Greek Theatre: The Contribution and the Effect

Keywords: greek contribution to theatre, greek theatre

The ancient Greeks are famous for their many contributions to the entire world. Among these contributions is the one that has changed culture and the arts permanently. This contribution is theatre.

Greek theatre is definitely 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 started to use shape, however, around 400 BC. The first actor was named Thespis, which 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 spot to place with a handcart. He used masks, makeup, and costumes to make his monologues more realistic [Sandels].

Over time, theatre was changed and produced by forward-thinking playwrights. One such playwright, Aeschylus, introduced the idea of by 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 once, Euripides steadily made theatre more natural and realistic, as opposed to the rigid, structured form of acting [History].

The theater itself was outdoors and called an Amphitheater. It had been semi-circular in shape, and terraced, allowing for each and every visitor to own perfect view. These seats were called the theatron, literally meaning the viewing area. On average, the Amphitheater could fit 1, 500 viewers and was made to have near perfect acoustics. There is usually a theater in each town, as theaters were also used for religious rituals and processions as well as entertainment. In the guts was a circular platform called the orchestra. In 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 almost all of the acting occurred in the orchestra. The trunk of the stage had painted backgrounds to set-up the settings for each scene [Englert]. These buildings were most likely brightly painted, even though the paint would have faded over time [Phillips]. Behind the stage, machines used for the performances were kept. These machines were advanced technology because of their day, and included the Aeorema, the Ekeclema, and the Periactoi.

The Aeorema was one of the most commonly used. It was a big crane used to pull actors through mid-air. This was frequently employed to generate the illusion of gods, which resulted in the expression, "Deus ex Machina". The Ekeclema was a wheeled platform. This sometimes ferried dead bodies across the stage, as murders and suicides weren't shown on stage. This tradition stemmed from the superstition that to kill a person on stage would be foretelling with their actual death. The Periactoi consisted of two pillars, one on each side of the stage, that could turn to improve the backdrop setting without need of stagehands [Ancient]. Many of these were constructed of simple machines, such as pulleys, levers, and wheels, created from wood, rope, and metal. These were used in many famous plays.

The plays themselves were very similar to the present day musical. They had sing and dancing, sometimes associated with music. The cast was comprised of many actors, called "hypocrites", both professional and amateur. The main character, or protagonist, was usually played by a specialist and often highly-famed actor specifically chosen by the playwright, even though 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. Usually the lead chorus member was a specialist dancer and singer, and the rest of the chorus was made up of amateurs. All of 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, however the opening for the mouth was large to allow the actor's voice to resonate easier [Barrow]. The actors were sometimes required to wear wooden platform shoes, or kothomoi, to be able to appear taller. Actors would also use optical illusions to seem taller or shorter. Vertical stripes were worn to seem taller and horizontal stripes to seem shorter [Ancient].

Greek plays generally fell into 1 of 2 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, is due to these categories. These different kinds 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. These were generally far more popular with the lower class, as they joked about matters that top of the class could have been unable to relate to. These were considered by the Greeks to be easy and simple to create and perform. Costumes for comedic plays usually depended on the characters of the play. As much 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 weren't sad or depressing, nonetheless they were about much more serious subjects than the comedic plays. Rather than a chaotic, meandering plot, tragic plays had a set rhythm and pattern to them. In addition they excluded vulgarity, tending never 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 far more empathetic way. These were more complex and suitable for the top class than their humorous counterpart. Costumes were generally everyday clothing, if somewhat nicer and much more elaborate. Notable playwrights of the genre included Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound, Oedipus the King, and Medea are prime types of tragic plays [Ancient].

Satirical plays emerged as a compromise to both categories. These plays dealt with the same matters and ideas of your tragic play, but presented them in a comical manner. The actors mocked the clichs and styles of a tragedy, and were often exaggerated in their mannerisms. They were popular with both upper and lower classes, and were known to be very witty, a trait the Greeks admired greatly. These were generally as amusing as comedic plays, but not as rude and offensive. Cyclops, compiled by the poet Euripides, as well as 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 challenging, 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 so long as a tragedy.

Greek plays were inextricably linked with the gods. Before each play, a sacrifice would be produced 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 important to the theatre. Terpsichore and Euterpe personified dance and music respectively, both important elements of Greek theatre. Calliope embodied epic poetry, that was usually the foundation of all plays. Thalia and Melpomene represented the two types 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 remain today, preserving the culture and traditions of their time. The basics of several modern machines result 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, to be able to attain their almost flawless acoustics.

No doubt exists, however, that Greek theatre has influenced our society in deeper ways as well. Because the beginning of history, stories have been used to spread 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 with 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 someone else, you learn more about yourself. Without theatre, culture as we realize it could not exist. It has been changed permanently through theatre. A straightforward tradition of the Greeks has turned into a vital part in our identity as humans.


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