The Glory that was Greece

An online resource for students

 by Leigh T. Denault


Drama: The Greek Theatre and Three Athenian Tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides

Table of Contents:
Note: For English Translations of the Greek Dramas mentioned in this page, see the Online Books site for Classical Languages and Literature.

The Book of the Ancient Greeks, Chapter XIV: The Greek Theatre

Selections from: Mills, Dorothy. The Book of the Ancient Greeks: An Introduction to the History and Civilization of Greece from the Coming of the Greeks to the Conquest of Corinth by Rome in 146 B.C. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1925. Transcription Copyright © 2003 Leigh T. Denault.
The Greek drama began as a religious observance in honour of Dionysus. To the Greeks this god personified both spring and the vintage, the latter a very important time of year in a vine-growing country, and he was a symbol to them of that power there is in man of rising out of himself, of being impelled onwards by a joy within him that he cannot explain, but which makes him go forward, walking, as it were, on the wings of the wind, of the spirit that fills him with a deep sense of worship. We call this power enthusiasm , a Greek word which simply means the god within us.

From very early times, stories of his life were recited at the religious festivals held in honour of Dionysus, and then stories of other gods and of the ancient heroes were told as well. It was from these beginnings that the drama came. Originally, the story was told in the form of a song, chanted at first by everyone taking part in the festival, and later by a chorus of about fifty performers, and at intervals in the song the leader would recite part of the story himself. By degrees the recitation became of greater importance than the song; it grew longer, and after a time two people took part in it and then three; at the same time the chorus became smaller and of less importance in the action of the drama, until at last it could consist of only fifteen performers.

A Greek drama was in many ways much simpler than a modern drama. There were fewer characters, and usually only three speaking actors were allowed on the stage at once. There was only one story told and there was nothing to take the attention of the audience away from this. The Chorus, though it no longer told the story, was very important, for it set the atmosphere of the play, and lyrics of haunting loveliness hinted at the tragedy that could not be averted, because of terrible deeds done in the past, or if, indeed, there might be any help, the imagination was carried forward on wings of hope. The Chorus also served another purpose. In the modern drama, when the tragedy of a situation becomes almost too great for the audience to bear, relief is often found in some comic, or partly comic, episode which is introduced to slacken the tension. Shakespeare does this constantly. But comic episodes were felt to be out of place in a Greek drama, and therefore when a tragic scene had taken place, the Chorus followed it by a song of purest poetry. In one play of Euripides, a terrible scene of tragedy was followed by a song in which the Chorus prayed for escape from such sorrows on the wings of a bird to a land where all was peace and beauty. They sang:
Could I take me to some cavern for mine hiding,
In the hill-tops where the Sun scarce hath trod;
Or a cloud make the home of mine abiding,
As a bird among the bird-droves of God.
And the song goes on the carry the imagination to a spot
Where a voice of living waters never ceaseth
In God's quiet garden by the sea,
And Earth, the ancient life-giver, increaseth
Joy among the meadows, like a tree. (Euripides: Hippolytus , translated by Gilbert Murray.)
In the great Greek dramas, the Chorus is a constant reminder that, though they cannot understand or explain them, there are other powers in the world than the wild passions of men.

The great dramatic festival of Athens was held in the spring in the theatre of Dionysus, to the south-east of the Acropolis. The theatre in Athens never became an everyday amusement, as it is today, but was always directly connected with the worship of Dionysus, and the performances were always preceded by a sacrifice. The festival was only held once a year, and whilst it lasted the whole city kept holiday. Originally, admission to the theatre was free, but the crowds became so great and there was such confusion and sometimes fighting in the rush for good seats, that the state decided to charge an admission fee and tickets had to be bought beforehand. But even then there were no reserved seats, except for certain officials who sat in the front row. In the time of Pericles, complaints were made that the poorer citizens could not afford to buy tickets, and so important was the drama then considered, that it was ordered that tickets should be given free to all who applied for them.

