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The Diverse History and Functions of Ancient Greek Theater Styles

Natasha Bantwal Nov 23, 2018
The stories of Medea, Oedipus and Antigone seem to have survived the passage of time due to the dramatic portrayal of their lives in the form of theatre.
Interest in arts and theater very intimately connects us with the ancient Romans and Greeks. Nearly every noteworthy Roman and Greek city had an open-air theater in those days, with the seats neatly arranged in tiers overlooking a lovely view of the nearby landscape.

A Brief History

Greek theater developed through the ceremonial worship of the then God Dionysus and were always communal in nature. It is a tradition that flourished greatly between 600 BCE and 200 BC. Athens, the political and military center was the frontrunner in theatrical tradition.
Athenian comedy, tragedy and satyrs have been recorded as some of the earliest forms of theater to emerge in the world. Yes, Greek plays and theater have indeed had a strong impact on the Western culture and drama.
Early tradition claims that theater in Athens evolved from various festivals that were related to the cult of Dionysus, who is the god of fertility and wine. This is probably accurate information, since drama in Athens occurred during the Dionysia, which is the annual festival that honors Dionysus.
These theaters mainly consisted of the orchestra, the flat floor for dancing and the theatron, which was the actual structure of the building.
Since those theaters were frequently rebuilt and modified, the remains that survive today offer very little evidence as to the nature of the space available to those classical dramatists and actors back in the fifth and sixth centuries BC.
However, there is no clear physical evidence showing that orchestras were circular in shape earlier than that of the great theater at Epidaurus, which dates back to the year 330 BC.
It is more likely that the audience was seated closer to the stage in a more rectilinear arrangement, like evidence shows in the ruins of the theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this early period in theater and drama, the stage and building were made up of wood.
Many ancient vases have been found with paintings on them depicting comedy from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. They suggest that the stage was about a meter high, and had a flight of steps towards the center.
The actors would enter from either side of the stage or from the central door situated in the skene. The skene also housed the ekkyklema, which is a wheeled platforms having different sets of scenes. A crane or machine, located towards the right side of the stage was generally used to hoist heroes and Gods through the air and onto the stage.
Actors and dramatists surely made the most of the contrasts between the men on stage and the gods up high, and between the bright daylight and the dark interiors of the skene.

Greek Drama

Very little is known about the very origins of Greek tragedy before Aeschylus, the most creative and innovative of all dramatists. The chorus and protagonist played the heroes. Many times, the dialog held between the protagonist and chorus served a sort of didactic function, making it an interesting form of public discourse with debates held in the assembly.
Unlike tragedy, comedy that was produced during the fifth century BC ridiculed all the prominent members of society and mythology. There was no limit to action or speech in the comic exploitation of bodily functions like sex.
Vase paintings and terracotta figurines dated around the time of Aristophanes show comedy actors wearing grotesque tights and masks with padding on the belly and rump, and even a leather phallus.
Towards the second half of the fourth century, the new comedy of Menander gave newer and fresher interpretations to familiar material. In many ways, comedy became tamer and simpler, with very few obscenities being exchanged.
The phallus and grotesque padding were abandoned in favor of naturalistic outfits and costumes. The tests of the new comedy dealt mostly with social tensions, private lives, family lives and the triumph of love - all in a variety of different contexts.

Important Playwrights in the Golden Age

By the end of the fourth century and the start of the fifth century BC, the theater had finally become formalized and was then a major part of Greek culture and civic pride.
The centerpiece of this age was the competition between the three major playwrights at the theater of Dionysus during the annual Dionysia festival. Each playwright submitted three different tragedies and a satyr play.
Even though there were many playwrights during this period, only four playwrights stood out from the rest and only their works have survived in the form of entire plays. All are Athenians. They are the tragedians - Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.
Their plays are the basis of the theater. However, when the ultimate power of Athens began to decline after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, its theatrical conquests and traditions also seemed to lose their vigor and vitality.
However, Greek theater continued well into the Hellenistic period. But, the major Hellenistic form of theater was not tragedy but new comedy. The most important contribution made by Greek comedy was the influence it has on Roman comedy, a influence that is so strong and can still be seen in surviving works of Terence and Plautus.