The ELAC Guide to
Ancient Greek Theatre

Bust of Dionysus
found at Roman
city of Herculaneum

PROLOGUE: The Origins of Drama

TWENTY-FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, two thousand years before Shakespeare, Western theatre was born in Athens, Greece.  Between 600 and 200 BC, the ancient Athenians created a theatre culture whose form, technique and terminology have lasted two millenia, and produced plays that are still among the greatest works in theatre. There have been only two other periods in theatre history that equaled the greatness of ancient Athens Elizabethan England and the Twentieth Century. Elizabethan England produced one great playwright in Shakespeare, but Athens produced at least five great playwrights. The Twentieth Century produced thousands of fine plays and films, but they owed much to the innovations of the ancient Athenians.

The Cult of Dionysus

The theatre of Ancient Greece evolved from religious rites that date back to at least 1200 BC. At that time Greece was populated by primitive tribes. In northern Greece, in an area called Thrace, there arose a cult that worshipped Dionysus, the god of human and agricultural fertility. The Cult of Dionysus practiced ritual celebrations which included intoxication, orgies, human and animal sacrifices, and hysterical rampages by women called maenads.

The cult's most controversial practice involved uninhibited dancing and emotional displays that created an altered mental state. This altered state was known as ecstasis, from which the word ecstasy is derived. Dionysiac, hysteria and catharsis also derive from Greek words for emotional release. Ecstasy was an important concept to the Greeks, who would come to see theatre as a way of releasing powerful emotions.

Though it met with resistance, the cult spread south through the tribes of Greece over the ensuing six centuries. During this time the rites of Dionysus became mainstream and more civilized. By 600 BC they were practiced every Spring throughout much of Greece.

A satyr, replete with hoofs, tail, horns and  pan-flute.   (From a painting by Boris Vallejo) The Dithyramb

A key part of the rites of Dionysus was the dithyramb. The dithyramb was an ode to Dionysus. It was usually performed by a chorus of fifty men dressed as satyrs -- mythological half-human, half-goat servants of Dionysus. They played drums, lyres and flutes, and chanted as they danced around an effigy of Dionysus. Some accounts say they also wore phallus-like headgear. Although it began as a purely religious ceremony, like a hymn in the middle of a mass, the dithyramb over time would evolve into stories, drama and the play form.

THE MAIN ACT: The Golden Age of Greek Theatre

By 600 BC Greece was divided into city-states, separate nations centered around major cities and regions. The most prominent city-state was Athens, where at least 150,000 people lived. It was here that the Rites of Dionysus evolved into what we know today as theatre. Since Athens was located in a region called Attica, Greek and Athenian theatre are sometimes referred to as Attic Theatre.


In 600 BC, Arion of Mehtymna wrote down formal lyrics for the dithyramb. Some time during the next 75 years, Thespis of Attica added an actor who interacted with the chorus. This actor was called the protagonist, from which the modern word protagonist is derived, meaning the main character of a drama. The word thespian, meaning actor, also derives from Thespis. Thespis is credited as well with inventing the touring acting troupe, since he toured Greece with a group of actors in a cart that doubled as a stage.

Athenian Drama Competitions

In 534 BC, the ruler of Athens, Pisistratus, changed the Dionysian Festivals and instituted drama competitions. Thespis won the first competition in 534 BC.

In the ensuing 50 years, the competitions became popular annual events. A government authority called the archon would choose the competitors and the choregos, wealthy patrons who financed the productions. Even in ancient Greece, arts funding was a tax shelter: In return for funding a production, the choregos would pay no taxes that year.

Greek City-States, circa 550 BC

During this time, major theatres were constructed, notably the theatre at Delphi, the Attic Theatre and the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. The Theatre of Dionysus, built at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, could seat 17,000 people. During their heyday, the competitions drew as many as 30,000 spectators.

The words theatre and amphitheatre derive from the Greek word theatron, which referred to the wooden spectator stands erected on those hillsides. Similarly, the word orchestra is derived from the Greek word for a platform between the raised stage and the audience on which the chorus was situated.

Plan of the amphitheatre at Epidarus

The Theatre of Dionysus, on the hillside
below the Acropolis. Note the orchestra
and chorus in front of the stage.

Amphitheatre at Epidarus, Greece.
Built c350 BC.

How Plays Were Performed

The annual drama competitions in Athens took most of the day, and were spread out over several days. Plays were performed in the daytime. Actors probably wore little or no makeup. Instead they carried masks with exagerrated facial expressions. They also wore cothorni (singular: cothornos), or buskins, which were leather boots laced up to the knees. There was little or no scenery. Initially, most of the action took place in the orchestra. Later on, as the importance shifted from the chorus to the characters, the action moved to the stage.