An Athenian audience was very critical, and shouts and applause, or groans and hisses showed its approval or disapproval of the play being acted. Several plays were given in one day, and a prize was awarded to the best, so the audience was obliged to start at dawn and would probably remain in the theatre until sunset. Let us go with an Athenian audience and see a play which was first performed in the latter half of the fifth century B.C.

Theatre at Epidaurus
Theatre at Epidaurus

The theatre is a great semi-circle on the slope of the Acropolis, with rows of stone seats on which about eighteen thousand spectators can sit. The front row consists of marble chairs, the only seats in the theatre which have backs, and these are reserved for the priests of Dionysus and the chief magistrates. Beyond the front row, is a circular space called the orchestra, where the Chorus sings, and in the centre of which stands the altar of Dionysus. Behind the orchestra, is the stage on which the actors will act, at the back of which is a building painted to look like the front of a temple or a palace, to which the actors retire when they are not wanted on the stage or have to change their costumes. That is the whole theatre and all its stage scenery. Overhead is the deep blue sky, the Acropolis rises up behind, and the olive-laden hills are seen in the distance. Much will have to be left to the imagination, but the very simplicity of the outward surroundings will make the audience give all their attention to the play and the acting.

When the play begins, there will only be three actors on the stage at once. They will wear very elaborate costumes, and a strange-looking wooden sole called a cothurnus or buskin, about six inches high, on their shoes, to make them look taller and more impressive, and over their faces a curious mask with a wide mouth, so that everyone in that vast audience will hear them. [Note: Scholars today do not believe that the masks worn in Greek drama were used as "megaphones." The acoustics in Greek ampitheatres were excellent and the wide mouths of the mask were only intended to allow clear speech, not to amplify sound. Rather, the exaggerated expressions on the masks were part of the stylized "look" of Greek theatre, a style that combined ritualized exaggeration with simplicity to better convey the sense of the drama to a large audience. -- Leigh T. Denault]  There will be no curtain and the play is not divided into different acts. When there is a pause in the action, the Chorus will fill up the time with their song. If it is a tragedy, we shall not see the final catastrophe on the stage, but a messenger will appear who will give us an account of what has happened. All this is very different from the way in which a modern play is given, but some of the greatest dramas the world possesses were written by Athenian dramatists and acted on this Athenian stage more than two thousand years ago.

On this occasion the play we are to see is "Iphigenia in Tauris," written by Euripides, one of the greatest of the Athenian dramatists.

The legends and traditions from which most of the Greek plays took their plots were, of course, well known to the Athenians. They were stories commemorating some great event, or explaining some religious observance, but naturally these legends were differently treated by different dramatists, each of whom brought out a different side of the story to enforce some particular lesson which he wished to bring home to the people, and this is especially true of legends like that of Iphigenia connected with the Fall of Troy.

In the opening speech of this play, Iphigenia very briefly tells her story up to the moment when the play begins. Just as the Greeks had been ready to sail for Troy, they were wind-bound at Aulis. The wise men were consulted as to the meaning of this, and how the gods who must in some way have been offended, might be appeased, so that fair winds might send them on their way. Calchas, the seer, told them that Artemis demanded the sacrifice of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, King of Argos, the great leader of the host, and her father sent for her accordingly. The maiden was at home with her mother, and the messenger who was sent to Argos to bring her was charged to say that he father desired to wed her to the hero Achilles. She came and the sacrifice was offered, but at the supreme moment, Artemis carried Iphigenia away and placed her in the land of the Tauri, a wild and barbarous tribe, as their princess. These Tauri had an image of Artemis in a temple, to which they sacrified all strangers who were cast on their shores, sacrified all strangers who cast on their shores, and it was the futy of the priestess to consecrate each victim before he was slain. Here, performing this rite, Iphigenia lived for more than ten years, but never yet had a Greek come to this wild land. She knew, of course, nothing of what had happened at Troy or afterwards; she did not know that on his return home her father had been slain by Clytaemnestra his wife, or that Orestes, her brother, had avenged that death by slaughtering his own mother, after which deed he had wandered from place to place pursued by the relentless torment of the Furies. Bitter against the Greeks for having willed her sacrifice at Aulis, Iphigenia says of herself that she is "turned to stone, and has no pity left in her," and she half hopes that the day will come when a Greek will be brought to her to be offered in his turn to the goddess.

