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Theatre of ancient Greece facts for kids

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Artist rendering of the Theatre of Dionysus
Ancient Greek theatre in Delos 01
Ancient Greek theatre in Delos
Delphi Composite
The Ancient Theatre of Delphi
Antalya Museum - Sarkophag 8a Maske
Theatre mask: stone, 2nd century AD

The theatre of ancient Greece was at its best from 550 BC to 220 BC. It was the beginning of modern western theatre, and some ancient Greek plays are still performed today. They invented the genres of tragedy (late 6th century BC), comedy (486 BC) and satyr plays.

The city-state of Athens was a great cultural, political and military power during this period. Drama was at its centre. Theatre was part of a festival called the Dionysia, which honoured the god Dionysus. In the Dionysian, the playwrights presented their work to an audience. It was a competition, with a winner and prizes. These two main genres were never mixed: they each had their own typical structure. Athens exported the festival to its numerous colonies and allies in order to promote their way of life.

Only men were allowed as actors. The chorus were men, as were the actors. Technically, they had to be citizens of Athens, which only applied to free-born men plus a few special cases. The actors wore masks, so that the people would know which persona (character) the actor played.

The best known writers of plays are Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides for tragedies, and Aristophanes for comedies.


Hearst Greek Theatre (Berkeley, CA)
Reproduction of a Greek theatre: Hearst Greek Theatre, University of California, Berkeley.

Some think early Greek religion and theatre were influenced by Central Asian shamanistic practices. A large number of Orphic graffiti discovered in Olivia seems to show that the colony was a major point of contact. Eli Crozier points out that the shaman can be seen as an early type of actor influencing the rituals of early Greek theatre.

Greek today as we know it was made in Athens some years before 532 BC, when Thespis was the earliest recorded playwright. He won the first theatrical contest held at Athens, so he was the leader of the parathyroids performed in and around Attica. Parathyroids were ancient hymns sung in praise of the god of wine and fertility, Dionysus.

By Thespis' time the diathermy had evolved far away from its cult roots. It had become a narrative, ballad-like genre. Because of this Thespis is often called the "Father of Tragedy". The statesman Solon is said to have created poems in which characters speak with their own voice. Spoken recitations, known as rhapsodies, of Homer's epics were popular in festivals before 534 BC. Thespis's contribution to drama is unclear, but his name is remembered in the common term for performer - a 'thespian'.

The dramatic performances were important to the Athenians – this is made clear by the Dionysian festival. This was organised perhaps to foster loyalty among the tribes of Attica. These had been recently created by Cleisthenes, who founded Greek democracy. The festival was created roughly around 508 BC.

Phrygia was the first poet known to use a historical subject – his Fall of Milieus, 493, told the fate of the town of Miletus after it was conquered by the Persians. He is also thought to be the first to use female characters (though not female performers).

Until the Hellenistic period, all tragedies were unique pieces written in honour of Dionysus and played only once, so that today we only have the pieces that were still remembered well enough to have been repeated when repetition of old tragedies became fashion.

The Classical Period

After the Great Destruction of Athens by the Persian Empire in 480 BC, the town and acropolis were rebuilt, and theatre became an even more major part of Athenian culture and civic pride. The centre-piece was the competition between three tragic playwrights at the Theatre of Dionysus, twice a year. Each submitted three tragedies, plus a satyr play (a comic, burlesque version of a mythological subject). From 486 BC, each playwright also submitted a comedy. Aristotle claimed that Aeschylus added the second actor, and that Sophocles introduced the third. Apparently the Greek playwrights never used more than three actors.

Tragedy and comedy were viewed as completely separate genres, and no plays ever merged aspects of the two. Satyr plays dealt with the mythological subject matter of the tragedies, but in a purely comedic manner. However, as they were written over a century after the Athenian Golden Age, it is not known whether dramatists such as Sophocles and Euripides would have thought about their plays in the same terms.

