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The Beginning with the Ancient Greeks

Jennifer has worked in the performing arts community for several years. She obtained her BA from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

The ancient Greeks influenced many other cultures in many ways. They helped to lay the foreground for areas such as philosophy and literature. In addition to these areas they also helped in the formation of the theatrical arts. They would become the example for many others to follow in the world of theater history.

Ancient Greece


The Festivals

Dionysus was a god, who was worshipped particularly by the peasants; these peasants would dance to honor him. From these peasant dances drama would develop. The gods were honored by human achievement; these achievements were accomplished through athletic meets, boxing matches, singing songs and acting out plays. Throughout the late winter and early spring Athenians would assemble to celebrate their drama festivals.

The dates of these festivals were often associated with different religious celebrations; that had been around long before the plays were ever thought of. The worshipers of Dionysus, referred to as the Cult of Dionysus, would gather to celebrate him by performing dances and ceremonies. A practical reason for holding the festivals so early in the year was the Greek climate. The way Greek acting was then was very strenuous physically and vocally as being underneath their costumes it was already hot work, without the climate adding to it. So to protect the actors from Greece’s’ Mediterranean warm climate was to hold the festivals during the cooler months of the year. In these earlier months the weather was more manageable for the actors because they were past the worst of winter and the temperatures were not oppressive yet. The downside of holding them so early was that many of the festivals were closed events due harsher weather outside of the region.

Over time the Cult of Dionysus obtained a great deal of importance throughout Greece during the Archaic period (800 BC- 480 BC); a time when the city-states were governed by single rulers. These rulers encouraged the cult for the benefit of the peasants, whose support the ruler relied on. The cult would perform dithyrambs, choral songs or chants, and dramas in front of their cult statue as acts of worship instead of as performances directed for the entertainment of spectators. For the general dramas being performed at the festivals they would perform satyr plays, tragedies and comedies within the holy places of Dionysus.The Dionysian festivals held at the time were Rural Dionysia, the Lenaea, the Anthesteria, and the City Dionysia.

The Rural Dionysia, also known as the lesser Dionysia, was held in the month of Poseideon from December through the beginning of January. During this festival they had a sacrifice, tasting of new wines, phallic chants were recited and the komoi (the revelries) were performed all in honor of Dionysus. The evolution of comedy, according to Aristotle, is believed to have come from the leaders of this revelry.

In Gamelion, which was from January through the beginning of February, the Lenaea was held. This festival seemed to hold comedy more important than tragedy. The state would produce artistic comedies during this festival from the first part of the fifth century onward; tragedies would appear at this festival roughly fifty years later. Even though comedy was first improvised at this festival in Athens, it would not obtain a literary form until the end of the sixth century. This festival at first took place in the shrine of Dionysus Lenaeus; located near Dörpfeld in a hollow between the Acropolis, Pnyx and Areopagus. Later these Lenaean plays would be brought to a permanent theatre that was built in the precinct of Dionysus Eleuthereus on the southeast side of the Acropolis.

In the month of Anthesterion, the Anthesteria festival was held; it took place from February into the beginning of March. While this also was a Dionysiac festival it was different because there were most likely no dramatic performances held during this festival. It was divided into three parts; the Pithoigia, the Choes and the Chytori. The Pithoigia was the broaching of the wine casks. The Choes was the feast of the jugs; a children’s festival; where the children received little jugs as presents. Then the Chytori was the feast of pots, where food was set out in pots for the deceased. So with it being more of a festival for children and the dead, it was very unlikely that plays performed at other Dionysiac festivals would have been performed at this particular festival.

The City Dionysia was also known as the Great Dionysia. It took place in the month Elaphebolion, which was from March into the beginning of April. This festival was the principal festival that was not only celebrated by the city but by the state as well. With it celebrated by the state the members of the Attic federal state participated in the festivities as well. The archon eponymous, the highest state official, was put in charge of directing the festival each year. This official would be sent all of the plays that were to be produced; and his name would be at the beginning of each theatre record. After receiving the plays he would then make his final selection and chose the actors and the choragi. The choragus was the wealthy citizens who chose, as their state tax, to cover the various costs for the festival. According to preserved programs there were between sixteen and eighteen choragi for each festival. Over the course of the festival, dithyrambs and three tetralogies, a set of three tragedies, and three to five comedies would be performed.The plays would start with five choruses of boys then five choruses of men. There were ten tribes the Attica region, and each tribe would produce one dithyramb for the festival. Afterwards the festival would commence with the comedies.

