The Greeks’ history began around 700 B.C. with festivals honoring their many gods. One god, Dionysus, was honored with an unusual festival called the City Dionysia. The revelry-filled festival was led by drunken men dressed up in rough goat skins (because goats were thought sexually potent) who would sing and play in choruses to welcome Dionysus. Tribes competed against one another in performances, and the best show would have the honor of winning the contest. Of the four festivals in Athens (each reflecting seasonal changes), plays were only presented at one festival–City Dionysia. Historians believe that the Greeks patterned their celebrations after the traditional Egyptian pageants honoring Osiris.
At the early Greek festivals, the actors, directors, and dramatists were all the same person. Later, only three actors could be used in each play. After some time, non-speaking roles were allowed to perform on-stage. Because of the limited number of actors allowed on-stage, the chorus evolved into a very active part of Greek theatre. Though the number of people in the chorus is not clear, the chorus was given as many as one-half the total lines of the play. Music was often played during the chorus’ delivery of its lines.
Although few tragedies written from this time actually remain, the themes and accomplishments of Greek tragedy still resonate to contemporary audiences. The term tragedy (tragos and ode) literally means “goat song,” after the festival participants’ goat-like dancing around sacrificial goats for prizes. Most Greek tragedies are based on mythology or history and deal with characters’ search for the meaning of life and the nature of the gods. Most tragedies that have survived from this period begin with a prologue that gives the audience exposition to the following action. The chorus then introduces a period called the paradox. During this time introductions to characters are made, exposition is given, and a mood is established. The final scene is called the exodus when all the characters as well as the chorus depart.
Three well-known Greek tragedy playwrights of the fifth century are Sophocles, and Euripides. Aeschylus , who was a competitor at the City Dionysia around 499 B.C., wrote some of the oldest tragedies in the world. Only a few of Aeschylus’ plays have survived but they include The Persians and the Oresteia trilogy. Aeschylus is attributed with the introducing the second actor to the stage. Another Greek playwright was Sophocles, and only seven of his tragedies–including the still-popular Antigone, Electra, and Oedipus Rex–have survived. Sophocles won twenty-four contests for his plays, never placing lower than second place. His contributions to theatre history are many: He introduced the third actor to the stage, fixed the number of chorus members to fifteen, and was the first to use scene painting. Euripedes was another prolific playwright who is believed to have written 90 plays, 18 of which have survived, includingMedea, Hercules and The Trojan Women. He was often criticized for the way he questioned traditional values on stage. Euripedes also explored the psychological motivations of his characters actions which had not been explored by other authors. His plays were used as pattern for other authors for many years after his death.
Comedy was also an important part of ancient Greek theatre. No one is quite sure of the origins of comedy, but it is said that they derived from imitation. All comedies of note during this time are by Aristophanes . Aristophanes, who competed in the major Athenian festivals, wrote 40 plays, 11 of which survived–including the most controversial piece of literature to come from ancient Greece, Lysistrata, a humorous tale about a strong woman who leads a female coalition to end war in Greece. Although only 33 tragedies and 11 comedies remain from such a creative period, the Greeks were responsible for the birth of drama in the Western world.