Our interest in the theater connects us intimately with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Nearly every Greek and Roman city of note had an open-air theater, the seats arranged in tiers with a lovely view of the surrounding landscape. Here the Greeks sat and watched the plays first of Aeschylus, Sophokles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, and of Menander and the later playwrights.
The Greek theater consisted essentially of the orchestra, the flat dancing floor of the chorus, and the theatron, the actual structure of the theater building. Since theaters in antiquity were frequently modified and rebuilt, the surviving remains offer little clear evidence of the nature of the theatrical space available to the Classical dramatists in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. There is no physical evidence for a circular orchestra earlier than that of the great theater at Epidauros dated to around 330 B.C. Most likely, the audience in fifth-century B.C. Athens was seated close to the stage in a rectilinear arrangement, such as appears at the well-preserved theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this early period in Greek drama, the stage and most probably the skene (stage building) were made of wood. Vase paintings depicting Greek comedy from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. suggest that the stage stood about a meter high with a flight of steps in the center. The actors entered from either side and from a central door in the skene, which also housed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform with sets of scenes. A mechane, or crane, located at the right end of the stage, was used to hoist gods and heroes through the air onto the stage. Greek dramatists surely made the most of the extreme contrasts between the gods up high and the actors on stage, and between the dark interior of the stage building and the bright daylight.
Little is known about the origins of Greek tragedy before Aeschylus (?525/24–456/55 B.C.), the most innovative of the Greek dramatists. His earliest surviving work is Persians, which was produced in 472 B.C. The roots of Greek tragedy, however, most likely are embedded in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysos Eleuthereios, which included processions, sacrifices in the theater, parades, and competitions between tragedians. Of the few surviving Greek tragedies, all but Aeschylus’ Persians draw from heroic myths. The protagonist and the chorus portrayed the heroes who were the object of cult in Attica in the fifth century B.C. Often, the dialogue between the actor and chorus served a didactic function, linking it as a form of public discourse with debates in the assembly. To this day, drama in all its forms still functions as a powerful medium of communication of ideas.
Unlike the Greek tragedy, the comic performances produced in Athens during the fifth century B.C., the so-called Old Comedy, ridiculed mythology and prominent members of Athenian society. There seems to have been no limit to speech or action in the comic exploitation of sex and other bodily functions. Terracotta figurines and vase paintings dated around and after the time of Aristophanes (?460/50–ca. 387 B.C.) show comic actors wearing grotesque masks and tights with padding on the rump and belly, as well as a leather phallus.
In the second half of the fourth century B.C., the so-called New Comedy of Menander (?344/43–292/91 B.C.) and his contemporaries gave fresh interpretations to familiar material. In many ways comedy became simpler and tamer, with very little obscenity. The grotesque padding and phallus of Old Comedy were abandoned in favor of more naturalistic costumes that reflected the playwrights’ new style. Subtle differentiation of masks worn by the actors paralleled the finer delineation of character in the texts of New Comedy, which dealt with private and family life, social tensions, and the triumph of love in a variety of contexts.
Greek theater was dominated by the works of five playwrights. Many of the great tragedies extant today were prize-winning works by Aeschylus (525-24 b.c. to 456-55), Sophocles (497 b.c. to 406), and Euripides (circa 484 b.c. to 407-06) and the famous comedies by Aristophanes (circa 447 b.c. to somewhere between 386-80) and Menander (342-41 b.c. to 290), among others.
Although the exact origins of Greek drama cannot be known with absolute certainty, most scholars believe its roots can be traced to the worship of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine. Members of the cult of Dionysus practiced assorted religious rituals, including the dithyramb, possibly as far back as 1200 b.c. Although scholars do not fully understand the dithyramb, they speculate that the ritual involved a type of choric poetry, accompanied by dancers and flute playing. The choir, which numbered fifty persons, assumed roles of satyrs and maenads in honor of Dionysus. The cult and its rituals spread widely over the centuries, until most of Greece celebrated it. And as it spread across the nation, religious elements diminished and theatrical elements were expanded. In the sixth century b.c. great tellers of Homeric tales began to recite in public contests before audiences. Nowhere was this activity more prominent than in Athens, the densely populated cultural center of Greece. Sometime during the 6th century, a synthesis was achieved: a choir member, perhaps inspired by the epic presenters, stepped away from the others and their song and recited his own lines. His name was Thespis and, in asserting his individuality from the rest of the choir, he became the first actor. In 534 Thespis won first place in the drama competition at Athens's magnificent religious festival called the City Dionysia, which had been established four years earlier and would soon become an annual event. Scholars differ in their assessments regarding the nature of these very early plays, with some calling them little more than choric, and others deeming them fledgling tragedies. The satyr-play, which served as raucous, comic relief after the performance of three serious dramas in a row, first appeared in 501 b.c. The scale of the theater grew rapidly: the Theatre of Dionysus located near the Acropolis seated 17,000 and Plato estimated that some 30,000 spectators viewed various portions of the Dionysian festival's dramas.
Of the playwrights mentioned above, Aeschylus is credited with refining drama into an art form. His first victory in the City Dionysia was in 484 and he dominated the event for decades. He introduced the second actor on stage and this enabled an expanded story line, with more potential for conflict and dramatic situations. His work made great use of myth and legend and he included gods among his main characters. The second great writer of tragedy was Sophocles. His first victory in the City Dionysia contest was in 468; Sophocles was the first significant competitor to Aeschylus and is responsible for introducing three actors on stage at the same time. He did not neglect the potential of the ensemble and is noted for advancing characterization to a previously unheard of level. His irony-laced tragedies stress human interaction with other humans more so than relations between humans and gods. The last of the great Greek tragedians was Euripides, who first competed in 455. Although he did not achieve the popularity of Aeschylus or Sophocles in his own lifetime, possibly due to his emphasis on more realistic people and situations, Euripides's Medea (431 b.c.) is regarded as one of the finest achievements in the history of drama, and he is probably the most popular of the Greek playwrights today. Aristophanes was the first master of comedy, a dramatic form of unknown origin; scholars believe it likely has roots similar to tragedy. Aristophanes is the best representative of the period known as Old Comedy; the comedies of this time were highly political in nature, satiric, and fantastic. These evolved through a posited stage of Middle Comedy, arriving at New Comedy, represented by the last great Greek dramatist, Menander. Menander is silent on politics; his plays, which have been compared to modern era farces, deal with common people, their problems, and their romantic situations.
Modern thinking regarding the origin of Greek tragedy was advanced in 1872 by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, where he proposed that its roots were in ritual and the cult of Dionysus. And although specific details of this theory remain in dispute, by and large, the majority of modern scholars subscribe to this point of view. A contemporary of Nietsche's, A. E. Haigh, explores many aspects of the festivals of Dionysus. J. R. Green discusses how drama changed as the written word became important in Greek society. Leo Aylen also examines Greek theater's origins, with an emphasis on the influences of war and religion. The impact of war can hardly be overstated: many of the greatest tragedies were written when Athens was at war with either Persia or Sparta, and Greece's defeat by the Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War profoundly affected its theater. However, despite considerable research, there is also a critical point of view that questions many of the accepted theories regarding Greek theater. For example, Clifford Ashby is skeptical of the conclusions reached by the majority of scholars, insisting that not enough facts are available to allow certainty regarding the nature and origins of Greek theater.