Hellenistic period

The power of Athens declined following its defeat in the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans. From that time on, the theatre started performing old tragedies again. Although its theatrical traditions seem to have lost their vitality, Greek theatre continued into the Hellenistic period (the period following Alexander the Great's conquests in the fourth century BC). The main Hellenistic theatrical form was not tragedy but 'New Comedy', comic episodes about the lives of ordinary citizens. The only playwright from the period whose work has survived is Menander. One of New Comedy's most important contributions was its influence on Roman comedy, an influence that can be seen in the surviving works of Plautus and Terence.


Acropolis amphitheatre of Pergamon (2020)
Theatre of Pergamon, one of the steepest theatres in the world, has a capacity of 10,000 people and was constructed in the 3rd century BC

Most ancient Greek cities lay on or near hills, so seating was generally built into the slope of a hill, producing a natural viewing area known as the theatron (literally "seeing place"). In cities without suitable hills, banks of earth were piled up. At the foot of the hill was a flattened, generally circular performance space with an average diameter of 78 feet, known as the orchestra (literally "dancing place"), where a chorus of typically 12 to 15 people performed plays in verse accompanied by music. There were often tall, arched entrances called parodoi or eisodoi, through which actors and chorus members entered and exited the orchestra. In some theatres, behind the orchestra, was a backdrop or scenic wall known as the skené.

The term theatre eventually came to mean to the whole area of theatron, orchestra, and skené.


Ancient Greek theatre in Delos 01
Ancient Greek theatre in Delos

The theatron was the seating area, built into a hill to create a natural viewing space. The first seats in Greek theatres (other than just sitting on the ground) were wooden, but around 499 BC the practice of inlaying stone blocks into the side of the hill to create permanent, stable seating became more common. They were called the prohedria and reserved for priests and a few most respected citizens. The diazoma separated the upper and lower seating areas.


After 465 BC, playwrights began using a backdrop or scenic wall, called the skênê (from which the word "scene" derives), that hung or stood behind the orchestra, and which also served as an area where actors could change their costumes. After 425 BC a stone scene wall, called a paraskenia, became a common supplement to skênê. The paraskenia was a long wall with projecting sides, which may have had doorways for entrances and exits. Just behind the paraskenia was the proskenion ("in front of the scene"), which is similar to the modern day proscenium. The upper story was called the episkenion. Some theatres also had a raised speaking place on the orchestra called the logeion. By the end of the 5th century BC, around the time of the Peloponnesian War, the skênê was two story high.

The death of a character was always heard behind the skênê, for it was considered inappropriate to show a killing in view of the audience. Conversely, there are scholarly arguments that death in Greek tragedy was portrayed off stage primarily because of dramatic considerations, and not prudishness or sensitivity of the audience.

A temple nearby, especially on the right side of the scene, is almost always part of the Greek theatre complex. This could justify, as a transposition, the recurrence of the pediment with the later solidified stone scene.


Delphi Composite
The Ancient Theatre of Delphi

The orchestra was a circular piece of ground at the bottom of the theatron where the chorus and actors performed. Originally unraised, Greek theatre would later incorporate a raised stage for easier viewing. This practice would become common after the advent of "New Comedy," which incorporated dramatic portrayal of individual character. The coryphaeus was the head chorus member, who could enter the story as a character able to interact with the characters of a play. Plays often began in the morning and lasted into the evening.


The theaters were built on a large scale to accommodate a large number of people on stage and in the audience—up to fourteen thousand. Physics and mathematics played a significant role in the construction of these theaters, as their designers had to be able to create acoustics in them such that the actors' voices could be heard throughout the theatre, including the very top row of seats. The Greek's understanding of acoustics compares very favorably with the current state of the art.

Scenic elements

There were several scenic elements commonly used in Greek theater:

  • mechane, a crane that gave the impression of a flying actor (thus, deus ex machina)
  • ekkyklêma, a wheeled platform often used to bring dead characters into view for the audience
  • pinakes, pictures hung to create scenery
  • thyromata, more complex pictures built into the second-level scene (3rd level from the ground)

Greek chorus

Although in the early days the chorus was much larger, the numbers settled down to 12 or 15 in tragedies and 24 in comedies. They usually play a group character, such as 'the old men of Argos'. The chorus offers background information, summaries and comments. In many of these plays, the chorus expresses to the audience what the main characters cannot say, such as their hidden fears or secrets.

