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Grecians were exposed to an important transition phase during the fifth century B.C. This century was a period of creativity, intelligence, and knowledge for Greek history and nation. Greece then was divided into numerous city-states in which different rules and regulations governed. Hence, no central government existed. Language, common ethical traits, along with the sense of Grecian pride was what united those city states. That phase witnessed the emergence of the ancient Greek theater, which was a cultural theater. The ancient Greek theater is one of the most historical assets people around the world share. It is because of some Greek people who lived in that era of theatrical achievements that theater evolved to be what it is today. Greek theater started as the central event in the famous festival Dionysia. After the festival Panathenaia, Dionysia was the largest celebration made in ancient Athens. The purpose of this festival was to honor the god Dionysus, who is the god of fertility, wine, agriculture, and sexuality. Dionysia was also called "Festival of the Wine Jugs" and "Old Dionysia". The ceremony first started in Thrace (Greek city) where Dionysus was the god of fertility. Then the festival spread all over the south of Greece where Dionysus was the god of wine. Eventually, the festival became an annual religious ceremony done all over Greece. The ceremony was made each year in March in the city and in December in country sides. Ancient Greek theatre was defined as a "... mixture of myth, legend, philosophy, social commentary, poetry, dance, music, public participation, and visual splendor." (Cohen 64). It included many themes of violence in daily life, social and ethical problems, war, murder, lust, betrayal, and many more social and religious issues the Greek theater consisted of two major kinds of plays which we're going to discuss in later parts of the essay, The Greek Tragedy and The Greek Comedy. Those Greek plays were only presented during the Dionysia festival. Each year three tragic writers would present their plays and compete. On the other hand, three to five comedians' would compete. No competition was found between tragedies and comedies plays. . Three major parts constituted the Greek plays. First, the play would start with a simple speech, a prologue. Second part of the play is the entrance of the chorus. Finally, there were the basic plays, episodes, scenes or acts.
Tragic plays played an important critical role in the Greek society. Tragedy was a teaching tool and a lesson in behavior for Greek citizens. They were basically based on old Greek myths, stories, or poems. Tragedies reflected two basic concepts which dominated the Greek society then. First, was the importance of glory and pride in a hero's life, a life that would reach its climax in a glorified death "Tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods. The tragic hero's powerful wish to achieve some goal inevitablyÂ encounters limits, usually those of human frailty, or nature" (Tragedy 1). Second is the interrelated relation between the two worlds, the reality that gods interfere in people's lives. The plays would show the audience the devastating mistakes hero's would do along with their consequences. "The hero need not die at the end, but he/she must undergo a change in fortune" (Tragedy 1). A small example to demonstrate how gods interfered indirectly in people's life is the murder of Agamemnon by his own wife once he came back from war. The irony in this play is that Agamemnon was able to overcome all of the harsh battles and fights, but at the end he was murdered in his home by his own wife. This demonstrates that gods interfere in an ironic indirect way to punish people for their past actions. Therefore, it is clearly obvious that the aim of the tragedies was not only to entertain but also to educate and reflect what was happening in Greek society. "The plays were not meant to entertain but to educate, to offer examples about morality that should be followed or immorality that should be avoided...those who attended the tragedies were supposed to receive a katharsis-a purging and cleansing of the soul. In a very real sense they were religious services" (Storrs 2). Initially tragedies were performed with no actors; one man from the chorus will step up and speak. AeschylusÂ added a second actor to the play by (524-456 B.C.) and later a third by Sophocles (496-406 B.C.). All actors were men playing variety of roles in each play, changing their masks and outfits for each role. As to the chorus it consisted of 12 to 15 men, depending on the financial ability, who performed songs and danced during the event.
