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Mosaic, shown Gargoyles in form of Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Roman artwork, 2nd century AD.

Masks, Sex, Laughter, and Tears: The Exciting Evolution of Ancient Greek Theater

The city of theater was Athens. Athens birthed drama, bred drama, and ultimately was responsible for cultivating it into the premiere art of the Classical world—at least according to Greek philosopher Aristotle. Famous playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Euripides all came from this city. And from Athens drama spread throughout the Greek world. No city-state ever took the moniker of the "city of theater" from Athens.

The word "theater" comes from the Greek word theatron. The Greek "- tron" loosely translates as "an instrument for", while " thea-" means "viewing." Thus literally, a theatron is a place or instrument for viewing purposes—i.e., a theater. It seems fitting that theater would have thus evolved in ancient Athens: from the Acropolis, the highest point in the city, dedicated to the goddess Athena and the central space of the sacred Dionysian festivals, one can view almost the entirety of Greece's golden age.

The ancient Greek theater at Epidauros.

The ancient Greek theater at Epidauros. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Thespis of Athens and the Origins of Greek Theater

Greek theater is believed to have been born in the 6th century BC, with arguments that Thespis of Athens initially created the art (though this is still up for debate).

While the exact origins of the practice are uncertain, the relationship between acts and props of tragic performances have been examined under the microscope of the ecstatic rites associated with the god Dionysus. Dionysus, god of wine, pleasure, fertility of the earth, and frenzied spiritual enlightenment, was considered even by the ancient Greeks to have been a foreign import—either a god sent on a journey of discovery, or one of exotic import with strange, unusual rituals. These rituals consisted of heavy intoxication of both men and women—though women became more commonly associated with Dionysus—who paraded around in the dark of the night in costume and masks, indulging sexual pleasures alongside their god. At Dionysus' base, he is believed to have been merely a god of drunkenness. At his core, however, there is much research (by this author as well) into his worship as a means to attain a higher level of spirituality.

Marble sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus and the Seasons. Roman ca. 260–270 AD.

Marble sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus and the Seasons. Roman ca. 260–270 AD. ( Public Domain )

Important Elements to Greek Theater

While the extent to which early tragedy borrowed from Dionysus' traditions remains unclear, the basics are evident: performers (who danced as much as they acted) donned masks and costumes and followed a mythological script that relied heavily on the dichotomy between gods and men. The catharsis at the end of tragic plays—a resolution that, while not always pleasant, brought an end to the crisis depicted in the play—can be associated with the enlightenment that participation in Dionysus' cult was intended to bring.

However, the aforementioned masks were especially important in the practice of performance—maybe more-so than in the Dionysian rituals—as they were a way to ensure with absolute certainty that the actors could take on any guise necessary. Whether this guise was human, god, demi-god, or monster was valuable to the tale being told, and thus masks were central to the theatrics of all performances.

Theater scene: two women and a witch (all three wearing masks). Roman mosaic from the Villa del Cicerone in Pompeii, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples)

Theater scene: two women and a witch (all three wearing masks). Roman mosaic from the Villa del Cicerone in Pompeii, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples). Work of Dioscorides of Samos. ( Public Domain )

Many masks survive, as well as literary descriptions of the masks and artistic recreations in frescoes and vase paintings. One can see the evidence of the importance of masks at almost any surviving theater—Greek or Roman (as the Romans borrowed heavily from Greek drama before devising their own). Statues depicting the grotesquely laughing, crying, or raging masks stare down at innocent viewers, their lips largely engorged and eyes so rounded and saucer-like, one would think the mask itself had a mind of its own.

Sculptures of theater masks dating from the Hellenistic period. Currently on display in Room 30 of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

Sculptures of theater masks dating from the Hellenistic period. Currently on display in Room 30 of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The sections of the ancient Greek theater were as follows:

  • Orchestra: the "dancing space" in which the chorus, responsible for the narration of the text, would sing, dance, and interact with the actors.
  • Theatron: the location of the audience.
  • Skene: translated literally as the "tent"; this is the building that stands behind the stage that usually serves as a backdrop.
  • Parados: the pathways between the chorus and the actors.

Parts of a Greek theater.