At first five poets would each submit one comedy each to compete with each other. From having five works to present it is possible that this part of the festival had a complete day for this part alone. Later during the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC, the number was limited down to three, then one comedy would be presented after each set of tetralogies; if it wasn’t a comedy that was shown afterwards they would present a satyr play instead. With this set up for the festival the plays then took up three consecutive days. They would start the day with the tragedies then by evening, after the tragedies were finished, they would end the day with comedies. Then after 534 BC, the tragedies would be followed by a satyr play.

The Greeks would end with the comedies because it seemed that they simply wanted to feel happy when heading home; after all for the most part the Dionysiac festivals; particularly the Great Dionysia, were joyous holidays and not the Greek version of more serious holidays like Lent, Yom Kippur or even Ramadan. The practice of adding a bit of fluff to the ending of serious entertainment became a common practice within the theatre.

During the fifth century BC the major religious festivals would hold competitions over the course of three days. They would start the days with tragedies, then move onto the satyr plays and finish the day with the comedies. The judging of these competitions would be carried out by a panel of ten judges. The judges would cast their vote by placing pebbles in an urn, each representing a play, they would pick five urns at random to make a decision on the final winner. Eventually many of the festival components; like the choral dances, would become a form of contest; these competitions would later contribute to the growth of art, music, gymnastics and theatre.



The Poets

Even through extrapolation, theories and preserved documents we probably will never know all of the names of every single poet from these festivals. Though with the surviving scripts has provided us with some of their names, their work and contributions to the theatre. Not all of the surviving scripts are complete, so they can only give us a glimpse into how some of the poets from this time worked or lived. Even with time fading some of the details of the poets’ lives and loosing many of the scripts, we still know of and learn about some of them like Sophocles, Aeschylus and Aristophanes. Aside from producing scripts for the festivals, some poets added different elements to how theatre worked.

Of the many known and unknown Greek poets; Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were known as the greatest of the tragic poets. Some important playwrights in Old Comedy were Aristophanes, Cratinus and Eupolis. Other important comedic poets are Philemon, Meander and Plautus & Terence; all from later branches of comedy.

Aeschylus lived from about 525 BC through about 456 BC. Persians, produced in 472 BC, is his earliest surviving work. His work often carried a theme between a few of them, thus creating sequels. An example of this would be his collectively titled work known as Oresteia; this trilogy includes Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Furies. This trilogy is the only complete trilogy that has survived the passage of time. He wrote seventy to eighty scripts which there are only seven remaining. Aside from his scripts he is known to have added a second actor by adding dialogue. At some point in his career he became in danger of losing his life due to an offense he had unknowingly committed.

Sophocles lived from 496 BC to 406 BC, and he was a very popular poet. Roughly he wrote one hundred or more scripts, of which only seven of them are surviving; the most famous of which was Antigone (c. 442 BC). A few of his other works are Oedipus the King, and The Women of Trachis. He is credited with introducing a third actor, incorporating painted scenery and scene changes in plays.

Euripides lived from 484 BC to 407 BC. He was known for clever dialogues, fine choral lyrics and a degree of realism within his writings and stage productions. It appears that he enjoyed posing awkward questions and unsettling his audiences with thought provoking use of common themes. His tragedy Ixion got halted by an outraged audience because of it blasphemous content; until he explained that the transgression would be punished in the end if the audience would be patient. He wrote roughly ninety plays with only nineteen surviving, the most famous of which was Medeia. The function of the poet and the actor was separated late in the history of ancient theatre.

Of the Greek comic poets the biggest was Aristophanes. Although he is a giant amongst these playwrights, like many of the Old Comedy poets there isn’t much information that is certain involving him. Although from the dates of his surviving works it is believed that he was from Athens and lived from 460 BC to 380 BC. Of his surviving scripts there are eleven of them that are complete and are the only examples of Old Comedy that survived to today. There are two other important playwrights of Old Comedy, but the full extent of their contributions are unknown; aside from their names, a few of their works (with dates) and that both were multiple winners at some of the most prestigious festivals. These poets are Cratinus and Eupolis. Cratinus wrote Tempest-Tossed Men (425 BC), Satyrs (424 BC) and Pytine (423 BC). Eupolis wrote Numeniae (425 BC), Maricas (421 BC), Flatterers (421 BC) and Autolycus (420 BC).

