the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C.

Greek society viewed gods in human terms - gods held grudges, etc., fought with each other - therefor their destiny (and those of humans) was uncertain

A strong concern for humanity - the founders of philosophy came from this period

Humans were elevated from animals, but harmony depended on a conjunction of human and divine forces. If disharmony, peace was endangered.

Drama therefore focused on human struggles, but with a "supernatural" element.
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Four Qualities of Greek Drama:

1. Performed for special occasions (festivals)

Athens had four festivals worshipping Dionysus -- (Bacchus in

Latin, Roman) god of wine, fertility, rebirth

The son of Zeus [a god] and Semele [a mortal], reared by satyrs, killed, dismembered, and resurrected (was actually reborn) --

  1. Competitive -- prizes awarded

Actors and playwrights competed --Oedipus apparently didn't win

(was 2nd) -- 430 B.C.

3. Choral -- singing seems to have been an important part

a chorus of men (varied in size form 3 to 50) -- many think the choral song -- dithyramb-- was the beginnings of Greek drama (but origins are unclear)

4. Closely associated with religion - stories based on myth or history

Some believe the chorus sang, moved, danced

Most believe the chorus underscored the ideas of the play, provided point-of-view, and focused on issues of the play and implications of the action, established the play's ethical system, and participated in the action

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The Greek Tragedy

Structure of Greek Tragedy:

  1. Late point of attack
  2. Violence and death offstage (Sophocles's Ajax  is an exception)
  3. Frequent use of messengers to relate information
  4. Usually continuous time of action (except Aeschylus's Eumenides)
  5. Usually single place (except Ajax)
  6. Stories based on myth or history, but varied interpretations of events
  7. Focus is on psychological and ethical attributes of characters, rather than physical and sociological.

"The Artists of Dionysus" seem to have been a sort of actors' union in the 3rd century B.C.

The Three Greek Tragedians:

1. Aeschylus - his are the oldest surviving plays - began competing 449 B.C. at Dionysus Theatre. Most of his plays were part of trilogies; the only extant Greek trilogy is The Orestia.

He is Believed to have introduced the 2nd actor (Thespis was one, the 2nd added; after 468 B.C. Sophocles is believed to have introduced the 3rd actor, which Aeschylus then used.

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Characteristics of Aeschylus's plays:


2. Sophocles: (496-406 B.C.) won 24 contests, never lower than 2nd; believed to have introduced the 3rd actor; fixed the chorus at 15 (had been 50)


Characteristics of Sophocles' plays:

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Euripides (480-406 B.C.) very popular in later Greek times, little appreciated during his life sometimes known as "the father of melodrama"

Characteristics of Euripides' plays:

Tragedy was abandoned in favor of melodramatic treatment.

Theme emphasized: sometimes chance rules world, people are more concerned with morals than gods are.

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The Satyr Play

The Satyr Play, of unknown origin, had to be mastered by tragedians


The Cyclops - Euripides - from The Odyssey - where Odysseus meets the Cyclops and a captive band of satyrs

The Trackers - Sophocles - much is extant - about Apollo's attempt to find a herd of cattle stolen by Hermes, god of thieves.

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Greek Comedy


Structure of the Comedy:

Part One:

prolog - chorus gives debate or "agon" over merits of the ides

parabasis - a choral ode addressing the audience, in which a social or political problem in discussed

Part Two:

scenes show the result of the happy idea final scene: (komos) - all reconcile and exit to feast or revelry
in 404 B.C., Athens was defeated in the Peloponnesian War; social and political satire declines.
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Production / Finance:

Playwrights applied to the archon (religious leader) for a chorus.

Expense borne by a choregai, wealthy citizen chosen by the archon as part of civic / religious duty

Choregus paid for training, costuming, etc. (tho' term choregus also refers to leader of the chorus.

The State responsible for theatre buildings, prizes, payments to actors (and perhaps to playwrights). Prizes were awarded jointly to playwrights and choregus.

Dramatists themselves probably "directed" the tragic plays, but probably not the comedies.

Aeschylus and others in his time acted, trained chorus, wrote music, choreographed, etc.

Playwrights called didaskalas (teacher) -- [didactic = teaching].

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Actors and Acting:


Playwrights originally acted, but by 449 B.C. with the contests for tragic actors, they didn't.

Actors were semi-professional, at best.

Three-actor rule (that only three actors were in productions) - seems supported by evidence, but questioned by some.

Oedipus at Colonus - could have only three actors, but only if a different actor played the same character in different scenes.


Fewer restrictions

Playwrights cast till 449 B.C., with the advent of the contests, then the main actors were chosen by lot and the others by the main actors and the playwright.

Actors were paid by the State.

Only the leading actors were eligible for competition.

A vocal acting - declamatory - to project appropriate emotional tone, mood, and character.

Three kinds of delivery: speech, recitative, and song.

No facial importance - masks used.

Gesture and movement were broadened and simplified.

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Acting styles:

Actors usually played more than one role

Men played all the parts

Stylized - used masks, choral declamation, etc.

Tragedy leaned toward idealization; comedy toward burlesque.

Other elements affecting 5th century Greek productions:

The chorus - tragedies

dominant in early tragedies (so main actors could change roles ?)

by Euripides, chorus only loosely related to the action


traditional view : from 50 to 12 to 15.

Generally believed to be 15 by the time of Sophocles and Euripides.

Later diminished in time.

Entered with stately march, sometimes singing or in small groups.

Choral passages sung and danced in unison, sometimes divided into two groups.

Sometimes exchanged dialog with the main characters, rarely individual speaking (though some say the choregus  may have spoken / sung alone).

The type of groupings are unknown.

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Chorus for "Old Comedy" (Menander's plays are considered to be Greek "New Comedy"):

24 people, sometimes divided into two

Could have both genders (Lysistrata).

More varied entrances, groupings, etc.

More active

In both comedy and tragedy, the chorus probably entered after the prolog and then stayed.


Functions of the chorus

1. an agent: gives advice, asks, takes part

2. establishes ethical framework, sets up standard by which action will be judged

3. ideal spectator - reacts as playwright hopes audience would

4. sets mood and heightens dramatic effects

5. adds movement, spectacle, song, and dance

6. rhythmical function - pauses / paces the action so that the audience can reflect.


The chorus was usually made up of amateurs - 11 months training - the most expensive part of the production.


Music - most believe music was integral-most dialog was recitative (retch-ee-tah-teev')

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Most agree more on comic costumes:

Greek "New Comedy":

The plays of Menander are the only surviving fragments...

Instead of Old Comedy's focus on social, political, and cultural satire, Greek New Comedy dealt with romantic and domestic problems.



The Didaskalia project at Berkeley has a valuable section on ancient Greek Theatre -- I highly recommend that you visit that site.


You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...


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Next Section: Roman



This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2007.

Page last updated : November 16, 2007