Ancient Greek Drama, Origins, History, and Examples

Essay add: 30-09-2015, 13:21   /   Views: 262


Theater was born in Attica, an Ionic region of Greece. It originated from the ceremonial orgies of Dionysos but soon enough its fields of interest spread to various myths along with historic facts. As ancient drama was an institution of Democracy, the great tragic poets Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides as well as the comedian Aristophanes elevated public debate and political criticism to a level of aesthetic achievement. Euripides and the ethologist Menandros, in the thriving years of Alexandria and later on during the Roman domination, reached a beau ideal level and through the Romans managed to form Western Theater, from Renascence and thereafter.


The plays were presented at festivals in honor of Dionysus, including the Great Dionysia at Athens, held in the spring the Rural Dionysia, held in the winter and the Lenaea, also held in the winter following the Rural Dionysia. The works of only three poets, selected in competition, were performed. In addition to three tragic plays (a trilogy) each poet had to present a satyr play - a farcical, often bawdy parody of the gods and their myths. Later, comedy, which developed in the mid-5th century BC, was also presented. The oldest extant comedies are by Aristophanes. They have a highly formal structure thought to be derived from ancient fertility rites. The humor consists of a mixture of satirical attacks on contemporary public figures, bawdy, scatological jokes, and seemingly sacrilegious parodies of the gods. By the 4th century BC comedy had supplanted tragedy as the dominant form.


The form of the Greek physical theater evolved over two centuries interestingly, the permanent stone theaters that survive today as ruins were not built until the 4th century BC - that is, after the classical period of playwriting. The open-air theaters may have consisted of an orchestra - a flat circular area used for choral dances—a raised stage behind it for actors, and a roughly semicircular seating area built into a hillside around the orchestra, although modern scholars debate the layout of particular theaters. These theaters held 15,000 to 20,000 spectators. As the importance of actors grew and that of the chorus diminished, the stage became higher and encroached on the orchestra space.

The actors - all men - wore theatricalized versions of everyday dress, but, most important, they wore larger-than-life masks, which aided visibility and indicated the nature of the character to the audience. In the vast theaters, subtle gestures and facial expressions, upon which modern actors depend, would have been lost. Movement was apparently stately and formal, and the greatest emphasis was on the voice. Music accompanied the dances. An ancient Greek production was probably more akin to opera than to modern drama.

In keeping with its religious function, the theater was state supported, admission was free or nominal to everyone, and actors were highly regarded. Working at the same time were the mimes - male and female popular entertainers who plied their trade wherever an audience would toss a few coins.


As Greek culture spread in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great, the topical, literary comedies and philosophical tragedies became inappropriate, and domestic comedy - called Middle and New Comedy - proliferated. Only one complete New Comedy survives the Dyskolos (The Curmudgeon or The Misanthrope, 317 BC) by Menander. These plays are similar in plot and style to the situation comedies on television today. The plot hinges on a complication or situation revolving around love, family problems, money, or the like. The characters are stock - identifiable, simplified social types, such as a miserly father or a nagging mother-in-law.

Greek tragedy flourished in the 5th century BC. Of the more than 1000 tragedies written during that century, only 31 remain, all by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.


Aeschylus lived between 525 BC and 456 BC. He was a Greek dramatist, the earliest of the great tragic poets of Athens. As the predecessor of Sophocles and Euripides, he is called the father of Greek tragedy. Aeschylus was born in Eleusis, near Athens.

He fought successfully against the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC, at Salamís in 480 BC, and possibly at Plataea in the following year. He made at least two trips, perhaps three, to Sicily. During his final visit he died at Gela, where a monument was later erected in his memory.