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While there are only a few handfuls of information about Old Comedy and its poets; there is more information about New Comedy and its poets. A few of the important playwrights of New Comedy were Philemon, Diphilus and Menander. Though Plautus & Terence are more Roman playwrights they are mentioned in both Greek and Roman comedy. They are famous for writing Latin comedies and for adding diversity to the comedy genre in the form of pantomime and togata.

Philemon lived from 368/60 BC until 267/3 BC and he wrote roughly ninety-seven comedies. Diphilus wrote roughly one hundred plays; although we know of their work we do not know the extent of their contributions to New Comedy other than their scripts. Although we do know that the longest surviving playwright of the New Comedy was Menander. He lived from 342 BC to 291 BC; he wrote roughly one hundred plays, many of which survived until the seventh century BCE when they were unfortunately lost to time. Menander wrote Dyskolos (originally performed in 316 BC) and it is the most complete surviving play of his; there are also significant portions of six other plays written by him that have survived.

Other playwrights that helped create elements of theatre that we know in modern times are Phrynichus and Agathon. Agathon is credited with the addition of musical interludes that don’t necessarily connect with the plot itself. Phrynichus had the idea to split the chorus into separate groups to represent men, women and elders; even though the only gender on the stage was male.

The earliest group of dramatists would teach the choruses and create appropriate choreography themselves. The rehearsals would usually be directed by the playwrights instead of a director. Aeschylus and Phrynichus were both famous for taking on both the playwright and the director roles. From the lack of evidence to the contrary it is believed that Sophocles and Euripides also participated in this act of both playwright and director. There is evidence that Aristophanes was the first playwright to separate the two roles.

The Plays

The three most important literary forms that have survived to today that was created by the Greeks were epic, lyric and drama. The epic poem was the earliest of these three forms; an example of this is The Odyssey written by Homer. Following the epic poems, the lyric poetry came into existence. It was developed during the seventh and sixth centuries; a lot of its content was borrowed from myths. Drama was the last of these important forms of literature to develop. Tragedy would come about at the end of the sixth century. This was followed by the development of the artistic comedy during the fifth century.

Herodotus, a Greek historian, had stated that the famous singer and poet, Arion, was the first person to compose a dithyramb, to give it a name and to possess these poems. Arion also introduced the satyrs, who sang their songs in meter. The satyr play is believed to be the earliest form of drama, since it evolved from the dithyramb that was sung by the satyrs. Then according to Aristotle’s Poetics, tragedy developed from the satyr plays. The later dithyrambs and tragedies would borrow their themes from not only the Dionysus saga but from all heroic sagas in general. Examples of satyr drama would be Hunting Dogs or the Trackers by Sophocles or the Cyclops by Euripides.

Although we have examples of all three forms of drama, the original versions of these scripts have very few details about the production. The details about the sets, costumes, blocking, character entrances and exits, and character descriptions are all missing from these original scripts. For these details we must turn to the imagination of the translator. Even with these details missing we can still gather information from the tragedies. With the arrangement of the roles in the scripts show that Aristotle’s statement that the number of actors assigned to a tetralogy was three. The absence of fights and killings show, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that there was a rule that forbade on stage violence. There most likely was an offstage area for the three actors for their entrances and exits and/or at the very least for them to make their costume changes. Then the last piece of information gathered from these scripts is that there was at least one practical door, that opened and closed on the set; but the location of this door cannot be determined from the scripts. The comedy scripts focus on more contemporary issues, in more present setting during their time.

Of all of the playwrights historians have found that Aristophanes’ scripts are abundant with details. His works had information pertaining to furnishing, costuming, machinery, other playwrights and even acting. His works also gave us a glimpse of the Athenians of the time; how and what they ate and drank, about their clothing, their couplings and even their attitudes towards gods, women, foreigners and even each other.

During this time writing was a prized skill. This led to many plays being preserved for a while. As learning started to decline, papyrus scrolls started to lose their value. Over the course of one century of the City Dionysia it is believed that there were one thousand and five hundred scripts written. The forty-four complete scripts and fragments that have survived to today represent less than three percent of the possible one thousand and five hundred scripts written.

More often than not the plays selected for school work are selected for their literary value than their theatrical value. They were selected by the Byzantine scholars for their literary qualities, with a fairly balanced selection from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (the “Hallowed Three”). There were seven plays from both Aeschylus and Sophocles; and nine plays from Euripides to form the selection for “school” plays. Many of the surviving tragedies were used to teach Greek as the lingua franca, an adopted common language between speakers with different native languages, of the Mediterranean. There is a selection of plays that were not chosen for their literary value, but for the way they made it possible to study Athenian popular entertainment.

