Comedy and Tragedy in Classical Greek Theatre

Both Tragedy and Comedy were appreciated in equal measure in ancient Greek theatre. Although few tragedies written from this time actually remain, the themes and accomplishments still resonate to contemporary audiences. The term tragedy (tragos and ode) literally means “goat song,” after the festival participants’ goat-like dancing around sacrificial goats for prizes. Most Greek tragedies feature mythological heroes and deal with a character’s search for the meaning of life and the nature of the Gods. Most tragedies that have survived from this period begin with a prologue that gives the audience exposition to the forthcoming action. The chorus then introduces a period called the ‘paradox.’ During this time, introductions to characters are made, an explanation is given, and a mood is established. The final scene is called the ‘exodus’ when all the characters as well as the chorus depart.



Perhaps the best known Greek tragedians are EURIPIDES, SOPHOCLES and AESCHYLUS – who was a competitor at the City Dionysia around 499 B.C. – only a few of Aeschylus’ plays have survived but they include The Persians and the Oresteia Trilogy.  Aeschylus is attributed with increasing the number of actors on the stage. Only seven of Sophocles tragedies – including the still-popular Antigone, Electra, and Oedipus Rex – have survived. Sophocles won twenty-four contests for his plays, never placing lower than second place. His contributions to theatre history are many: he introduced the third actor to the stage, fixed the number of chorus members to fifteen, and was the first to use scene painting.

EURIPIDES is believed to have written 90 plays, 18 of which have survived, including Medea, Hercules and The Trojan Women. He was often criticized for the way he questioned traditional values on stage and he explored, for the first time, the psychological motivations of his character’s actions. His plays were used as a template for authors for many years after his death.


Aubrey Beardsley’s famous Lysistrata and the penis

Comedy was also an important part of ancient Greek theatre. No one is quite sure of the origins of comedy, but it is said that they derived from imitation.  All comedies of note during this time are by Aristophanes, who competed in the major Athenian festivals, wrote 40 plays, 11 of which survived – including the most controversial piece of literature to come from ancient Greece, LYSISTRATA, a humorous and bawdy tale about a strong woman who leads a female coalition to end war in Greece. Although only 33 tragedies and 11 comedies remain from such a creative period, the Greeks were responsible for the birth of drama in the Western world.

The LYSISTRATA we have available is as funny and relevant today as it was when Aristophanes’ penned it and the text was used by EYEWITNESS THEATRE COMPANY on their award-winning tour of the USA and Canada in 2010.


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