In the meantime, Orestes, tormented beyond endurance by the Furies, had gone to the Oracle of Apollo, to ask how he might be purified from his sin, and Apollo had told him to go to the land of the Tauri and bring back to Attica the image of Artemis his sister, so that it might no longer be stained by the blood of the human sacrifices. And so it comes about that Orestes is the first Greek who will be brought to Iphigenia for sacrifice to Artemis. It is at this moment that the play opens.

[ Click here to read a copy of the play Iphigenia in Tauris ]

Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BCE)

The first of the three classical playwrights of 5th-century Athens, Aeschylus was born near Athens in 525 BCE, in the village of Eleusis. His father was called Euphorion, and was of noble descent. As a young man Aeschylus would have been influenced by two historic events: the exile of Hippias, a dictator, in 510 BCE, and the establishment of democracy in Athens under Cleisthenes in 508 BCE.

Aeschylus was a soldier in his youth, and took part in the Persian Wars. His epitaph (self-authored as an entry for a contest in 489 BCE) depicts him fighting at Marathon in 490 BCE, a battle which is considered to be among the most important moments in Athenian history. At Marathon, the Athenians defeated the Persians and halted a Persian invasion. His brother, Cynegeirus, died fighting at Marathon. Aeschylus may also have fought at the battle of Salamis, a sea battle that defeated an even larger Persian invasion force. 

His first win at the drama festival (City Dionysia) came in 484 BCE, although scholars do not know the name of the trilogy that won.We do, however, know the name of his winning trilogy for the festival in 472 BCE -- The Persians -- sponsored by Pericles himself, then an aspiring politician. The Persians deserves mention because the play is about the Persian defeat at Salamis, and it was unusual for the plays at the festival to deal with topics other than the pantheon of Greek myth. Aeschylus left Athens in 471 BCE to attend court at Syracuse, ruled by the tyrant Hieron, a famous patron of the arts. When he returned to Athens for the festival in 468 BCE, a twenty-eight year old named Sophocles, competing for the first time, won first place over the great Aeschylus.

Popular as he was, the Athenian dramatists often walked a fine line between innovation and irreverence. Aeschylus was prosecuted for revealing the mysteries of Eleusis in one of his plays. Although he was eventually proven innocent, this accusation remained a stain on his character. Driven from the city by growing social and political unrest, Aeschylus died far away from Athens, in Sicily, in 456 BCE.

A prolific writer, Aeschylus had written between seventy and ninety plays by the time of his death in 456 BCE. Only seven of his plays have survived: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers , and The Eumenides (these three plays compose the tragic trilogy known as The Oresteia ), The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, The Supplicants, and Prometheus Bound . Some scholars believe that Prometheus Bound may be wrongly attributed to Aeschylus. Most of his plays were written for the annual Athenian drama competition, the City Dionysia, which Aeschylus won thirteen times. At this festival, three chosen dramatists would perform three tragedies and a satyr play. The Oresteia is the only complete Greek tragic trilogy extant today.

Sophocles (c. 496-406 BCE)

Sophocles Sophocles' work is considered the pinnacle of Greek tragedy. Born in near Athens in 496 BCE in the town of Colonus, in his ninety-year lifespan he witnessed the rise and fall of the Athenian Golden Age. Sophocles was the son of a wealthy manufacturer. He grew up during the Persian Wars, and was chosen to participate in the victory celebrations for the Greek naval victory at Salamis in 480 BCE, an honor that suggests that the young Sophocles was particularly talented and handsome. Indeed, he is thought to have performed some of the roles in his early plays, but was unable to continue as an actor due to problems with his voice.

