Our interest in the theater connects us intimately with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Nearly every Greek and Roman city of note had an open-air theater, the seats arranged in tiers with a lovely view of the surrounding landscape. Here the Greeks sat and watched the plays first of Aeschylus, Sophokles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, and of Menander and the later playwrights.
The Greek theater consisted essentially of the orchestra, the flat dancing floor of the chorus, and the theatron, the actual structure of the theater building. Since theaters in antiquity were frequently modified and rebuilt, the surviving remains offer little clear evidence of the nature of the theatrical space available to the Classical dramatists in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. There is no physical evidence for a circular orchestra earlier than that of the great theater at Epidauros dated to around 330 B.C. Most likely, the audience in fifth-century B.C. Athens was seated close to the stage in a rectilinear arrangement, such as appears at the well-preserved theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this early period in Greek drama, the stage and most probably the skene (stage building) were made of wood. Vase paintings depicting Greek comedy from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. suggest that the stage stood about a meter high with a flight of steps in the center. The actors entered from either side and from a central door in the skene, which also housed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform with sets of scenes. A mechane, or crane, located at the right end of the stage, was used to hoist gods and heroes through the air onto the stage. Greek dramatists surely made the most of the extreme contrasts between the gods up high and the actors on stage, and between the dark interior of the stage building and the bright daylight.
Little is known about the origins of Greek tragedy before Aeschylus (?525/24–456/55 B.C.), the most innovative of the Greek dramatists. His earliest surviving work is Persians, which was produced in 472 B.C. The roots of Greek tragedy, however, most likely are embedded in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysos Eleuthereios, which included processions, sacrifices in the theater, parades, and competitions between tragedians. Of the few surviving Greek tragedies, all but Aeschylus’ Persians draw from heroic myths. The protagonist and the chorus portrayed the heroes who were the object of cult in Attica in the fifth century B.C. Often, the dialogue between the actor and chorus served a didactic function, linking it as a form of public discourse with debates in the assembly. To this day, drama in all its forms still functions as a powerful medium of communication of ideas.
Unlike the Greek tragedy, the comic performances produced in Athens during the fifth century B.C., the so-called Old Comedy, ridiculed mythology and prominent members of Athenian society. There seems to have been no limit to speech or action in the comic exploitation of sex and other bodily functions. Terracotta figurines and vase paintings dated around and after the time of Aristophanes (?460/50–ca. 387 B.C.) show comic actors wearing grotesque masks and tights with padding on the rump and belly, as well as a leather phallus.
In the second half of the fourth century B.C., the so-called New Comedy of Menander (?344/43–292/91 B.C.) and his contemporaries gave fresh interpretations to familiar material. In many ways comedy became simpler and tamer, with very little obscenity. The grotesque padding and phallus of Old Comedy were abandoned in favor of more naturalistic costumes that reflected the playwrights’ new style. Subtle differentiation of masks worn by the actors paralleled the finer delineation of character in the texts of New Comedy, which dealt with private and family life, social tensions, and the triumph of love in a variety of contexts.
This page is designed to provide a brief introduction to Ancient Greek Theater, and to provide tools for further research. Click on any of the following topics to explore them further.
1. Timeline of Greek Drama
2. Origins of Greek Drama
3. Staging an ancient Greek play
4. Greek Theaters
5. Structure of the plays read in Humanities 110
6. English and Greek texts of the plays for word searching.
7. Bibliography and links to other on-line resources for Greek Tragedy
1. Timeline of Greek Drama
Although the origins of Greek Tragedy and Comedy are obscure and controversial, our ancient sources allow us to construct a rough chronology of some of the steps in their development. Some of the names and events on the timeline are linked to passages in the next section on the Origins of Greek Drama which provide additional context.
(Works in bold are on the Hum 110 syllabus)
7th Century BC
c. 625 Arion at Corinth produces named dithyrambic choruses.
