Greek theater history Origin and elements Recognized authors

Greek theater

The Greek theater was the product of an evolution of the festivals in honor of the gods of the people of Ancient Greece. Specifically, it was about the festivals in honor of the god Dionysus, called Dionysias. Its origins date back to Athens around the 6th and 5th centuries BC and it was the most representative cultural manifestation of this civilization. Greek theater history and elements

Although Athens was the main center of these theatrical traditions, the Athenians spread these festivals to their many allies to promote a common identity. These celebrations included various competitions, which were another way to honor a god. There were music, poetry, drama, and athletics competitions.

The Dionysus festivals inspired the genres of Greek tragedy and comedy. Both were hugely popular and the performances spread throughout the Mediterranean, influencing Hellenistic and Roman theater. Thus, the works of great Greek dramatists formed the foundation on which all modern theater was built.

The Greek tragedy had as its background a mythological or epic theme based on the suffering arising from a conflict. The end of the play was marked by the death of the main protagonists. The language was cultured and elevated, and the identification of the public with the hero produced in the spectator a purification that freed him from his own problems.

For its part, the background of the Greek comedy was festive and mocking. Criticism and mockery of situations and characters gave comedy its reason for existence. His characters were varied and could be real or invented. The language used was vulgar. At the end of the play, the triumph of the comic hero (the weak and resourceful) induced catharsis in the audience.

Origin and history of Greek theater

Origin of the tragedy

The exact origins of the tragedy within the Greek theater is still a matter of debate among scholars. Some have linked the emergence of the genre to an earlier art form, the lyrical representation of epic poetry. Others, for their part, suggest a strong link with the rituals performed in the worship of Dionysus (god of wine). Greek theater history and elements

Proponents of the latter theory offer as evidence the sacrifice of goats,  a song ritual called trag-ōdia, and the use of masks. These elements were part of the cult of this god and could also be seen in tragic works.

They also explain that the drinking rites led the worshipers to lose total control of their emotions. The comparison was established against the fact that the actors (called hypocrites) had to become another person when they acted. This group of scholars considers Dionysus as the god of theater.

On the other hand, etymologically, tragedy comes from the words swallows (goat) and odé (song). The defenders of the Dionysian theory assumed that it had to do with the dithyrambs (hymns to the god Dionysus) of the small towns. In the dithyrambs, the performers wore he-goat skins and imitated “capers” (somersaults). Greek theater history and elements

Origin of comedy

Etymologically, the word comedy comes from komoidía and is derived from the Greek kosmos (procession of troupes that sang and danced). These troupes roamed the streets sharing songs and jokes with the spectators during the Dionisias.

In itself, the precise origins of comedy works in Greek theater are not known with certainty. However, it is suspected that it dated back long before written records. It is thought to be related to the custom of men dressing up to imitate others.

Now, the first signs of such activity in the Greek world were discovered through pottery. The decoration in the 6th century BC. C. frequently represented actors disguised as horses, satyrs and dancers in exaggerated costumes.

On the other hand, another possible origin the poems of Archilochus (7th century BCE) and Hipponax (6th century BCE). These contained crude and explicit sexual humor. A third origin, defended by Aristotle, was found in the phallic songs that were sung during the Dionysian festivals. These songs were similar to dithyrambic and nomic poetry.


As regards tragedy, scholars of Greek theater trace its beginnings to the Greek poet Thespis (Athens, 6th century BC). According to ancient tradition, Thespis was the first actor in Greek drama.

He was often called the inventor of tragedy, and his name was recorded as the first to stage a tragedy on the Great Dionysia (534 BC).

According to Aristotle, the tragedy was totally choral until this Greek playwright presented the prologue and internal discourses. This was the first to intertwine the choral song with the speeches of an actor. Likewise, the tragic dialogue began when Thespis exchanged dialogues with the leader of the choir. Greek theater history and elements

As for comedy, historical sources cite that, at first, these were improvised. Later, they were organized and structured. Like tragedy, its appearance as a genre of Greek theater was associated with the festivals in honor of the god Dionysus that had been celebrated since 442 BC.

In this sense, Aristophanes (446 BC-386 BC) is considered “the father of comedy.” He is also assigned the title of “Prince of Ancient Comedy.” Aristophanes is said to have recreated the life of ancient Athens more convincingly than any other author.

His ridiculing abilities were feared and recognized by influential contemporaries. One of his works, The Clouds (considered a slander), contributed to the trial and subsequent death sentence of the philosopher Socrates.

Elements, costumes and masks

Scenic architecture

Like the genre, the physical structure to host the show was of Greek creation. Although it underwent modifications over time, the following elements were maintained and are distinctive of the structure:

  1. Theatron : area where the auditorium sat to enjoy the show. Its shape was horseshoe-shaped, and it had rows of stone steps that rise up and back in tiers. The front row were seats reserved for city officials, the choragus ( any wealthy Athenian citizen who paid for the costs of theatrical productions at festivals), and priests.
  2. Orchestra : circular area at ground level where the choir danced. Originally it was dirt, but later it was paved with stone.
  3. Thymele : altar to Dionysus in which sacrifices were made and that served as a stage support. It was located in the center of the orchestra.
  4. Parodos : entrance passage for the choir to the left or right of the orchestra .
  5. Skene : wooden structure or stage building. It was located in front of the orchestra and was the open part of the structure. Generally, it was built similar to a palace or temple. It also served as a dressing room for the actors.
  6. Proscenium : area in front of the skene where the actors developed the play. It was situated at a higher level than that of the orchestra .


