Day One

     Inhabited for more than 4000 years, Athens became a center for philosophy, art, and theatre during the 5th century BCE. Its cultural and artistic achievements affected the development of politics and art in modern western civilizations. Athens is considered by many to be the cradle of Western civilization and also was the firt to adopt a form of democracy. During the early 5th century, Athens and the nation-state of Sparta fought alongside one another in the wars against Persia. These friendly relations came to an end when Athens began taking a more prominent role in the politics of the Aegean, making alliances with Thessaly and Argos, a traditional enemy of Sparta. The First Peloponnesian War began in 460 BC, lasting 15 years and ended in the Thirty Years’ Peace. During this time Athens reached the peak of its military and naval power. From 450-430 BCE, Athens experienced its golden age with tremendous successes in philosophy, literature, sculpture and theatre.


Greek Theatre and Greek Myths
     Greek literature finds its beginnings with Homer and his two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Many playwrights in the following centuries used the characters and plots of Homer in their plays. Greek drama was important to Athens and performances were often linked with their festivals. Greek drama came in the form of tragedy, comedy and the satyr-play. Tragedy, for the Greeks, were plays that dealt with serious issues that must be respected. Tragedies did not have to end with sorrow and destruction, although many did. The characters were not struck down without reason, the story followed a pattern of tragic events and dealt with crime and punishment which was often the work of the gods. These tragedies often dealt with the heroes that precede the classical age and the interconnected myths and stories that surrounded them and the gods. Most of Greek comedy is dependent of one author, Aristophanes and little is known of the origins of comedy. Satyr-plays often made fun of the serious stories of tragedy and were intended to arouse the laughter of the audience. Satyrs were creatures of Athenian folk culture, similar to goblins, and were the companions of Dionysos, to whom most Greek festivals were dedicated. These plays were short and often performed between the formal tragic presentations during the festival competitions.

Test your knowledge of Greek Gods and Heroes!
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City Dionysia
     The great festivals in Greece were established during the 6th century by Athenian rulers in order to foster a sense of national unity and possibly cultural identity. Much of Greek theatre is tied to the yearly festivals honoring Dionysos, with the most important being the City Dionysia. The City Dionysia was held in the month of Elaphebolion, which roughly corresponds to late March/early April. The festival most likely began on the 10th and lasted 5 days. The festival for many Athenians was a holiday from everyday civic business – legal proceedings were put on hold and the assembly did not meet. The City Dionysia helped the progress of theatre by holding competitions for tragic plays. Preliminaries were likely held before the festival during which poets would appear and give hints about the coming competitions (proagon). On 9 Elaphebolion the statue of Dionysos would be taken from his temple and paraded through the streets. It was the brought to the Theatre of Dionysus and placed near the orchestra for the rest of the festival.

     The next day the theatrical contests began. The first contests were likely choral competitions called dithyrambs. These were performed by either a chorus of men or a chorus of boys and were hymns to honor the god Dionysos. The next 4 days were full of comedies, tragedies, and the occasional satyr-play, after which the winners would receive their prize and a parade to honor their victory.

The City Dionysia, ca 430 BCE
8 Elaphebolion - Proagon
9 Elaphebolion - 'Introduction' of Dionysos
10 Elphebolion - Parade (pompe) and the Dithyrambic Contests (men &boys)
11 Elphebolion - Comic Contests (5 poets, 1 play each)
12 Elphebolion - Tragedian A (3 plays, 1 satyr-drama)
13 Elphebolion - Tragedian B (3 plays, 1 satyr-drama)
14 Elphebolion - Tragedian C (3 plays, 1 satyr-drama)
Awarding of the prizes, parade of the victor