Greek actors in a detail from a vase. 
Note the masks and cothorni


Between 600 and 500 BC, the dithyramb had evolved into new forms, most notably the tragedy and the satyr play.

Tragedy, derived from the Greek words tragos (goat) and ode (song), told a story that was intended to teach religious lessons. Much like Biblical parables, tragedies were designed to show the right and wrong paths in life.

Tragedies were not simply plays with bad endings, nor pathos (another Greek word, meaning pitiable people or events). They depicted the life voyages of people who steered themselves on collision courses with society, life's rules or simply fate. The tragic protagonist is one who refuses to acquiesce to fate or life's rules, either out of character weakness or strength. Most often, the protagonist's main fault is hubris, a Greek (and modern English) word meaning arrogance. It could be the arrogance of not accepting the hand that life deals (i.e., fate, as in Oedipus Rex), the arrogance of assuming the right to kill (Agamemnon), or the arrogance of assuming the right to seek vengeance (Orestes). Whatever the root, the protagonist's ultimate collision with fate, reality or society is inevitable and irrevocable.

The Culture that Created Tragedy

Tragedy did not develop in a vacuum. It was an outgrowth of what was happening at the time in Athens. One one hand, Greek religion (see Bullfinches Mythology) had dictated for centuries how people should think and behave. On the other hand, there was a flourishing of free thought and intellectual inquiry. Athens in the 4th and 5th centuries BC was bustling with radical ideas like democracy, philosophy, mathematics, science and art. It boasted philosophers like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus and Democritus, the first known historians Thucydides and Herodotus, scientists and mathematicians like Thales, Hippocrates, Archimedes, and later Euclid (euclidean geometry), Pythagoras (the pythagorean theorem), Eratosthenes, Hero (the steam engine!), Hipparchus and Ptolemy. In these respects -- a blossoming of free thought after years of religious dicta -- ancient Athens resembled Renaissance England, which not coincidentally spawned the next great era in theatre.

In essence, the ancient Athenians had begun to question how nature worked, how society should work, and what man's role was in the scheme of things. Tragedy was the poets' answer to some of these questions -- How should one behave? How can one accept the injustices of life? What is the price of hubris? Read a soliloquy from a Greek tragedy, or for that matter from Hamlet or Macbeth, and what you will hear is these questions being asked.

The School of Athens, 16th-century painter Raphael's vision of Athenian culture.  Plato and Aristotle (center) are surrounded by other Greek thinkers.  The fresco even incorporates elements of Greek geometry, such as the Golden Ratio.


The Tragedy Form

The traditional tragedy in Aeschylus' time (circa 475 BC) consisted of the following parts:

  • Prologue, which described the situation and set the scene
  • Parados, an ode sung by the chorus as it made its entrance
  • Five dramatic scenes, each followed by a Komos, an exchange of laments by the chorus and the protagonist
  • Exodus, the climax and conclusion

Tragedies were often presented in trilogies. Interspersed between the three plays in the trilogy were satyr plays, in which satyrs (men dressed as half-goats) made fun of the characters in the surrounding tragedies. The word tragedy came to be derived from tragos (goat) + ode (poem). Satyr plays also spawned the word satire.

The philosopher Aristotle, in his study of the arts The Poetics, drew an analogy between tragic theatre and the heroic poetry of Homer (The Odyssey, The Iliad). In Homer's day, poets wrote epic stories of noble people, or they wrote "invectives" about ignoble people. Epic poems required a nobler metre and were usually written in trochaic tetrameter, whereas invectives or "iambs" were written in a metre that sounded like ordinary speech, later called iambic.

Aristotle posited that this division continued as Greek literature evolved from poetry to drama. Tragedies, Aristotle said, were about noble people engaged in noble conflicts, just as epic poems were. Comedies and other forms were engaged in stories about ignoble people in ignoble conflicts. Tragedies did, however, adopt the iambic metre because it was the metre of everyday speech. By the time Shakespeare wrote his plays, iambic was still the metre of choice.

Aristotle theorized that tragedy's main purpose was to arouse in the audience fear and emotion and by doing so purge the audience of those feelings. This process was called catharsis.

