Ritual, Tragedy, and Thespis: The Origins of Western Theater
In the 6th century BCE, the ancient Greeks invented theater, which has over time evolved into what we know it as today.
For most of us, a good weekend consists of watching a long-awaited sequel to a favorite film or a hit line-up of shows on Netflix. Much of this has been made possible by the ancient Greeks. In the 6th century BCE, the ancient Greeks invented theater, which has over time evolved into what we know it as today. A yearly theater festival called “City Dionysia” was held in the city-state of Athens honoring Dionysus, the god of harvest and wine. Men would sing songs to welcome the god; this practice spread throughout Greece, helping to create a common cultural identity.
The ancient Greeks invented multiple genres of theater, including comedy, tragedy, and satire. The origin of tragedy is believed to be linked to the ancient rituals carried out to honor Dionysus. Tragic plots were based upon mythology or archaic epics. Comedies were invented after tragedies with unknown precise origins. Comedies allowed the playwright to address events of the moment as compared to the formal genre of tragedy. The third type of play was satire, which made fun of mortal legends and real people. Satires were often political in nature and could affect people’s opinions on current events.
The open-air, semicircular theaters built on hillsides provided excellent viewing and acoustics for thousands of spectators. Here, the Greeks enjoyed the works of great playwrights by Aristophanes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. Ancient theater consisted of three main elements: the skene, orchestra, and theatron. The skene was positioned behind the stage and depicted the scenery for the play being performed. At the center of the theater was the orchestra, a circular or rectangular area where the chorus sang and danced, with an altar for the sacrifice of goats used in the worship of Dionysus. The theatron was the seating area for the audience of the play.
Greek theater initially only included the chorus. Around 550 BCE, a priest of Dionysus, named Thespis, came up with the idea of using actors in plays. Normally, three actors performed on stage at a time with each performer playing several roles. The actors, all-male, wore costumes and masks that exaggerated facial expressions in order to impersonate a number of different characters.
As new plays were written and performed, theater began to grow and evolve. Greek dramas spread throughout the Mediterranean, eventually influencing Hellenistic and Roman theater, and laying the foundations for modern theater. In fact, many plays written in ancient Greece such as Oedipus Rex, The Oresteia, Prometheus Bound, and Medea are still being performed today. Theater is as powerful and influential today as it was in the ancient past.
“Festival Context: The City Dionysia.” People.duke.edu, people.duke.edu/~wj25/UC_Web_Site/tragedy/festival.html.
“Great Dionysia.” Brown.edu, 2009, www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/13things/7411.html.