     Born at Eleusis in 525 BCE, Aeschylus is one of the first Greek tragedians whose plays we still have and was referred to by Aristophanes as ‘the first to build the towering words of tragedy.' (17) His plays began to debut around 499 BCE but his first competitive victory came in 484 BCE. His string of victories continued until 458 and was only interrupted once by Sophocles in 468. Aeschylus wrote anywhere from seventy to ninety plays including the Persians, Oresteia, and Prometheus Bound. A mainstay of his writing style and approach to drama was his use of the trilogy. Many tragic writers of the time produced 3 unrelated tragedies, but Aeschylus’ three tragedies were often connected stories that allowed the actions of one play to unfold in the next and finally to conclude in the last. Aeschylus used the dramatic sequence of action-reaction-resolution for these trilogies and the stories often covered generations of a family. The characters of Aeschylus are considered low relief character in that what they do is more important than who they are, personal motivations and personality were not explicitly defined by Aeschylus. The choruses of Aeschylus, in contrast, often stand out as dramatic personalities and raise the level of action within the play. The importance of the chorus is portrayed in Suppliants, the chorus speaks half the lines of the drama. Aeschylus’ style is defined by the language of his plays, he often uses colloquialisms and common language between the character actors and also used words with double meanings. In Agamemnon, Klytaimestra is described as having a ‘man-plotting (androboulon) heart’, where anbroboulon means ‘plotting like a male’ but can also mean ‘plotting against a male.’ The choral odes were often written in a grander more dense form of Greek with compounding adjectives and high poetry. Aeschylus wrote his plays in a conflict and change. He lived during the military conflict with Persia and also experienced Athens political change from tyranny (one-man rule) to democracy. His plays, although written about events that had already happened, often reflected the current social issues of Athenian life. He was also able to witness the development of early philosophy – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle came after Aeschylus- and the Enlightenment that would soon follow.


     Euripides is consider to be the third of the great Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and…) and many view his as rather unconventional in his dramatic style. Born in 480 BCE, Euripides career was late in development and he his works did not debut until 455 with Daughters of Pelias. Unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides was no famous in his lifetime. Only credited with four victories at competitions, Euripides did not become popular until the 4th century. Euripides is often described as an innovator where Greek myths are concerned, often adding new plot twists and characters to well established stories. Euripides also played with the conventions of drama, with his characters mixing conventions of tragedy and comedy. He also began to toy with the psychology of his characters and began to explore how they came to perform the actions they did. Euripides also made changes to the structure of the chorus and music of the plays. The chorus began to decrease in size and function. Unlike Aeschylus, Euripides used the chorus as an interlude between scenes, placing more of the lines and thus the importance on the actors. A figure of controversy during his own lifetime, an audience who came to a play by Euripides could expect to see a bold and innovative treatment of traditional myths with realistic and unpleasant characters.


     Unlike tragedy, Greek comedy is somewhat of a mystery. Aristotle believed that ‘because it was not taken seriously, the origins of comedy have been forgotten,’ (17) so the first comedic playwright of Greek comedy is also its most well known. Comedy received official status at the City Dionysia in 486 and often portrayed the working out of a great idea in the most bizarre way possible. Comedy employed a larger chorus, crude or obscene language, and costumes/visual aspects that reflected the absurdity of the story and its characters. Aristophanes was born about 450 BCE in Athens and made his debut around 427 with Banqueters. His more famous plays are Clouds and Frogs. Greek comedy s largely defined by Aristophanes, despite having been performed at Dionysia for 60 years before he burst onto the scene. Aristophanes drew his comic themes from the Athens of his day and covered topics from the Athenian legal system to poking fun at other dramatists. Aristophanes developed three principle caricatures in his comedies for use as very different comic motifs; those of Kleon, Euripides, and Socrates. A leader in Athenian politics during Aristophanes lifetime, Kleon was often the target for vicious satire and portrayed as a corrupt and ignorant political figure. The caricature of Euripides was very different; Aristophanes often showed an appreciation for and fascination with Euripides. Socrates was characterized as a sophist, although like Aristophanes he also renounced the ideas of the sophists. The caricature was most likely a well intentioned joke rather than being a hostile attack. Aristophanes defended comedy against attacks from others and claimed that comedy could reflect the same seriousness and morals of tragedy. Aristophanes comedies are a mix of ‘high’ and ‘low’ comedy. He employed slapstick and obscene humor and simultaneously tackled great issues of his day, which created a world of sublime fantasy and humor for the audience.

