The History of the Greek Theater

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Table of Contents

  • “It’s Greek [Theater] to Me”
  • Aristotle
  • Dionysus and the Dionysian Festival
  • Greek Dramatists
  • Greek Theater
  • Oedipus Background
  • Works Cited:

“It’s Greek [Theater] to Me”


Aristotle was born in 384 BCE to Amyntas III’s physician, Nicomachus, in Macedonia . At the age of 17 Aristotle’s father passed and so having nothing left for him in Macedonia Aristotle moved the Athens and became one of Plato's pupils at the Academy of Plato. His work started off closely resembling his master's work; for example, one of Aristotle's first dialogues, Eudemus, imitated Platonic views by stating that a body represents a cage for the souls of all humans, and dying therefore released our souls from the cage. Later on Aristotle started to challenge Plato with his own unique doctrines, even contradicting what he said many years earlier,later claiming the body was no cage and the was a relation between the body and your type of soul.

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Around 14 years after Plato’s death, Aristotle opened his own school, the Lyceum, where a majority of his thoughts and ideas could live on forever in books written by his own pupils. Aristotle claimed that to have a tragedy, it must include moments that induce fear and pity, so that those emotions could be “purified” (“Aristotle”). An anagnorisis can be defined as a moment when something happens to someone that makes them less ignorant in turn gaining more knowledge, and leads to success; on the contrary a hamartia is some blemish that a character possesses that leads to their inevitable downfall (“Anagnorisis”; “Hamartia”). In a drama the peripeteia is the point that begins leading to an ending or final scene as used by Aristotle in the Poetics it is displayed through protagonist’s fortune turing from good to bad. Hubris was described by Aristotle in his rhetoric as shaming people through actions or words just for the self pleasure, and also stated that only the young and rich do it purely because they think they are better than everyone else(“hubris”).Catharsis is exactly how Aristotle defined tragedy, purify the emotions mainly pity and fear through art to truly affect the spectator's emotions (“Catharsis”).

Dionysus and the Dionysian Festival

Dionysus, or Bacchus, was known as the god of many things good and bad including wine, intoxication, creativity, and death (“Dionysus”). Held every year in Athens during the springtime, the Dionysian festival was celebrated to honor Dionysus. The celebration included a singing competition where dithyrambs, special song dedicated to Dionysian where each verse was sang by a different part of the chorus, were sung by many different choruses (Nardo; “Sophocles’ Tragedy, Antigone,”). The drama competition all started with Thespis changing up the point of view in dithyrambs which ended up making him the first winner of the dramatic tragedy competition and from then on it was all about who could create the best drama that appealed to the biggest audience. Tragedy meant “goat skin”due to the fact the participants used to dress up in goat skins all to praise Dionysus. Comedies original intent was to bring awareness upon societies flaws and in turn fix them. Not only until later did comedy evolve to relate comedy to laughter (“Comedy”).A Satyr Play is a tragedy, but isn't gloomy, therefore, resulting in a “joking tragedy” atmosphere (“Satyr play”).

Greek Dramatists

Thespis was the start to Greek Theater advancements. In 534 BCE during the annual Dionysian Festival, Thespis sung dithyrambs, but instead of singing it as a third person uninvolved narrator, he pretended to be a character within the story which resulted in him declared the first winner of the dramatic tragedy competition. After Thespis came Aeschylus who added a second character to the stage allowing dialogue and conflict to happen among the 2 characters. Aeschylus was known as the “master of tragedy” reportedly winning 13 times at the at the Dionysia. Sophocles era in Greek theater began when he Aeschylus in his first Dionysia.

Aeschylus’s era consisted of a many new concepts being introduced to the stage including a third actor, more people in the chorus itself while changing the role of the chorus from storytells to commentators, and introducing stage decorations (“Sophocles’ Tragedy, Antigone,”). Euripides possessed his own unique way to write his tragedies that differed from Aeschylus and Sophocles. Although no where near as successful as Sophocles when it came to winning the Dionysian Festival, Euripides tragedies centered around a character's fatal flaw that eventually lead to their demise. In some of his last plays Euripides wrote he utilized anagnorisis to be able to create a “tragedy” that actually ended happily because of the discovery of someone's true identity that completely flips the outcome of the play (“Euripides”).