Aeschylus is said to have written about 90 plays. His tragedies, first performed about 500 BC, were presented as trilogies, or groups of three, usually bound together by a common theme, and each trilogy was followed by a satyr drama (low comedy involving a mythological hero, with a chorus of satyrs). The titles of 79 of his plays are known, but only 7 have survived. The earliest is The Suppliants, a drama with little action but many choral songs of great beauty it is believed to be the first play of a trilogy about the marriage of the 50 daughters of Danaüs, which included the plays The Egyptians and The Danaïds. The Persians, presented in 472 BC, is a historical tragedy about the Battle of Salamís, the scene being laid in Persia at the court of the mother of King Xerxes I.

The Seven Against Thebes, produced in 467 BC, is based on a Theban legend, the conflict between the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, for the throne of Thebes. It is believed to be the third play of a trilogy, the first two being Laius and Oedipus. Prometheus Bound, a work of uncertain date, portrays the punishment of the defiant Prometheus by Zeus. It is probably the first play of a Promethean trilogy, the others being Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer.

The remaining three plays, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides, produced in 458 BC, form the trilogy known as the Oresteia, or story of Orestes. In Agamemnon, one of the greatest works of dramatic literature, King Agamemnon returns home from Troy and is treacherously murdered by his faithless wife Clytemnestra. In the second play, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, returns to Argos and avenges the murder of his father by slaying his mother and her paramour Aegisthus. This act of matricide is punished by the avenging goddesses, the Erinyes. In The Eumenides, the Erinyes pursue Orestes until he is cleansed of his blood guilt and set free by the ancient court of the Areopagus, through the intercession of Athena, goddess of wisdom.

By introducing a second actor into the play, Aeschylus created dramatic dialogue he also elaborated the staging of the drama, introducing costumes and scenery. The characteristics of his works are the profundity of theme and the grandeur of the poetry recited by the chorus. The Oresteia, probably his most mature work, provides an insight into his concepts of justice and mercy, and his belief in a divine will, with the aid of which humanity can achieve wisdom through suffering.


Sophocles lived from 496 BC to 406 BC. He was one of the greatest tragic dramatists of ancient Athens.

Sophocles was born about 496 BC in Colonus Hippius (now part of Athens), the son of Sophillus, reportedly a wealthy armor-maker. Sophocles was provided with the best traditional aristocratic education. As a young man, he was chosen to lead the chorus of youths who celebrated the naval victory at Salamis in 480 BC. In 468 BC, at the age of 28, he defeated Aeschylus, whose preeminence as a tragic poet had long been undisputed, in a dramatic competition. The date of the first contest with Euripides is uncertain in 441 Euripides defeated Sophocles in one of the annual Athenian dramatic competitions. From 468 BC, however, Sophocles won first prize about 20 times and many second prizes. His life, which ended in 406 BC at about the age of 90, coincided with the period of Athenian greatness. He numbered among his friends the historian Herodotus, and he was an associate of the statesman Pericles. He was not politically active or militarily inclined, but the Athenians twice elected him to high military office.

Sophocles composed more than 100 plays, of which 7 complete tragedies and fragments of 80 or 90 others are preserved. The seven extant plays are Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King), Electra, Ajax, Trachiniae (Maidens of Trachis), Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus (produced posthumously in 401 BC). Also preserved is a large fragment of the Ichneutae (Investigators), a satiric drama discovered on papyrus in Egypt about the turn of the 20th century. Of the surviving tragedies the earliest is thought to be Ajax (circa 451-444 BC). Next probably are Antigone and Trachiniae (after 441). Oedipus Tyrannus and Electra date from 430 to 415 BC. Philoctetes is known to date from 409 BC.

All seven extant tragedies are considered outstanding for their powerful, intricate plots and dramatic style, and at least three - Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus, and Oedipus at Colonus - are generally regarded as masterpieces. Antigone, an outstanding lyrical drama, develops a main Sophoclean theme, dealing with the pain and suffering caused when an individual, obstinately defying the dictates of divine will or temporal authority, or refusing to yield to destiny and circumstance, instead obeys some inner compulsion that leads to agonizing revelation and, ultimately, to a mysterious vindication of that person's behavior and life. Antigone bestows the rites of burial upon her battle-slain brother Polyneices in defiance of the edict of Creon, who was the ruler of Thebes. In so doing she thereby brings about her own death, the death of her lover Haemon, who is Creon's son, and that of Eurydice, Creon's wife.