Parts of a Greek theater. ( Walter Englert/Reed College )

Tragedy, Comedy, and Short Satyr Plays

Yet drama in ancient Greece was not only tragic. In fact, it had three basic forms: tragedy, comedy, and shorter satyr plays . Tragedy and comedy were at the core of ancient theater, however tragedy dealt primarily with the human condition depicted through mythological scenes, while comedy dared to question and mock the political leaders in its early years. Tragedy originated before comedy, explaining again the Dionysian elements that permeate the comedic shows as well, while satyr plays incorporated elements of both.

Comedy changed rather drastically through the centuries. Early plays such as Aristophanes' Lysistrata made a mockery of the supposed lack in leaders and warriors because comedies "legally" made fun of and insulted leaders in the early years (referred to as "Old Comedy). The 4th century saw a shift from a focus on the powerful to an emphasis on the common. Menander (342-290 BC) is credited with this new form of comedy, from which it has been argued the genre of "sitcom" was born.

Illustration of Lysistrata (1896).

Illustration of Lysistrata (1896). ( Public Domain ) In Aristophanes’ play ‘Lysistrata,’ the women of Greece withhold sex to encourage an end to the Peloponnesian War.

The significance of theater in Classical Athens (in particular) grew stronger following the war with the Persian Empire. After Persia essentially decimated Athens in 480 BC, Athens rebuilt the agora to be what it is remembered today: a work of unequivocal artistry, representing their patron goddess Athena in all her golden glory inside the mighty Parthenon. With this reconstruction process, set into motion by the tyrant and former strategos (general) Pericles, the emphasis on theater was further heightened. Theater became one of the central aspects of social and religious festivals in Athens. The festival of Dionysus in Athens set three playwrights against one another each year, and whoever won the favor of the judges went home with a prize worth more than gold by ancient Athenian standards: a bronze tripod cauldron, and more prestige than he could handle.

West Front of the Parthenon (1821) by Edward Dodwell.

West Front of the Parthenon (1821) by Edward Dodwell. ( Public Domain )

Ancient Greek Playwrights

The playwrights most often discussed by Classical scholars—and with good reason—are Aeschylus (524-456 BC), Sophocles (496-406 BC), Euripides (484-407 BC) and Aristophanes. Each of these playwrights introduced something new to Athenian drama when their plays were chosen as the best, and it is largely because of these writers that theater developed into the way it is now. For example, performances of Shakespeare's plays might have only consisted of one actor playing a variety of roles behind masks if not for Aeschylus' addition of a second actor, and then Sophocles' addition of a third. Scenery might have been entirely left to the audience's imagination if Sophocles had not also begun to add painted backgrounds to his works.

A marble relief of a poet, perhaps the playwright Sophocles.

A marble relief of a poet, perhaps the playwright Sophocles. ( Public Domain )

Disappointingly, Euripides' body of work from the 5th century BC is the last fully preserved corpus of ancient Greek dramatic material discovered to date; this makes tracing the various stages in which drama changed over the centuries harder to track.

Thanks in large part to the Romans' appreciation for Greek culture, much of early Greek drama was translated into Latin for reuse before or around 240 BC. Soon after this, the date is once again uncertain. Romans began developing their own forms of tragedy and comedy, albeit less philosophically inclined. When Christianity took hold of the Empire, Roman theater—the last remnant of Greek theater—played its last performance, essentially closing the book on ancient drama.

Top image: Mosaic, shown Gargoyles in form of Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Roman artwork, 2nd century AD. Source: Public Domain

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

Damen, Mark. 2016. "Section 2: Classical Greek Tragedy and Theatre; Chapter 6: Early Classical Theatre." Classical Drama and Theatre, Utah State History Department. Accessed July 14, 2017. https://www.usu.edu/markdamen/ClasDram/chapters/061gkthea.htm

Easterling, P.E. and Bernard M. W. Knox. (eds) (1993). The Cambridge History of Classical Literature . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Englert, Walter. "Ancient Greek Theater." Reed College , Classics Department . Accessed July 13, 2017. https://www.reed.edu/humanities/110Tech/Theater.html#timeline

Rehm, Rush. (2016.) Understanding Greek Tragic Theatre (Understanding the Ancient World) . (2 nd ed.) Routledge.

Sorkin, Nancy. (2008). Greek Tragedy : Introductions to the Classical World . MA: Blackwell.

Xayier, Riu. (1999.) Dionysism and Comedy . Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

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