Ten of the plays that make up part of The Complete Plays of Euripides; are also part of an Alexandrian papyrus edition of Euripides’ works, with the titles ranging from epsilon to kappa. Another of his surviving works is The Bacchae; the reason it has been preserved is unclear as it is not one of the school plays nor is it from the epsilon to kappa selections. A few of his other surviving plays are titled: Cyclops, Ion, Helen, Elektra, Iphigenia at Aulis and Hecuba. The only known complete satyr play is Cyclops. His plays Ion and Helen are often classified as comedies by today’s standards. His play Hecuba is the only one from the alphabetical list was chosen to be part of the Byzantine school selection. The last five plays in the collection are flawed literately, with changing characters and plots between the different acts within a single play. Many of the surviving plays by Euripides are among the literary discards and they hardly make it on the reading lists for literature classes. Although they are a sample of Euripides’ total works, they are believed to show typical fifth century Athens theatre fare.

Even though only one and a half satyr plays survived to today they still give us a detail to study in regards to Greek popular entertainment. That detail is; that no matter how serious or depressing the tragedies were, everyone left the theatre in a cheerful mood from slapstick performances that involved gods and other mythic figures in different entertaining situations.

In today’s theatre there is plenty of warning signals that a play is about to start. Even in modern open-air theatres it is possible to notify the audience that a production or an announcement is starting. Whereas we lack the necessary information about if they had similar methods of quieting the audience so as to start a play in ancient times. A strong beginning was needed, along with a delay of the main theme of the play; so that the audience wouldn’t miss any important information while they settled down. For comedies there were two forms that the opening could take. One form was to open with horseplay that was fast and noisy, so as to catch the attention of the audience. The other form was to start with a line of topical references and irrelevant jokes. The openings of tragedies tended to be more informative from the start. It is theorized that for this part of the festivals the audience were more subdued and receptive of the information that was presented to them. The purpose of these types of openings was to grab the attention of the audience; so they would quiet down, focus on the stage and help them to establish a connection with the actors. In size many of the audiences for the festivals were quite large, and they were both very talkative and unruly. Their temperament and behaviors helped shape the way plays were formed and presented. The plays that would be re-performed many times and copied for mass publication are what would become known as the classics, especially if they were written by any of the three great tragedians. These classics were even kept by the state as official and unchangeable state documents.

Tragedy Mask


Greek Tragedy

As with many aspects of ancient times there is little to no information on the origins of Greek tragedy. We gain more information once Aeschylus, who is believed to have been the most innovative of all of the Greek playwrights. However it is theorized that the roots of Greek tragedy is entwined with the Athenian spring festival, Dionysos Eleuthereios. All of the surviving tragedies, excluding Persians by Aeschylus, were based off of heroic myths. According to Aristotle tragedy was developed from the dithyramb leaders. Not only were the tragedies spoken, but there is evidence that a large portions were sung.

The plots for these plays were usually inspired by Greek mythology, which during this time was a part of their religion. The subject matter for these plays was often of a serious nature pertaining to moral rights and wrongs. There were also what seemed to be some standard rules for the poets that wrote these works; there was to be no violence on the stage, deaths had to be heard but not seen, and there could not be any comments or political statements within the plays.

The most famous festival for competitions for tragedies was the City Dionysia in Athens. To compete in the competitions the plays would go through an audition process, that no one has yet to figure out what all this process would contain, that was judged by the archon of the festival. The plays that were deemed worthy of the festival competition were given financial backing to obtain a chorus and the needed rehearsal time.

Comedy Mask


Greek Comedy

The word comedy is derived from the word komos, which means the song of the gay revelers. Komos is also the name of the god of revelry, merrymaking and festivity. Comedy evolved from improvisations, originating with the leaders of the phallic ceremonies and the reciters of phallic songs, according to Aristotle. Aristotle also stated that they would also sing songs that often abused unpopular people in town.

From the sixth century on Greek comedy was a popular and influential form of entertainment across the land. There were no real boundaries on who was made fun of within the plays; they would poke fun at politicians, philosophers and fellow artists. Aside from up holding their comedic value, the plays provided us with insights into their society. These insights had both general and deeper details about the workings of their political institutions, legal system, religious practices, education and warfare.