All the cast members of the Greek theater were men. These were called hypocrites . Like athletes, they had to be able to endure long performances in cumbersome masks and costumes.

Moreover, the role of the protagonist ( protaganista ) of the work was assigned to a tenor. Meanwhile, the second in leading role ( deuteragonist ) was assigned to a baritone. Closing the cast, the third role in order of relevance ( tritagonista ) was for a bass.

Participants in Greek plays were conferred divine status because they often acted as deities. They were grouped in a guild of actors, called “the artists of Dionisio”, and were exempt from military service. During the purely Greek stage, the stars of the theater often came to demand outrageous salaries.


Within the Greek theater, the choir became the key to understanding its meaning and purpose. Historians claimed that they were the core from which the tragedy evolved.

In their performance, they sometimes represented the spectators. Other times they acted as a translator of the thoughts and feelings of the actors.

Furthermore, the choir could act as a central figure in the tragedy. Tragic authors sometimes used the chorus to create a psychological and emotional background for the action through their odes.

He could also play other roles such as introducing new characters to the play, reprimanding misguided characters, and sympathizing with the victims. In the same way, his performance could explain to the audience the events as they occurred, cover the passage of time and separate the episodes in the cases of extensive works. Greek theater history and elements

Locker room

In the early Greek theater, the costumes consisted of long, loose tunics and very high leggings (a kind of sandals). They complemented the outfit with masks, wigs, and makeup. They also stained their faces with wine-based paints.

Over time, the actors began to wear costumes adorned with long sleeves. They finished off the wardrobe with a striking belt that is worn above the waist to increase the illusion of stature.

On the other hand, the colors used also had a symbolism. Green represented mourning and red represented attorneys. Generally, slate white with purple represented royalty.

Also, travelers were represented in the play by hats. The excessive use of ornaments such as tunics, girdles and heavy jewelry was a custom.

In tragedies, the hero distinguished himself from the rest of the actors with gloves, body pads, and high-heeled boots to add height and meaning to his figure.

More expensive

In Greek theater, masks served two purposes. First of all, his exaggerated expressions amplified the emotions that the character portrayed.

Second, inside the masks a device was added that acted like a small megaphone that amplified the actor’s words.

On the other hand, these were made of cork or wood, painted with linen or leather. These covered the entire head of the actor. The mask of the hero was finished off at the top by a kind of dome called onkos . As only three actors could appear on stage at a time, the use of multiple masks made duplication of roles possible. Greek theater history and elements

Recognized authors and works

Aeschylus (525/524 BC – 456/455 BC)

Aeschylus was a Greek tragic playwright predecessor of Sophocles and Euripides. Historians of ancient art consider him the first great exponent of Greek tragedy.

Of its production, the Persians (472 BC), The Seven against Thebes (467 BC),   The Eumenides (458 BC) and The Supplicants (463 BC) stand out.

Sophocles (496 BC – 406 BC)

Sophocles was a renowned Greek tragic poet. He was also one of the most prominent figures in Greek tragedy, alongside Euripides and Aeschylus. Of all his literary production, only 7 complete tragedies are preserved today, apart from some fragments.

These works, of capital importance for the genre, are: Oedipus the King , Oedipus in Colonus , Antigone , Ajax , Las Traquinias , Electra and Filoctetes. The first, Oedipus Rex, marks the peak of the formal achievement of classical Greek drama.

Euripides (484/480 BC – 406 BC)

The Athenian Euripides is considered the last of the great tragic playwrights of the Greek theater. 92 works of his authorship are known, of which 19 are plays. He was the winner of the Dionisio Festival 4 times.

His production includes: Alcestis (438 BC), Medea (431 BC), The Heraclids (430 BC), Hippolytus (428 BC), Andrómaca (425 BC) and Hecuba (424 BC). Also noteworthy are Supplicants (423 BC), Electra (420 BC), Heracles (416 BC), The Trojans (415 BC), Helena (412 BC) and Orestes. (408 BC), among others.

Aristophanes (444 BC-385 BC)

Aristophanes is considered the greatest representative of ancient Greek comedy. He is also recognized as the author whose original works were preserved in the greatest quantity until present times.

Now, the work of Aristophanes was characterized by the fact that the chorus, the mime, and the burlesque played a considerable role. In it, his daring fantasy, ruthless inventiveness and outrageous satire stood out. His humor was blatantly licentious, characterized by a marked freedom from political criticism.

Among the surviving works, we can mention The Aharnians (425 BC), The Knights (424 BC), The Clouds (423 BC), The Wasps (422 BC), The Birds (414 BC) and The Frogs (405 BC) .

Menander (342 BC-291 BC)

Menander was a Hellenistic Greek playwright. He was the best known representative of the new Athenian comedy and one of the favorite writers of antiquity. It was noted for its immense popularity in its time and for many centuries afterward. Greek theater history and elements

He is considered the successor of Aristophanes. Unfortunately, very little of his work survived the ravages of time. Among his well-known work are: The Wayward (winner of a prize in the Dionysians in 315 BC), The Shield , The Shearing ,   The Arbitration , The Woman of Samos and The Sicionios .

Cratino (519 BC-422 BC)

Cratino was an Athenian poet belonging to the ancient comedy. He was the first to use comedy as a weapon to censor the vices of his time. In his endeavor, he displayed a greater severity than Aristophanes. 21 theatrical pieces are attributed to him, of which only a few fragments remain today.

The careers of Cratino and Aristophanes overlap in about five years. Their rivalry for festival victories is believed to have been an ongoing component. Some of his works are: The herds of cows , Women of Delos , The essays , The children of Euneus , Women of Thrace and The gods of wealth .

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