Day Two

     Built on the south slope of the Acropolis, the Theatre of Dionysus was used for the dramatic competitions of the City Dionysia and saw the plays of Greece's greatest writers performed there. The theatre was dedicated to the god of the festival, Dionysos, and could seat up to 17,000 spectators.


     Aristotle was one of the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece and made contributions to mathematics, logic, ethics, medicine, dance and theatre. Aristotle was born in 384 BCE at Stagirus on the coast of Thrace. He studied at the Academy in Athens under Plato for almost twenty years. His abilities would have led him to succeeding Plato at the academy but his divergence from Plato’s teachings made this impossible. He left Athens and lived in Mysia for three years then taught Alexander in the Macedonian court for the next five years. Subsequently he returned to Athens and established his own school called the Lyceum. Aristotle wrote over 200 treatise, one of which was on Greek theatre called the Poetics.
     Aristotle defined tragedy as the ‘imitation of action’ (17) and proscribed six elements to determine the quality of a production. These elements, in order of importance, were Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Melody, and Specatcle. The tragic play should contain these elements in correct proportion, encourage the audience to feel pity and fear, and in the end give the audience katharsis.

Aristotle's Six Elements of Drama
PLOTThe plot is the ‘arrangement of incidents’ and is considered the most important element of tragedy. It is the structure of the play, its chain of cause-and-effect events. Aristotle also recommended that plots should be complex so that the play can contain reversal (peripeteia), recognition (anagnorisis) and catastrophe.
CHARACTER:  Protagonist. In a well-written tragedy the characters will support and further the plot. Personal motivations will push the action forward and produce fear and pity in the audience. Characters will have a tragic flaw (hamartia) that will cause them to bring about their own downfall.
THOUGHT:  Thought is used to describe how speeches should reveal characteristics about the protagonist. Thought was also used to describe the themes of a play.
DICTION:   The stylistic elements of how words and phrasing is used are referred to as diction. Aristotle had a particular fondness for metaphors in tragedy.
MELODY:  Melody and song is the musical element of the chorus. Aristotle believed that music and choral odes should help to unify the plot and not be merely an interlude between the action.
SPECTACLE:  Spectacle refers to props, costumes, etc. or scenery. Aristotle argued that spectacle was the least important element for it could be used to mask the inferiority of plot.


     The life of Sophocles coincides with the classical period of drama during the 5th century at Athens. Athens witness wars with Persia and Sparta, splendid building projects on the Acropolis, the progression of philosophy and science, and democracy for the Athenian people. Sophocles was born at Kolonos, near Athens in 496 BCE. Sophocles wrote almost 120 plays, 30 of which were produced over his 60-year career. Sophocles was regarded by Aristotle as the most perfect of the tragic poets but Sophocles’ plays rely heavily on character not necessarily plot. All the dramatic action and tragedy unfolds around a central character who is often in isolation. Although he focuses on the strong central characters, he does not delve into their psychological motivations as Euripides did. Sophocles also began to reduce the choral role in his plays and does not involve them in the dramatic action. Sophocles most often used irony, especially in his most well known work Oedipus Rex. The blind Teiresias is the one character that sees what Apollo sees and when Oedipus finally ‘sees’ the truth his instinct is to blind himself. Oedipus Rex becomes a play where the good intentions of the various characters goes horribly wrong and the dramatic irony carries the action throughout the play.

