Origins Of Greek Theatre

A historical account about the origins of Greek theater.

Historians say the greatest Athenian contribution to literature was the rise of drama. Greek drama was a product of the worship of the god Dionysus. By the fifth century B.C., a drama festival to honor this god had become traditional.

Twice a year tragedies and comedies were performed. Out of the drama festivals held in Athens, came the great playwrights. Unlike modern productions, which are performed at commercial theaters or schools, the plays of the 5th century were sponsored by the state. Generally, they were only presented once, though the more successful works might be performed again in later years.

Of the comedies, only some of the works of Aristophanes have been preserved. These are remarkably varied in topic. One play called The Clouds, is a angry attack on the philosopher Socrates, who is portrayed as a sophist leading the young to make fun of their elders. Another comedy, the Frogs, assaults the tragedian Euripides as also corrupting the younger generation.

Another, called The Birds, is a fantasy of some Athenians, discontented with the lawsuits and contentions of their daily lives, who try to live with the birds and set up an ideal Birdland. Whatever their subject, these comedies combine lyric poetry, quick repartee and outrageous obscenity in a frankness of speech rarely equaled in later ages.

The subject of a tragedy was typically a legend of the heroic age, such as the war of Argos and Thebes or the tales clustered around Homeric heroes. But the plays sometimes dealt with real history, rather than legends. the one surviving example of the latter type is Aeschylus' Persians, performed in 472 with Pericles as producer.

Narration of a story or legend, was only a means by which the author might explore the nature of mankind. In doing so, the tragedian turned firmly away from realistic depictions of Athenian citizens to a higher, ideal level of heroic men and women. Even the gods themselves might make an appearance.

However great, the human beings in a tragedy had flaws which led them to ruin. The playwrights sought to illuminate both the greatness and defects of mankind.

Although numerous authors vied in the annual competitions, the three considered the best were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Aeschylus was a deeply religious thinker. His plays, like Agememnon, are brooding dramas of inevitable, catastrophic ruin. His characters stand almost outside the human world, and his poetry rumbles with the stark, bold images.

Sophocles is considered the most balanced of the three writers. He is said to have written 123 plays and won first place 24 times, but only seven are preserved. The finest of these is Oedipus the King, performed shortly after the year 430.

With Euripides, the last of the three tragedians, we step outside the boundaries of 5th-century civilization. However in his own lifetime, Euripides was rarely successful. Records say he only won first prize five times. Later generations favored Euripides, and few ancient playwrights appear more often on the modern stage than he.

Much has been written about the Golden Age of Greece, a time when the words of playwrights, poets, and philosophers found a wide audience. Scholars today still study their creations.

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