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Nita Gojani
FAR 151a Introduction to Theatre
Greek Tragedy and Comedy
 Ancient Greece – the cradle of Western civilization and democracy
o But Greek democracy didn’t allow women to have any public role and it’s
economy depended on slaves – only men were considered as capable to
make laws and govern themselves
 Great role of mythology and different gods in the everyday life
City Dionysia
 Major festival to honor Dionysus
o theatrical performances were offerings of the city to Dionysus
o the god of wine and fertility
 A competition to select the plays
o The presiding official chose three tragic poets and granted them each a
o The Assembly chose the men obliged to pay for the expenses – the
 The progress of the festival:
o Day 0 (night before festival): evening procession: statue of Dionysus was
brought from outside the city to the temple of Dionysus: the statue of
Dionysus then overlooks the performances
o Day 1: a grand procession: many participants carried models of erected
phalluses, tributes to Dionysus’ life-giving power. At the end of the
procession, bulls were sacrifices, their meat eaten and much wine drunk.
o Day 2: theater was purified by another sacrifice; honors were given to
citizens who had benefited the state; and then the plays began.
o Day 2 – 4: Each tragic poet presented three tragedies and one satyr.
o Day 5: symbolic prizes, special wreaths were given to the winners – the
competition wasn’t for the prizes but for the honor and glory.
 Ten judges, who were chosen one from each 'tribe' of Athens
o The judges voted in secret, the votes were put into a pot, and five of them
were drawn out – only these five were counted.
Theatre of Dionysus
 Located on the slope of the southern hillside of the Athenian Acropolis
 Spectators overlooked an open circular area in front of a slightly raised stage
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It held at least fourteen thousand and perhaps as many as seventeen thousand
A crane-like device was used to give the idea of flying
 Only three actors allowed
o Actors were assigned by lot
o Played all the speaking roles
o Used a lot of masks
 A chorus
o Only the leader of the chorus would sometimes engage in the dialogue, but
the chorus mainly performed songs and dances.
 Supernumeraries
o Were not allowed to speak any lines.
 Music played a great role in the plays
o The music players were visible to the audience
Greek Tragedy
The Greek drama derived from the dithyramb
 hymns in Dionysus’ honor, that were sung and dances to the tune of the
For decades, tragedies were highly stylized performances where one actor
responded to the chorus’ songs.
Aeschylus added another actor.
Usually dealt with moral issues that pertained to the society and obligations of the
citizens to the polis.
 Aeschylus was a member of the Athenian nobility, who had distinguished himself
in the wars against Persia.
 He wrote about 80 plays, of which only 7 survived.
 Agamemnon is the leader of the Greek army in the Trojan War.
 While he is fighting in Troy, his wife Clyemnestra takes a lover and rules her city
instead of Agamemnon.
 When he returns he brings with him a captive Trojan princess whom he intends to
install in his home as a concubine
 Clyemnestra’s kills Agamemnon, ensuring tragic destruction.
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 Sophocles was from a wealthy family and for a time served as one of the ten
generals, the highest elective office of the Athenian state.
 He wrote more than 120 plays, but only 7 survived.
 King Creon allowed the burial of one of Antigone’s brother’s, and issued a decree
that it’s a capital crime to burry the other brother, whom he declared a traitor.
 Nevertheless Antigone buries her brother.
 She is arrested and brought in front of Creon.
o Creon’s son, Haemon who is engaged with Antigone takes her side.
o But, Creon still condemns Antigone to death.
 Later, Creon realizes his error and attempts to reverse his decision.
o But, he arrives at the cave too late.
o Antiogne has killed herself.
 Haemon tries to kill his father, and then kills himself.
 Creon returns to his palace to find that his wife has hanged herself.
 Euripides wrote about 90 plays, of which 18 survived.
 Because he questioned Athenian customs and beliefs, he wasn’t really honored
during his lifetime.
o But he later became the most popular of tragic writers.
 Medea’s husband, Jason wants to divorce her so that he can marry a richer, more
prominent women,
 Medea reacts with shattering violence
o she kills Jason and his prospective bride, as well as all of their children.