Tragic actor, ivory statuette
Aeschylus, the First Playwright

Until 484 BC the Athenian drama competitions consisted of a trilogy of dithyrambs and a satyr play. These were still more choral than dramatic. But around 484 BC there appeared on the Athenian theatre scene a playwright named Aeschylus. Aeschylus turned the dithyramb into drama. He added a second actor (the antagonist) to interact with the first, introduced props and scenery and reduced the chorus from 50 to 12. Aeschylus' Persians, written in 472 BC, is the earliest play in existence.

Aeschylus' crowning work was The Oresteia, a trilogy of tragedies first performed in 458 BC. They tell the legend of Agamemnon, the Greek war hero who was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, and the pursuit of justice by Agamemnon's children Orestes and Electra. Thematically, the trilogy is about the tragedy of human arrogance or hubris -- the hubris required to murder a person for personal gain, as Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus do, as well as the hubris to in turn hunt down and kill them, as Orestes and Electra do. When in the end, Orestes and Electra are brought to trial themselves by the Furies, vengeful emissaries of the gods, Aeschylus makes a point that has been echoed by historians and dramatists, psychologists and crime writers for centuries since: That the root of evil and suffering is usually human arrogance. On a dramatic level, the plays convey the suffering of a family torn apart by patricide and matricide.

The Periclean Age

Aeschylus' death in 456 BC coincided with the beginning of the Periclean Age, a period during which Athens' population grew to 150,000, its government embraced democracy (although two-thirds of its population were slaves), and the arts flourished. In a span of 60 years, Thucydides and Herodotus wrote their histories, the sophists, Socrates and Plato expounded their philosophies, and Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes wrote some of the world's best plays.

c525 - 456 BC




In 468 BC, Aeschylus was defeated in the tragedy competition by Sophocles. Sophocles' contribution to drama was the addition of a third actor and an emphasis on drama between humans rather than between humans and gods. Sophocles was a fine craftsman, and it was his plays that Aristotle used for his classic analysis of drama, The Poetics.

Sophocles' plays are suffused with irony. In The Oedipus Trilogy, Oedipus seeks the truth about his father's murder. The truth that awaits him, however, is that he is the murderer. In Electra, the hunted murderer Aegisthus finds a body under a blanket is Orestes, the man who has relentlessly hunted him and his lover, Clytemnestra; he is relieved that he has escaped justice. However, when he lifts the blanket he discovers the body is that of his lover Clytemnestra. Orestes has indeed caught up with him.

Sophocles' plays are about the folly of arrogance and the wisdom of accepting fate. Sophocles believed in the Greek gods, but his plays are suffused with existential insights that have been voiced many times since. For instance, compare this observation by Antigone:

What joy is there in day repeating day,
some short, some long, with death the only end.
I think them fools who warm their hearts with
the glow of empty hopes.

with Macbeth's famous speech:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
to the last syllable of recorded time;
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more: It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.

496 - 406 BC




In all, Sophocles won 20 competitions, making him the Carl Lewis of Greek dramatic competition. Although far behind Sophocles in the medal count with a mere five, Euripides has since eclipsed both Sophocles and Aeschylus in popularity. The modern attraction to him stems largely from his point of view, which resembles today's attitudes more than those of fifth-century BC. His plays were not about Gods or royalty but real people. He placed peasants alongside princes and gave their feelings equal weight. He showed the reality of war, criticized religion, and portrayed society's forgotten -- women, slaves, the old...

Euripides is credited with adding to the dramatic form the prologue, which "set the stage" at the beginning of the play, and the deus ex machina, which wrapped up loose ends at the close. Aside from those devices, there is less contrivance, fate or philosophy in Euripides than in either Aeschylus and Sophocles. There is instead a poignant realism, such as in this scene from the anti-war Trojan Women, in which a grandmother grieves over the daughter and grandson she has outlived. During his life, Euripides was viewed as a heretic and was often lampooned in Aristophanes' comedies. A cynic about human nature, he became a bookish recluse and died in 406 BC, two years before Sophocles.

c480 - 406 BC




Comic actor

Tragedy was not the only product of Athens' flourishing theatre culture; comedy also thrived. Not only did the Greeks produce many lasting comedies, they also cast the molds for many Roman, Elizabethan and modern comedies.  

