8 Chapter 8: The Greek Origins of Western Theater

Where Did Theater Come From?

Because the practice of theatrical play is so ancient, we really do not know who or why the first formalized theater began. We do, however, have theories based on oral and written histories and anthropological observation.

Watch Mike Rugnetta of Crash Course Theater share some of the current theories about the earliest roots of theater:


The Greek Origins of Western Theater

“There are two main ways in which we know about some ancient Greek theater from classical Athens where all the plays were originally produced. The first is the actual texts themselves. We’re incredibly lucky, if you think about it, that we’ve got no fewer than 30 texts of Greek tragedies and we’ve got twelve or fourteen of Greek comedies. That’s a very great deal! I mean that’s almost equivalent to what we’ve got of really good Renaissance drama. We also have ancient sources that tell us about drama, about the funding, and the politics, and the organization of theater. There’s also the archeological remains…Remains of theaters themselves. There’s also quite a few good pots. The ancient Greeks loved to paint theatrical scenes and scenes from their famous myths on vases and we think they probably actually sold them at touristy shops near the theaters, so you could take one home with you after you’ve been to see the play.

The Festival of Dionysus

“The actual context [for the plays] is the festival of Dionysus, which happens annually around our March or April. [This] is when the sailing season starts and people can come from all over the Greek world. It is a massive event! It’s like it’s the Olympics, plus the Oberammergau Mystery Plays, plus the Super Bowl all rolled into one.

The Greeks loved competition—in every aspect of their life, they competed…In the festival of Dionysus, each of the three tragic playwrights would be competing against one another, and each would be sponsored by a rich man who would pay for the production, simply for the glory of the state. And then a jury, specially selected, will vote on what they thought was the best play. If your team won, your name and the playwright would be inscribed on the wall in the theater and be remembered forever. There’s no money, it was about glory. Lots of people did it.

The Plays

“There were three types of drama in ancient Greece: tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays. There’s theater where the masks are quite ugly and the characters are quite low class, and it’s comedy—it’s funny. Then there’s tragedy where the characters are very beautiful; usually the masks as we see them painted on vases are exquisite and lovely to look at very often—and that is tragedy. After each three tragedies on each day there would be a thing called a Satyr play. A satyr was a mythical beast, half-man, half-goat, and these were very rude comedy plays.

The Playwrights

“Antiquity decided that there were four really classical Greek playwrights; there were three tragedians and one comic poet, Aristophanes. The three tragedians were called Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They were all Athenian citizens. They all worked to produce their great plays in the same century, the 5th century BCE.

The Theater

“Traditional Greek theater was open air and was built into the side of a hill so the spectators sat in a semicircle, up the hillside…At the bottom of the hill was a flat area called the orchestra, which is Greek for ‘dancing space,’ where the chorus would have performed and behind that a raised stage area and some buildings for the actors. Some modern theaters have been deliberately built in order to imitate, in some respects, the ancient Greek theater. The Olivier Theatre at the National [Theater, England,] for example, was actually modeled on Epidaurus, which is the best and earliest surviving stone theater on a big scale, in ancient Greece. This means that you have an approximately circular space, which is open, and extends to some extent into the audience. You have tiered seating in a semicircular or horseshoe shape around it that rises up. As an actor working on a stage like The Olivier, because of the wrap-around nature of the audience, it feels like you are connected more strongly to the people you’re trying to communicate with and tell the story to.


“Masks are another aspect of the theater students find puzzling—why they did it. And there are all kinds of thoughts and stories you might hear about why they [used] them. They wore masks because it was a religious ritual and because that was the way it had always happened. If you’ve ever seen certain kinds of African dancing, which is actually related to Greek theater in some ways, the mask is part of it. You’re worshiping Dionysus. [As] part of worshiping Dionysus, you wear the mask of the reveler, you wear the mask of the ‘celebrator of the theater’ that way. The mask was also really useful because it enabled you to change character. Only three performers performed all the speaking roles in Greek theater and so you’d come out with a different mask with different hair, and so on.

Two masks that look like faces with their mouths open

The Chorus

“The chorus is one of the hardest aspects of Greek drama for modern audiences to relate to. It’s important to realize that Greek drama grew out of a long-standing tradition of choral song and dance. The ancient Greek chorus serves two fundamental roles for the whole theater experience. The first is just fun—it’s wonderfully exciting! The ancient Greeks always talk with great excitement about the moment when the chorus would start up. You had 12 incredibly well-trained singing, dancing young men, dressed up in all sorts of exotic costumes and masks, doing really excellent performances; pretty much like you see in a West End [or Broadway] musical…That’s the sort of skill and excitement that you’d have liked, so it’s not a matter of a boring interlude between the real action at all, it’s actually highlights. The other thing that the chorus did, though, was provide the perspective of the community on what was happening. So we don’t just get Creon and Antigone fighting about whether there’s a burial, [rather] we get the citizens of Thebes, the whole city, actually represented by those 12 citizens. So Greek tragedy is fundamentally political because it’s got this constant interaction between all of us and the top guys. And that is something that’s very much missing for many later types of theater.

“When you get to be involved in doing a Greek play or something to do with the Greek theater, you’re going right to the very soul and beginnings of all of drama. That’s a great feeling to be part of something that was, and is still, very, very important to traditional storytelling.”

Transcribed from “An Introduction to Greek Theatre” from the National Theatre

Roman Changes and Innovations

There are a number of ways that Roman theater changed the Greek theater practices and genres to fit Roman cultural tastes.

