The History of Greek Theater

Theater and drama in Ancient Greece took form in about 5th

century BCE, with the Sopocles, the great writer of tragedy. In his

plays and those of the same genre, heroes and the ideals of life were

depicted and glorified. It was believed that man should live for

honor and fame, his action was courageous and glorious and his life

would climax in a great and noble death.

Originally, the hero?s recognition was created by selfish

behaviors and little thought of service to others. As the Greeks grew

toward city-states and colonization, it became the destiny and

ambition of the hero to gain honor by serving his city. The second

major characteristic of the early Greek world was the supernatural.

The two worlds were not separate, as the gods lived in the same world

as the men, and they interfered in the men?s lives as they chose to.

It was the gods who sent suffering and evil to men. In the plays of

Sophocles, the gods brought about the hero?s downfall because of a

tragic flaw in the character of the hero.

In Greek tragedy, suffering brought knowledge of worldly

matters and of the individual. Aristotle attempted to explain how an

audience could observe tragic events and still have a pleasurable

experience. Aristotle, by searching the works of writers of Greek

tragedy, Aeschulus, Euripides and Sophocles (whose Oedipus Rex he

considered the finest of all Greek tragedies), arrived at his

definition of tragedy. This explanation has a profound influence for

more than twenty centuries on those writing tragedies, most

significantly Shakespeare. Aristotle?s analysis of tragedy began with

a description of the effect such a work had on the audience as a

?catharsis? or purging of the emotions. He decided that catharsis was

the purging of two specific emotions, pity and fear. The hero has

made a mistake due to ignorance, not because of wickedness or

corruption. Aristotle used the word ?hamartia?, which is the ?tragic

flaw? or offense committed in ignorance. For example, Oedipus is

ignorant of his true parentage when he commits his fatal deed.

Oedipus Rex is one of the stories in a three-part myth called

the Thebian cycle. The structure of most all Greek tragedies is

similar to Oedipus Rex. Such plays are divided in to five parts, the

prologue or introduction, the ?prados? or entrance of the chorus, four

episode or acts separates from one another by ?stasimons? or choral

odes, and ?exodos?, the action after the last stasimon. These odes are

lyric poetry, lines chanted or sung as the chorus moved rhythmically

across the orchestra. The lines that accompanied the movement of the

chorus in one direction were called ?strophe?, the return movement was

accompanied by lines called ?antistrophe?. The choral ode might

contain more than one strophe or antistrophe.

Greek tragedy originated in honor of the god of wine,

Dionysus, the patron god of tragedy. The performance took place in an

open-air theater. The word tragedy is derived from the term

?tragedia? or ?goat-song?, named for the goat skins the chorus wore in

the performance. The plots came from legends of the Heroic Age.

Tragedy grew from a choral lyric, as Aristotle said, tragedy is

largely based on life?s pity and splendor.

Plays were performed at dramatic festivals, the two main ones

being the Feast of the Winepress in January and the City Dionysia at

the end of March. The Proceeding began with the procession of choruses

and actors of the three competing poets. A herald then announced the

poet?s names and the titles of their plays. On this day it was likely

that the image of Dionysus was taken in a procession from his temple

beside the theater to a point near the road he had once taken to reach

Athens from the north, then it was brought back by torch light, amid a

carnival celebration, to the theater itself, where his priest occupied

the central seat of honor during the performances. On the first day of

the festival there were contests between the choruses, five of men and

five of boys. Each chorus consisted of fifty men or boys. On the next

three days, a ?tragic tetralogy? (group made up of four pieces, a

trilogy followed by a satyric drama) was performed each morning. This

is compared to the Elizabethan habit of following a tragedy with a

jig. During the Peloponnesian Wars, this was followed