6th Century BC
600-570 Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, transfers "tragic choruses" to Dionysus
540-527 Pisistratus, tyrant of Athens, founds the festival of the Greater Dionysia
536-533 Thespis puts on tragedy at festival of the Greater Dionysia in Athens
525 Aeschylus born
511-508 Phrynichus' first victory in tragedy
c. 500 Pratinus of Phlius introduces the satyr play to Athens
5th Century BC
499-496 Aeschylus' first dramatic competition
c. 496 Sophocles born
492 Phrynicus' Capture of Miletus (Miletus was captured by the Persians in 494)
485 Euripides born
484 Aeschylus' first dramatic victory
472 Aeschylus' Persians
467 Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes
468 Aeschylus defeated by Sophocles in dramatic competition
463? Aeschylus' Suppliant Women
458 Aeschylus' Oresteia (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides)
456 Aeschylus dies
c. 450 Aristophanes born
447 Parthenon begun in Athens
c. 445 Sophocles' Ajax
441 Sophocles' Antigone
438 Euripides' Alcestis
431-404 Peloponnesian War (Athens and allies vs. Sparta and allies)
431 Euripides' Medea
c. 429 Sophocles' Oedipus the King
428 Euripides' Hippolytus
423 Aristophanes' Clouds
415 Euripides' Trojan Women
406 Euripides dies; Sophocles dies
405 Euripides' Bacchae
404 Athens loses Peloponnesian War to Sparta
401 Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus
4th Century BC
399 Trial and death of Socrates
c. 380's Plato's Republic includes critique of Greek tragedy and comedy
c. 330's Aristotle's Poetics includes defense of Greek tragedy and comedy
2. Origins of Greek Drama
Ancient Greeks from the 5th century BC onwards were fascinated by the question of the origins of tragedy and comedy. They were unsure of their exact origins, but Aristotle and a number of other writers proposed theories of how tragedy and comedy developed, and told stories about the people thought to be responsible for their development. Here are some excerpts from Aristotle and other authors which show what the ancient Greeks thought about the origins of tragedy and comedy.
Aristotle on the origins of Tragedy and Comedy
1. Indeed, some say that dramas are so called, because their authors represent the characters as "doing" them (drôntes). And it is on this basis that the Dorians [= the Spartans, etc.] lay claim to the invention of both tragedy and comedy. For comedy is claimed by the Megarians here in Greece, who say it began among them at the time when they became a democracy [c. 580 BC], and by the Megarians of Sicily on the grounds that the poet Epicharmas came from there and was much earlier than Chionides and Magnes; while tragedy is claimed by certain Dorians of the Peloponnese. They offer the words as evidence, noting that outlying villages, called dêmoi by the Athenians, are called kômai by them, and alleging that kômôdoi (comedians) acquired their name, not from kômazein (to revel), but from the fact that, being expelled in disgrace from the city, they wandered from village to village. The Dorians further point out that their word for "to do" is drân, whereas the Athenians use prattein. (Aristotle: Poetics Chapter 3)
2. And in accordance with their individual types of character, poetry split into two kinds, for the graver spirits tended to imitate noble actions and noble persons performing them, and the more frivolous poets the doings of baser persons, and as the more serious poets began by composing hymns and encomia, so these began with lampoons....Thus among the early poets, some became poets of heroic verse and others again of iambic verse. Homer was not only the master poet of the serious vein, unique in the general excellence of his imitations and especially in the dramatic quality he imparts to them, but was also the first to give a glimpse of the idea of comedy [in the Margites]...And once tragedy and comedy had made their appearance, those who were drawn to one or the other of the branches of poetry, true to their natural bias, became either comic poets instead of iambic poets, or tragic poets instead of epic poets because the new types were more important-- i.e. got more favorable attention, than the earlier ones. Whether tragedy has, then, fully realized its possible forms or has not yet done so is a question the answer to which both in the abstract and in relation to the audience [or the theater] may be left for another discussion. Its beginnings, certainly, were in improvisation [autoschediastikês], as were also those for comedy, tragedy originating in impromptus by the leaders of dithyrambic choruses, and comedy in those of the leaders of the phallic performances which still remain customary in many cities. Little by little tragedy grew greater as the poets developed whatever they perceived of its emergent form, and after passing through many changes, it came to a stop, being now in possession of its specific nature [tên hautês phusin]. It was Aeschylus who first increased the number of the actors from one to two and reduced the role of the chorus, giving first place to the dialogue. Sophocles [added] the third actor and [introduced] painted scenery. Again, [there was a change] in magnitude; from little plots and ludicrous language (since the change was from the satyr play), tragedy came only late in its development to assume an air of dignity, and its meter changes from the trochaic tetrameter to the iambic trimeter. Indeed, the reason why they used the tetrameter at first was that their form of poetry was satyric [i.e. for "satyrs"] and hence more oriented toward dancing; but as the spoken parts developed, natural instinct discovered the appropriate meter, since of all metrical forms the iambic trimeter is best adapted for speaking. (This is evident, since in talking with one another we very often utter iambic trimeters, but seldom dactylic hexameters, or if we do we depart from the tonality of normal speech. Again, [there was a change] in the number of episodes -- but as for this and the way in which reportedly each of the other improvements came about, let us take it all as said, since to go through the several details would no doubt be a considerable task. (Aristotle: Poetics Chapter 4)
