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The ancient Greeks are famous for their many contributions to the world. Among these contributions is one that has changed culture and the arts permanently. This contribution is theatre.
Greek theatre is considered the beginning of theatre as we know it. Theatre began in Athens, circa 600 BC, developing out of rituals at the Dionysia. The Dionysia was a festival for followers of the cult of Dionysus, god of wine and festivities. Greek theatre really began to take shape, however, around 400 BC. The first actor was named Thespis, and it is from his name that the word “thespian” originated. Thespis was born in Attica, in 534 BC. He began performing speeches from epic poems and stories of the day, speaking from that character’s point of view. His shows were also interactive, as he often spoke with the audience. Since no theater really existed at the time, he traveled from place to place with a handcart. He used masks, makeup, and costumes to make his monologues more realistic [Sandels].
Over time, theatre was changed and developed by forward-thinking playwrights. One such playwright, Aeschylus, introduced the concept of using a second character, so that dialogue and the interaction of the characters could be used as a plot device. Years later, another playwright, Sophocles, added another actor, steadily decreasing the importance of the chorus while increasing character interactions. Around the same time, Euripides gradually made theatre more natural and realistic, rather than the rigid, structured form of acting [History].
The theater itself was outdoors and known as an Amphitheater. It was semi-circular in shape, and terraced, allowing for each visitor to have perfect view. These seats were called the theatron, literally meaning the viewing area. On average, the Amphitheater was able to fit 1,500 viewers and was designed to have near perfect acoustics. There was usually a theater in each town, as theaters were also used for religious rituals and processions as well as entertainment. In the center was a circular platform called the orchestra. On the orchestra was an altar where sacrifices to Dionysus were performed. The stage itself was called the Proscenio. It was situated behind the orchestra, and was constructed much like stages today, although most of the acting took place in the orchestra. The back of this stage had painted backgrounds to create the settings for each scene [Englert]. These buildings were most likely brightly painted, although the paint would have faded over time [Phillips]. Behind the stage, machines used for the performances were kept. These machines were advanced technology for their day, and included the Aeorema, the Ekeclema, and the Periactoi.
The Aeorema was one of the more commonly used. It was a large crane used to pull actors through the air. This was most often employed to create the illusion of gods, which led to the expression, “Deus ex Machina”. The Ekeclema was a wheeled platform. This sometimes ferried dead bodies across the stage, as murders and suicides were not shown on stage. This tradition stemmed from the superstition that to kill a person on stage would be foretelling of their actual death. The Periactoi consisted of two pillars, one on each side of the stage, which could turn to change the background setting without need of stagehands [Ancient]. All of these were constructed of simple machines, such as pulleys, levers, and wheels, made from wood, rope, and metal. They were put to use in many famous plays.
The plays themselves were very similar to the modern musical. They had sing and dancing, sometimes accompanied by music. The cast was comprised of many actors, called “hypocrites”, both professional and amateur. The main character, or protagonist, was usually played by a professional and often highly-famed actor specifically chosen by the playwright, although some playwrights would portray this character themselves. Like most present musicals, there was also a chorus. The chorus provided the mood of the play by singing and dancing. Generally the lead chorus member was a professional dancer and singer, and the rest of the chorus was made up of amateurs. All the actors were men, as women were forbidden to appear on stage [Ancient]. The actors wore masks when portraying a woman or animal. These masks were built from wood, cloth, and clay, sometimes covered in animal or even human hair. The holes for the eyes were very small, but the opening for the mouth was large to allow the actor’s voice to resonate more easily [Barrow]. The actors were sometimes required to wear wooden platform shoes, or kothomoi, in order to appear taller. Actors would also use optical illusions to seem taller or shorter. Vertical stripes were worn to appear taller and horizontal stripes to appear shorter [Ancient].
Greek plays generally fell into one of two categories: comedy or tragedy. Other than in satirical plays, these categories would never mix. The modern symbol of drama, a smiling comedic mask and a weeping tragic mask, stems from these categories. These different types of plays varied greatly, especially in their topic.
Comedy plays included base, vulgar humor. Comedy plays were humorous representations of peasant life and values. They encouraged tradition and criticized what they considered immorality. They were generally far more popular with the lower class, as they joked about topics that the upper class would have been unable to relate to. They were considered by the Greeks to be the easiest to write and perform. Costumes for comedic plays usually depended on the characters of the play. As many of these plays were about animals, so were the costumes. The actors’ masks were exaggerated and grotesque, suggesting that the audience should not take them too seriously [Comic]. The most notable comedic playwright was Aristophanes, and his major plays include The Frogs and Lysistrata.