Ajax, Electra, Philoctetes, and Trachiniae in varying forms repeat the themes of Antigone. Oedipus Tyrannus, which is justly famed for its flawless construction, its dramatic power, and its effective dramatic irony, was considered by Aristotle in his well-known treatise the Poetics the most typical and in many respects the most perfect of the Greek tragedies. The plot turns on the gradual revelation to the mythological hero Oedipus of the dreadful truth that he has become ruler of Thebes by first unwittingly slaying his father and then marrying his mother, the queen Jocasta. Oedipus at Colonus is a powerful play depicting the reconciliation of the blind and aged Oedipus with destiny and his sublime and mysterious death at Colonus, after years of wandering as an exile, sustained by the loving care of his daughter Antigone.


Euripides lived around 480 BC to 406 BC. He was a Greek dramatist, the third, with Aeschylus and Sophocles, of the great Attic tragic poets. His work, fairly popular in his own time, exerted great influence on Roman drama.

According to tradition Euripides was born in Salamis on September 23, about 480 BC, the day of the great naval battle between the Greeks and the Persians. His parents, according to some authorities, belonged to the nobility according to others, they were of humble origin. Their son, in any case, received a thorough education. His plays began to be performed in the Attic drama festivals in 454 BC, but it was not until 442 BC that he won first prize. This distinction, despite his prolific talent, fell to him again only four times. Aside from his writings, his chief interests were philosophy and science.

Although Euripides did not identify himself with any specific school of philosophy, he was influenced by the Sophists and by such philosophers as Protagoras, Anaxagoras, and Socrates. Euripides was austere and considered himself misunderstood by his contemporaries, a conclusion not without foundation, for he was constantly the object of attack by the Athenian writers of comedy. Aristophanes in particular made him a subject of a satire in The Frogs (405 BC). Euripides' plays were criticized for their unconventionality, for their natural dialogue (his heroes and princes spoke the language of everyday life), and for their independence of traditional religious and moral values. His plays, however, if not overwhelmingly popular, were famous throughout Greece. In the latter part of his life he left Athens for Macedonia.


The period of Athenian domination during the 5th century BC has become known as the golden age of Athens. Under Pericles, who became leader of the popular party and head of the state in 460 BC, the city attained its greatest splendor. The constitution, reformed to further internal democracy, contained provisions such as payment for jury service, thereby permitting even the poorest citizens to serve. Pericles was determined to make Athens the most beautiful city in the world.


Medea, in Greek mythology, was a sorceress and the daughter of Aeëtes, king of Colchis. When the hero Jason, in command of the Argonauts, reached Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, Medea fell hopelessly in love with him. In return for Jason's pledge of everlasting fidelity and his promise to take her back to Greece with him, she used her magic gifts to enable him to deceive her father and obtain the fleece. Medea then sailed away from Colchis with Jason, taking Apsyrtus, her young brother, with her. To escape from Aeëtes's pursuit, Medea killed Apsyrtus and scattered his remains on the sea. The king stopped to gather them up, and the delay enabled Jason and his party to escape. They lived happily in Corinth until Jason fell in love with the daughter of King Creon of Corinth. In revenge, Medea killed her rival by sending her a poisoned robe. Fearing that Creon would attempt to avenge the death of his daughter by harming her sons, Medea killed them. Medea escaped the wrath of Jason by leaving Corinth in a winged car and fleeing to Athens.

The play Medea is related to the above titles as it reflects the everday life of Ancient Greece: through its issues, we can see what the Athenians of the time thought of life through their dialogue, we can determine how formal people were and through the characters actions we can conclude simple things such as the average Athenians day. Therefore through many plays like Medea, we can solve many questions about life in Ancient Greece.

Article name: Ancient Greek Drama, Origins, History, and Examples essay, research paper, dissertation