What is Greek Theatre?

One of the things that the ancient Athenians were and remain most famous for is their amazing theatre, their tragedies and comedies that are still played on the stages of the world all over the planet today. If you go to Athens today, if you go up to the Acropolis. You can actually see the horseshoe shape of the Theater of Dionysus. Now that’s a stone building with stone seats surrounding the central stone circular stage. That actually wasn’t built until the fourth century B.C. The second of the two great centuries of the Athenian Imperial democracy. But we know that the same place was already used in the fifth century it’s just they erected wooden seats, much as we would today for outdoor performances in Regents Park. So when did the Athenians go to their theater well, they went to two great festivals a year. These festivals were for the God Dionysus. So they’re are called the ‘Great Dionysia’. The point was to perform plays as part of worship for the god. So in a sense it was a religious festival like Greek Easter still is today very important full of processions and Ceremonials it was as much like the Super Bowl or Commonwealth Games. And the plays were put on in three days running. You had three tragedians compete against each other and three comic writers. But they were preceded by enormously elaborate festivals and enormously elaborate rituals for the gods. It was on the cusp between a civic ceremony because all the most important men in the city were there and also it had this massive religious element so there were many sacrifices. So who actually performed these plays? They’re written by aristocratic Athenians usually who’ve had the benefits of lots of education so they can write tragedy. The chorus is by ordinary amateur citizen youths, it’s probably actually part of their military training because dancing together and reciting things together is actually very very similar to military drill. We actually think that this is part of their training so that they can learn to move together in perfect harmony. The actors were professionals and very very highly trained, they often came from the same families as the tragedians who wrote the plays you had whole families whos sort of professional business was tragic theatre. And they were trained from boyhood in vocal delivery. What is more important than in an open air space the size of the theatre of dionysus than getting your voice to hit the very very back row as well as for the people nearer the front to hear you when you’re wearing a mask and you also have to sing. People don’t realise quite how much of ancient Greek tragedy was sung. It’s somewhere nearer opera and ballet combined with spoken theatre than people tend to assume today, it’s sort of tragic musical theatre.


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