Stories about the poet Arion
3. Periander was tyrant of Corinth. The Corinthians say (and the Lesbians agree) that the greatest wonder in his life was the voyage of Arion of Methymna to Taenarum on a dolphin. He was a kitharode second to none at that time and the first of men whom we know to have composed the dithyramb and named it and produced it in Corinth. (Herodotus I.23)
4. Arion, of Methymna...is said also to have invented the tragic mode (tragikoû tropou) and first composed a stationary chorus and sung a dithyramb and named what the chorus sang and introduced satyrs speaking verses. (The Suda lexicon)
5. Pindar says the dithyramb was discovered in Corinth. The inventor of the song Aristotle calls Arion. He first led the circular chorus. (Proculus, Chrest. xii)
6. The first performance of tragedy was introduced by Arion of Methymna, as Solon said in his Elegies. Charon of Lampsacus says that drama was first produced at Athens by Thespis. (John the Deacon, Commentary on Hermogenes)
Stories about Cleisthenes, Sicyon, and Hero-drama
7. I must not omit to explain that [the tyrant] Cleisthenes picked on Melanippus as the person to introduce into Sicyon, because he was a bitter enemy of Adrastus, having killed both Mecistes, his brother, and Tydeus his son-in-law. After settling him in his new shrine, he transferred to him the religious honors of sacrifice and festival which had previously been paid to Adrastus. The people of Sicyon had always regarded Adrastus with great reverence, because the country had once belonged to Polybus, his maternal grandfather, who died without an heir and bequeathed the kingdom to him. One of the most important of the tributes paid him was the tragic chorus, or ceremonial dance and song, which the Sicyonians celebrated in his honor; normally, the tragic chorus belongs to the worship of Dionysus; but in Sicyon it was not so -- it was performed in honor of Adrastus, treating his life-story and sufferings. Cleisthenes, however, changed this: he transferred the choruses to Dionysus, and the rest of the ceremonial to Melanippus. (Herodotus V.67)
Stories trying to explain why, if tragedy originated from Dithyrambs sung in honor of Dionysus, not all tragedies were about Dionysus ("Nothing to do with Dionysus": (ouden pros ton Dionuson)
8. When Phrynichus and Aeschylus developed tragedy to include mythological plots and disasters, it was said, "What has this to do with Dionysus?" (Plutarch, Symp. Quaest.)
9. Nothing to do with Dionysus. When, the choruses being accustomed from the beginning to sing the dithyramb to Dionysus, later poets abandoned this custom and began to write "Ajaxes" and "Centaurs". Therefore the spectators said in joke, "Nothing to do with Dionysus." For this reason they decided later to introduce satyr-plays as a prelude, in order that they might not seem to be forgetting the god. (Zenobius V.40)
10. Nothing to do with Dionysus. When Epigenes the Sicyonian made a tragedy in honor of Dionysus, they made this comment; hence the proverb. A better explanation: Originally when writing in honor of Dionysus they competed with pieces which were called satyric. Later they changed to the writing of tragedy and gradually turned to plots and stories in which they had no thought for Dionysus. Hence this comment. Chamaeleon writes similarly in his book on Thespis. (The Suda lexicon)
Stories about Thespis the Athenian playwright
11. From when Thespis the poet first acted, who produced a play in the city and the prize was a goat... (Marmor Parium, under the year about 534 BC).
12. This is Thespis, who first moulded tragic song, inventing new joys for his villagers, when Bacchus led the wine-smeared (?) chorus, for which a goat was the prize (?) and a basket of Attic figs was a prize too. The young change all this. Length of time will discover many new things. But mine is mine. (Dioscorides, Anth. Pal. VII. 410)
13. The unknown poetry of the tragic Muse Thespis is said to have discovered and to have carried poems on wagons, which they sang and acted, their faces smeared with wine-lees. (Horace, Ars Poetica 275-277)
14. As of old tragedy formerly the chorus by itself performed the whole drama and later Thespis invented a single actor to give the chorus a rest and Aeschylus a second and Sophocles a third, thereby completing tragedy... (Diogenes Laertius III. 56)
15. Thespis: Of the city of Ikarios in Attica, the sixteenth tragic poet after the first tragic poet, Epigenes of Sicyon, but according to some second after Epigenes. Others say he was the first tragic poet. In his first tragedies he anointed his face with white lead, then he shaded his face with purslane in his performance, and after that introduced the use of masks, making them in linen alone. He produced in the 61st Olympiad (536/5-533/2 BC). Mention is made of the following plays: Games of Pelias or Phorbas, Priests, Youths, Pentheus. (The Suda lexicon)
3. Staging an ancient Greek play
Attending a tragedy or comedy in 5th century BC Athens was in many ways a different experience than attending a play in the United States in the 20th century. To name a few differences, Greek plays were performed in an outdoor theater, used masks, and were almost always performed by a chorus and three actors (no matter how many speaking characters there were in the play, only three actors were used; the actors would go back stage after playing one character, switch masks and costumes, and reappear as another character). Greek plays were performed as part of religious festivals in honor of the god Dionysus, and unless later revived, were performed only once. Plays were funded by the polis, and always presented in competition with other plays, and were voted either the first, second, or third (last) place. Tragedies almost exclusively dealt with stories from the mythic past (there was no "contemporary" tragedy), comedies almost exclusively with contemporary figures and problems.
