The Evolution of Greek Theater


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One of the most famous things related to Ancient Greece is theater. No one is sure who personally started theater, but Greek theater began all theater in Europe and had major influences on plays performed today. Drama was performed for special occasions and as contests, with the playwright and actors winning prizes. Playwrights originally acted, but when contests began, they stopped. Actors were semi-professional and usually selected and paid by the state. The theater was also closely related to religion. Most stories were based on legends, history, or politics. Greek theater slowly evolved using a chorus, masks, comedies and tragedies, and interesting playwrights.


Greek theater slowly evolved. The art of play writing began in the 5th century, and the theatre of Ancient Greece is said to have evolved from religious rites that date back to at least 1200 BC. At that time primitive tribes populated Greece, and the cultured citizens of these tribes performed dances to call the gods. Later, the Greeks began acting out legends of gods and heroes. The first Greek theater was called Theater of Dionysus, and it was located in Athens. It was built against the hills of Acropolis and named for Dionysus, the god of theater, wine, music, and laughter.


Greek theater began with only a chorus, which varied in size from three to fifty. The choruses of men were dressed in goatskins to represent satyrs--beings who were half man and half goat, attending Dionysus. The use of the chorus was more dominant in tragedies than comedies. For the tragedy the chorus was solemn. In comedies it was funny and satirical. The goal of the chorus was to set the mood and heighten dramatic effects. They also added movement, song, and dance to the stage. Most believe the chorus underscored the ideas of the play, provided point-of-view, and focused on issues of the play and implications of the action, established the play\'s ethical system, and participated in the action. The first writer to back away from the chorus and introduce dialogue, masks, and single actor plays was Thespis, and this took place in the middle of the sixth century.


The use of masks in ancient Greek theater drew their origin from the ancient Dionysiac cult. The first writer to use masks was Thespis. The masks were made of wood, linen, or leather. A stone or marble face was used as a mold, and human or animal hair was often added. They eyes were drawn on, but in place of the pupil was a small hole so the actors could see out the mask. The masks covered the entire face, including chin and possibly the neckline. They were often not realistic looking, resembling birds or other animals. They were used for many reasons. Because there were more parts than actors, they had to use different masks. Another reason masks were used was because all the actors were men, making a mask necessary for them to play female roles. Comedy and tragedy masks looked different from each other. Two masks are now used as the symbol for theatre, in memory of its origins in ancient Greece.


There were two main types of Greek theater in the very beginning, comedy and tragedy. Comedy was the first type of play allowed in theaters. Comedy arose from a ritual in honor of Dionysus. Original Greek comedy is also called “Old Comedy” and is exaggerated, farcical, and sensual. Tragedy was not allowed into the Greek theater until 534 BC. The word tragedy means is derived from the Greek word tragoedia, which means “goat song”. Only thirty-two tragedies have survived. Tragedy stresses the vulnerability of human beings whose suffering is brought on by a combination of human and divine actions. Many tragedies were extremely depressing, and they were often presented in trilogies. Other dramas were also allowed into Greek theater around the time tragedies were allowed.


There were four important playwrights whose works have survived. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote tragic plays, and Aristophanes wrote comedies. Aeschylus’ works reflected conflict and agony, and seven of his plays have survived throughout history. He is also credited for being the creator of tragic costume. Sophocles wrote about the way people ought to be, making most of his main characters heroes. He is