Ancient Greek theatre has been a fascination to millions of people across the centuries. Theatre is one of the most important innovations of the Greek civilization. Ancient Greek theatre which began as a religious ceremony eventually became as expressed by Cohen “a mixture of myth, legend, philosophy, social commentary, poetry, dance, music, public participation, and visual splendor” (as cited in Phillips, 2000). The well known playwrights “Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes” and others have contributed largely in the teachings of nobleness, morality, courage, and patriotism throughout time. Many of the stories written “Oedipus, Medea, Antigone etc.” have endured the passage of time. Moreover, audience’s contribution was crucial in ancient Greek theatre because poet’s success and recognition as good representatives of the Greek culture and civilization largely depended on the audience’s negative/positive feedback. From the Antiquity, the role of Greek theatre has not altered. It was and still is used to be entertaining, frivolous, and instructional.
Greek theaters were located in outdoor spaces which were known as amphitheaters. The amphitheater was purposely chosen by the Greeks to hold these venues not only because they preferred being outdoors but also because
“they used the construction methods available in their time period to create the most useful and efficient space possible to be used in producing the type of entertainment that was popular in their culture” as stated by John Holloway (2010). Greek theatre consisted of four major components: the Orchestra which was the circular dancing floor where the chorus would sing, dance, and act together with the actors, Theatron which was the viewing place, Skene which was the tent or the decorated building behind the stage, and Parados which was the passageways used by the chorus, actors, and audience as entrances and exits to the amphitheater (as shown in figure 1).
Note. This figure is retreived from http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/
Nevertheless, ancient Greek theatre cannot be demonstrated without shedding the light on Athens. Athens was a Greek city-state identified for its political, military, and cultural power. Athens was considered the center of Greek culture and theatre. Greek theatre originally initiated with Athens festivals. Athens had four festivals for worshipping the god of fertility and wine “Dionysus” who was the son of the god “Zeus” and the mortal “Semele”. The Athenians celebrated their annual fertility four tribal festivals known as “Festival of the Wine Jugs” and “Old Dionysia” in March with a whole week of “public wine drinking and phallus, penis worshipping religious orgy” (Cohen,n.d.;Phillips, 2000). The religious rites for these festivals eventually took the shape of poetry that later developed to become plays.
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Greek plays and drama started as an entertaining event that developed to become a powerful medium of communicating ideas. Theatre played an important role in the ancient Greek civilization because it was reflecting the flaws and values of the Greek culture. It mainly focused on solving the human conflicts and problems of the day but with a supernatural element (god or goddess). The theatre that focused on exposing society’s flaws benefited the audience who would learn from them. It should be noted here that the body language used in the Greek theatre played an important role in delivering the message to the spectators. As said by Heins-Uwe Haus (1995), “We feel obliged to visualize the events of the play, if we want to grasp something of the spirit and the roots of the dramatic heritage of Sophocles. It was this fusion of the artistic and the political, the formal and the philosophical, that made this experience unique.” Therefore, the people in Greece were on intimate relations with the body where they used body language as a major part of the Greek drama.
After scrutinizing the Greek drama, it becomes obvious that gods in Greek society were viewed in human terms. For instance, gods can have emotions of sadness, happiness, and emotions of love; they can hold grudges, and can fight with each other. The gods in Greek plays were, like humans, uncertain of their destiny. Additionally, humanity was strongly concerned in ancient Greek drama where humans were elevated from animals. Human harmony depended on the interaction between human and divine forces where peace would be endangered if disharmony existed (Tripod members, 2004).
