Western theatrical history begins in Ancient Greece with tragedy and comedy

Posted in Actors, Ancient History, Art, Historical articles, History, Literature, Music, Theatre on Friday, 10 February 2012

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This edited article about theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 636 published on 23 March 1974.

Greek theatre, picture, image, illustration

Greek theatre by Andrew Howat

The word “theatre” comes from the Greek name for “seeing place,” and it was in ancient Greece that the world’s first dramas were performed.

The ancient Greeks did not go to the theatre, like we do, simply to be entertained, for their plays formed part of religious festivals. The spring festival held in honour of Dionysus involved ritual processions, hymns, sacrifices, and dramas. During three of the five festival days, actors performed the plays of three selected dramatists, and the plots of these plays were already known to the audience. They were all based on famous events in Greek mythology so that members of the audience, knowing the story, were not so much interested in what was to happen next, but in finding out the particular dramatist’s explanation of the outcome.

Three dramatists stand above all others among the first Greek playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The greatest comic playwright was Aristophanes.

The earlier Greek theatre consisted simply of a flat space with an altar at the foot of a hillside. The audience sat on the slopes of the hillside and watched the performance below. The acting place was called the orchestra, and during the 5th century B.C. both this and the theatre became more and more elaborate. Tiers of wooden seats and stage settings were gradually adopted, and a simple wooden dressing room behind the orchestra was later used as a “house” or “temple”. Eventually a proscenium or stage, was added, jutting out into the orchestra.

It can be seen, then, how the modern theatre building as we know it today, evolved. As their theatre buildings developed, the Greeks began to value drama more as entertainment and less for spiritual instruction. Troupes of paid actors began to travel through the city-states performing Athenian dramas, and soon theatres sprang up throughout ancient Greece.

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