ANCIENT GREEK THEATRE
First published by Headlong (2012)
Euripides’ Medea was first performed in at the City Dionysia Festival in Athens in 431BC, nearly 2,500 years ago.
What would it have been like to have attended the original production? It’s difficult to know for sure. There is not enough historical evidence to present a definitive picture and scholars argue over the exact details. There is, however, one thing we can know for sure. The experience of watching a play in the theatre in ancient Greece was very different from watching a play in a theatre today.
Today you can go to the theatre almost any night of the week. In ancient Athens, plays were only performed during late winter and early spring. This may have been because of the hot Greek climate. The theatres were outdoors and the plays were performed in daylight. The actors wore heavy costumes and masks, and performing in the Greek theatre required strenuous physical and vocal exertion, which would have been impractical in hot weather. Each play was usually only ever performed once.
Greek theatres were huge. The theatre of Dionysus in Athens could hold 15,000 spectators. The audience sat on seats carved out of a hillside. These seats encircled a round playing area called the orchestra where the chorus performed. At the back of the orchestra was the skene. This was a stone building, a hut or tent that acted as a dressing room and was where the actors made their entrances from and their exits to. The actors performed in front of the skene, perhaps on a raised platform. On either side of the orchestra were the parados, two stone passage ways through which the chorus made its entrance and exit. There was some form of stage machinery that facilitated special effects – such as the entrance of a god or Medea’s escape in Helius’ chariot – but we are unsure as to exactly what this machinery was or how it worked.
Plays were performed as part of religious festivals, such as the City Dionysia. Priests sat on the front row of the theatre in throne-like seats. The festival lasted seven days and celebrated the beginning of spring. Alongside the performances of the plays, there were grand processions, animal sacrifices, good citizens were honoured and slaves were freed. The event may have been a religious one, but the atmosphere was far from solemn. Greek audiences were talkative and unruly. If they disliked a play, they would drum their heels on their benches, jeer loudly and throw fruit.
At the City Dionysia Festival, the plays were presented in competition with each other. There were prizes for the best comedy and the best tragedy. In the tragedy competition, three playwrights would each present a trilogy of plays. When Euripides presented Medea in 431BC he came last in the competition, beaten into third place by the playwrights Euphorion and Sophocles.
The plays were funded by a wealthy citizen, who gave his financial support in return for being let off paying his taxes. The plays were directed by the playwright. Some of the earlier playwrights performed in their plays as well. Aeschylus frequently played leading roles in his productions.
The chorus plays a very important role in Greek tragedy. The play does not officially begin until they enter and ends when they leave. The chorus acts as characters within the drama, it provides the audience with vital information and it locates the story of the play within the context of wider Greek mythology. The chorus sang and danced during the performance. Their movements were elaborately choreographed. The chorus acts as a bridge between the action and the audience. The chorus physically stood on the orchestra between the actors and the audience. It could talk to the actors on one side and the audience on the other. It was made up of members of the Athenian community, just like the audience. The chorus for each play was selected from the citizens of Athens, who took on this responsibility unpaid as part of their civic duty.
The actors in Greek theatre were semi-professionals. They were paid for their performances, but acting was not their full time occupation. There were no actresses on the Greek stage. All the female roles were played by men. The maximum number of actors required for any Greek tragedy is three. If you look at the plays, you will see that there are never more than three speaking characters onstage at any one time. Each actor could quickly and easily change characters by simply changing his mask and costume.
Little is known about acting styles in Greek theatre. There was no fourth wall in the Greek theatre. Like the chorus, the actors could see the audience, and would have acknowledged their presence and spoken directly to them. Visibility and audibility was probably an issue in the huge Greek theatres. The actors’ masks had megaphones built into the mouths to amplify their voices. In the dialogue of Greek plays, the characters often describe what they are feeling and doing in detail. For example, they might tell us that they are crying or that another character is scowling at them. Through the language of the play they are able to convey the action of the scene to even the most distant spectator.
Although the word scenery is derived from the word skene, there were no sets as such on the Greek stage. The back wall of the skene may have been painted, but its decoration would have been unchanging. Again, the language of the dialogue had to paint the scene for the audience and they filled in the rest with their imagination. The actors’ costumes helped the audience to identify their characters, indicating their gender and social status through their decoration. You could say that, the elaborate costumes and masks were the characters and that the actor simply spoke through them.
There were many Greek playwrights, but sadly only the work of three of them has survived: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. All three wrote plays for the City Dionysia, but they were very different from each other.
The plays of Aeschylus explore the dangers of arrogance, the misuse of power and the bloody consequences of revenge. His trilogy, the Oresteia, explores the chain of revenge set into motion by king Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter in return for a fair wind to take his ships to Troy.
Sophocles is interested in the redemptive power of suffering. A good example of this is the character of Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. Sophocles portrays Oedipus as a good-hearted but headstrong young man who kills his own father without knowing that he is his father, and marries his mother without realising that she is his mother. When he discovers what he has done, he blinds himself in remorse.
Euripides, the last of the three, belongs to a somewhat later generation of Greek thought, and is a far more troubled, questioning and unsatisfied spirit. Euripides is the most direct of the three in his questioning of Athenian society and its established beliefs.
This article was originally published by Headlong (2012).