The Tragedies and Comedies of Ancient Greek Theatre

The Tragedies and Comedies of Ancient Greek Theatre

If you’ve ever seen the smiling and frowning masks used to represent theater and the dramatic arts, you’re looking at a tribute to the culture of ancient Greece. The Greeks’ influence on theater and literature is still found in the plays, movies, and books we enjoy today. No one is sure where exactly Greek dramas got their start; it could be through epic poetry or traditional rituals. We do know that Aristotle developed the first dramatic theory, which he explained in his work Poetics. In Poetics, Aristotle separated theater into three categories: comedy, drama, and satyr plays. The traditions and tropes of these genres appear in Shakespeare’s work and in countless modern plays and stories.

The plays of ancient Greece were performed during large festivals often held in honor of the gods. A defining characteristic of Greek theater was the use of a chorus. The chorus was a group of players who sang, danced, or spoke in unison. They could serve as funny commentators or a way to guide the audience through the plot of the play. At first, choruses contained 50 people; the writer Aeschylus lowered the number to 12, and Sophocles raised it again to 15. Today, you can still find choruses in opera and musical theater. Greek theater popularized some other features we recognize as well, like the use of masks. The members of the chorus all wore the same mask, as they were meant to represent a single character. Masks could be used to make the audience laugh or to build a sense of dread during tragedies.

Tragedies

The origins of the Greek tragedy were influenced by Roman theater and ancient ceremonies held in honor of Dionysus. The plots were often based on myths and epics. Some scholars speculate that Thespis may have been the one to first combine spoken verse with song. We call stage actors thespians today in honor of Thespis, who, as far as scholars know, was the first actor to represent a character in a play, rather than speaking as himself, when he performed in Dionysia by Pesistratus.

As tragedies developed, Aeschylus became the first writer to establish the rules of a tragic drama. We all know many stories told in three parts, like The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars films, and we can thank Aeschylus for creating the trilogy style of storytelling. In ancient Greece, these tragic trilogies were performed all day, often followed by a satyr play after sunset to lighten the mood. The only surviving tragedy texts were written by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Comedies

Aristotle described comedy as story of a blunder that did not cause tragedy or disaster and involved laughable people. Scholars usually divide Athenian comedies into three categories: Old Comedy, Middle Comedy, and New Comedy. Most of the remaining Old Comedy plays were written by Aristophanes; the Middle Comedy plays have been lost except for a few pieces written by authors like Athenaus; and New Comedy is represented by the pieces that Menander wrote on papyrus. Many comedies were political satires or based on the everyday fears and mistakes of ordinary people. Audiences connected to Menander because his work gave them an escape from reality while being relatable and true to life.

Satyr Plays

Satyr plays combine elements of tragedy and comedy and inspired the word “satire.” These plays featured choruses of drunk satyrs performing gags, pranks, and bawdy jokes. Satyrs are mythological creatures or nature deities known for excessive drinking and ignoring the rules. The creatures are associated with music and dance. Performers wore masks and sometimes horns. Like tragedies, satyr plays were often based on myths and legends. A few well-known examples of these plays are Heracles, Agen, and Menedemus. The only complete satyr play that survives is Cyclops by Euripides, which is based on a portion of The Odyssey. Also surviving are large pieces of the Sophocles play Ichneutae, which tells the story of the satyrs Apollo sent to find some stolen cattle.

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