The theater of ancient Greece was the birthplace of Western drama. The most significant theaters of the period are not temples to gods of the Greek pantheon in the religious sense. However, the god Dionysus is the patron of theaters, and ancient Greek theater originates from festivals celebrating him. Other significant theaters, such as Epidaurus, which is still still used for performances, were typically built adjacent to major temples.
Dionysus is the god of fertility and wine and patron of the arts. He was considered an important god in everyday Greek life because he also embodied the idea of death and rebirth. Celebratory festivals in his honor took place in spring, when the vines started sprouting leaves. Theatrical performances played a central role in the Dionysian festivals, and many of the ancient Greek plays by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles that form the literary legacy of Greek theater were written for the festival of Dionysus.
The Theater of Dionysus
The theater of Dionysus forms a part of the Parthenon on the Acropolis. The first performance may have taken place in 530 B.C. It is possible that this was a play written by Thespis, whose name is the source of the word "thespian," an English synonym for actor. The theater was built in the precinct of the Temple of Dionysus and could seat up to 17,000 people. The stage area shows relief carvings depicting the story of Dionysus from Greek mythology.
Theaters at Delphi and Delos
Both Delphi and Delos were central to ancient Greek religious life, and both are sacred to the god Apollo, who is associated with the sun, fine arts and medicine. At Delphi, which the Greeks thought was the center of the known world, the theater is built in the northwest corner of the Sanctuary of Apollo, one part of the complex of building dedicated to the worship of Apollo. On the island of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo, the theater is also adjacent to the Sanctuary of Apollo. Both these theaters held approximately 5,000 to 5,500 people.
The theater at Epidaurus on the Peloponnese is built within the Sanctuary of Asklepios -- also Asclepius -- the god of healing. According to Greek mythology Asklepios was born at Epidaurus. He is always depicted holding a staff with a snake wound around it. The theater dates from 340 B.C. It holds an audience of 13,000 and is the best preserved of Greece's ancient theaters. The annual festival at Epidaurus attracts visitors from around the world to see modern and ancient Greek plays and hear musical performances.
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