The Drama of Greek Drama

Greek drama satyr comedy

So now that we know about the first theatre, what were Greek dramas really like?

Dramas…A Little Background….

Not to get dramatic (ha!) but Greek dramas are a pretty big deal. They were the precursor of just about everything you see whether live or on a screen. Back in the day they were a pretty huge deal too. Theatres sprang up to host dramas and the first ones were part of a festival in honour of Dionysus, thanks to a cool rebel named Thespos who broke free of the chorus and started acting the characters. The very first theatre, the Theatre of Dionysus was built just for the festival and the dramas presented during the event. People would travel sometimes for days just to be there.

It was a pretty big deal for the playwrights too. Aside from a bit of help from their chosen patron with choruses, sets, costumes and the cash to put on their show, the playwrights were responsible for EVERYTHING. Not to make a stressful situation worse, but EVERYBODY would be there for the performance. Priests, politicians, various dignitaries were there as guests of Athens and all the regular people who they might meet walking the streets of Athens who might just tell them if their play stunk. However, if it was really good, the citizens chosen to be judges might decide theirs was the best drama and they might end up being awarded cool stuff like wreaths, sacrificial animals, banquets, precious metal cauldrons and praise from random citizen-about-town.

Getty Villa - Storage jar with a scene from the Oresteia - inv. 80.AE.158

A drama was a four part production that included a series of three tragedies and then a satyr. Later on, comedies were added as an option to the satyr. The plays generally started at sunrise and didn’t finish until sunset (ancient Greek version of Netflix binging?). It was a long day of tears, laughter and contemplating humanity under the hot Grecian sun.

The different styles of play followed different formats. One thing they had in common was that if the story called for something gruesome or particularly disturbing, the narrator would share the details of what was happening while the act (complete with background sound-effects) would take place behind the skene. When the event was over, the body would be brought on stage for all to see.

The general make-up of the cast was a chorus that performed on the orchestra and up to three actors. The chorus would sing, dance, narrate, add to the story or provide some clarity as well as do the intro and exit. Since there were only up to three actors, each actor had to take on multiple characters. To do this, they would use masks (going behind the skene to change mask and come out a new character) and different gestures that helped identify the different characters.

Ancient Greek drama mask of Zeus, replica

Mask of Zeus 

The Tragedies…

Greek tragedies tell the story of a generally good and relatable person who makes mistakes….pretty big ones, too. So big in fact, that they end up dead or in ruins because of their bad choices. I wonder how many teenagers were dragged there by their parents…”You see what happens???!!!” … They were generally inspired by stories from Greek mythology and besides exploring moral right and wrongs, a favourite theme were tragic no-win dilemmas.

The structure of a tragedy generally had five parts. The prologue, where one or two characters came out before the chorus to give the background story for the play. Next came the parados which was a song and dance given by chorus as it entered the orchestra. .Next came the episode and stasimon that repeated until the playwright had said all he wanted to. The episode was where the characters and chorus would talk and the stasimon was at the end of each episode. Characters would leave the stage and the chorus would dance and sing an ode that reflected on what was just seen. At the end would be the exodus where the chorus would sing a processional song that offered some wisdom about the story while they left the stage.

Oresteia by Aseschylus in the original Greek

Click the link to read the English translation of Orestia

Synopsis: King returns from war, gets killed by his cheating wife and her lover, the kids avenge their father’s death by first killing the lover and then the mother. The guilt causes the son to go a little nuts and run off to Delphi to consult the Oracle on what he should do. The Oracle says to go to Athens and stand trial. He does, the jury is divided, Athena casts the deciding vote that lets him off, the furies that had been pursuing him threaten to destroy Athens but Athena convinces them to leave Athens alone in exchange for their own cult.

The Saucy Satyr Plays….

Satyrs were short lewd and satirical plays. They were performed at the end of the dramas and gave the audience some relief after the hours of depressing tragedies. They were based largely on Greek mythology and featured choruses of satyrs (mythological half man, half goat or horse), mock drunkenness, sexuality (including the liberal use of phalluses), pranks, sight gags and lots of merry-making. The first satyric dramas can be traced back to Pratinas of Phlius at around 500 BC when he adapted the dithyramb to include a chorus of satyrs. They were then further developed by playwrights such as Aristeas, Choerilus and Aeschylus.

The Complex Comedy….

Comedy was developed in the 5th century BC by Aristophanes of Byzantium and focused on major figures and events. Middle comedy saw the role of the chorus reduced, public figures weren’t portrayed on stage as much. In the 3rd century after the death of Alexander the Great was the New Comedy era that focused more on common people and everyday situations. Some examples of the silly costumes they used could be kitchen utensils, knights riding another man playing a horse and characters that looked more like a caricature than real life.

