Ancient theater: how the ancient Greeks entertained themselves

Posted on Sep 16, 2022      46

Among the many ancient Greek gods, an important role was played by Dionysus, or Bacchus, the god of fertility and viticulture. According to the plot of ancient myths, Dionysus suffered many hardships and fatal blows of fate: left without a mother, he went on a journey, was captured by robbers, and then, reaching Asia, he returned home in the company of a crowd of furious admirers - bacchantes and satyrs.

The members of the Dionysian retinue wore vine ornaments covered with ivy and organised many wild parties in reverence for their divine patron. The cult of Dionysus originally developed in Attica, the southeastern region of Greece, with Athens as its capital. According to many theater historians and cultural historians, this is where the art of theater first originated.

When and how the art of theater was born

Plutarch’s historical writings give the exact date of the first performance - in 534 BC. Thespidas showed a public performance of dialogue between an actor as Dionysus and a chorus arguing with him. It was probably from this year that theatrical performances became an integral part of the annual folk festivals in honor of the god of agriculture.

Mythology was the major source of plots for ancient Greek performances. Peripeteia of biographies of Olympic gods and heroes were well known to every inhabitant of the Athenian polis, so a special role in the performance was played by the author’s interpretation of well-known events offered by the actors and stage director.

The flowering of the ancient Greek theater was in the 5th century B.C. - It was during this period that Aeschylus (Oresteia, Prometheus Chained), Sophocles (King Oedipus, Antigone) and Euripides (Medea) created their tragedies, and Aristophanes struck his contemporaries with the sharpness of political and social satire in his comedies (“Clouds”, “Frogs”).

It is interesting that the theatrical performances of antiquity were closely linked to the everyday rituals that accompanied the life of ordinary Greeks. An important role was played here by a variety of sports competitions, such as the famous Olympic Games.

Therefore, the initial performances were also organized according to the competitive principle, as a struggle between actors and dramatists. Staged performances were held three times a year and were timed to coincide with specific holidays of the agrarian cycle - in March, at the end of December and at the end of January. The authors and their troupe of performers competed against each other, offering the merits of three tragedies and one comedy to a high jury. It was probably then that the tradition of theatrical festivals and marathon viewings was formed, which developed in the stage art of the second half of the 20th century.

How did the ancient theater function?

In ancient Greece, the theater received state funding, and the role of a producer of stage action was performed by a special official - archonte, who represented the city administration. He was in charge of a preliminary acquaintance with the proposed plays, as well as the recruitment of troupe members, particularly choral singers.

The costs of organizing such large-scale performances were borne by the town’s patron, the choreographer. In gratitude for his financial support, his name was carved on marble memorial plates after the festival. Attendance at performances was paid, but the poorest “theatrists” were given extra money to buy tickets.

How it looks

Many tourists who visit Greece or former Greek colonies in Turkey tour the ruins of large-scale theater-arenas, the architecture of which is related to the climatic features of the Mediterranean region.

Theatrical buildings arose in the natural landscape, transformed by the mountainous terrain so that the audience was seated on the hillsides, forming an amphitheater. Such enormous public spaces accommodated large numbers of spectators, numbering up to several tens of thousands. The colossal number of spectators and the huge scale of the theaters dictated their peculiarities of the scenography and costumes of the performers.

Actors wore large masks, each expressing a particular emotion or character trait that dominated the character portrayed: horror, amusement, anger, etc. The audience could tell the intentions of the characters from the masks, and they were also designed to amplify the voices of the performers, which was a vital necessity for performances on this scale.

Ancient Greek theatrical masks were large, so actors had to increase their body proportions by using special sandals with thick soles - koturny.

It is interesting to note that even in the very first productions theatrical machinery was successfully used: ekkiklema, a rolling platform on wheels, and eorema, a lifting mechanism by which the gods could fly up to Olympus or, conversely, descend into the world of men.