The historical development of comedy was not as well-recorded as that of tragedy. Aristotle notes in The Poetics that before his own time comedy was considered trivial and common -- though when it was finally recognized as an art form, the orphan suddenly had many fathers:

The credit for Comedy is put forward not only by those of Greece proper, who allege that it originated under their democracy, but also by the Megarians of Sicily, since the poet Epicharmus, who came much earlier than Chionides and Magnes, belonged to that country. Tragedy too is claimed by certain Dorians of the Peloponnese. In each case they cite the evidence of language. They say they call outlying villages komai, which the Athenians call demoi: and they assume comedians got their name not from komazein, 'to revel,' but because they wandered from village to village (kata komas), being excluded contemptuously from the city. They add also that the Dorian word for 'doing' is dran, and the Athenian word prattein.

c448 - 380 BC



Aristophanes and Old Comedy

Greek comedy had two stages: Old Comedy, represented by Cratinus and Aristophanes; and New Comedy, whose main exponent was Menander.

With its high-brow culture, Athens invited satire, and Aristophanes assumed the task with zeal, aiming his lampoonery at those who stuck their heads above the crowd.  He transformed the opening chorus into the playwright's address to the audience, a humorous opinion piece in which he made fun of the Gods, Athenian institutions, and popular figures, including Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.  Here are some sacred cows Aeschylus went after:

Warriors, in Lysistrata...

  • First Speaker: For through man's heart there runs in flood
    A natural and noble taste for blood---
    Second Speaker: To form a ring and fight--
    Third Speaker: To cut off heads at sight--
    All in Unison: It is our right!


  • Come, listen now to the good old days when children, strange to tell,
    were seen not heard, led a simple life, in short were brought up well.

and intellectuals, in The Clouds...

  • Father: (enrolling his son in a "school for thinking") O Socrates! O--dear--sweet--Socrates!
    Socrates: (meditating in a basket overhead) Mortal! Why call you on me?
    Father: Tell me, please, what are you doing up there in that basket?
    Socrates: I walk on air while I contemplate the sun. One cannot ponder cosmic matters unless one mingles with the atmosphere, one's ethereal spirit above ground. The ground is not a place for lofty thoughts. Gravity would draw their essence down, as it does with watercress. Father: Well, well. Thought draws the essence into watercress.

The Athenian audiences were well-versed in their highbrow culture and must have enjoyed these in-jokes immensely. Aristophanes' other targets included Aeschylus and Euripides, whom Aristophanes portrayed variously as a windbag and corrupter of youth with his heretical ideas.

342 - 291 BC


New Comedy
Comedy developed along much the same lines as tragedy, becoming more aimed at the common people and less concerned with its religious origins. By 317 BC, a new form had evolved that resembled modern farces. The overt satire, topicality and celebrity characters of Aristophanes' style were replaced by mistaken identities, ironic situations, ordinary characters and wit. The orchestra assumed less importance and the upper stage assumed more in the staging.  This period is called New Comedy, and its two main practitioners were Menander and Philemon.

Menander was the more significant of the two. Most of his plays are now lost, but parts found their way into plays by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence (whom Julius Caesar called "a half-Menander"), Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, even the writings of St. Paul ("Bad messages belie good manners"). In 1905 a manuscript was discovered in Cairo that contained pieces of five Menander plays, and in 1957 a complete play, Diskolos (The Grouch, 317 BC), was unearthed in Egypt.

Menander's main contribution was to create a comedy model that greatly influenced later comedy. Unlike Aristophanes, his characters were not celebrities but ordinary people. The chorus in Menander's plays resembled a modern chorus -- singers and dancers who provided filler between acts; Menander sometimes portrayed them as drunken audience members. His characters were classic comedy archetypes, such as the curmudgeonly old man in The Grouch, that would become staples of comedy.  Most of all, the style of comedy that Menander created, with its emphasis on mistaken identity, romance and situational humor, became the model for subsequent farcical comedy, from the Romans to Shakespeare to Broadway.


Frieze of actors and Dionysus
The Final Curtain
By the time of Sophocles' death in 406 BC, 128 years after Thespis' victory in the first Athenian drama competition, the golden era of Greek drama was waning. Athens, whose free-thinking culture had spawned the birth of theatre, would be overrun in 404 BC by the Spartans, and would later be torn apart by constant warring with other city states, eventually falling under the dominion of Alexander the Great and his Macedonian armies. Theatre continued, but it would not return to the same creative heights until Elizabethan England two millenia later.  R.T.B.  

The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton; The Oxford Companion to the Theatre; The Guinness Book of Theatre Facts and Feats, Michael Billington; The Penguin Dictionary of the Theatre.  Most images from The Mary Evans Picture Library and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Additional Information: 

Permission is granted to cite this text.  Proper bibliographical citation: 
Botinelly, Robert.  The ELAC Guide to Ancient Greek Theatre.  Web: .  1996-2003.

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