Early sources of comedy are found within the poems of Archilochus (from the seventh century BCE) and Hipponax (from the sixth century BCE); additionally they contained crude and explicit sexual humor. Although we have these early sources their exact origins are lost to us.

There are four parts that make up the comedic plays. These parts are called the parados, the agon, the parabasis and the exodos. The parados was the section that members of the chorus would perform songs and several dances. They would often be dressed in unusual costumes that could be just about anything; an example would be them dressed like giant bees with stingers. A costume like that can sometimes lead to the play being named after the chorus. The agon is the next phase of the comedic plays. This phase usually contained a witty verbal contest or debate between the leading actors while there was fantastical plot elements, fast scenic changes and possibly some improvisation happened around them. The parabasis had the chorus speaking directly to the audience and speaking in place of the poet. The exodos was the show-stopping finale where the chorus gave a last round of rousing songs and dances. Judgements made about Greek Comedy are based on the eleven scripts and fragments of Aristophanes works as well as some scraps from other comic playwrights.

Within Greek Comedy there is the Old Comedy and the New Comedy; there was possibly an in between stage referred to as Middle Comedy, but there hasn’t been enough information found to say if it did or did not exist.

Plays written in the fifth century BCE, which were comedies, are the plays that make up the Old Comedy. Old Comedy would poke fun at mythology and prominent members of society. Looking through these scripts it appears that there was no censorship on language or actions in the comedic exploration of bodily functions and sex. Aristophanes’ Acharnians is the earliest complete comedic script, with the first performance being dated in 425 BCE. There are some fragmented comic scripts that date back to as early as 450 BCE.

New Comedy arose in the second half of the fourth century BCE. Menander and his contemporaries make up the basis of what we know as New Comedy. The time between Old and New Comedy, the genre of comedy itself changed with the time and audience. One of these changes was the taming and simplification of comedy, leaving very little obscenity behind. The costumes changed from the grotesque and phallic to more natural looking that would often reflect the new style of the playwright. New Comedy would become more focused on the plot and became more concerned with fictional everyday people and their relationships with the world around them. In addition to being more focused on the plot they also started to use more stock characters; like cooks, soldiers, pimps and cunning slaves. Although there were now more parts for the increased number of actors, the chorus lost some of their importance to the plot; simply providing musical interludes between the acts. The plays even seemed to settle on a five act structure at this time.

In the beginning comedy was played voluntarily by non-professional actors. There was not a limit on the number of actors for comedies, because comedies were not presented as trilogies. After the year 486 BC the state started to concern itself with comedy. The first contest between the comic actors didn’t happen until about the year 442 BC at the Lenaea. It wasn’t part of the great City Dionysia festival until about 325 BC. Afterwards they decreased the number of comic actors as they had done with the tragedies. The Greek comedies continued to be popular throughout both the Hellenistic and Roman times; and many of the classics were performed again and again.

The Actors & The Chours

While the chorus was taken from the public they were still different parts of the Athenian public at large. Through uncertain methods a large group of citizens were selected to be part of the chorus for the upcoming festivals every year. From what little we know we are certain that the chorus were unpaid volunteers that chose this as a part of their civic duty. After their selection the chorus were trained and costumed by the choragus at the state’s expense.

By Greek tradition the chorus was the source from which drama came; then after the first actor added their purpose shifted to creating increasingly complex possibilities for dramatic action. After the chorus entered it was normal for them to stay on stage and perform a variety of functions for the play. The relationship between the chorus and the play was just as flexible as their relationship with the actors. As dictated by the immediate needs of the play the chorus would change as necessary; as the action would shift so would the role of the chorus.

The chorus had several functions within the play; but their most important role took place during the parabasis. That is the point in the play where the actors all leave the stage so that the chorus could turn and address the audience instead of addressing the actors. However even with their many roles and constant presence on stage the chorus was not considered actors because they were selected from the public, costumes paid for by the choragus, and they were trained by the chorus trainer.

There is little known about the processes of selecting and training of the Greek actors, even what we do know is not known to be fully correct. Scholars are mostly certain that the actors were not full-time professionals and although they were paid for their appearances at the festivals; their performance opportunities were fairly limited.

Due to the actors being costumed from head to toe any form of expression and subtlety was accomplished through the human voice. Throughout the course of Greek theatre, of the time, a good actor and a good voice were one and the same. Over time good voice production and delivery became the indication of an accomplished actor. They would meticulously train and nurture their voices. It is said that Aristotle would advocate the necessity to monitor one’s diet, so as to avoid ruining the voice.