Tragedy plays were not sad or depressing, but they were about more serious subjects than the comedic plays. Instead of a chaotic, meandering plot, tragic plays had a set rhythm and pattern to them. They also excluded vulgarity, tending not to offend their viewers. Tragedy plays explored the depth of human emotion and character. They were famous for their ability to cause the audience to relate to each character in a more empathetic way. They were more sophisticated and suited to the upper class than their humorous counterpart. Costumes were generally everyday clothing, if somewhat nicer and more elaborate. Notable playwrights of the genre included Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound, Oedipus the King, and Medea are prime examples of tragic plays [Ancient].
Satirical plays emerged as a compromise to the two categories. These plays dealt with the same topics and ideas of a tragic play, but presented them in a comical manner. The actors mocked the clichés and styles of a tragedy, and were often exaggerated in their mannerisms. These were popular with both the upper and lower classes, and were known for being very witty, a trait the Greeks admired greatly. They were generally as amusing as comedic plays, but not as rude and offensive. Cyclops, written by the poet Euripides, and The Scouts by Sophocles are the only known existing satire plays [Ancient]. Historians know of their existence in ancient Greece from other archaeological sources. Satire plays were considered the most difficult, for both the actors and playwrights. In competitions, a playwright would often submit a satire play to prove his worth, as well as their usual comic or tragic plays. They were also mush shorter than the other plays, usually only half as long as a tragedy.
Greek plays were inextricably tied to the gods. Before each play, a sacrifice would be made to Dionysus, to whom theatre really owes its beginning. Apollo was also important. As the god of music and poetry, Apollo was especially honored by actors and playwrights. Equally important to the theatre were the Muses. The muses were the 9 goddesses of the arts. Terpsichore, Euterpe, Calliope, Thalia, and Melpomene were the most significant to the theatre. Terpsichore and Euterpe personified dance and music respectively, both key elements of Greek theatre. Calliope embodied epic poetry, which was usually the basis of most plays. Thalia and Melpomene represented the two categories of theatre, comedy and tragedy [Parada].
The Greeks have given much to our modern world through theatre. Every actor, of course, owes his or her livelihood to the Greeks’ innovative thinking. Many Greek plays still exist today, preserving the culture and traditions of their time. The basics of many modern machines come from the Aeorema, the Ekeclema, and the Periactoi, all machines created specifically for theatre productions. The Greeks have also provided the fundamentals of theatre. We still use stages, costumes, and make-up in acting today. We still have comedy, tragedy, and satire, although often combined, in present movies, television shows, and dramatic performances. Many theaters are modeled after Greek amphitheaters, in order to achieve their nearly flawless acoustics.
No doubt exists, however, that Greek theatre has affected our society in deeper ways as well. Since the beginning of history, stories have been used to pass on values, such as integrity, bravery, and respect. Theatre continues today to bring life to these stories, forever imprinting itself into the minds and consciences of its audience. Each person can empathize with and relate to the characters, gaining insight to their own plights and personalities. Theatre also probes deep inside the heart of humanity, for the actors as well as the audience, as if through becoming another person, you learn more about yourself. Without theatre, culture as we know it could not exist. It has been changed permanently through theatre. A simple tradition of the Greeks has become a vital part of our identity as human beings.
“Ancient Greek Theatre.” Ancient Greek Theatre. Sept. 2008. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.
“Comic Costumes.” TheatreHistory.com. 2002. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.
Englert, Walter. “Greek Theater.” Reed College. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.
Barrow, Mandy. “The Greek Theatre – Ancient Greece for Kids.”Woodlands Junior School, Tonbridge, Kent UK. 14 Oct. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.
Sandels, VEK, and George Synodinos. “Thespis, Greece, Ancient History.”Greece Travel History Mythology Greek Islands and Maps. 14 Apr. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.
“Greek Masks and Their Rich History.” Mask and More Masks Information for Collectors and Buyers. Web. 03 Nov. 2010.
“History of Ancient Theatre.” Tupelo Community Theatre. Web. 03 Nov. 2010.
Phillips, K. “ANCIENT GREEK THEATRE.” 29 Mar. 2000. Web. 03 Nov. 2010.
Parada, Carlos. “MUSES – Greek Mythology Link.” Entrance – Greek Mythology Link. 1997. Web. 03 Nov. 2010.
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