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History of Greek Theater

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History of Greek Theater

Theater and drama in Ancient Greece took form in about 5th

century BCE, with the Sopocles, the great writer of tragedy. In his

plays and those of the same genre, heroes and the ideals of life were

depicted and glorified. It was believed that man should live for

honor and fame, his action was courageous and glorious and his life

would climax in a great and noble death.

Originally, the hero's recognition was created by selfish

behaviors and little thought of service to others. As the Greeks grew

toward city-states and colonization, it became the destiny and

ambition of the hero to gain honor by serving his city. The second

major characteristic of the early Greek world was the supernatural.

The two worlds were not separate, as the gods lived in the same world

as the men, and they interfered in the men's lives as they chose to.

It was the gods who sent suffering and evil to men. In the plays of

Sophocles, the gods brought about the hero's downfall because of a

tragic flaw in the character of the hero.

In Greek tragedy, suffering brought knowledge of worldly

matters and of the individual. Aristotle attempted to explain how an

audience could observe tragic events and still have a pleasurable

experience. Aristotle, by searching the works of writers of Greek

tragedy, Aeschulus, Euripides and Sophocles (whose Oedipus Rex he

considered the finest of all Greek tragedies), arrived at his

definition of tragedy. This explanation has a profound influence for

more than twenty centuries on those writing tragedies, most

significantly Shakespeare. Aristotle's analysis of tragedy began with

a description of the effect such a work had on the audience as a

"catharsis" or purging of the emotions. He decided that catharsis was

the purging of two specific emotions, pity and fear. The hero has

made a mistake due to ignorance, not because of wickedness or

corruption. Aristotle used the word "hamartia", which is the "tragic

flaw" or offense committed in ignorance. For example, Oedipus is

ignorant of his true parentage when he commits his fatal deed.

Oedipus Rex is one of the stories in a three-part myth called

the Thebian cycle. The structure of most all Greek tragedies is

similar to Oedipus Rex. Such plays are divided in to five parts, the

prologue or introduction, the "prados" or entrance of the chorus, four

episode or acts separates from one another by "stasimons" or choral

odes, and "exodos", the action after the last stasimon. These odes are

lyric poetry, lines chanted or sung as the chorus moved rhythmically

across the orchestra. The lines that accompanied the movement of the

chorus in one direction were called "strophe", the return movement was

accompanied by lines called "antistrophe". The choral ode might

contain more than one strophe or antistrophe.

Greek tragedy originated in honor of the god of wine,

Dionysus, the patron god of tragedy. The performance took place in an

open-air theater. The word tragedy is derived from the term

"tragedia" or "goat-song", named for the goat skins the chorus wore in

the performance. The plots came from legends of the Heroic Age.

Tragedy grew from a choral lyric, as Aristotle said, tragedy is

largely based on life's pity and splendor.

Plays were performed at dramatic festivals, the two main ones

being the Feast of the Winepress in January and the City Dionysia at

the end of March. The Proceeding began with the procession of choruses

and actors of the three competing poets. A herald then announced the

poet's names and the titles of their plays. On this day it was likely

that the image of Dionysus was taken in a procession from his temple

beside the theater to a point near the road he had once taken to reach

Athens from the north, then it was brought back by torch light, amid a

carnival celebration, to the theater itself, where his priest occupied

the central seat of honor during the performances. On the first day of

the festival there were contests between the choruses, five of men and

five of boys. Each chorus consisted of fifty men or boys. On the next

three days, a "tragic tetralogy" (group made up of four pieces, a

trilogy followed by a satyric drama) was performed each morning. This

is compared to the Elizabethan habit of following a tragedy with a

jig. During the Peloponnesian Wars, this was followed by a comedy each


The Father of the drama was Thesis of Athens, 535 BC, who

created the first actor. The actor performed in intervals between the

dancing of the chorus and conversing at times with the leader of the

chorus. The tragedy was further developed when new myths became part

of the performance, changing the nature of the chorus to a group

appropriate to the individual story. A second actor was added by

Aeschylus and a third actor was added by Sophocles, and the number of

the chorus was fixed at fifteen. The chorus' part was gradually

reduced, and the dialogue of the actors became increasingly important.

The word "chorus" meant "dance or "dancing ground", which was

how dance evolved into the drama. Members of the chorus were

characters in the play who commented on the action. They drew the

audience into the play and reflected the audience's reactions.

The Greek plays were performed in open-air theaters. Nocturnal

scenes were performed even in sunlight. The area in front of the

stages was called the "orchestra", the area in which the chorus moved

and danced. There was no curtain and the play was presented as a whole

with no act or scene divisions. There was a building at the back of

the stage called a skene, which represented the front of a palace or

temple. It contained a central doorway and two other stage entrances,

one at the left and the other at the right, representing the country

and the city.

Sacrifices were performed at the altar of Dionysus, and the

chorus performed in the orchestra, which surrounded the altar. The

theatron, from where the word "theater" is derived, is where the

audience sat, built on a hollowed-out hillside. Seated of honor, found

in the front and center of the theatron, were for public officials and

priests. he seating capacity of the theater was about 17,000. The

audience of about 14,000 was lively, noisy, emotional and

unrestrained. They ate, applauded, cheered, hissed, and kicked their

wooden seats in disgust. Small riots were known to break out if the

audience was dissatisfied. Women were allowed to be spectators of

tragedy, and probably even comedy. Admission was free or nominal, and

the poor were paid for by the state. The Attic dramatists, like the

Elizabethans, had a public of all classes. Because of the size of the

audience, the actors must also have been physically remote. The sense

of remoteness may have been heightened by masked, statuesque figures

of the actors whose acting depended largely on voice gestures and

grouping. Since there were only three actors, the same men in ...

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