There are a few characteristics that vary between ancient and modern acting can be seen in the amount of energy needed for performances, the physical strain and their training. For the performances the actors had to put forth large amounts of energy and exaggerated movements for their parts to be understood as they were completely covered head to toe in their heavier costumes. With the large amount of energy and the heavier costumes it is believed that these ancient actors were under more physical strain than many of today’s actors. From what has been found thus far shows that actors’ training in ancient times was more akin to the training regimen of an athlete than that of a performing artist.

Their training required them to abstain from certain foods and beverages, causing them to carefully monitor their diets. Plato felt that this method was a bit on the extreme end of the spectrum; and he believed that it was humiliating for the actors and that it compromised their dignity. So he purposed a milder alternative for the training; where adolescents would completely abstain from wine and moderate wine drinking for men under thirty. There were other indulgences that were forbidden; for example they were not to have sex before performances or some were not to have sex at all. Even though they had these limitations on their indulgences, they were well looked after and given every non-harmful luxury possible while in training.

The fifth century representational art didn’t express the feelings and passions of the plays with features, but through posture and movement through the entire body instead. With this they put greater emphasis on methods pertaining to voice, movement and ability to perform in multiple roles. Vocally they had to master the art of speaking, be able to sing and be able to speak in time and rhythm with the music. With the number of actors on stage limited to three and many parts within varying plays all of the actors, particularly the second and third actor, needed to develop different movements, voice inflections and gestures for each character that they portrayed. In addition to their movements and gestures they needed to be able to express different feelings, like ecstasy or madness, through dancing and all movement. All of this also had to be flexible in size so as to fill the size of the theatre.

Before the state became involved with the festivals and the competitions and their workings; the poet and the actor were highly dependent upon each other. It was around 449 B.C. they became independent of each other and instead became dependent on the state. After the dependence switch the archon, one of the chief magistrates, would select and appoint an actor to one of the three poets, until each had one actor. After which each primary actor would then find the two subordinate actors. It is then theorized that the primary actor would work with the chorus trainer to assign roles. With the number of characters continually growing it must have made role assignment fairly difficult to manage at times.

As they didn’t allow women to perform on stage at this time all of the female roles were performed by men. They felt that women’s voices and a few other qualities would not bring the right kind of energy to the roles of tragic heroines. Despite not using women they would occasionally use children and animals on stage. More often than not one role would have to be acted out by several actors, depending on role assignment and the scenes needs.

If an actor became famous they were held in the highest honor and were given extra privileges throughout the land. These actors were exempt from military service and taxes. They were also granted some political privileges and were used as diplomatic envoys. As envoys they were allowed to move around freely. While they moved around they were granted help and protection from the sovereigns and the heads of state. As they moved they brought the classical masterpieces of Athens with them causing the works to be preserved and circulated throughout the ancient world.

Modern Interpretation of the Ancient Chorus

The Stage


The Stage & The Technical Aspects

As it has been noted throughout this piece the theatres in ancient Greece were open-air spaces outside. As such they had to pay mind to the weather throughout performances, for they would rather be caught in a storm and have to stop the play than to be in an enclosed space. For being in the enclosed space; they felt entirely would destroy the serenity of their religious ceremonies. Today we have several different types of stages for theaters all over the world. The Greek theater design today is called an arena theatre as the acting space is mostly surrounded by the audience.

Today there are about 200 ancient Greek theatres in various states of preservation. There are old stone records in existence that confirm that what we call theatres actually was used for the purpose of producing plays. As part of the design of the theatres the builders would build it into a hill sided to have the gentle slope in the theatron. It is believed that during the time of the great tragedians all of the inner parts of the theatres were built of perishable material, like wood. With only the outer wall of the theatron was built of stone, just as the walls of the sacred precincts of the priests of Dionysus was. There was a time that the theatre actually belonged to the sanctuary of Dionysus-Eleuthereus, and they held religious ceremonies there. It wasn’t until the Attic statesman, Lycurgus, had many of the theatres of Dionysus would be rebuilt with stone. After their rebuilds many of the theatres had excellent acoustics, with the stone and the semi-circular design it helped to boost the acoustics naturally; they still maintain their acoustics to this day. While their designs may have slight differences there are a few parts of the Greek stage were the skene, the orchestra, the logeion and the theatron; that were seen in majority of the remaining theatres. Some of these words are still used in today’s society they simply carry a different mean today.

