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Greek Theatre

Introduction to Greek theatre

It is widely believed that classical Greek theatre evolved from seasonal celebrations and religious rites in honour of the god Dionysus (wine) to ensure a plentiful harvest. The festivities would incorporate the singing of religious chants and dancing on an open flat piece of ground (The orchestra) with an altar at its centre on which offerings would be placed.

Over time the rituals evolved with the addition of a second celebrant into the more formal tragedies and comedies. These were still staged as part of the great festivals attended by most of the population of the city and audiences could be as big as 15 -20,000 people. The festivals were paid for by the wealthy citizens of the city and would take place over days. Three tragic plays would be staged in a day and would be part of the same story; Antigone is the final part of the Oedipus trilogy. The festivals were very competitive with prize money for the playwrights of the best plays and status for the funders of these plays.

Plays were staged outdoors in hillside amphitheatres that provided naturally occurring raked seating and would begin at day break. Audiences would arrive before dawn and remain until dusk. Food and drink would be brought and consumed throughout the day as the people sat on the hillsides watching the dramas unfold with the dramatic landscapes beyond. Masks were used to communicate facial expression over the great distance and allowed actors to play more than one character, including gods and women (there were no female actors). The chorus would be dressed uniformly with generic masks to represent a unified body of people. There is some speculation as to whether the megaphone shape of the mouth pieces helped amplify the voice even though the bowl shaped theatres had exceptionally good acoustics. This can still be experienced in the surviving theatres like the one at EPIDAURUS in modern Turkey.

The theatres developed elaborate machinery for stage and sound effects, including Cranes for lowering “gods”, triangular pillars (PERIAKTOI) that rotated to effect scene changes and wheeled platforms to reveal tableaux. Initially the action would all take place in one location in real time but as the civilization evolved over a thousand years ideas and devices changed. Plato condemned theatre because he believed it aroused uncontrolled feelings while his student Aristotle argued that the tragedies allowed us to release powerful emotions and that this was beneficial to society. How do these points of view relate to modern debates on the quality of Television or film?

This is a good short introductory documentary on Greek theatre aimed at adults but has some good images and information.

This animated video takes you on a tour of a Greek theatre.


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