The ancient Greek experience of the theatre was very different to ours today. For the ancient Greeks, theatre was part of a religious festival in honour of the god Dionysus. But this does not mean that the audience was quiet and respectful or that all of the plays were serious or moral in fact, quite the opposite was often true.
Theatre in Honour of Dionysus
The greatest theatrical festival in ancient Athens was called the City Dionysia or Greater Dionysia, because it was in honour of Dionysus. It took place in March each year and went for four days, which were public holidays so that everyone could go. The city even gave money to the poor so that they could afford to go. Over the four days, seventeen plays were performed, a mixture of different types.
The plays took place in open air theatres. The seats
were usually arranged in a semi-circle, and were always built into
the side of a hill. A theatre in fifth century Athens could hold
an audience of about 15000 people. The actors performed in a flat,
usually round area called the "orchestra". Behind the
orchestra was the stage building, called a "skene", which
was decorated to look like the front of a house or palace. Actors
would enter and exit the performance area through its doors, and
would change their costumes in a room behind it. At first, most
of the action took place in the orchestra, but in later times, more
of the action took place on the stage, as it does today.
Different Kinds of Plays
There were three different types of play in Classical Greece tragedies, satyr plays and comedies. Tragedies were very serious and sad, usually based on stories from Greek myth. Satyr plays were also based on myths and featured the mythological creatures satyrs, but were funny. Comedies were sometimes about the real world and sometimes based on myth. They often made fun of well-known people and involved a lot of rude jokes.
Performances were also quite different in ancient
Greece to the way we experience them today. Actors always wore masks
and fancy costumes, which were designed so that people could tell
right away who the character was; for example, a king would always
carry a sceptre.
More About the Actors
Only men could act in ancient Greece. They performed all of the parts, including women and children. In the fifth century, the actors were not professionals and, at the Greater Dionysia, all of the actors had to be Athenian citizens. Only three speaking parts were allowed to be performed at any one time (sometimes four in comedies), though other actors with non-speaking roles were also allowed on stage at the same time.
The actors were always accompanied by a group called the chorus. In tragedies and satyr plays, there were twelve or fifteen men making up this chorus. In comedies, there were twenty-four members in the chorus. The chorus would sing and dance, often giving the audience background information in between scenes. They were accompanied by a man playing the aulos, or double flute.
More About the Audience
The audience at a Greek play was not as polite as the audiences today. During the play, people would eat and would shout out if they liked what was said. If they didn't like the play, the audience would sometimes hiss or even throw their food at the actors! At the end of a festival, prizes would be given for the plays judged to be the best.
Philosophy: Ancient Greek Thinkers
The Olympic Games
Fashion and Food
Religion, Ritual and Worship
Athenian Politics and Government
Greek Architecture: then and now
Greek Art: Vase painting and sculpture
Education in Ancient Times
A Trip to the Theatre