Greek Drama Ep.3: Ancient Greek Stage Machinery (Mechane, Periaktos etc.) | Ancient Theatrical Tricks

Theatrical machinery – devices used for theatrical effects – are much older than you might think. They were used on stage since the beginning of the history of theater. Here are some of the tricks ancient Greeks used to help the audience get fully immersed into the play.

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Ancient Greek Stage Machinery:

  1. Mechane
  2. Periaktos
  3. Ekkyklema
  4. Theologeion
  5. Anapiesma (Trap)
  6. Vronteio & Keravnoskopeion
  7. Other Theatrical Tricks

Mechane/ Deus ex Machina

You may know this machine with its latin name “Deus ex Machina”. “Mechane” or “Aiorima” was a crane used in ancient Greek drama. Ancient Greek tragedies would often require the intervention of a god or goddess in times of crisis. The divine character would hang over the stage with the help of the mechane and provide a solution to the tragic character’s problem. Euripides, the most alternative tragedian, used the aiorima for a non-divine character – Medea. Since then, mechane has been used to land any type of character on stage, if the plot requires them to fly around.  

Periaktos

Periaktos -often seen in plural as periaktoi – was a wooden device that rapidly changed the theatrical scenes. It had the shape of a triangle with three different backgrounds painted on each side. The periaktos would rotate, changing the set of each scene. This device gained popularity during the Renaissance period and that is when theatrical designers, such as Nicola Sabbatini, were admired for their work.

Ekkyklema

Ancient tragedies often delt with the darkest side of the human psyche. The plot usually included violent crimes, including murder. But depicting such devious scenes was not allowed. That is why they would use a wheeled platform called ekkyklema to remove and reintroduce characters on stage. For example, a character would be rolled out of the scene before his murder and pushed back in while laying on the ground.  

Theologeion

Theologeion was a stage trick similar to mechane. It was a raised platform which was very well disguised as part of the scene. Actors who played divine characters would climb up these platforms and spoke the word of god from above.

Anapiesma (Trap)

Anapiesma was the ancient Greek version of the stage trap we know today. It was a concealed opening under the stage floor, where actors and props would be hidden before they appeared on stage. Such traps are used even today.

Vronteio & Keravnoskopeion

In ancient Greek drama, weather changes often symbolized the mood of the gods and goddesses. Storms would take place when a character committed hybris. Tragedians would employ two devices to mimic the sounds and lightnings of a stormy weather: vronteio and keravnoskopeion. The first was a metal box full of rocks that was shaken to produce loud noises. The second was a type of periaktos that had a side with a mirroring effect. It was used to reflect the sunlight in a way that resembled a lightning.

Other Theatrical Tricks

Ancient Greeks constructed their theaters amphitheatrically. The goal was that everyone could see and hear whatever happened on stage. The locations were chosen carefully, and Greek theaters still have incredible acoustic. The acoustic did not only occur naturally but also with the construction of obstruction behind the stage. This happened in order to enhance the physical phenomenon of reflection, which causes echoes.

If you enjoyed watching this video, feel free to like, share, and subscribe. Stay tuned because, next week, we will be covering the plot of our first tragedy.

medea (play)

Greek Drama Ep.7: Medea by Euripides (Theatrical Play)

Medea (Μήδεια) is one of the most controversial female heroines to have ever existed. In modern Greek, her name is given to women who end the lives of their children. We know Medea from ancient Greek mythology and specifically the Argonautica. But the character is widely known thanks to the theatrical play with the same name, presented by Euripides in 431 BC.

Greek Drama Ep.6: The Concepts of Hybris, Nemesis, and Catharsis

Hybris, nemesis, and catharsis are three important aspects of every ancient Greek tragedy. Hybris and nemesis were mentioned way before the birth of Greek theatre; we know the terms from ancient Greek mythology. And catharsis is a concept that was introduced in drama. But what is the meaning of these three theatrical terms?

Greek Drama Ep.5: Antigone by Sophocles

Antigone by Sophocles is one of the most well-known ancient Greek theatrical plays. It belongs to a collection of tragedies – the Theban plays – since it takes place in the Greek city of Thebes. It was written by the great tragedian Sophocles and was presented at the theatrical competition of Dionysia in 441 BC. It is based on the myth of Oedipus but Sophocles manages to make the story even more tragic. It focuses on the subject of written vs. unwritten rules and absolute power.

