Greek Drama Ep.1: Introduction to Classical Theater (History & More) | Drama 101

Welcome to Helinika’s first episode of the new series on Greek drama. Drama is enjoyed worldwide in theaters, operas, television sets, and computer devices. But did you know that the roots of (western) drama take us back to ancient Greece?

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What is the Meaning of “Drama”?

The word derives from the Greek “δρᾶμα”, which means “action”. This comes as no surprise, since drama is basically acting. Its birthplace is no other than Athens, the current capital of the Hellenic Republic of Greece. When visiting Greece, however, you can visit another city that bears the same name: Drama in northeastern Greece.

History of Drama | Classical Greek Drama

The birthplace of drama -at least as we know it in the West- is Classical Greece. Classical Athens to be precise. Around the 5th Century BC, ancient Greeks started incorporating choirs and dance choreographies – called dithyrambs– in the worship of the pagan god Dionysus.

Dionysus was the god of grape harvest and wine. He was also associated with fertility, religious ecstasy… even madness. It comes as no surprise that the German philosopher Nietzsche associated passion and chaos with Dionysus. Dionysian was what he described as the state of intoxication and disorder.

Indeed, the start of Greek drama consisted of all that: religious ecstasy, alcohol consumption, and a general lack of boundaries.The first Dionysian dithyrambs resembled concerts from the 1960s and 1970s, rather than organized theatrical performances. Many historians also suspect that actors would dress up as satyrs: half goat – half man creatures that teased people.

As time passed by, these theatrical acts started becoming more organized. Distinct types of drama emerged, such as tragedy and satyr. In the 4th Century BC, drama in Greece was institutionalized and theatrical competitions emerged. Not only that, but the first ever dramatic theory was also recorded some years later (335 BC): Aristotle’s “Poetics”.

Dionysian Dramatic Performances | Theater of Dionysus

In the ancient theater of Dionysus, near the Acropolis of Athens, the first ever theatrical competition started taking place: the Dionysians. Dramatists would present a tetralogy of plays – three tragedies and a satyr play. The latter would help the audience experience “catharsis” – a strong relief from the negative emotions that people accumulated while watching these tragedies.

Comedies were introduced in the competitions around the 442 BC. Before that time, they were considered to be less important and comedians were not eligible to win a prince. But what was the price exactly? It was no other than a goat – a symbol of Dionysus.

The theater of god Dionysus was constructed in the 6th Century BC but the competitions – which lasted for many consecutive days – started in the 5th Century BC. During these competitions, judges and spectators would sit down and enjoy the plays.

At first, Athenians were able to watch the plays for free. Later, middle and upper class Athenians and foreigners were required to purchase a ticket. People facing financial problems were able to watch for free – the city-state would cover the costs.

Ancient Athenians believed that theater had a positive impact on human psychology. Every Athenian citizen had to participate. Crowds of people would be gathering in the theater with snacks and drinks from morning till sunset, watching the plays and discussing the plot with each other.

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Types of Greek Drama

Tragedy, Comedy, and Satyr play were the three types of ancient Greek drama. Tragedy was the most common one. It really translates to the “song of the goat” – probably because of the goat dress-up in the Dionysian dithyrambs (the predecessor of tragedy). But there are also numerous other theories. For example, that the name is connected to the prize that was offered to the winners of the theatrical contests, which was no other than a goat.

Tragedies were inspired by the stories that had been told for centuries in Greece – the Greek myths. Stories of heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses. But the main focus was not the glory of these heroes and divine beings but rather the suffering of the humans in these stories. In Helinika’s Greek mythology videos we focused on characters such as Jason and Odysseus. In this series, we will be discussing tragic characters, such as Medea and Helen of Troy.

All actors in tragedies -and other types of drama- were male. They would play even the women’s roles. Actors wore masks and shoes that elevated their bodies. There was a chorus – a choir that also danced. Violent acts would not be shown on stage and several devices were used to create visual effects. But we will talk on this subject on a different video.

Satyr plays were something between a comedy and a tragedy. They resembled the dithyrambs the most, meaning that they were the most chaotic and obscene plays that were presented to the audience. The actors would dress up as satyrs: goat-like creatures with a big sexual appetite. An example would be the play “Cyclops” of Euripides, which narrates the encounter of Odysseus with Cyclops Polyphemus.

Comedies were the opposite of tragedies. The word translates to “laughter provoking songs”. Comedies had happy endings and had an overall more uplifting mood. The characters though were less inspiring. Aristotle would describe them as “worse than the average (person)”, whereas tragic heroes and heroines were “better than the average (person)”.   

The Greek who really influenced comedy was Aristophanes. He wrote 40 comedies and he is known as “the father of comedy”. His works were very similar to satyr play, since they involved obscene language and actions and a lot of the events had a tragic tone to them. He would also criticize and make fun of the political and philosophical personalities of his time, including Socrates. Aristophanes’ plays resemble what we now consider a satirical play.

Other Greek Theaters and Greek Drama Today

Greek drama continued being popular until the beginning of the Hellenistic period. It inspired Roman theater, which focused more on entertainment and performance, rather than tragedy and catharsis.

Apart from the theater of Dionysus, many other theaters were built in ancient Greece, including the Herodion of Athens, the theater of Philippi in northern Greece, and the little and great theaters of Epidauros at the Sanctuary of Asclepius.

Ancient Greek plays -adapted or unchanged- are still played to this day around the world, including some of these ancient theaters. Playing at the annual cultural festival of Epidauros is a great achievement for theater actors and actresses. Next time you visit Greece, check whether there are any ancient Greek plays performed in the Herodion of Athens or the Epidauros.

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