In The Beginning There Was Greek Theater
We start our series on the history of theatre at a natural place -
The origins of stage goes way back into the past - way back
into the history of our species. You can find traces of songs,
dances and religous ceremonies dedicated to a god and performed by
shamans or priests going way back.
Even now, ceremonies that feed from this original theater can be
But theater as we understand it can really be boiled down to three
things - actors singing or speaking by themselves, some element of
conflict in a story being portrayed and an audience which is there
and emotionally involved in the story.
Without these things, these may be ceremonies - but they are not
theatre as we understand them.
So it follows that the first great theatrical age was that of the
Greeks in the 5th century B.S. In Greece, tragedies and comedies
(some of which are still performed today) were born. These
productions were not in churches or temples, but were rather
performed in areas specially dedicated to this form of entertainment
- the theater.
The origins of this building and the performances can be found in
the dithyramb (or unison hymn) which was sung around the altar of
Dionysus, the wine-god (yes even then actors and wine had a close
The gods were almost always the heroes of the stories. Good or bad,
their wars, feuds, marriages and adulteries were really the fodder
for the beginning of the stories being told. These plays were the
modern version of our soap operas. Continuations in familiar
But Greek drama was not limited to tragedy. It was enlivened by what
the Greeks called satyrs - half men, half goats - who were the
attendants of Dionysus. It was from their horseplay and fooling
around that the first true comedies developed.
The first playright who really was important to the origin of Greek
Theater was Aeschylus. He was born in 525 BC and was known in his
lifetime as a soldier as well as a poet.
The next well known dramatist of Athens was Sophocles, who was
younger than Aeschylus., His plays have outlasted so many others in
even modern times. His best known Oedipus The King is even today
often revived in modern theater.
The actors in Greek plays were elaborate robes, often brightly
colored and heavily embroidered. They also wore high boots in
imitation of their god Dionysus. The costumes also had high head
dresses. You can imagine that in the large open theaters of the
greeks, these elaborate costumes gave the actors a sense of grandeur
Of the theatres in which the Greek plays were first performed -
there are few that have survived. The theater of Dionysus in Athens,
which has been remodelled several times.
By the time the great stone buildings which we think of as
quintessentially Greek were in use the control of Greek Theatre had
passed from the important dramatists like Arisophanes, and Sophocles
- into the hands of the Actors.
At this point in history the plays began being performed in the vast
hellenistic buildings that would become the standard for theaters of
the time. It was also about this time that the Romans began to
expand their empire south - and they too became a part of the
The Romans immediately took to the Greek comedy. With the high
stages and elaborate scene buildings, the Romans began to build vast
theatres across their empire.
In the next article we'll explore the rise of Roman Theater and the
transition into Medieval theater.