Greek Theater

The Greek chorus consisted of Athenian males due to the fact that it was their duty to perform. Their job was to sing Dithyrambs and to dance in honor of the wine god, Dionysus (“Greek Drama”). Strophe is followed by an antistrophe because they are both a part of a choral ode.The difference between a strophe and an antistrophe is that the strophe is performed moving to one side of the stage and the antistrophe is performed moving back (“Strophe”). The theater closely resembled modern day theaters with a semicircular stage where the singing and dancing happened, an area for the audience to view the performance, and a gangway for the actors to make it to the semicircular stage.As for special effects they also had a wooden construction called the skene in front of everything that could be decorated to help make the play more realistic. The ancient Greeks also had a crane to lift people resembling flight, and because of the location of the theater itself, nature provided some of the best background scenery. Actors wore masks that resembled their character to help the audience differentiate which actor was supposed to be what (“Greek Drama”).

Oedipus Background

The Oracle of Delphi was located in the religious heartland of ancient Greece, and in Delphi there was a shrine, and according to legend Apollo had built the shrine himself at the location where he had killed a serpent named Python. Anyone who wanted to talk to Apollo for advice had to first start by sacrificing a goat; then after entering the temple itself you would ask a Pythia, female prophet that spoke on the behalf of Apollo, a question, and the response you got was called an oracle. Although you mainly got a vague response people had great respect for the Oracle of Delphi, and people came from all over to ask questions ranging from personal to military matters (“Delphi”). The oracle once told King Laius of Thebes that if he and his wife, Jocasta, were to have a child, than that child would kill Laius, and marry Jocasta because he had kidnapped the son of his enemy.

Jocasta did end up having a son; listening to the oracles warning Laius brought his child up a mountain side and stabbed his baby in both ankles then left him to die,but a shepherd from Corinth saved the baby, and decided to name him Oedipus which meant “swollen feet” , and King Polybus of Corinth decided to adopt him due to the fact he had no children himself. When Oedipus got older people started realizing that he did not resemble his parents, so Oedipus contacted the oracle and asked about his birth parents. The oracle stated that he was destined to marry his mother and slay his father; still thinking that King Polybus was his father he decided to leave there for his father's safety and his own wellbeing. While wandering to Thebes, Oedipus killed a stranger he was arguing with which he later discovered was he biological father. When he arrived at Thebes, a Sphinx was terrorizing the city,and killing everyone that answered its riddle in correctly; Oedipus successfully solved the riddle and the Sphinx left. The people, happy that the sphinx was gone now was in need of a new king decided that Oedipus should be king, and so Oedipus became the king and Jocasta became his wife (“Oedipus”).

Works Cited:

  1. "Aristotle." Britannica School, Encyclopedia Britannica, 5 Jan. 2018.Web. Accessed 28 Sep. 2018."Anagnorisis." Britannica School, Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Aug. 2018.Web. Accessed 28 Sep. 2018.
  2. "Hamartia." Britannica School, Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Mar. 2008.Web. Accessed 28 Sep. 2018."Hubris." Britannica School, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Dec. 2014.Web. Accessed 28 Sep. 2018.
  3. "Catharsis." Britannica School, Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Aug. 2018. Web. Accessed 28 Sep. 2018.
  4. "Dionysus." Ancient Greece and Rome: An Encyclopedia for Students, edited by Carroll Moulton, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998, pp. 7-9. World History in Context,Web. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.
  5. "Sophocles’ Tragedy, Antigone, Wins the Festival of Dionysus: 442 bce." Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, edited by Jennifer Stock, vol. 4: Europe, Gale, 2014. World History in Context,Web. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.Nardo, Don.
  6. "Dithyramb." The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, edited by Robert B. Kebric, Greenhaven Press, 2007, pp. 120-121. World History in Context,Web. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.
  7. "Comedy." Britannica School, Encyclopædia Britannica, 12 Aug. 2010.Web. Accessed 29 Sep. 2018.
  8. "Satyr play." Britannica School, Encyclopædia Britannica, 14 May. 2008.Web. Accessed 29 Sep. 2018.
  9. "Euripides." Britannica School, Encyclopædia Britannica, 8 Apr. 2011.Web. Accessed 30 Sep. 2018.
  10. "Greek Drama." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras, ABC-CLIO, 2018,Web. Accessed 30 Sept. 2018.
  11. "Strophe." Britannica School, Encyclopædia Britannica, 10 Aug. 2018.Web. Accessed 30 Sep. 2018.
  12. "Delphi." Ancient Greece and Rome: An Encyclopedia for Students, edited by Carroll Moulton, vol. 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998, pp. 188-190. World History in Context,Web. Accessed 30 Sept. 2018.
  13. "Oedipus." Ancient Greece and Rome: An Encyclopedia for Students, edited by Carroll Moulton, vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998, pp. 76-77. World History in Context,Web. Accessed 30 Sept. 2018.

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