Every year, in the four months of winter, the citizens of Athens would gather to celebrate a string of festivals to honour the gods. This festival season began with the rural Dionysia and culminated in the urban or Great Dionysia, honouring the god Dionysus in various guises. One particular aspect of those festivities is still with us: theatre. As part of the religious rites, the city of Athens organized various dramatic competitions and invited poets and playwrights to send in their best work and called upon its richest citizens to contribute and support the festival. These dramatic performances were considered so important, that the highest magistrate of the city (the archon eponymos) was personally responsible for selecting which plays would be performed.
The exact origins of theatre, and its original connection with the god Dionysus, is unclear. According to the ancient Greeks themselves, acting and theatre were both invented by a poet named Thespis (hence the English word for actor: thespian). Thespis, who lived in the 6th century B.C., supposedly invented theatre masks and dramatic dialogues, creating the very first characters in the very first play. Some modern historians have sought the origins of theatre in the early rituals of Dionysus, though this claim is contested. The ancient Greeks themselves were no less confused. When Epigenes – a contender for the title of ‘Inventor of Theatre’ – first produced his plays, the Athenian audience supposedly cried out “But this has nothing to do with Dionysus!”.
The exact origins of theatre might be shrouded in mystery, but the proceedings as we know them from the 5th century B.C. make it very clear that watching a play in ancient Athens was not quite the same as spending a night at the Edinburgh International Festival. For one, the plays were performed in a religious context which included sacrifices, processions and prayer. Before comedy plays and tragedies, the artistic competitions at the Dionysia were opened with so-called dithyrambs: choral songs in honour of Dionysus, written by competing poets. Performances of comedies and tragedies were strictly divided, with a single day of comedic plays and three days of tragic plays. Tragedies could only be performed once; only the great playwright Aeschylus received the honour of having his plays performed a second time after his death. Last but not least were the satyr plays, introduced around 510 B.C. Featuring lewd and cowardly satyrs – the typical followers of Dionysus – in all manner of situations, these plays were performed after a cycle of three tragedies, lightening the mood and underscoring the connection between the theatre festival and the god Dionysus.
City of brilliance
The 5th century B.C. is often considered the golden age of Athens. Although many historians are quick to point out that Athens certainly wasn’t the only Greek city of importance, few would deny that Athens saw a truly remarkable gathering of talented individuals. Some of the most renowned philosophers, playwrights and visual artists in the Western canon found their home in the city. The cultural blossoming of Athens is often attributed to the democratic leader Pericles. His direct involvement in ‘cultural policy’ is unknown, but Pericles certainly gathered influential intellectuals and artists around his person, setting an example for other members of the elite to follow.
The three great tragic playwrights of the age, by ancient Greek as well as our modern reckoning, were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Each of them contributed a number of important innovations to the theatre. Aeschylus introduced a second actor to scenes, reduced the importance of the singing chorus and used impressive decors and staging. Sophocles introduced a third actor, painted stages and used the chorus as a character in and of itself. Euripides meanwhile plumbed the depths of his characters and questioned the moral worth of heroes and villains alike. We know much less about comedic plays. The only author whose work survived in more than just fragments is Aristophanes. Different from the revered works of the tragedians, Aristophanes’ plays are full of witty one-liners, bad puns and an almost endless number of jokes at the expensive of the leading figures of his day. The Athenian politician Kleon for example was roundly mocked in the play The Knights, while Socrates receives a thorough thrashing in The Birds.
Whereas Aristophanes could play fast and loose with gods, heroes and politicians, tragedians primarily chose material from Greek mythology for their plays. They adapted existing stories about gods, characters and stories to suit their creative needs. This not only saved in exposition and setting (the audience was already familiar with most of the characters and their backstories) but also offered great opportunities for dramatic irony and unexpected plot twists. It further allowed Greek tragedians to comment on the political developments and societal themes of their day through well-known mythological figures. Sophocles’ play Antigone for example uses the eponymous heroine to deal with issues of civil disobedience and the meaning of justice. Euripides on the other hand took his cues from real-life atrocities in The Trojan Women. The play, about the tragic faith of the woman of Troy after the city has been sacked by the Greeks, is believed to be a response to the sacking of the island of Milos by Athens in 416 B.C. Because of such dramatic ‘soul-searching’, many Greek tragedies are still considered highly topical and performed regularly to this day.
The Theatre of Dionysos
Writing about gods, monsters and heroes is one thing, showing those same characters on stage quite another. Ancient Greek theatre held to different conventions than most modern plays. The plays during the Great Dionysia were performed in the Theatre of Dionysus, on the slopes of the Acropolis. We know very little of how the Theatre of Dionysus looked at the time of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The theatre was remodelled many times during its history and the current ruins date from a much later time period. What we can gather from archaeological excavations is the original Theatre of Dionysus was a quite primitive structure. The ‘building’ was little more than an excavated hillside with wooden seating and a levelled area where the chorus and actors performed. It was only midway through the 4th century B.C. that the theatre was turned into a stone structure and received a permanent skene, a stage building.
Though Greek theatre pieces might employ a variety of characters, these were always played by a small number of actors. Greek plays are famous for their chorus: the group of (amateur) singers commenting on the actions of the plot. Besides the chorus, which usually consisted of twelve to fifteen singers, playwrights relied on a maximum of three actors to convey all of their characters. Actors (hypokrites) were all male and adopted different guises by changes of costumes and masks. Because all actors wore masks, emotions had to be conveyed through words, music and body language. Feelings of shame could for example be expressed by an actor covering his head. It was not at all unusual for multiple actors to play the same role, as the scene required. This meant that a character could speak with several different voices during a single performance.
All plays were performed during the day and in the open air. From the time of Aeschylus onwards, playwrights could make use of ‘stages’: temporary painted backdrops. Elaborate or particularly gruesome scenes were not usually acted out, but read out aloud by a messenger. That does not mean that ancient playwrights couldn’t employ some advanced stage trickery. The plays of Euripides in particular were notorious for their swift endings, in which a god or other supernatural figure was lowered onto the stage to resolve the plot. The Greeks called it apo mekhanês theos, we know it better under the Latin name of deus ex machina. Euripides employed this device so often that Aristophanes mockingly gave him a dramatic entrance in one of his comedies: lowered down from above by a crane!
Every year, in the four months of winter, the citizens of Athens would gather to celebrate a string of festivals to honour the gods.