Ancient Greek theater (Segesta).

Ancient Greek Theater and the Monumental Amphitheaters in Honor of Dionysus

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To the Ancient Greeks, theater was a form of entertainment taken very seriously.  People would come from all across the Greek world to attend the popular theaters held in open air amphitheaters. In their glory days, some amphitheaters could hold crowds of up to 15,000 people, and some were so acoustically precise that a coin dropped at the center of the performance circle could be heard perfectly in the back row. The theater was a place where politics, religion, the human condition, popular figures, and legends were all discussed and performed with great enthusiasm.

The origin of the dramatic arts in Greece can be found in Athens, where ancient hymns were sung in honor of their gods. These hymns were later adapted into choral processions where participants would dress up in costumes and masks.  Eventually, certain members of the chorus evolved to take special roles within the procession, but they were not yet actors in the way we understand the term today.  That development would come in the 6th century B.C., when the tyrant Pisistratus, who, at the time, ruled the city of Athens, established a series of public festivals.

Greek Theatre, Taormina, Sicily

Greek Theatre, Taormina, Sicily ( Wikimedia Commons )

The festival of Dionysus

One of these festivals was called the 'City Dionysia’.  It was a festival of entertainment held in honor of the god of wine and fertility Dionysus and featured competitions in music, singing, dance and poetry.  The revelry-filled event was led by drunken men dressed up in rough goat skins (goats were thought to be sexually potent).  Some scholars even believe the Greeks patterned their celebrations after the traditional Egyptian pageants honoring Osiris. 

In the 6th century B.C. a priest of Dionysus, named Thespis, introduced a new element that is considered to be the birth of theater.  He is considered to be the first Greek "actor" and the originator of ‘the Greek tragedy’.  Actors in the west, ever since, have been calling themselves Thespians.

Comedies and tragedies

The two most popular Greek plays were comedies and tragedies.  They were viewed as completely separate genres, and plays did not merge aspects of the two.  Tragedy plays told a story that was intended to teach religious lessons.  Most Greek tragedies are based on mythology or history and deal with a characters' search for meaning in life and the nature of the gods.  The earliest known Greek tragedy was Persians, produced in 472 B.C. by Aeschylus. 

Greek comedy consisted of two periods.  Old Comedy was represented by the poets Cratinus and Aristophanes. It used three actors, and a chorus that sung, danced, and sometime participated in the dialogue.  The second period, New Comedy, was represented by the Greek dramatist Menander and consisted of the use of mistaken identities, ironic situations, ordinary characters and wit.


The starting point of modern western theater is often credited to the Greeks. Highly decorated masks were worn during feasts and celebrations as well as during funeral rites and religious ceremonies.  These masks were constructed out of lightweight organic material, such as linen or cork, and copied from marble or bronze faceplates.  Sometimes a wig was attached to the top of the mask.  The mask was then painted; usually brown to represent a man and white for a woman.  There were two holes for the eyes, large enough for the actor to see the audience but small enough so as not to allow the audience to see him.  The shape of the masks amplified the actor’s voice, making his words easier for the audience to hear.

Mosaic, shown Gargoyles in form of Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy.

Mosaic, shown Gargoyles in form of Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. ( Wikimedia Commons )

There were several practical reasons for using masks in the theater. Due to the sheer size of the amphitheaters they were performing in, exaggerated costumes and masks with bright colors were much more visible to a distant member of the crowd than a regular face.  Masks were also worn for transformation into character.  There were only two or three actors present in each production, so masks allowed for quick character changes between scenes. Masks were tools for the audience to learn something about the character, whether it be a huge beard and roaring mouth to represent the conquering hero, or curved nose and sunken eyes to represent the trickster.  Tragic masks carried mournful or pained expressions, comic masks were seen smiling or leering.  

Masks allowed gender, class, and age to be easily conveyed.  Men would often wear female masks, along with a wooden attachment that represented female breasts.


Strange that in English you still use the Latin version of Dionysos name: Dionysus.
Dionysos wasn't a Roman but a Greek god. So his name should be Greek and end with -os.

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