Greek Drama

Greek Drama
Greek Drama

The Greeks invented drama from their wild religious ceremonies involving drinking, dancing, and revelry. This can be seen in the words that we use to describe drama today; for instance, theater originally meant "a spectacle or sight to behold", which is related to the Ancient Greek word thauma, "a miracle".

This spectacle created by the Greeks involved and enveloped the entire population of a Greek town in secret rites honoring a god, usually Dionysus, whose followers carried phallic symbols, imbibed wine, and were transported to states of ecstasy. In Athens the theater building was considered a temple, and the god was believed to be present for the performances.

The Greeks used the word orgy to describe these rites, in accordance with the original sense of the word as described by the Merriam Webster Dictionary: "secret ceremonial rites held in honor of an ancient Greek or Roman deity and usually characterized by ecstatic singing and dancing".


Nearly all of the parodies, melodies, and mysteries seen or heard in modern times are connected to ancient Greece, where those terms were invented. A parody was a song, or ode, about something (para, "about").

A mystery was a secret religious ceremony. A melody was the tune sung by the chorus. Modern television shows, movies, plays, and many popular songs emerged out of these intense Greek religious rites. This is true whether the movie is a comedy, a tragedy, or a satire.

Origins and Evolution

The popular view is that Greek tragedy evolved out of jovial folk hymns to Dionysus, called dithyrambs, and that the other forms of drama evolved from this. Dithyrambs were composed as early as the seventh century b.c.e., and spread from Athens to many other Greek city-states. A chorus of up to 50 people sang the dithyrambs, and competitions enlivened religious festivals.

Dionysus is also known as Bacchus, the god who roamed the world followed by throngs of crazed women (called Bacchantes or Maenads, from whom we get the term mania). The god and his followers were often found drunk on grape wine, which was held sacred to Dionysus.

Originally, festivals honoring Dionysus took the form of choreographed dances performed by a chorus about an altar on an orchestra, or "dancing ground". This evolved into performances designed to produce such a powerful rush of emotions that the entire audience achieved an intense communal emotional rush known as catharsis, which cleansed and revitalized the people.

Catharsis became one of the hallmarks of performances of tragedy, a word that literally means "goat ode", the goat being the symbol of Dionysus. In contrast, William Ridgeway claims that tragedy arose out of the worship of and communion with the dead.

Since this communion was presided over by Dionysus as well, and since tragedy refers to a symbol of Dionysus, the worship of Dionysus was most likely integral to the inception and performance of tragedy.

The 12- to 50-member chorus, singing, dancing, and critiquing throughout the play, was a major distinguishing facet of Greek tragedy. The chorus was held by some to represent the will and opinions of the society, as if the populace itself were onstage with the chorus, commenting upon and making sense of the action. Many famous Greek dramatists were successful playwrights and actors and were responsible for major innovations in the form of tragedy.

Thespian of Icaria in 534 b.c.e. separated the leader of the chorus from the rest of the group, to become Athens’s first actor, reading the parts of several characters and wearing a different mask for each. Thus, we now call actors thespians, after the man who, for the first time, made a play that consisted of more than simply a chorus.

Aeschylus, a highly honored Greek playwright, added a second actor and stage decorations to his play, while giving costumes to the already masked actors and chorus. His tragedies, such as Prometheus Bound, Agamemnon, and Seven against Thebes, portray humans who are punished by cosmic forces for their misdeeds and failings.

Sophocles, another famous Greek author, added a third actor and in a groundbreaking move gave the actors more emphasis than the chorus. He also added three members to the chorus, bringing the total to 15.

Comedies and satires evolved from tragedy. The oldest known comedies were breaks between tragedies or between parts of a single tragedy, in which exaggerated characters lampooned the tragedy in a spoof that closely followed the format, costumes, and masks of the tragedy.