The comedy was generally presented in four parts. In the parados the chorus entered the orchestra and sang and danced a number of songs. The agon came next where the principal actors would have a debate or quick-witted verbal contest with bizarre plot elements and fast changing scenes. There might have also have been some improvisation. The parabasis was the third part of the play. This was when the chorus spoke to the audience and for the poet. The exodos was the finale. During the exodos the chorus gave another lively song and dance routine.

The Frogs by Aristophanes

Synopsis: Dionysus in despair over the current state of Athens’ tragedians, travels to Hades with his slave Xanthias to bring Euripides back from the dead (he had actually just recently died when the play was written). In the end it wasn’t Euripides that was brought back. His intention was to get across to the audience that the new way of doing things is not as good as the old and they should go back to the old way of doing things. Frogs won first prize at the Lenaia dramatic festival in 405 BC and was so successful that it was staged a second time later that same year at the festival of Dionysus in Athens.

Big Players in Drama….

Thespis: a forward-thinking genius…or bored rebel…who decided to shake things up and start acting the characters that the chorus was singing about in their dithyrambs (reminds me of my child during his first school play).

Peisistratus: Athenian ruler who decided to take advantage of the opportunity to bring his people together and had the first theatre, the Theatre of Dionysus, built.

Three of the biggest players in tragedy were:

Aeschylus (c. 525 – c. 456 BCE): for his innovation, adding a second actor and more dialogue and creating sequels

Sophocles (c. 496-406 BCE): added a third actor to the performance as wells as painted scenery

Euripides (c. 484-407 BCE): for his clever dialogues, realism, and habit of posing awkward questions to the audience with his thought-provoking treatment of common themes

Most famous playwrights for comedy:

Aristophanes (460 – 380 BCE): the Father of Comedy…let’s all crack a joke in his honour.

Menander (c. 342-291 BCE): helped create the new comedy genre by introducing a young romantic lead to plays and possibly several other stock characters such as a cook and a cunning slave, more plot twists, suspense, and common people and their daily problems.


….and there we have it! A super-fast run-down on ancient Greek drama. A huge thank you to all of the amazing Greeks and their contributions. To think what started as a guy shaking things up, became the juggernaut of TV, movies and live performances today. What did you think? Are there any other bits of info you’d like to share about Greek drama? Please share below, I’d love to read it because classical history rocks.

6 comments on “The Drama of Greek Drama

  1. Mariana

    Hi Tricia!

    Great post, and very well explained. I remember I learned something about Greek Dramas in high school, specially tragedies, and how was the theater distribution, like and amphitheater, and how use different masks and the clothes they were. But I can’t remember which play we read, I know Aphrodite was in it and some other very well-known Greek figures. I also remember something related to catharsis, is that possible or am I just confusing Greek Dramas with something else?

    Thank you for helping remember and learn more about Greek dramas.

    Best,

    Mariana

    Reply
    1. Tricia Stuart Post author

      Thanks! It sounds like you had a great class…not sure which drama you studied but it sounds like it was fun. Catharsis was kind of a feature of the dramas. To make a long definition short, catharsis is kind of a purging of emotions. In this case, through a drama…connect with the characters, get emotional, go through a catharsis and feel better. Hope that helped 🙂

      Reply
  2. RanDaMan13

    Hi Tricia, you really summed up Greek Drama. I actually searched Greek Drama after reading your post and found that you had included more relevant information than some of the other “wiki” style sites. One of the things that came to mind while reading through your post was how masks have been used by many societies throughout history. My comparison is that of the Greek masks with those used in the Chinese Operas. The Chinese Opera Masks used different styles of makeup and color to represent the character they portrayed. Not sure who used these first? Might be a research topic?

    Thanks,
    Randy

    Reply
    1. Tricia

      Thank you very much! I’m aiming for better than a wiki but still keeping it light. Yes, masks are fascinating and the Chinese opera masks can be so elaborate you could pretty much skip the backstory of that character. They’re beautiful! Thank you, it would be interesting to compare them since the Chinese have such a long and fascinating history also.

      Reply
  3. Mariana

    Hi Tricia!

    Great post! Greek history has always been one of my interests and I really enjoy reading and learning more about things related to it. I remember learning about Greek Dramas in high school, but I don’t remember much, but that they used to wear masks and special outfits and they also performed at amphitheaters. I also remember that tragedies were related to catharsis, so I did some research and found out that yes, they are related, because tragedies express many emotions that the public may be also feeling. Maybe you can tell me more about this if you know?

    I didn’t know much about satyrs, so it was interested learning more about that too.

    Best,

    Mariana

    Reply
    1. Tricia Post author

      Thanks! I haven’t really researched much on the philosophy or catharsis.  I’ve learned that the audience, watching these plays and feeling the emotional connection to the characters and what they went through helped the audience work through their own emotions over similar circumstances in their lives. It made them feel a little better getting the emotions out of their systems and gaining a little clarity.

      Hope that helped 🙂

      ~Tricia

      Reply

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