Figure 2. Theatre Masks
Note. Retrieved from http://www.crystalinks.com/greektheater.html
Greek plays consisted of two major types: tragedy and comedy. The two masks, in figure 2, symbolize both the comedy and tragedy aspects of the Greek Theatre. These two masks that represent duality were worn in ancient Greece – during the golden age, around 500 – 300 BC. With respect to tragedy, it was expressed by Aristotle as:” an imitation of an important
and complete action, which has a specific length, written in an embellished language, with its separate parts set in order and not randomly, in active and not narrative form, tending through pity and fear to the catharsis of passions”. The word tragedy was derived from the words “Tragos” meaning goat and “ode” meaning song. The reason behind this vague origin had to do with two possibilities: the first which was related to the choruses who were dressed in lion-skins of goats, and the second which was linked to the prize for best song that was a goat. Ancient Greek tragedy mainly depended on stories of myth or history but with varied interpretations of events. It mainly focused on psychological and ethical attributes of characters instead of physical and sociological ones. Tragedy was dominated by the works and innovations of three well-known playwrights: Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) who was known for his tragic trilogy the “Oresteia” which enlarge the possibilities for dramatics through the communication between two characters in his plays. Aeschylus made use of a third character; however, Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) was the one who actually began it. The latter was known for his trilogy “Oedipus Rex” where his plays decreased the job of the chorus in Greek drama in order to enhance the interaction between characters and the progress of the character itself. The third tragedian was Euripides (480-406 B.C.) who indicated the ultimate form of drama and employed a more naturalistic and human aspects in his plays.
An example of tragedy can be the famous speech of Macbeth (Tripod members, 2004):
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
With respect to comedy, the word comedy was derived from “Comoi” which was the name of a god meaning amusement and entertainment. It was usually based on a “happy idea” that used exaggerated, ridiculous, and sensual pleasures; for instance, a peace with a power or sex strike to stop war. Comedy plays commented and criticized contemporary society, politics, literature and Peloponnesian War. Two playwrights were famous in this domain: Aristophanes (448-380 B.C.) and Menander (342-292 B.C.). Comedy was not as popular as tragedy at first. However, the popularity of Comedy was accompanied with the diminishing of the popularity of tragedy which highly represented the role of theatre. Therefore, tragedy was at its peak in Greek society when the society was at its height whereas comedy (a means for decreasing frustrations) was at its peak during the decline of Greek government.
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A good example of comedy can be a funny tale about a strong woman “Lysistrata” who led a female union to stop the war in Greece. This play, written by Aristophanes, can be a good demonstration of the role of women in ancient Greek time. Women, in this play, were revealed as deceiving, mischievous, strong, smart, cunning, and as being leaders. Lysistrata’s cunning was shown through her great plan of refusing sex by the wives to their husbands. She knew that by refusing sex, peace would be gained since men would not be able to resist this situation. Moreover, what revealed the cleverness of women was when they took over the Akropolis. Lysistrata was able to give a speech on how to run the government and was capable of changing the situations that she didn’t like; she was a true clever leader.
For instance, Lysistrata mentioned: “If we sat around at home all made up, and walked past them wearing only our see-through underwear and with our pubes plucked in a neat triangle, and our husbands got hard and hankered to ball us, but we didn’t go near them and kept away, they’d sue for peace, and pretty quick, you can count on that!” (as cited in Gruber-Miller, 1987).
Also, Lysistrata said: “The older women are assigned that part: while we’re working out our agreement down here, they’ll occupy the Akropolis, pretending to be up there for a sacrifice” (as cited in Gruber-Miller, 1987).
The Warriors in “Lysistrata” said (Tripod members, 2004):
“First Speaker: For through man’s heart there runs in flood
A natural and noble taste for blood—
Second Speaker: To form a ring and fight–
Third Speaker: To cut off heads at sight–
All in Unison: It is our right!
Youth… Come, listen now to the good old days
when children, strange to tell, were seen not
heard, led a simple life, in short were
brought up well.”
Although women were not permitted to engage in ancient Greek plays or even to be with the audience, women made their own festivals in order to gather and discuss their issues with each other. Women played an important role in the Greek society; it was like what people nowadays in our society say “behind a great man there is a woman”. It was the same case where behind every hero there was a woman.
Greek theatre spread its cultural influences to Egypt, the Middle East, Rome, and then the whole world. This indicates how much the Greek theatre has influenced our modern theater. Without ancient theater, the form of entertainment nowadays may not have existed. As indicated by Rebekah Martin (2006):”Without the influences of Dionysus festivals and Greek drama, Shakespeare would have no foundation, and Andrew Lloyd Webber would be out of a job”. Therefore, the roots of drama have affected everything from radio drama to modern cinema.
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