Soon entire comic plays arose. These are referred to as Old Comedy, referring to comedies performed in the period beginning with Pericles’ establishment of democracy c. 450 b.c.e. Old Comedy followed the strict format of tragedy and included the chorus.

Satire was a third type of Greek drama that bridged the gap between comedy and tragedy. Satire, a word coming from the satyrs sacred to Dionysus, is a term for a play that was performed to make fun of tragedy and lighten the impact of the tragedies the audience had just seen.

The satyrs were odd and amusing creatures who made possible a unique sort of parody of the typical tragedy. The hairy, half-human satyrs had the hoofed, short legs of a goat, together with the goat’s short horns, and the tail and ears of a horse.

The chorus of satyrs was always known to be jovial, bawdy, rustic, and roguish in their humor. Clearly, the illustrious citizens characterized in tragedies should be above such company—which is why it was so amusing to place them in the midst of a carousing chorus of satyrs.

In attempting to fit in with such a crowd, the famous characters had to suffer a certain loss of dignity, and thus, the satire made fun of the tragedy and perhaps also of itself.

Notable authors such as Aristophanes ridiculed and satirized all aspects of the Greek society, particularly the famous, noble, and most upstanding citizens of their day, or even of revered, legendary figures.

His Clouds lampooned the philosopher Socrates as a quarrelsome Sophist, and his Wasps attacked the Athenian courts and their proceedings. In satires the main characters were exaggerated buffoons, who spoke and performed every manner of nonsense.

No aspect of society was sacred in these comedies, and often even the very gods were lampooned. No limits were placed on the extent to which the author could go to ridicule his subject.

Experiencing The Drama

Greeks devoted two to four major religious holidays a year entirely to seeing plays—much as with modern three-day music festivals. Contests were held to determine the best tetralogy, or set of four plays.

Each tetralogy consisted of three tragedies followed by a satire. Each such quartet was performed on a single day, and many would never be repeated during the playwright’s lifetime.

The festivals, called by such names as the Lesser Dionysia and the Greater Dionysia, were believed necessary to keep the cosmos in proper order, to enable the crops to grow, and the people to survive. Since the outlying villages held their own Dionysia on different days, it was possible to attend several such festivals during one season.

These ceremonies were so important that their proper conduct was a major responsibility of the state, which selected the actors and the choruses—and charged wealthy citizens special taxes to defray the costs.

All of Athens attended plays; those who could not afford to attend were provided with ticket money by the state. Dwarfing any modern theater, the Dionysian Theater held the whole town—estimates range from 14,000 to upward of 20,000 people. As these people were all Athenians, they were likely more homogenous in their outlook than a modern crowd.

Thus, the playwright could address plays very directly to his audience, making fun of individual Athenians, suggesting a course of action on current issues, referencing an inside joke, or even jokingly accusing someone in the audience of misconduct. The people watched plays from morning to evening, still maintaining an appetite for the subsequent days’ performances.

With a single-minded audience in such rapt attention, leading tragic poets had an enormous opportunity to make an impact upon the people and upon the political process in towns such as Athens. They were thought of as teachers of the populace and bore an incredible responsibility for shaping the character of a powerful nation-state.

As these festivals were established at the urging of an oracle, all legal proceedings and business were put on hold. To disturb the proceedings, to strike the performers, or even to remove a person who had taken the wrong seat would be a crime that might well be punished with death.

The theater was treated like a temple. The high priest of Dionysus was seated in the center of the front row. An altar of Dionysus stood in the orchestral dancing ground, and the audience was seated on stone benches on the hillside. Across the dancing ground was the skene, a building where the actors could change their costumes.

Between the skene and the orchestra was the proskenion, which would later be called a stage. The chorus would parade in military formation up the paradoi, the entrance ramps leading to the proskenion.

Greek drama greatly influenced drama all over Europe throughout Roman times and during the Middle Ages. Many modern movies bear the influences of ancient Greek authors. Modern songs have choruses. Even if some of the religious implications have been dropped, the Greek influence remains.