The Evolution of Greek Theater
One of the most famous things related to Ancient Greece is theater.
No one is sure who personally started theater, but Greek theater began all
theater in Europe and had major influences on plays performed today. Drama
was performed for special occasions and as contests, with the playwright
and actors winning prizes. Playwrights originally acted, but when contests
began, they stopped. Actors were semi-professional and usually selected
and paid by the state. The theater was also closely related to religion.
Most stories were based on legends, history, or politics. Greek theater
slowly evolved using a chorus, masks, comedies and tragedies, and
Greek theater slowly evolved. The art of play writing began in the
5th century, and the theatre of Ancient Greece is said to have evolved from
religious rites that date back to at least 1200 BC. At that time primitive
tribes populated Greece, and the cultured citizens of these tribes
performed dances to call the gods. Later, the Greeks began acting out
legends of gods and heroes. The first Greek theater was called Theater of
Dionysus, and it was located in Athens. It was built against the hills of
Acropolis and named for Dionysus, the god of theater, wine, music, and
Greek theater began with only a chorus, which varied in size from
three to fifty. The choruses of men were dressed in goatskins to represent
satyrs–beings who were half man and half goat, attending Dionysus. The use
of the chorus was more dominant in tragedies than comedies. For the tragedy
the chorus was solemn. In comedies it was funny and satirical. The goal
of the chorus was to set the mood and heighten dramatic effects. They also
added movement, song, and dance to the stage. Most believe the chorus
underscored the ideas of the play, provided point-of-view, and focused on
issues of the play and implications of the action, established the play’s
ethical system, and participated in the action. The first writer to back
away from the chorus and introduce dialogue, masks, and single actor plays
was Thespis, and this took place in the middle of the sixth century.
The use of masks in ancient Greek theater drew their origin from the
ancient Dionysiac cult. The first writer to use masks was Thespis. The
masks were made of wood, linen, or leather. A stone or marble face was
used as a mold, and human or animal hair was often added. They eyes were
drawn on, but in place of the pupil was a small hole so the actors could
see out the mask. The masks covered the entire face, including chin and
possibly the neckline. They were often not realistic looking, resembling
birds or other animals. They were used for many reasons. Because there
were more parts than actors, they had to use different masks. Another
reason masks were used was because all the actors were men, making a mask
necessary for them to play female roles. Comedy and tragedy masks looked
different from each other. Two masks are now used as the symbol for
theatre, in memory of its origins in ancient Greece.
There were two main types of Greek theater in the very beginning,
comedy and tragedy. Comedy was the first type of play allowed in theaters.
Comedy arose from a ritual in honor of Dionysus. Original Greek comedy is
also called “Old Comedy” and is exaggerated, farcical, and sensual.
Tragedy was not allowed into the Greek theater until 534 BC. The word
tragedy means is derived from the Greek word tragoedia, which means “goat
song”. Only thirty-two tragedies have survived. Tragedy stresses the
vulnerability of human beings whose suffering is brought on by a
combination of human and divine actions. Many tragedies were extremely
depressing, and they were often presented in trilogies. Other dramas were
also allowed into Greek theater around the time tragedies were allowed.
There were four important playwrights whose works have survived.
Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote tragic plays, and Aristophanes
wrote comedies. Aeschylus’ works reflected conflict and agony, and seven
of his plays have survived throughout history. He is also credited for
being the creator of tragic costume. Sophocles wrote about the way people
ought to be, making most of his main characters heroes. He is also
believed to have been a scene designer. Like Aeschylus, he has seven
surviving plays. Euripides’ works are often about the downfall of man who
brings ruin upon himself and usually his family. Euripides has the most
surviving plays at eighteen, including Trojan Woman, which can be dated to
415 BC and Helen, which can be dated to 412 BC. His tragedies are about
men, not gods. He explores the sorrow and suffering in human existence.
Aristophanes’ first two comedies, The Banqueters and The Babylonians have
been lost. His first surviving play, The Acharnians, was written in the
sixth year of the War.
Many plays performed today are still based on Greek theater, proving
that Greek drama is still evolving. The original Greek plays also
influenced other plays in history, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,
which can be compared to Antigone. Greek theater slowly evolved using a
chorus, masks, comedies and tragedies, and interesting playwrights.