In what follows, we will run through an imaginary (but as far a possible, accurate) outline of the production of a Greek tragedy in 5th century BC Athens from beginning to end. The outline will bring out some of the features of creating and watching a Greek tragedy that made it a different process than it is today. Staging a play.
4. Greek Theaters
Greek tragedies and comedies were always performed in outdoor theaters. Early Greek theaters were probably little more than open areas in city centers or next to hillsides where the audience, standing or sitting, could watch and listen to the chorus singing about the exploits of a god or hero. From the late 6th century BC to the 4th and 3rd centuries BC there was a gradual evolution towards more elaborate theater structures, but the basic layout of the Greek theater remained the same. The major components of Greek theater are labled on the diagram above.
Orchestra: The orchestra (literally, "dancing space") was normally circular. It was a level space where the chorus would dance, sing, and interact with the actors who were on the stage near the skene. The earliest orchestras were simply made of hard earth, but in the Classical period some orchestras began to be paved with marble and other materials. In the center of the orchestra there was often a thymele, or altar. The orchestra of the theater of Dionysus in Athens was about 60 feet in diameter.
Theatron: The theatron (literally, "viewing-place") is where the spectators sat. The theatron was usually part of hillside overlooking the orchestra, and often wrapped around a large portion of the orchestra (see the diagram above). Spectators in the fifth century BC probably sat on cushions or boards, but by the fourth century the theatron of many Greek theaters had marble seats.
Skene: The skene (literally, "tent") was the building directly behind the stage. During the 5th century, the stage of the theater of Dionysus in Athens was probably raised only two or three steps above the level of the orchestra, and was perhaps 25 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The skene was directly in back of the stage, and was usually decorated as a palace, temple, or other building, depending on the needs of the play. It had at least one set of doors, and actors could make entrances and exits through them. There was also access to the roof of the skene from behind, so that actors playing gods and other characters (such as the Watchman at the beginning of Aeschylus' Agamemnon) could appear on the roof, if needed.
Parodos: The parodoi (literally, "passageways") are the paths by which the chorus and some actors (such as those representing messengers or people returning from abroad) made their entrances and exits. The audience also used them to enter and exit the theater before and after the performance.
Greek Theaters Click here to explore more about Greek theaters in Perseus, with descriptions, plans, and images of eleven ancient theaters, including the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, and the theater at Epidaurus.
5. Structure of the plays read in Humanities 110
The basic structure of a Greek tragedy is fairly simple. After a prologue spoken by one or more characters, the chorus enters, singing and dancing. Scenes then alternate between spoken sections (dialogue between characters, and between characters and chorus) and sung sections (during which the chorus danced). Here are the basic parts of a Greek Tragedy:
a. Prologue: Spoken by one or two characters before the chorus appears. The prologue usually gives the mythological background necessary for understanding the events of the play.
b. Parodos: This is the song sung by the chorus as it first enters the orchestra and dances.
c. First Episode: This is the first of many "episodes", when the characters and chorus talk.
d. First Stasimon: At the end of each episode, the other characters usually leave the stage and the chorus dances and sings a stasimon, or choral ode. The ode usually reflects on the things said and done in the episodes, and puts it into some kind of larger mythological framework.
For the rest of the play, there is alternation between episodes and stasima, until the final scene, called the...
e. Exodos: At the end of play, the chorus exits singing a processional song which usually offers words of wisdom related to the actions and outcome of the play.
Click here to see an analysis of the structure of the plays read in Humanities 110.
6. English and Greek texts of the plays for word searching.
This page allows you to find passages in the any of the plays in either Greek or English. In sections H and I there are links which allow you to search for particular English or Greek words in the text of any of the plays.