Translated from Greek skene means tent, it is also the name given to the building behind the orchestra and the logeion. Originally this structure was used only for storage of everything needed for the performances and was a convenient location for actors to change costumes as needed. A second story was often built on top of the main building to provide more backdrops for the actors on the logeion, in addition to adding more potential entrances and exits to be used in the play. Over time the skene would see redesigns and have some mechanisms added to it to enhance the performances. They would place the machinery that would be used to bring the gods in through the air or the taking other actors from the “earth”, was placed on top of the skene instead of being placed inside of it like other mechanisms used for the productions. It is believed that Sophocles is the inventor of scene painting on the skene to add to the backgrounds of the plays. This belief is said to be supported in the inner most essence of his poetry. To make the scenery change they had triangles that turned on an axis fastened underneath each triangle. Not all of the scenery was painted, like if it was a representation of a desert island with rocks and caves it is believed that these sets were not painted.

The word orchestra is a derivative of the Greek word orcheîsthai, which means to dance. The orchestra obtained its circular design because the original dances performed by the Cult of Dionysus were circle dances. Today we refer to the orchestra as a group of musicians and their location as the orchestra pit. It was situated between the theatron and the logeion, and it was the primary location for the choral performances. There was an elevated platform, resembling an altar, that was placed in the orchestra and it was called the thymele. The thymele was located at the center of the structure, and all of the measurements for the theatron and the amphitheater’s semi-circle was based off of this central location. This is believed to be where the chorus could be found when they were not performing, but was simply observing the action taking place. When the leader of the chorus would communicate with the characters it was from atop this platform.

The logeion translates to speaking place, so this was the stage for the Greek actors during this period of time. It was positioned behind the orchestra but in front of the skene. It could stand between ten to twelve feet high and it spanned the entire width of the skene.

The theatron are the seats for the spectators that form a semicircle around the orchestra. The word itself translates to the seeing place, today the theatron has changed into the word that we use to describe the entire building where performances are held. These seats rise up the further back you go so as to give an equal viewing for all of the spectators for the performances. The increase of height is just a slight one as you go up the rows of seats, just as you see in theatres today. Even the lowest step of the theatron is raised slightly higher than the orchestra, which is sunken down a few degrees as there are no spectators in the orchestra. The theatron itself surrounded the orchestra by about two-thirds.

Between the theatron and the skene on both sides are two aisles called the parodos, these aisles were the entrance and exit places for the chorus to the orchestra. This entrance was also used by the audience to get to their seats and to leave the performances. The word parodos had another meaning aside from the name of the aisles, it was also the name of the song the chorus sang as they entered. It is believed that in most instances the entrance of the chorus was a stately processional marking the formal beginning of the play. Then when they exited with the exodos is believed to have been the formal ending of the play.

The Theatre of Epidaurus

In conclusion, many of the elements discussed are the basis for the guidelines and designs that are used in theatrical productions today. While this may not be the absolute origin of theatre, it is where things started to change into what we know as theatre today. These poets are some of the first to have their stories written down instead of just oral stories. A lot of this information has formed the basis for everything we know and believe even if some of it is still a little clouded by mystery.


Arnott, P.D. (1989). Public and performance in the Greek theatre. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ashby, C. (1999). Classical Greek theatre: new views of an old subject. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Bieber, M. (1939). History of the Greek and Roman theatre. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cartwright, M. (2013, March 16). Greek Tragedy. Retrieved from Ancient History Encyclopedia:

Cartwright, M. (2013, March 25). Greek Comedy. Retrieved from Ancient History Encyclopedia:

Hemingway, C. (2004, October). Theater in Ancient Greece. Retrieved from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History:

Schlegel, A.W. (1815). A Course of lectures on dramatic art and literature (Vol. 1)(pp.52-270)(John Black, Trans.). London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy.

Simon, E. (1982). The ancient theatre (C.E. Vafopoulou-Richardson, Trans.). New York: Methuen.


Jennifer Beineke (author) from Harlan, IN on December 18, 2016:

Thank you. I'm glad that it was able to help you remember things that you had previously learned. It's always nice to have a refresher once in a while.

Margarida Borges from Lyon, France on December 18, 2016:

Great article! It made me remember what I've learned a long time ago in my history classes.

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