Friday, March 2, 2012

Ancient Greek Theater

My interest in the arts and theater very intimately connects me with the ancient Romans and Greeks. Nearly every noteworthy Roman and Greek city had an open-air theater in those days, with the seats neatly arranged in tiers overlooking a lovely view of the nearby landscape. Here is where the ancient Greeks sat and watched the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, Sophocles and Menander.

The ancient Greek theaters developed through the ceremonial worship of the then God Dionysus and were always communal in nature. The Greek drama or theater is a tradition that flourished greatly between in c. 600 and c. 200 BC in ancient Greece. Athens, the political and military pover city of Greece was the epicenter of the ancient Greek theatrical tradition. Athenian comedy, tragedy and satyrs have been recorded as some of the earliest forms of theater to emerge in the world. Yes, Greek plays and theater have indeed had a strong impact on the Western culture and drama.

Early tradition claims that theater in Athens evolved from various festivals that were related to the cult of Dionysus who is the Greek God of fertility and wine. This is probably accurate information, since drama in Athens occurred during the Dionysia, which is the annual festival that honors Dionysus.

These ancient theaters mainly consisted of the orchestra, the flat floor for dancing and the theatron, which was the actual structure of the building. Since those ancient theaters were frequently rebuilt and modified, the remains that survive today offer very little evidence as to the nature of the space available to those classical dramatists and actors back in the fifth and sixth centuries BC.

However, there is no clear physical evidence showing that orchestras were circular in shape earlier than that of the great theater at Epidaurus, which dates back to the year 330 BC. It is more likely that the fifth century BC Athens audience was seated closer to the stage in a more rectilinear arrangement, like the evidence shown in the ruins of the theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this early period in Greek theater and drama, the stage and the stage building or Skene were made up of wood. Many ancient vases have been found with paintings on them depicting the Greek comedy from the fifth and fourth centuries BC, and these suggest that the stage was a bout a meter high and had a flight of steps towards the center.

The actors would enter from either side of the stage or from the central door situated in the Skene. The Skene also housed the ekkyklema, which is a wheeled platforms having different sets of scenes. A crane or mechane, located towards the right side of the stage was generally used to hoist heroes and Gods through the air and onto the stage. Greek actors and dramatists surely made the most of the contrasts between the men on stage and the gods up high, and between the bright daylight and the dark interiors of the Skene.

Ancient Greek Drama
Very little is known about the very origins of Greek tragedy before Aeschylus, the most creative and innovative of all Greek dramatists. His earliest work that survives till date is the Persians. Of the few Greek tragedies that survive, all except Aeschylus; Persians were drawn from heroic myths. The chorus and protagonist played the heroes. Many times, the dialog held between the protagonist and chorus served a sort of didactic function, making it an interesting form of public discourse with debates held in the assembly.

Unlike tragedy, Greek comedy that was produced during the fifth century BC ridiculed all the prominent member of society and mythology. There was no limit to action or speech in the comic exploitation of bodily functions like sex. Vase paintings and terracotta figurines dated around the time of Aristophanes show comedy actors wearing grotesque tights and masks with padding on the belly and rump, and even a leather phallus.

Towards the second half of the fourth century, the new comedy of Menander gave newer and fresher interpretations to familiar material. In many ways, Greek comedy became tamer and simpler, with very few obscenities being exchanged. The phallus and grotesque padding were abandoned in favor of naturalistic outfits and costumes. The tests of the new comedy dealt mostly with social tensions, private lives, family lives and the triumph of love - all in a variety of different contexts.

Important Playwrights in the Golden Age of Greek Drama
By the end of the fourth century and the start of the fifth century BC, Greek theater had finally become formalized and was then a major part of the Greek culture and civic pride. The centerpiece of this age was the competition between the three major playwrights at the theater of Dionysia during the annual Dionysia festival. Each playwright submitted three different tragedies and a satyr play.

Even though there were many playwrights during this period, only four playwrights stood out from the rest and only their works have survived in the form of entire plays. All are Athenians. These are the tragedians - Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, the comic writer. Their plays are the basis of the Greek theater.

However, when the ultimate power of Athens began to decline after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, its theatrical conquests and traditions also seemed to lose their vigor and vitality. However, ancient Greek theater continued well into the Hellenistic period. But, the major Hellenistic form of theater was not tragedy but new comedy.

The most important contribution made by the Greek New Comedy was the influence it has on Roman comedy, a influence that is so strong and can still be seen in surviving works like Terence and Plautus.