Workshop: Ancient Greek Theatre with Sophocles
     Stage: The structure of the 5th century Greek theatre was made up of three basic items: the orchestra, the skene-building, and the theatron. The orchestra was a semi-circular space in front of the skene-building. It served as the staging area or the ‘dancing place’ for the plays and is where most of the dramatic action would take place. The skene-building was farthest away from the audience and allowed for multiple places to stage the action. It likely had multiple doors and actors also utilized the roof in various plays. The skene also allowed for some manipulation of background and could be dressed to indicate various locations (outdoors, palace, etc.) The theatron refers to the seats of the audience. These seats could have ranged from a simple sloping hillside to the carved stone benches seen in the Theatre of Dionysus.
     In Ancient Greece, plays were performed during the day to thousands of spectators. The audience would be aware of the natural surroundings and many plays sought to form a harmony of setting and referred directly to the surrounding landscape.
     Actors: The actors of ancient Greece were Athenian males and in some case the poets themselves would play their main characters. No matter how many speaking parts there are in a play only three actors were used. So one actor would play multiple parts and men also played the female roles. During the 5th century the theatre competitions were funded by the city and as such poets were often assigned actors.
     Chorus: The chorus was one of the most important parts of Greek plays. They were often the link between the actors and the audience. They told past events, clarified the dramatic action and foreshadowed future action in the plays. The chorus was made up of anywhere from 12 to 15 male Athenian citizens.

     Costumes: The costumes in Greek theatre were fairly simple and always sought to portray basic characteristics of the actors. They portrayed whether they were male/female, rich/poor, and possibly what occupation they held. The most important part of the costume was the mask. The masks for the main characters were personalized and easily recognizable. This enabled the actors to switch characters and allowed the audience to easily follow their actions.

     Now that some of the technical aspects of performance have been covered, we move to the staging and producing of a play. As an ancient Greek poet first you must decide what plays you would like to stage at the next tragic competition being held at the Theatre of Dionysus. As a tragic poet you are responsible for three plays and a satyr-play. You may choose to follow the example of Aeschylus and do a trilogy or you can pick three unrelated plays. Write a small synopsis for your plays and your satyr-play.
Now you must submit a proposal to the official who is presiding over the dramatic competitions, the archon. The archon will decide which poets receive the funding to produce their plays and also decides who competes. You submit your proposal and wait…and…you are chosen to compete! 
     Next, you must wait for the archon to decide who your choregos (patron) will be. The funding for many drama competitions came from the taxes of the wealthy citizens of Athens. The choregos helps fund a production by paying for the actors, costumes, and spectacle. Often the archon will assign your lead actors as well, and because you are a new poet, you may not get the most experienced people! Fortunately for you, Zeus is smiling on you today! You gain the patronage of Adrastos, a man known for his generous support of the arts. Unfortunately, because you are new to the competitions you were assigned a less than stellar lead actor…yourself!
     Now you must take your synopsis and actually finish writing your plays! Make sure you follow Aristotle’s advice to create the perfect tragedy or maybe you should attempt to pave new roads by following the examples of Euripides! As the playwright you are also responsible for writing the music, choreographing the dances and training the chorus…not to mention directing the play…and acting… You also get to design the masks for your main characters!
     Now you must rehearse, rehearse, rewrite, and rehearse some more! Exhausted yet?! You also learn that your competition this year is none other than Sophocles and Euripides, the very poets you admire so much! Let’s hope they don’t grind you into the dirt!
     Soon the City Dionysia is upon you and so begins the proagon. Here is your chance to give the crowd a taste of your plays and get them excited! You, your actors, and your chorus must go out onto the stage and give a brief synopsis of your plays. Sophocles goes out first. The crowd cheers wildly for him, he is one of the great tragedians after all! Next, the crowd greets Euripides, a little less warmly as his plays often make them uncomfortable because of his meddlesome nature when it comes to myths. Now you are up! You go out on stage, receive a little enthusiasm and manage to not faint! Afterwards you chat with Sophocles about how weird Euripides is. Although he is too nice to respond, you are sure he agrees with you.
     You don’t sleep, bite your nails, and sit in a catatonic state for the next 4 days, waiting for your turn to perform. Your first play goes off without a hitch! You remembered your lines and didn’t vomit. Your second was less desirable as one of your actors got a case of the hiccups halfway through the play. You breathe a sign of relief after all is said and done! Now you just have to wait for the judges!
     The next day the judges make their picks…and no surprise…Sophocles won first place. But to your surprise and despite the crazy hiccup attack during your second play, you take second place! Euripides comes in third, furthering your belief that the Athenians just don’t understand his plays
Ancient Greek Theatre Wordsearch
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Oedipus Rex at the Theatre of Dionysus