An Overview of Classical Greek Theater
A. Classical Greek Tragedy and Greek Comedy
According to Aristotle, the Athenians developed tragedy first, with comedy following a generation or so later. While this assessment is essentially correct, the truth seems to have been somewhat more complicated. Comic dramas as opposed to comedy itself—that is, humorous plays versus the formal genre of “comedy”—appear to have evolved alongside their tragic counterpart, perhaps even before it. The satyr play, in particular, a farcical rendition of myths more often treated seriously which featured a chorus of rowdy, irreverent satyrs (half-human half-animal spirits of the wilderness notorious for their lust and gluttony), emerged early in the tradition of Greek theatre, though exactly how early is not clear. Nevertheless, the historical sources for theatrical performances in the Classical Age focus largely on tragedy as the hub of early dramatic activity, even if its pre-eminence probably looks clearer in hindsight than it seemed in the day.
Three tragedians emerge from the fifth century BCE as the principal practitioners of classical Greek tragic drama: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Theirs are the only tragedies preserved whole. First and foremost, Aeschylus lived a generation earlier than the other two so his work provides our first hard look at Greek drama. If to modern viewers his plays seem static and slow-moving, there can be little doubt they were exciting and controversial in their day.
The elder of the later pair, Sophocles is often seen as the best playwright of the three—in the general estimation of many in the scholarly community, Sophocles remains the finest exponent of tragic arts ever—and certainly his polished dramas were very well-respected in the Classical Age, as they have been for the most part ever since. It is somewhat ironic to note, then, that interest in his drama in performance seems to have waned fairly soon after his lifetime.
Conversely, Euripides, while alienating his contemporaries and considered by many a distant second to Sophocles when the two of them were alive, left behind a body of drama which commanded the stage after the Classical Age. There can be little doubt why: Euripides had a knack for putting on stage eye-catching situations and creating memorable characters with extreme personality disorders. Accordingly, theatrical records show that his works were very frequently produced in later ages, outstripping both Sophocles and Aeschylus.
No Greek tragedy from the fourth century or later (the Post-Classical Age) has been preserved intact, making it hard to determine the course of tragic drama in Greece after the lifetime of Sophocles and Euripides (note). We can, however, follow the evolution of its close kin, comedy, in later Greek theatre.
The presentation of humorous material has deep roots in ancient Greece, perhaps as old as tragedy itself, but because comedy was seen as a lesser art form until quite late in the evolution of Western Civilization, the evidence for this genre of drama is scant. Historical records make it clear skits designed to provoke laughter were being written throughout and even before the Classical Age—comedy officially premiered at the Dionysia at some point during the 480’s BCE, between the Persian Wars—and this type of theatre, now termed “Old Comedy,” gained popularity steadily across the fifth century. In particular, it began to attract widespread attention during the Peloponnesian War when productions of comedy provided the Athenians much needed relief from the anxiety and sorrow of their conflict against Sparta.
While the names of several exponents of this genre in the fifth century are preserved, and in some cases fragments of their work as well, the plays of only one Old Comedy playwright, Aristophanes, have come down to us complete. His drama—and presumably that of his predecessors and contemporaries, too—was primarily built around current events and issues. Indeed, all indications point to political and social satire as the hallmark of Old Comedy, especially toward the end of the Classical Age.
Later, however, after the end of the Peloponnesian War, as Greece moved into the Post-Classical period, comedy underwent a major transformation. From ridiculing celebrities and the regime in power to focusing on the lives and lifestyles of less prominent people, comic drama evolved toward the end of the fourth century (the 300’s BCE) into a new and very different-looking type of entertainment. Out of the ashes of civil war and Alexander’s conquests and the many desperations of the upper-middle class was born the “sit-com.”
The master of this “New Comedy” was Menander, heralded by at least one ancient critic as an author unsurpassed in quality. However, for reasons having nothing to do with his brilliant stagecraft, his work did not survive the Middle Ages. Fortunately, the sands of Egypt have rendered up several of his plays, albeit in “rags and patches” but well enough preserved for us to see what his drama looked like. Character-driven, highly stylized pieces with recurring characters and inclined toward subtle rather than broad humor, Menandrean New Comedy in more ways than one marks the beginning of modern drama.
The performance spaces of classical antiquity are enormous by today’s standards, closer in size to modern sports stadiums than the sorts of theatres with which we are most familiar. Outdoors and most often situated on steep slopes that curve around the playing area, many ancient theatres were capable of housing thousands of spectators. These theatra (the plural of theatron)—the Greek word originally referred only to the seating area in a theatre, as was noted in Chapter 1—call for a certain style of performance. In order to be heard, for instance, the ancient actor had to have a strong voice. Likewise, costumes, sets and movement also needed to be visible from and intelligible at great distances. Unlike modern realistic plays which for the most part call for intimate, indoor theatre spaces with controlled lighting, ancient drama had more the feel we associate with large-scale athletic events.
B. The Theatre in the Classical Age
The primary and primordial performance space in ancient Athens and the home of the City Dionysia was the Theatre of Dionysus. Built into the slopes of the Acropolis where it could utilize the natural terrain to create seating, this “instrument for viewing” is, if not the actual birthplace, certainly the cradle of Western drama. But its exact structure in the Classical Age is impossible to determine. It was substantially refurbished twice in antiquity, once in the later fourth century (300’s BCE) and once again in Roman times, making it unlikely that a single stone visible in the theatre today was there in the Classical Age. Thus, it is improbable any of the classical tragedians would recognize much of the theatre we see now other than its location.