Theatre & Drama in Ancient Greece – Made Easier

We at i-witness recognise that Greek classical drama is hard to read, is often complex and sometimes impossible to understand. Yet the story lines are both dramatic, exciting, sometimes funny and sometimes heart searingly poignant. This is why we have published our ‘Greek’ plays in a language and format that are accessible and easy to comprehend – even though the tales and the original texts have been around for thousands of years.

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Theatre production is first recorded around 700 B.C. with performances at festivals honouring their many gods. One god, DIONYSUS, was honoured with an unusual festival called the City Dionysia. This revelry-filled festival was led by drunken men dressed up in rough goat skins (because goats were thought sexually potent) who would sing and play in choruses to welcome Dionysus. Tribes, and later city states, competed against one another in performances – prizes were awarded for best performances and best playwright. Of the four festivals in Athens (each reflecting seasonal changes), plays were performed only at this Dionysia festival. Some historians believe that the Greeks patterned their celebrations after the traditional Egyptian pageants honouring Osiris.

greektheatre2At the early Greek drama festivals, the actor, director, and dramatist was usually the same person. Later, only three actors could be used in each play, and non-speaking roles were allowed to perform. Because of the limited number of actors allowed on-stage, the chorus evolved into a very active part of Greek theatre. Though the number of people involved, then, is not clear, the chorus was given as many as one-half the total lines of the play. Music was often played during the chorus’ delivery of its lines. Most towns and cities in Greece had a large open air theatre seating thousands of spectators. The central area of the stage held the ‘chorus’ who told the story to the audience. The actors performed on a raised stage (a proscenium) behind the chorus and entered from a parados at the side.

All parts (including women) were played by three male actors who wore masks – to change characters (or mood) they simply changed masks. The costumes were elaborate.

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There was no artificial lighting so performances were held in open-air auditoriums, during the day-time – actors indicating to the audience whether it was day or night. A ‘skene’ provided a backdrop to the action – initially just a large piece of cloth it developed, over time, into a more ornate and permanent structure. Often an ekkyklema – a wheeled platform – was rolled out of the skene to reveal a tableau of action that had taken place indoors.  A mechane (machine) – a derrick mounted on the roof of the skene was used to bring about the flying appearance of characters such as Gods. (Deus ex machina) – a device deployed often by Euripides to bring his plays to a conclusion before they became intolerably complicated.

If you want to explore more about the i-Witness published plays go to our About Us page.

We promise you’ll never read anything like it.

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