Ancient Greek Theater

Theater in ancient Greece was a major civic event. Each spring, inhabitants of the sprawling Attic empire gathered in Athens, the empire’s capital city, for a festival in honor of Dionysus, the god of dancing, theater, and wine. One of the festival’s highlights was a competition between the most important playwrights of the day, and it was for this competition that all of the Greek tragedies we know today were written.

Each year, three playwrights took part in the competition, and each competitor was required to submit four plays: three tragedies and one “satyr play” (a more comically inclined story). All four works were performed in the space of a single day in a sprawling amphitheater on the south-western slope of the Acropolis. The actors, all of whom were men, performed on a stage called a “skēnē,” the source of our word “scene,” while a chorus sang, danced, and offered commentary on the play’s events from an area known as the “orkestra.” The sheer size of the amphitheater demanded that the actors wear masks and perform with broad gestures that would be legible from even the farthest seats. While little is known about ancient Greek stagecraft or scenery, we do know that they had a mechanical crane to facilitate the appearance of a god in the final moments of a play, an effect now referred to as “deus ex machina,” or “god from the machine.” In the case of Medea, this crane would have helped the sorceress fly away after lighting the temple on fire—a truly grand finale to a truly tragic play.

Although today we read these tragedies as great works of literature, at the time, the drama competition was intricately linked to the social, political, and even diplomatic life of the Attic Empire. The timing of the annual competition was crucial: It always took place in the spring after the start of sailing season, so people from across the empire could take part. Competing playwrights were chosen by the senior city magistrate (a political position), the judges were Athenian citizens, and wealthy Athenians funded costumes and other necessities for performance. The performances were thus an opportunity for Athenians to show off their wealth and cultural prowess to citizens and allies alike.