The chorus might sing, or might speak in unison (say the same thing together). The chorus made up for the fact that there were only one, two or three actors, who played several parts each (changing masks).

Before the introduction of several actors by Aeschylus, the Greek chorus was the main performer opposite a solitary actor. The importance of the chorus declined after the 5th century BC, when the chorus began to be separated from the dramatic action. Later dramatists depended less on the chorus.


Tragic comic masks - roman mosaic
Tragic Comic Masks Hadrian's Villa mosaic

The Ancient Greek term for a mask is prosopon (lit., "face"), and was a significant element in the worship of Dionysus at Athens likely used in ceremonial rites and celebrations. Many masks worshiped the higher power, the gods, making masks also very important for religion. Most of the evidence comes from only a few vase paintings of the 5th century BC, such as one showing a mask of the god suspended from a tree with decorated robe hanging below it and dancing and the Pronomos vase, which depicts actors preparing for a satyr play. No physical evidence remains available to us, as the masks were made of organic materials and not considered permanent objects, ultimately being dedicated at the altar of Dionysus after performances. Nevertheless, the mask is known to have been used since the time of Aeschylus and considered to be one of the iconic conventions of classical Greek theatre.

Masks were also made for members of the chorus, who play some part in the action and provide a commentary on the events in which they are caught up. Although there are twelve or fifteen members of the tragic chorus they all wear the same mask because they are considered to be representing one character.

Mask details

3304 - Athens - Stoà of Attalus Museum - Theatre mask - Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto, Nov 9 2009
Mask dating from the 4th/3rd century BC, Stoa of Attalos

Illustrations of theatrical masks from 5th century display helmet-like masks, covering the entire face and head, with holes for the eyes and a small aperture for the mouth, as well as an integrated wig. These paintings never show actual masks on the actors in performance; they are most often shown being handled by the actors before or after a performance.This demonstrates the way in which the mask was to 'melt' into the face and allow the actor to vanish into the role. Effectively, the mask transformed the actor as much as memorization of the text. Therefore, performance in ancient Greece did not distinguish the masked actor from the theatrical character.

The mask-makers were called skeuopoios or "maker of the props," thus suggesting that their role encompassed multiple duties and tasks. The masks were most likely made out of light weight, organic materials like stiffened linen, leather, wood, or cork, with the wig consisting of human or animal hair. Due to the visual restrictions imposed by these masks, it was imperative that the actors hear in order to orient and balance themselves. Thus, it is believed that the ears were covered by substantial amounts of hair and not the helmet-mask itself. The mouth opening was relatively small, preventing the mouth being seen during performances. Vervain and Wiles posit that this small size discourages the idea that the mask functioned as a megaphone, as originally presented in the 1960s. Greek mask-maker Thanos Vovolis suggests that the mask serves as a resonator for the head, thus enhancing vocal acoustics and altering its quality. This leads to increased energy and presence, allowing for the more complete metamorphosis of the actor into his character.

Mask functions

Theatre mask mosaic MAN Napoli Inv9994
Mosaic detail from the House of the Faun

In a large open-air theatre, like the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, the classical masks were able to create a sense of dread in the audience creating large scale panic, especially since they had intensely exaggerated facial features and expressions. They enabled an actor to appear and reappear in several different roles, thus preventing the audience from identifying the actor to one specific character. Their variations help the audience to distinguish sex, age, and social status, in addition to revealing a change in a particular character's appearance, e.g., Oedipus after blinding himself. Unique masks were also created for specific characters and events in a play, such as the Furies in Aeschylus' Eumenides and Pentheus and Cadmus in Euripides' The Bacchae. Worn by the chorus, the masks created a sense of unity and uniformity, while representing a multi-voiced persona or single organism and simultaneously encouraged interdependency and a heightened sensitivity between each individual of the group. Only 2-3 actors were allowed on the stage at one time, and masks permitted quick transitions from one character to another. There were only male actors, but masks allowed them to play female characters.

The modern method to interpret a role by switching between a few simple characters goes back to changing masks in the theatre of ancient Greece.

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