Sophocles was popular in Athens, and, perhaps as a result of the patriotism he developed as a young man, remained in Athens throughout his life despite multiple summons from local rulers to visit other cities and regions. A close friend of Pericles, he held several public offices throughout his life in addition to being a leading dramatist. Despite a reported aversion to politics, Sophocles did play a signifcant role in Athenian social and political life. In his old age he was honored with an important advisory position in the Athenian government to help deal with the aftermath of the disastrous military campaign at Syracuse. His public career seem to have started when he was elected treasurer of the Delian League in 443 BCE, and general of the Athenian army in 441 BCE. Under the command of Pericles, he participated in the military campaign against Samos. Sophocles was also a founder of the cult of the god Asclepius in 420 BCE, an activity which may have been connected to the establishment of a public hospital. He was also the father of two sons, one of whom went on to become a playwright. Sophocles died in 406 BCE.

Revered by modern scholars for his treatment of the individual and for the complex issues that his plays address, Sophocles was also revered by his contemporaries: he recieved the first prize for tragic drama over Aeschylus at the drama festival (the City Dionysia) held in 468 BCE, when he was twenty-eight years old. He wrote around one hundred and twenty-three plays for the Athenian theatre, and won twenty-four festivals -- he placed second in every festival that did not win. Only seven of his plays, however, have survived intact. They are (in the order in which they are thought to have been written): Ajax, Antigone , The Women of Trachis , Oedipus the King, Electra , Philoctetes , and Oedipus at Colonus. From the fragments remaining, and from references to lost plays in other works, scholars have discovered that Sophocles wrote on an enormous variety of topics. He also introduced several key innovations, including ending the tradition of writing trilogies on connected topics at the City Dionysia, introducing painted background scenery, changing the number of speaking actors from two to three, and enlarging the chorus from twelve to fifteen men.

Euripides (c. 485-406 BCE)

Euripides inclusion among the great Athenian dramatists is sometimes debated by scholars, who see his plays as irreverent misrepresentations of the Greek religion, filled with too many unrelated ideas. These scholars note that while Euripides' plays were included in the drama festival (the City Dionysia)  twenty-two times, he only won five times. Euripides' supporters claim that  he deserves mention along with Aeschylus and Sophocles because he was bold and irreverent: he was willing to look beyond religious orthodoxy to critique Greek culture and religion. Many of the protagonists in Euripides' plays are female, and through this less-explored perspective he was able to examine well-known stories in a completely new way. His supporters also point to Euripides willingness to enter into the psychology of his characters.

Born in Phyle, outside of Athens, legend tells us that Euripides was born on the same day as the great Greek victory at Salamis in 480 BCE. Eurpidies took part in the Sophist movement, an intellectual group who were known for their unorthodox and unsettling views. Eurpidies himself was apparently a curmudgeon, preferring to do most of his writing in a secluded cave on the island of Salamis. Unlike Sophocles, he was not interested in an official position in the Athenian state. He developed friendships Socrates and Anaxagoras, both unconventional philsophers, as well as the General Alcibiades. The sophist Protagoras supposedly recited a treatise that argued against the existence of the gods at Euripides' house.

Euripides left Athens in 408 BCE at the request of King Archelaus of Macedon, a famous patron of the arts. Although his reasons for leaving Athens at such an advanced age are unclear, Euripides' non-traditional, and sometimes heretical, ideas undoubtedly made him unpopular in the increasingly unstable Athens. Eurpides was known, for example, as an opponent of the Athenian democracy that had developed during his lifetime. Euripides died in Macedon around 406 BCE.

Although we only know eighty of their titles, Eurpides is thought to have written ninety-two plays, of which nineteen tragedies are extant today. Unlike Aeschylus or Sophocles, who are represented by only a few of their works, Euripides leaves a substantial dramatic legacy, including (in the order in which they are thought to have been written) the Medea , Hippolytus , Trojan Women, the Bacchae , and Iphigenia in Aulis .

Contents Copyright © 2003 Leigh T. Denault