Culture and Theatre in Ancient Greece

In the modern world, entertainment is a major part of people’s everyday lives. From television to Broadway to WWE, modern people are looking to be entertained by things that have a basis in the theatrical. Without classical Greek theatre, the entertainment that we know today would not exist, as theatre had its origins in the Greece of antiquity.

We currently have access to only a small number of the plays that were written and performed in ancient Greece. There are only forty-six surviving pieces of theatre from the ancient Greek world, which only makes up for around one to five percent of all of the plays that were written at the time, and all of those were written by Athenians (McLeish and Griffiths 1). The earliest dated play is Persians, written by Aeschylus in 472 BC, and the newest is Menander’s The Wealth, written in 388 BC (McLeish and Griffiths 1). While all of the surviving plays that we have access to originated in Athens, there may have been earlier productions created in the Crete of the Minoans or the southern part of the Peloponnesian peninsula, but Athens is where theatre really became popular (McLeish and Griffiths 1).

Greek theatre started as a celebration of the god Dionysus, in village shrines and at the base of the Acropolis, the center for his worshippers (McLeish and Griffiths 1). Dionysus, the god of impulse and ecstasy, was worshiped at the beginning and end of wine-making season, because wine was seen as Dionysus’ gift to humans, and the equivalent of the nectar of the gods and the thing that gave them immortality (McLeish and Griffiths 2). During their ceremonies, worshippers of Dionysus would work themselves into trances and act like wild beasts, dancing and shouting, and getting lost in the god they were worshipping (McLeish and Griffiths 2). Some of the celebration was formal, with singing and dancing called Dithyrambs, while some of the worship was less formal and boisterous (McLeish and Griffiths 2).

Aristotle claimed that the theatre of the Athenians came from the ceremonies worshipping Dionysus, because during the celebrations, the participants would split into two groups, which resembled Greek choruses, who would address each other with music, words, and dance (McLeish and Griffiths 2). Each group would have a leader, and it is theorized that an author whose name was Thespis, was responsible for standardizing the use of a solo performer against a larger chorus. (McLeish and Griffiths 2). At the time, it was possible that these choruses were numbered in the fifties, before it was reduced in size by the more recent playwrights (Weiner 205). The name of Thespis is still used by performers referring to themselves as “Thespians” (McLeish and Griffiths 2). Aristotle went on to claim that Greek tragedies originated in the more serious Dityrambs, and Greek comedy and ‘satyr’ plays were based off of the more informal worship of Dionysus (McLeish and Griffiths 2).

Taking place around the same time as the Dionysian celebrations were recitations of the epic poems of Homer, such as the Illiad and Odyssey, which also may have contributed to the birth of theatre in Athens. As a part of the Panathenaic Festival, whose purpose was to celebrate the military, trade, and political standing of Athens, the recitations were not related to the worship of a god, unlike the worship of Dionysus (McLeish and Griffiths 3). They used either a single speaker reading for all of the characters, or a relay of readers, each reading for different characters (McLeish and Griffiths 3).

As drama began to play a more central role in the lives of the Athenians, two competitive festivals emerged in which drama was the main focal point (McLeish and Griffiths 4). The first of the festivals was the Lenaia, which was held between December and January (McLeish and Griffiths 4). This festival tended to be a more domestic affair, due to the travelling difficulty that winter in Athens would entail, and not much is known about the sequence of events that would take place (McLeish and Griffiths 4). However, one thing that is known is the number of plays that were performed: a total of five comedies, all by different playwrights, and two tragedies each by two playwrights, making for a total of four tragedies (McLeish and Griffiths 4).

There is much more that is known about the second festival, The City Dionysia. This festival, celebrating the arrival of Dionysus in mythical Athens, tended to be a much larger and grander affair, with visitors from all over Greece (McLeish and Griffiths 4). It was held in spring, usually between March or April, and began with processions, speeches, and the worship of a statue of Dionysus, before a dithyramb competition between ten choruses, five of men and five of boys (McLeish and Griffiths 4). Then, on each day across days three to five of the festival, there would be three tragedies and a satyr play in the morning, and one comedy in the afternoon (McLeish and Griffiths 4). Overall, three tragic playwrights each submitted four plays, and five comedic playwrights each submitted one play (McLeish and Griffiths 4). Because this was a theatrical competition, day six of the festival was used to give out prizes and have the closing ceremonies (McLeish and Griffiths 4).

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