Ancient Greek Theater
The plays written and performed by the ancient Greeks were the very first accounts of theater, as we know it. It was in ancient Greece, particularly during the golden age of Athens, that the two genres known as tragedy and comedy were perfected. Later writers, such as Shakespeare, inherited these two principle forms of playwriting, proving that theater is one of the many lasting innovations of ancient Greek civilization.
By around 500 B.C. plays were often presented at religious festivals in honor of Dionysus, the popular god of wine and fertility. It was an enlightened tyrant, Pisistratus, who officially installed an early springtime festival called the City Dionysia in Athens. This festival developed into an annual, publicly funded, three-person competition in a theater at the base of the Athenian Acropolis. During the Dionysia, three authors’ new works would be presented. Each playwright would present a tragedy and a satyr play for comic relief. As an offshoot of comedy, the satyr play featured a clownish chorus always represented as satyrs, beings who were half man and half goat. Comedy, less revered than tragedy, wasn’t installed as part of the competition at the City Dionysia until around 488 B.C.
Since Greek theater was a form of poetry, with all dialogue being spoken or sung in verse, it is said to have emerged from the public performances of choral singers that were done in honor of Dionysus. Greek comedy seems to be derived from riotous public processions called komos, which were held in many Greek states. Comedy was filled with farce and obscenity, and the komos was likely an occasion for rude jokes exchanged with onlookers. Some vase paintings show the komos as a parade of masked men dressed as satyrs and carrying a log carved as a huge penis! Out of these performances there may have developed a direct choral address to the audience, something that became a feature of Athenian stage comedy.