B. Libation Bearers
E. Oedipus the King
H. Search for English word in any of the plays.
To search for the occurance(s) an English word in one of the plays, click on the above, and type in the English word in the box marked "Look for:"; then type in the name of the author of the play (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, or Aristophanes) in the box marked "Show results for". The search will turn up the occurance of the word you have requested in all of the plays of the author you have typed in.
I. Search for Greek word in any of the plays.
You do not have to know ancient Greek to use this helpful resource. The Greek word search program allows you to type in an English word, and then gives you all of the Greek words that have that English word as part of the definition. You can then search for those Greek words in the Greek texts you are interested in. This is very helpful, because it allows you to be less dependent on the English translation when you are searching for a word or concept in the Greek text. For example, if you are exploring the issue of "justice" in one of the plays, you can find out what the Greek words are that have "justice" as part of their definition, and then search for those words directly in the Greek text of the play.
7. Links to other on-line resources for Greek Theater and a brief bibliography
A. Bibliography for further reading
Books in the Reed Library that provide helpful approaches to Greek Tragedy include:
Goldhill, S. Reading Greek Tragedy (1986)
Heath, M. The Poetics of Greek Tragedy (1987)
Knox, B. Word and Action (1979)
Lesky, A. Greek Tragic Poetry (1983)
Rehm, R. Greek Tragic Theatre (1992)
Segal, C. Interpreting Greek Tragedy: Myth, Poetry, Text (1986)
Taplin, O. Greek Tragedy in Action (1978)
Vernant, J.P., and Vidal-Naquet, P. Tragedy and Myth in Ancient Greece (1981)
Vickers, B. Towards Greek Tragedy (1973)
Winkler, J. and Zeitlin, F. Nothing to Do with Dionysus? (1990)
Origins of Greek Drama
Burkert, W. "Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual." Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 7 (1966): 87-121.
Lesky, A. Greek Tragic Poetry (1983). Chapter 1: "Problems of Origin."
Pickard-Cambridge, A.W. Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy (1927) ________, second edition by Webster, T.B.L. (1962)
Winkler, J. "The Ephebes' Song: Tragoîdia and Polis." reprinted in Nothing to Do with Dionysus? (1990)
Goldhill, S. Language, Sexuality, Narrative: The Oresteia (1984)
Lebeck, A. The Oresteia: A Study of Language and Structure (1971)
Rosenmeyer, T. The Art of Aeschylus (1982)
Taplin, O. The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (1977)
Winnington-Ingram, R.P. Studies in Aeschylus (1983)
Blundell, M.W. Helping Friends and Harming Enemies: A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics (1989)
Edmunds, L. Oedipus: The ancient Legend and its Later Analogues (1985)
Gardiner, C.P. The Sophoclean Chorus (1987)
Gellie, G. Sophocles: A Reading (1972)
Knox, B. The Heroic Temper (1964)
Knox, B. Oedipus at Thebes (1957)
Scodel, R. Sophocles (1984)
Segal, Charles Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles (1981)
Winnington-Ingram, R.P. Sophocles: An Interpretation (1980)
Burian, P., ed. Directions in Euripidean Criticism (1985)
Collard C. Euripides (Greece and Rome Surveys in the Classics n. 14) (1981)
Foley, H. Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides (1985)
Halleran, M. Stagecraft in Euripides (1985)
Michelini, A.N. Euripides and the Tragic Tradition (1987)
Segal, C. Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides' Bacchae (1982)
Segal, E., ed. Euripides
Velacott, P. Ironic Drama: A Study of Euripides (1975)
Winnington-Ingram, R. Euripides and Dionysus: An Interpretation of the Bacchae (1948)
Cartledge, P. Aristophanes and His Theatre of the Absurd (1990)
Dover, K.J. Aristophanic Comedy (1972)
Henderson, J. The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Atic Comedy. 2nd edition. (1991)
Henderson, J. "The Demos and the Comic Competition", in J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin, eds, Nothing to Do with Dionysus? (1990)
Konstan, D. Greek Comedy and Ideology (1995)
MacDowell, D. Aristophanes and Athens (1995)
McLeish, K. The Theatre of Aristophanes. London, 1980.
Nussbaum, M. "Aristophanes and Socrates on learning practical wisdom", Yale Classical Studies 26 (1980) 43-97.
Redfield, J. "Drama and Community: Aristophanes and Some of His Rivals", in J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin, eds, Nothing to Do with Dionysus? (1990)
Taplin, O. Comic Angels and Other Approaches to Greek Drama through Vase-Paintings. Oxford: 1993.
Ussher, R.G. Aristophanes (Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics, 13). Oxford, 1979.
Whitman, C.H. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero. Cambridge, MA., 1964.
This page developed by Walter Englert for Hum110 Tech.