Three great tragedian writers contributed mainly in the birth of classical Greek tragedy. First, AeschylusÂ (525-456 B.C.) was known as the father of Greek tragedy. He made 80 plays of which 7 are still in existence. His plays highlighted issues like civil duty, justice, and gods. He challenged gods themselves to solve issues that are still pertinent today. His plays are among the best western literature which survived for today. Second was Sophocles (495-406 B.C) who wrote 123 plays, of which only 7 survived in a complete form. Finally was EuripidesÂ (480-406 B.C.) who wrote 80 plays of which 18 or 19 are extant. He was known for reshaping the Greek tragedy through emphasizing more on female role and intelligent slaves.
One of the most famous plays written by Aeschylus is Oresteia trilogy, the legend of Agamemnon. The history of the play was a generation before the Trojan War where 2 brothers, Atreus and Thyestes, fought over the throne of Mycena when it fell vacant. Atreus won the throne and expelled his brother. Meanwhile Thyestes was in a relationship with Atreus's wife. When Atreus became aware of his wife's betrayal he planned to revenge. He pretended to forgive his brother and invited him to come back, and promised him half the kingdom. Thyestes accepted the invitation. In the meantime, Atreus killed 5 of Thyestes children. When Thyestes came back Atreus served Thyestes the flesh of his children cooked. When Thyestes knew what he was eating vomited and cursed the descendants of Atreus. When Atreus died his son Agamemnon took over the throne. Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother married Helen the daughter of the king of Sparta. When the kind of troy captured Helen, Agamemnon along with Menelaus organized a large army and went to bring Helen. Agamemnon's journey took ten years. At that time Clytemnestr, Agamemnon's wife was in a relation with Aegisthus, Thyestes's son. Both Aegisthus and Clytemnestr planned the death of Agamemnon as soon as he returns from his journey. Aegisthus wanted to revenge for what Agamemnon's father, Atreus, did in his father and 5 brothers. Clytemnestr hated Agamemnon because he sacrificed their daughter for pleasing the goddess Artemis. When Agamemnon returned Aegisthus and Clytemnestr killed him in his own home. This great Greek tragedy mentioned the issue of betrayal of wives. It also brought up the interference of gods in people's lives.
The other type of Greek theater is the Greek comedy. It defers from Greek tragedy as it uses humor and tends to finish in happy endings. Old comedy, middle comedy, and new comedy are the three forms which constituted the ancient comedy. Old comedy dated back to 450 B.C, where it took a political application in Dionysian festivals. Ancient Greek Comedians were known for their criticism of the political system but in a sense of humor. Grecians would receive indirect comments on essential issues in Greek society. These issues include social, literature, political, and Peloponnesian war ideas. In order for comedians to become famous among Greek people, they were required to use the features of tragedy regarding choral, masks, stage, and the attractive poetry of Athenians. Hence, comedy became part of the Greek drama which was used as a powerful tool in the hands of politician. The second form of comedy came directly after the old comedy. The former was between the end of Peloponnesian war and the capturing of Athens by Philip of Macedon. In other words it was between the last years of the 5th century till the middle of the 4th one. The middle comedy differed slightly from old comedy in 3 ways which where the absence of the chorus, no personated public personnel on stage, and themes of plays went from being specific to general. Most favorable themes of this era were regarding literary and social habits and customs. Comedians attacked the courtesans, social classes, revelers, and parasites. Finally came the new comedy which extended from the reign of the Macedonians till 260 B.C. Very few fragments along with the only play "Dyskolos" which was written by Menander, survived from the time of new comedy. The new element which became the most important theme in new comedy was drama of love, seldom love. The role and character of the father was also heavily introduced into the plays. Besides that nothing new was introduced which differed from the middle comedy.
To sum up, Greek theater presented both the religious and moral beliefs and values of Grecians. Comedians and tragedians tried to comment and present the acceptable traits which Greek people admired, and to criticize and emphasize the consequences of bad customs. The Greek theater also talked a lot about famous traits in Greek society such as hero's and the way they lived, pride of Grecians, and the major role of gods in determining faith of people. Those plays were a tool in which Greek people interacted and learned from. Greek theater is considered till our days as an important heritage which was the main source and beginning of all what is called modern theater.