All About History

Theatre of Dionysus

Athens, 5th century Bce


Greek drama is the foundation of all Western theatre and it was invented in Athens in 534 BCE. Thespis, a wandering bard, astounded audiences at the Great Dionysia, a springtime festival honouring Dionysus, the god of wine. He added a speech to his chorus line of singers and dancers, reciting poetry as if he was the character whose lines he was reading, thus inventing acting (hence why actors are often called ‘thespians’). Later, Greek tragedian Aeschylus introduced dramatic conflict by adding a second actor, while Sophocles added a third part, making stories more complex.

Tragedy is the best-known genre of Greek theatre. Often based on mythology, tragedies like Oedipus Rex and The Trojan Women would be about a protagonis­t who experience­s disaster or great sorrow due to a moral weakness or the inability to cope with unfavourab­le circumstan­ces.

However, the Ancient Greeks also developed comedy. Aristophan­es mocked powerful

Athenians — many of whom were in the audience — for their vanity and foolishnes­s. Much later, Menander wrote comedies about ordinary people similar to modern-day sitcoms. Satyrs were also a form of bawdy entertainm­ent but they were short skits that provided comic relief between the performanc­e of tragedies. They are the origin of the word ‘satire’.

As drama evolved, so did the theatres. The Theatre of Dionysus was built on the grounds of the god’s temple, with an amphitheat­re made from wood and later stone. The stage developed from a circular patch on the ground to an elaborate set, with painted scenery and even a crane to lift actors through the air. Preceding the Tony Awards by thousands of years, the Great Dionysia festival included a five-day competitio­n in which three poets each put on one tragedy and one satyr. Judges, chosen by lots, then picked a winner.

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