Roman theater was heavily influenced by Greek drama because the Romans essentially embraced the theatrical styles and techniques already in use in Greece. However, like so many things that the Romans adopted from their neighbors, they did put a uniquely Roman spin on many of those ideas. One way in which they differed was that the Romans focused more on comedy than did the Greeks. Additionally, they adapted the Old Comedy of the Greeks to meet Roman tastes, which resulted in a New Comedy that was based in romantic and domestic situations, much like our modern sitcoms. This is the form of comedy that had a significant reverse influence on Greek New Comedy.

Other Entertainment Developments

The Romans went further than theater as a dramatic entertainment. They developed, perfected, and/or Romanized several additional entertainment forms, such as the following:

  • Chariot racing
  • Equestrian performances
  • Acrobatics
  • Wrestling
  • Prizefighting
  • Gladiator contests

The popular entertainments of the Romans, including theater, were government sponsored. However, unlike the Greek sponsorship, it was not done to support the population’s religious celebrations. Instead, it was largely used as a way to distract the people of Rome from the other issues of the day that involved government, such as scandals, corruption, wars, and political chicanery.

The Romans also came up with a couple of new forms of dramatic entertainment more directly connected to theater than those mentioned earlier. These are known as Mime and Pantomime. However, unlike modern mime work, which is all movement with no dialogue, Roman mime was essentially a variety show that could include gymnastics, juggling, songs, dances, skits, etc. Pantomime in ancient Rome was similar to mime, but it used only a single performer who might be accompanied by a musician or two and possibly a small chorus.

Roman Comedy

When we look closely at Roman comedy, we can see that there are two phases of that comedy: the first phase, the part heavily influenced by the Greek drama before it, and a later comedy that is more thoroughly Romanized. As an example of the first type, we can consider the playwright Plautus (~254–184 BCE). He is often considered the father of Roman New Comedy. His plays shifted away from the satire of his Greek model and instead began to look at the domestic comedy of common people. However, there were some elements of his comedy that resembled Greek comedy. His dialogue was meant to be sung, as was all of Greek dramatic literature. In place of satire, Plautus relied more on the elements of farce: exaggeration, physical comedy, and light violent action. He also used stock characters instead of trying to create three-dimensional characters.

Another Roman comedic playwright is Terence (~185–159 BCE). He represents the later style of Roman comedy—a comedy that much more closely resembles our modern domestic comedy sitcoms than Plautus’s plays did. His works did use slightly more realistic characters with some individuality, but more importantly, his plays shifted toward a more literary, language-based humor instead of the physical humor of Plautus. Terence’s plays were not built around exaggeration and farce, though there is some of that in his plays. One of the key differences between Plautus and Terence is that Terence’s dialogue is meant to be spoken and not sung.

Roman Tragedy

The Romans did not reject Tragedy; they just did not embrace it like the Greeks had before them. They also did not make major changes to it. The single major Roman tragic playwright that we will look at as a model of Roman Tragedy is Seneca (~4 BCE–65 CE). His works were very similar to Greek tragedy, but they differed in a few significant ways:

  • The Chorus is less connected to the story—more of a narrative function
  • Violence is emphasized—sometimes meant to be performed on stage and not offstage as in the Greek tragedies
  • Uses supernatural beings in addition to the gods, such as witches, ghosts, demons, etc.

A very important thing to note about the Roman playwrights mentioned here is that for many generations after the fall of Rome, their works (particularly those of Terence and Seneca) had a significant influence on later writers (in later periods of theater history). Surviving copies of their plays were often used as parts of Latin grammar lessons for young students throughout Europe well into the Renaissance. Students would read these plays in their original Latin as models of Latin literature, and as a result, they had an influence on many later playwrights’ development in dramatic writing. We will explore that influence on some of those later writers as we move forward through the history portions of this course.

Roman Theater Criticism

Just as the Romans adopted and adapted theater genres and production practices for the most part, they too adopted the Greek ideas of theater criticism. Those ideas, built on Aristotelian ideas, served Rome fairly well, but like so many things, Roman culture had an influence on those basic principles. They added to, or emphasized, some ideas that were not as prominent in the Greek interpretation of theater criticism. These distinctly Roman qualities include the following:

  • Tragedy and comedy had to be distinct (i.e., no blending of forms)
  • Tragedy deals with royalty
  • Comedy deals with common people
  • Drama should teach in addition to entertain

Roman Theater Production

Roman theater spaces are very similar to Greek theaters, except that since the Romans built with concrete, they did not need to build their theaters into hillsides. Instead, they built freestanding buildings for their theaters. Many still stand today as a testament to the construction ability and quality of materials used by the Romans all across Europe. These freestanding theaters contained most of the stylistic components of the Greek theaters. They are open to the sky to use the sun as lighting for their plays. They had an orchestra, a scene house, and a semicircular seating area. However, they lacked the parados on either side of the orchestra; since the buildings needed walls all the way around, there wasn’t any room to include the paradoi. There are some other differences in their buildings in terms of how they were used. For example, the Orchestra is semicircular, and it is not used for acting. Instead, it is used to seat dignitaries. Since there is no parados to use as an entrance, the actors would enter directly from the scene house through three doors on its front side. The performance area was changed as well. There was a stage built on the front of the scene house called the pulpitum. This was a wooden platform stage where the action would take place. The Romans also used the first sort of a curtain, the Aulaeum. This was used essentially like an act curtain to conceal the stage before and after the play. Also, many of the other structures of the Greek stage that we saw before were given Romanized names.

Modified from: Theatre Today, Supplement to Unit 3 of Dr. Brian Ray’s THEA 1100—Theatre Appreciation CC BY-NC-SA, https://alg.manifoldapp.org/read/theatre-today/section/327dccbf-ea5c-406c-a820-8e0856df7de6



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