When an actor takes the stage on New York's Great White Way or in London's West End, they are walking in the footsteps of the Ancient Greek actors that first found their footing on the canvas. The characteristics of classical drama that molded the features of Greek theatre continue to be in play onstage today. Ancient Greek theatre originated as early as 700 B.C., and were staged during the spring festival to honor the god Dionysus. At the City Dionysia, playwrights presented tragedies and comedies during the three days of this festival, with judges awarding prizes to the best plays each year. Sophocles, one of the most well-known Greek playwrights, won 24 of these contests. Several of his plays, including "Oedipus Rex," are still performed in modern times.
A Chorus Line
Greek theatre had its beginnings with Dithyrambs, in which choral groups composed of 50 men and boys would sing or chant in unison. This was one of the key features of classical drama in Ancient Greece. These groups of Greek theatre characters told stories written by playwrights. As the characteristics of classical drama evolved, actors were added separately, although the large chorus remained. The poet Thespis, in 534 B.C., was the first known playwright to perform as a character and was dubbed the first actor. This is the origination of the word thespians. In some plays, as many as half the lines of dialogue belonged to the chorus. Dialogue between the actors and the chorus as the play progressed fulfilled a teaching function, providing lessons in morality as well as entertainment. Although the chorus lines weren't songs, music was often played while the chorus chanted.
A Man of Many Masks
After Thespis, playwrights continued to be the only actor separate from the chorus in their plays. The use of masks enabled actors in ancient Greek plays to portray different roles without confusing the audience. This was a building block for the features of classical drama. Exaggerated expressions on the masks helped distinguish the characters so they were recognizable even to audience members seated far away from the stage. The playwright Aeschylus, known for "Persians," first performed in 472 B.C., began using two actors in his plays. Later on, Sophocles became the first playwright to hire professional actors rather than playing a role himself. Athens began awarding prizes for best actor at each festival around 449 B.C.
All the World's a Stage
The theater in which ancient Greek plays were performed was an outdoor, open-air complex with seats arranged around the center stage in tiers. The earliest example of a circular stage occurs in theater remains dating back to 330 B.C. Before that period, Greek theatre characters roamed stages that were probably rectangular in a theater constructed out of wood. Other fixtures included a large platform on wheels that could be rolled in to show the aftermath of a scene not acted out in front of the audience, and a device used like a crane to lift actors so they appeared to be floating in mid-air. In some plays this device was used for actors portraying gods.
Characteristics of Classical Drama Today
Greek theatre characters were plenty. Of the ancient Greek plays that have survived to modern times, all but Aeschylus' play "Persians" relate to Greek mythology and popular heroic myths and legends -- but they weren't always positive endorsements. For example, Euripedes' tragedies questioned traditional stories and values, exploring characters' personal motivations in a way other playwrights of his time did not. Of his 90 plays, 18 still exist, including "Hercules" and "The Trojan Women." Comedies in particular ridiculed mythological stories. Although frequently obscene and grotesque in the 5th century B.C., by the second half of the 4th century B.C. comedic subject matter became tamer, focusing on love, social life and family tensions.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Thematic Essay -- Theater in Ancient Greece
- The Kennedy Center ArtsEdge: City Dionysia -- The Players Overview
- The Kennedy Center ArtsEdge: City Dionysia -- Masks, Costumes and Props
- The Kennedy Center ArtsEdge: City Dionysia -- Prologue Overview
- Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images