Ancient Greek Theater

How It Began

The origins of Greek theater are some what controversial, though it can be linked to one festival in particular, this festival being the City Dionysia which was dedicated to the Greek god Dionysus. The creation of the festival can be credited to the tyrant Pisistratus who was said to have founded the City Dionysia in 6th century BC, though he had originally named it Greater Dionysia. Four days were dedicated to the performance and judging of plays that were performed. During this festival three tragedians and three comedians would have a set of plays performed. The second day of the festival a tragedian would have his plays performed. They would begin with three tragedies and a satyr play. A satyr place is derived from the mythical creatures known as satyrs which were followers of Dionysus called the “silenoi.” These satyr plays were said to be a break from reality and were often crude and humorous. After a short intermission a comedian would than have only one of his plays performed. This continued on until the fourth day in which by then all of the playwrights would have had their plays performed. The fifth day was reserved for judging. The judges would be chosen by ballots. At the beginning of the festivities the names of men were written down on ballots and would then be drawn at random to determine who would judge the plays. There would be a total of ten judges. After winners had been determined prizes would be then handed out which consisted of goats, tripods, and crowned with wreaths of ivory.

Thespis: Father Of Tragedy

Thespis of  Icaria which is now Dionysus in modern-day Greece is thought to of been the “ Father of Tragedy,” and the first tragic poet though there is some debate as to whether or not he was actually the first tragic poet. Some say that he was actually the sixteenth tragic poet in chronological order of Greek tragedians and not the first.  He began as a singer of dithyrambs which were mythological stories that included choric refrains. Thespis is also thought to have been the first person to appear as an actor playing a character in a play as well as introducing the first principal actor along with the chorus. Though his contribution to theater is heavily debated modern-day actors with English speaking parts have come to be referred as “thespians.”

Greek Tragedians

When talking about Greek theater one can never forget to mention some of the greatest tragedians of these times, there are three tragedians in particular that are the most known in ancient Greek theater, these being Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. Aeschylus, although most of his plays have since been lost, is most known for the “Oresteia” as well as “The Persians.” He is also known for being the first to increase the number of characters from only one person to two people. Sophocles is most known for having added a third character to the plays, reducing the number of people in the chorus as well as introducing a painted scenery. Some of his surviving plays include the “Antigone,” “Oedipus Rex” and “Electra.” Euripedes, it is thought that he wrote about 90 plays 18 of which have survived, these include the “Medea”, “Hercules” and “The Trojan Women.” Most of the plays done in the festival were only performed once and never twice, this does not apply to just the plays mentioned but to all of the plays performed, it is not exactly specified as to why they are only performed once, though it is said that the only way a play was performed again is if it was revived to be performed once more, though how many have actually been revived is not known.

Theater Layout

The theater itself is a bit more complicated than discussing the actors that performed in the theater. The theater is made up of three components, the first is the Theatron; the theatron is a hill that has been hollowed out and stepped. The steps themselves were usually boards which would later on be replaced with stone, this is usually the place where people can sit and watch the plays, it could usually hold about 14,000 people. The second component is the Orchestra, this was usually a circular area where the chorus could sing and dance and interact with the actors who were usually always near the skene. The third component is the Skene, this is a scene building that usually had a door that was usually located in the back from which the actors and chorus could enter and exit from. The scene building is the most problematic because there is no real evidence for its elevation as well as there not being any illustrations of a skene, although in the earliest surviving plays of Aeschylus there is no indication that they were performed with a scene building but in the Oresteia there is some indication that some type of scene building was used. The scene building allowed the actors to play a god as well as a watchman as seen in the Agamemnon by standing on top of the roof. The Parodos although not a key component of the theater are pathways that were used by the chorus and actors as they exited or entered the stage.

Ancient Greek Theater Layout

Ancient Greek Theater Layout

When talking about the actual theater one has to mention Epidaurus. Epidaurus is only complete theater that still stands today. The theater was designed by Polykleitos The Younger around 4th Century BCE and continued into the Hellenistic Period. In 1881  the theater was discovered after being buried for centuries and was renovated.The theater was created for the Cult of Asklepios in 360 BCE. This theater seats up to 15,000 people and is marveled for its acoustics which permitted for sound to be heard regardless of seating  arrangement. 

Theater of Epidaurus

Theater of Epidaurus


As big as a theater may seem or we may think it to be there are some limitations to it. Some of these limitations are lighting effects and theater size. In ancient Greek theater there were no lighting effects as we have now in modern days. It was difficult for certain scenes to be described considering that most of the tragedy plays were performed during the day. A scene about the underworld would be a difficult thing to describe, sure the actors could light torches to make it seem as if they are proceeding through the underworld but it was usually not enough. As for theater size limitations,the stage or orchestra was about 45 ft wide but this was later extended to 60 ft in the 4th century. From the front of the stage to the front row it was about 60 ft in the 4th century and 70 ft in the 5th century. The back rows of the theater of Dionysus were about 300 ft from the stage, a 6 ft actor would look about 3 ½ inches high to the people in the front row and ¾ inches high to the people in the back. Later on other features were added to the theaters such as the stage building which was about 12 ft deep and a crane. With the addition of these features it made it even more difficult to move around.


During the performance of the plays the actors, which were always male wore different kinds of costumes and masks. They usually wore some type of jersey that was padded and often danced with drinking horns. When the actor was to perform a males part he would often wear a mask,tights with a phallus sewn to them which supported his padding and over the tights the actor wore whatever other clothing was essential for his part. If the actor was stripped naked the audience would see him in a mask, tights and phallus; the tights were his dramatic skin. If the actor was playing the part of a women they wore most of the same things, meaning that they would wear a mask made to look like a women and tights that were white to portray a naked women and if clothed then they would wear a dress that went down to their knees and they were usually painted white to show that they were playing the part of a women. Actors also wore elevated boots called cothurni when performing tragic roles. Actors with a comedic role only wore a thin soled shoe called a sock. The masks usually had exaggerated features, some masks were directly molded onto the face of the actor to provide a likeness of the actor, though there are some limitations to the masks, for one it was hard to express some emotions such as crying. The actors usually relied on the chorus to describe what emotion the character was feeling at the moment which could not be shown directly on the mask itself.

Ancient Greek Theater Mask

Ancient Greek Theater Mask


Bieber, Margaret. The History of The Greek And Roman Theater. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1961. Print

Ley, Graham. A Short Introduction To The Ancient Greek Theater. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2006. Print

Taylor, David. The Greek And Roman Stage. London: Bristol Classical Press. 1999. Print

Webster, T.B.L. Greek Theater Production. Great Britain: Fletcher & Son Ltd. 1970. Print

Wyles, Rosie. Costume In Greek Tragedy. London: Bristol Classical Press. 2011. Print

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