The fact that every Greek city of any size had a theatre and sometimes more than one ( Attica had several) is an indication of their importance to the community. The theatre offered an experience which brought together elements of myth, ritual, religion, dance, music and literature. It provided a forum for the exchange of ideas, an opportunity to escape from the sometimes harsh realities of everyday life and an occasion to see and be seen. It also had some of the hallmarks of an endurance contest since someone who attended a full festival of plays, and many did, listened to perhaps 20,000 lines of poetry while seated on hard wooden or stone benches.
Greek theatre had its origins in religious ritual. The god Dionysus, often associated in modern minds only with wine and revelry, was also an agrarian deity, with aspects reminiscent of the Egyptian god, Osiris. Like Osiris, he was twice-born, the second time from the thigh of Zeus, father of gods and men. Celebrations linked to planting and harvesting began in ancient times right on the floor where the grain would be separated from its stalk. It was an opportunity to exhibit the Greek love of dance and music, to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and perhaps to partake of the beverage with which Dionysus is most associated. Some of the nomenclature used in the theatre clearly had its origins on the threshing floor.
Greek plays were presented within the context of a Dionysian festival structured along the lines of athletic festivals held at Olympia, Nemea and Delphi, and were of a similar duration. Civic authorities were responsible for organizing the event and it was presided over by the priest of Dionysus. The play itself took place in the open air and, most often, at the base of a sloping hillside which provided each tier of seats with an unimpeded view. In earlier times plain, wooden benches were simply aligned in a semi-circular fashion surrounding the circular orchestra space, at the centre of which stood the altar of Dionysus. In later years, the theatre architecture became much more sophisticated culminating in structures such as the magnificent theatre of Epidaurus, whose acoustics (and those of other Greek theatres) was so much admired. Even a whisper on stage can be clearly heard in the highest row of seats. But it was not in the splendour of these stone theatres however that rapt audiences were first enthralled by the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, These theatres weren’t built until much later.
In Athens, the Greater Dionysia festival took place in March (There were several other festivals of Dionysus throughout the year.), celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring. During this festival four days of plays were presented, each with no breaks or intermissions. The first day was devoted to comedies submitted by five different playwrights; the next three days to tragedies- with a daily satyr play thrown in for light relief. The winners got prizes- a plain ivy wreath- as well as undisclosed honoraria.
Seating was on a first-come, first-serve basis, although there was a centre row block of seats reserved for V.I.P’s, including the priests of Dionysus. In the early days admission was free. Later on, there was an admission charge (and some bronze tickets have survived), although that was waived for the poor. There were some large theatres capable of accommodating 15,000 or so spectators but most theatres were considerably smaller than that. Lines were delivered on stage, in the orchestra area, although most action (murders and such) took place off-stage, out of sight of the audience. There were very few props, scenery or backdrops; audiences were expected to use their imagination.
In Greek plays, there were no actresses; all roles were played by men wearing masks made of wood or cork. These were carved and painted to depict exaggerated expressions of anger, fear, despair, etc. and were switched as the themes of the play required. The masks may have helped in the projection of voices to the uppermost rows. The costuming, for the most part, was comprised of typical clothing although the colours may have been brighter than usual. Thick soles were sometimes worn to give the actors additional height. Comedy clothing was often padded and fitted, by the end of the 5 th century B.C. with huge, red leather phalluses, suggestive of the ribald nature of some comedies.
Mythology supplied the content for the tragedy plays which were perhaps more akin to operas than modern plays. Although works of art and some surviving artifacts give us an idea of the range of ancient Greek musical instruments, there is no consensus on how the music sounded. Imagine staging Phantom of the Opera two millennia from now with the lyrics spoken not sung and lacking music and choreography to get a sense of the difficulty of really understanding and appreciating the impact of these ancient performances.
Teachers of drama talk about the four greatest playwrights of all time; three are Greek and only Shakespeare belongs in their company. Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) was the earliest and, some say, the greatest dramatic poet. He introduced the Second Actor transforming, in effect, monologue into dialogue and he reduced the size of the chorus, moving from an unwieldy 50 to a more manageable and numerically-desirable 12. When he was asked to write his epitaph he chose not to mention his glorious writing career but instead pointed out his presence and his contribution at the defining Battle of Marathon. Several of his plays survive, such as: The Persians, Prometheus Bound and The Oresteia.
Sophicles (496-406 B.C.) was a product of the Age of Pericles (they were close friends) and his career overlapped that of Aeschylus and Euripides. Aristotle considered him to be the best ever in his field. He introduced the Third Actor, an innovation which enlarged the scope and dramatic impact of the play. Surviving works include: Oedipus, the King and Antigone.
Euripides was a prolific playwright crafting 92 plays of which seventeen survive including Medea, The Trojan Women and The Children of Herakles. He found the chorus to be a distraction and minimized its role. He also introduced a new element ( the prologue) which provided the audience with a preview of what is about to happen. Success came to Euripides late in life and that may have made him somewhat introspective and antisocial.
Greek comedy is often difficult for us to fully appreciate based as it was on local events and incidents familiar primarily to the community. References that might have had Athenians rolling in the aisles leave most of us with a quizzical look. The stereotypes though are known to us- the crafty slave, the greedy entrepreneur, the lusty sailor, etc. Aristophanes, author of The Birds, The Frogs and The Clouds was from the Old Comedy Period (c.450 B.C.) and the titles of his plays reflect costumes that would have been worn by the chorus. No one escaped the acerbic wit of Aristophanes, especially politicians and philosophers, and there is little doubt that in modern times he would be charged with slander and libel. Even in those liberal times he did not always escape unscathed; his attacks on Athens while it was at war with Sparta provoked considerable anger.
Menander is the only representative of the New Comedy Period (c. 350 B.C.) with any surviving works to his credit. He can be considered as one of the major founders of modern comedy. He wrote more than 100 plays but only one complete play survives.