Greek Drama Ep.2: Introducing the Greek Tragedians (Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles)

Last time, we discussed the basics of ancient Greek theater. The history of drama, its peak years with the Dionysian competitions, and the formation of the three distinct types of drama, which are tragedy, comedy, and satyr. Today, Helinika is introducing the big- three ancient Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Before we get started, make sure you are subscribed to this YouTube channel and never miss a video in the future.

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Aeschylus: The Father of Tragedy | Greek Drama

Our understanding of the earliest Greek tragedies comes from Aeschylus. He is the tragedian who gave great power to the art of tragedy. He added more characters than usual in his plays and added more interactions between them. He basically introduced the theatrical dialogues and the concept of the protagonist and deuteragonist (second actor). That is why he is known as the “father of tragedy”.

Aeschylus was born in 525 BC in the city of Eleusis, just few kilometers away from Athens. He came from a noble family and, before his theatrical career, he worked at a vineyard. He was a respectable member of the Athenian community.

The tragedian had also fought at the battle of Marathon against the Persians in 490 BC, where he lost his brother. One of his most well-known works are “Persai” (The Persians), the only ancient Greek tragedy that was inspired by real events, rather than ancient Greek mythology.

Aeschylus died in 455 BC in Sicily. It is rumored that he died under comico-tragical circumstances. He was allegedly walking on a field, when a turtle fell on his head and killed him. According to the story, an eagle had caught the turtle and dropped it on the ground to break its shell; a technique that eagles often use to eat their pray.

Popular Works from Aeschylus:

There are many tragedies attributed to Aeschylus. Many of them have not been saved (e.g. Myrmidons, Nereids etc.). Here are some popular tragedies by the “father of tragedy”:

  • The Persians
  • Seven Against Thebes
  • The Suppliants
  • The Oresteia
  • Prometheus Bound

Sophocles: A Successful Tragedian | Greek Drama

Sophocles was one of the most successful playwrights in the Dionysian competitions. He won 24 out of the 30 theatrical competitions he participated in. He is attributed with adding a third actor on stage and reducing the importance of the chorus – the dancing choir – in the plot. The plays now started to resemble more the theatrical plays we watch today.

The Greek dramatist was born in 497 BC in Colonus, in the outskirts of Athens. He was born into wealth and his father was an armor manufacturer. He died at the age of 91 in 406 BC in Athens. There are several urban legends on how he died. Athenians would say that he choked on a grape or that he tried to recite a long sentence from one of his plays, without pausing to take a breath.

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Popular Works from Sophocles:

Sophocles wrote over 120 plays but few have been saved:

  • Ajax
  • Antigone
  • Women of Trachis
  • Oedipus Rex
  • Electra
  • Philoctetes
  • Oedipus at Colonus

Euripides: The Misunderstood Tragedian | Greek Drama

Euripides is now one of the greatest ancient Greek tragedians, but he needed time and hard work to be recognized as such. He was the youngest of the big-three and the one who was ridiculed the most at the start of his career. He was the target of the “father of comedy”, Aristophanes.

The tragedian is attributed with many theatrical innovations. He represented mythical heroes as ordinary people. The audience could identify with their suffering. He shocked his colleagues with how he represented women: as humans with real and complicated personalities. Women were as virtuous as men, if not more. “I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.” – his heroine Medea says.

Euripides was the “most tragic” of the poets. He cared for the misunderstood and the misfits more than he cared for the war heroes. He died in 406 BC at the age of 74 in the Greek kingdom of Macedonia. Some say he was struck by lightning. Others, that the cold winter in the northern part of Greece were to blame.

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Popular Works from Euripides:

Euripides wrote between 92 to 95 plays, from which eighteen survived. Some of his most popular plays are:

  • Medea
  • Electra
  • The Trojan Women
  • Helen
  • Iphigeneia in Tauris
  • Iphigeneia in Aulis
  • Bacchae
  • Orestes

Stay tuned till the next episode. We will be discovering the tricks ancient tragedians used to help the audience get immersed into the plot. Did they use any machines? If you enjoyed this video, feel free to comment and like.

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.