Oedipus the King
 Aristotle thought of it as the finest of all Greek tragedies
 Citizens of Thebes beg their king, Oedipus, to lift the plague that threatens to
destroy the city.
 According to the oracle, the plague will end once the murderer of the previous
king Laius is found.
 A blind prophet accuses Oedipus himself of killing Laius.
 Oedipus mocks and rejects the prophet angrily.
 Jocasta, the queen encourages Oedipus to ignore prophecies
 A prophet once told her that Laius, her husband, would die at the hands of
their son – a prophecy she believes did not come true.
 Oedipus had killed a man who resembled Laius at a crossroads.
 He sends for the only living witness to the murder, a shepherd.
 The shepherd tells what he knows—Oedipus is actually the son of Laius
and Jocasta.
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Realizing that he has killed his father and married his mother, Oedipus is
agonized by his fate.
Rushing into the palace, Oedipus finds that the queen has killed herself.
 Oedipus takes the pins from her gown and rakes out his eyes, so that he
can no longer look upon the misery he has caused.
Oedipus awaits the oracle that will determine whether he will stay in Thebes or be
cast out forever.
The play is concerned with:
o The moral taboos of incest and patricide
o The inability of humans to control fate
o A man who was in a place of highest honor and falls to an outcast
Greek Comedy
Comedies came from phallic songs
o Sung in processions for Dionysus
o Sometimes people in the procession carried large phalluses.
The chorus in a comedy had 24 members, and not 12 or 15 as did the chorus in a
 A festival held in winter where 5 contestants competed each with one comedy.
 It attracted fewer foreigners and playwrights were allowed greater freedom in
ridiculing Athenian events and personas.
 Usually took an absurd situation in which an ordinary citizen stood in opposition
to the mad world around him.
 an Athenian impoverished by his son’s extravagant ways sends him to Socrate’s
school to learn debating skills so that he can argue his way out of paying his
 In the play, they have taken control of Athens, and this was hysterically funny to
the Athenian audiences.
o Athenian women deny sex to their husbands until they end the
Peloponnesian War, and they succeed.
 The play was staged just a year after the death of Sophocles and Euripides.
 Dionysus is anxious about the decline of tragedy.
o Thus he goes to the underworlds to bring back Euripides.
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o The play is called Frogs because of a chorus of frogs that inhabit a swamp
that Dionysus needs to pass before reaching Hades.
Even though Dionysus wanted to take Euripides, an argument develops about the
merits of the three tragedy authors now in the underworlds.
At the end, Dionysus decides that Aeschylus can give better counsel to the
citizens of Athens so brings him back, much to Euripides’ disappointment and
Some differences with the theatrical experience today
 Greek drama was often the main means of entertainment.
o But, theatrical performances were offered quite rarely
 The theatres were much bigger than the usual theatres we have today
o So the acting could not depend on many details, if any at all.
o Also, all the plays were acted in daylight.
 The casts were very different as well
o Three male actors
o A chorus that usually does not interact with the actors.
Sources used
“Bacchae, by Euripides.” University of Cincinnati, Department of Classics. Accessed at, on September 9, 2006.
Edith Hall, Literature and Performance, p. 219-250. Paul Cartledge, ed., “Ancient
Greece.” Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom, 2004.
Edith Hamilton, Aristophanes and the Old Comedy, p.90-117, Aeschylus, the First
Dramatist, p.173-187, Sophocles, Quintessence of the Greek, p.187-197, Euripides, the
Modern Mind, p.197-207. “The Greek Way.” First Discuss Printing, Unites States of
America, 1973.
Ian Morris and Barry B. Powell, Fifth-Century Drama, p.314-334. “The Greeks: History,
Culture, and Society.” Pearson Education, Inc., New Jersey, 2006.
Oscar G. Brockett, Festival Theatre: Greek, Roman, and Medieval Theatre Experiences,
p. 58-78. “The Essential Theatre.” Holt, Rinehar and Winstron, Inc., United States of
America, 1996.
Thomas R. Martin, Culture and Society in Classical Athens, p.124-147. “Ancient Greece:
Form Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times.” Yale University Press, Unites States of America,