Ancient Greek Theatre

Human beings have performed stories for one another for as long as there have been humans, so no one people or culture can fairly claim to have invented theatre all on its own. However, the ancient Greeks did invent forms of theatrical performance that have informed and inspired people in Europe and elsewhere since at least the 6th Century BCE

One example of that influence is that the English word theatre comes from two Greek words: theasthai, meaning "to behold", and theatron, referring to a place where people get together to watch a performance.

The Origins of Greek Theatre

Greek theatre had its beginnings in various religious festivals throughout the Greek world honoring the Greek gods described in Greek mythology. These festivals featured the performance of songs and dances by groups of men and boys called a chorus. Over time, these performances came to include three actors who portrayed  individual characters in a story. By the 6th Century BCE, the Greeks were creating special places, theaters, where people could attend such performances.

The oldest known Greek Theatre is the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. It was first built to host an Athenian festival called the City Dionysia in honor of Dionysus, the god of winemaking and wine, festivals, and theatre, among other things. It was used for hundreds of years and could seat up to 17,000 spectators.

The Theatre and Sanctuary of Dionysus at Athens

What Were Greek Plays About?

The Greeks wrote and produced three kinds of plays: comedies, tragedies, and satyr stories. Of these, the comedies and tragedies were the most important and have had the most influence on later theatre.

The first Greek comedies, written in the 4th Century BCE, often made satirical fun of political leaders and  other well-known people, as well as Greek organizations and institutions. As Greek theatre developed, comedic plays came to focus on the lives of more average people, their behavior and the awkward or silly situations they found themselves in.

Greek tragedies often told stories of people who came into conflict with rules decreed by the gods and suffered as a result. Some tragedies told important stories from Greek history and politics that were used to examine the causes and consequences of bad choices by leaders. Someone dies in almost every Greek tragedy and disaster is a common occurrence.

The influence of Greek comedy and tragedy are such that we still use those words to describe contemporary plays. When there is a disastrous event that results in a loss of life, we often call it tragic.

Unfortunately, the texts of only a few of the many hundreds of plays produced ancient Greece have survived.

What Was Going to a Play Like?

In Ancient Greece, plays were performed in open-air theatres during the day. At the start of the play a chorus of between 15 and 25 people came onto the stage, called the orchestra, to introduce the story, explaining who the characters in the story were and what had happened to them before the time the play was about. The appearance of the chorus often included music, dance, and song.

After the chorus’s introduction, individual actors would appear and interact with one another and also often engaged in a dialogue with the chorus. Besides the chorus, no more than three actors were allowed on stage at any time. This meant that Greek actors often had to play more than one part. To suggest different characters actors wore masks and costumes that they changed over the course of the play.

Greek theatre masks had very exaggerated features to convey the emotions of a character. Greek comedy masks were often cartoon-like.

A Greek sculpture of a comedy mask.

A mask for tragedy.

The reason that Greek theatre masks were exaggerated is that the audience sat so far from the stage that it would be very hard for audience members to see the actors’ bare faces. Masks allowed actors to communicate emotions to the whole audience.

Dramatic Competitions

The Greeks cared a lot about discovering and celebrating who was the best in all human activities: in politics, sport, art, and war. Theatre was no exception.

The Greeks regularly held dramatic competitions lasting several days. The most important of these was the City Dionysus held at Athens every year in the Spring. A panel of judges selected by lot from the audience of Athenian citizens chose the winners. Prizes were awarded for the best producer, playwright, director and actor. The prize was a wreath of ivy, considered a sacred plant by the Greeks, that the winner wore on his head.