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Greek Theater

Page history last edited by Paula Rawlins 10 years, 3 months ago

Greek Theater


To study the origins of rhetoric from a new historicist perspective, Greek theater must be examined, as it was closely tied to the political and religious life of ancient Greece. While, of course, Aristotle focuses on the theater more in Poetics, he still makes references to drama in On Rhetoric (the example given for topic 28, “from the meaning of a name,” comes from one of Sophocles’ plays). If you were male (or perhaps even female) in fourth or fifth century BC Greece, you were aware of theater and likely to be either directly involved in the production of drama or an audience member.



The Festivals


All of the plays we study from ancient Greece today were written for performance at a festival. While smaller, local festivals did take place, the two largest, the Lenaea and the Great (or City) Dionysia, were held in Athens annually. Both of these events were held in honor of the god of wine and dramatic

interpretation, Dionysius, and included processions, religious rituals, and several days of dramatic performances.


The Lenaea was a smaller, four-day affair occurring in January, which meant the event was for Athens citizens only since weather conditions would not be favorable for outsiders to travel to the city. In contrast, the Great Dionysia, which we know more about, took place in late March and drew in crowds from other   


city-states. Though the festival was five days long, the first event actually took place two days before the official start with the proagόn (pre-contest) calling for poets and actors to gather near the theater and give a preview of the performances to come in the following days. The first day of the festival would be consumed with processions, tributes to war orphans and notable citizens, religious sacrifices, and dithyrambic contests (a chorus of 50 men and a chorus of 50 boys representing each deme) and concluded with one large, wine-soaked party.


Though there are competing theories, many believe that the Great Dionysia’s second day featured five comedies and the remaining three days were filled with three tragedies and one satyr play each. (The Lenaea is believed to have taken the opposite approach, presenting tragedy first and ending the festival on a lighter note). Whatever the order of presentation, the bulk of these festivals, still very much civic and religious events, were dedicated to the production and viewing of drama.



The Theater of Dionysus, where the Lenaea and Great Dionysia

performances took place.


Exactly how the three best tragedies and comedies were chosen is another topic up for debate, but we do know a lottery allowed one judge to be pulled from each deme. Also chosen at random was the order in which the plays of each genre were presented. The voting process is cloudier, but the use of representatives and of a lottery suggests the judging allowed for both a sense of democracy and divine intervention.




During the summer leading up to each of the festivals, a public official (elected more so for religious than theatrical credentials) would select the playwrights whose works would be featured during Lenaea and the Great Dionysius. Also chosen were chorẻgoi, the equivalent of modern-day producers, who were charged with paying for all costs associated with their assigned production; the position served as a special tax on the wealthy. Not only did being a chorẻgoi mean one had some deep pockets, but it’s possible the selected citizen had some say in the writing and direction of the plays, since he was now also in the running for being recognized with an ivy wreath alongside the winning playwright. If he was pronounced a winner, the chorẻgoi was also, fittingly, expected to pay for and host a celebratory after-party for the cast.








Ruins allow us to know that theaters were usually situated on a hill, allowing for amphitheater seating. The Theater of Dionysus is estimated to have held fifteen to twenty thousand spectators who would have looked down upon the rounded orchestra section, where most of the stage action would occur. Whether there was a raised, wooden stage is debatable, but we do know of two often-used mechanisms: the crane, which would be used for gods to enter the scene (or, comically, for Socrates to have his head in the clouds) and the “wheel out,” a rolling platform used in order to show an event taking place in a different location than the one presented on the main stage.







An Illustration providing one idea of how the Theater of Dionysus

may have appeared in fourth century BC Athens.



The large scale of these outside spaces meant those performing had to have exceptionally strong voices for speaking and singing. Even with the loudest of actors on stage, large gestures and elaborate costumes were necessary in order to capture the attention of those in the furthest seats from the stage. Lines that describe a character’s appearance or emotions are often written into plays, which helped those not sitting close to understand the action of the play. Having no more than four speaking characters (all played by males) on stage at once also helped to cut down on the confusion of who was speaking when.  


Paintings on vases left behind tell us that costumes for the theater were not only large and spectacular, but also prescribed by genre. Tragedies called for long robes and somber masks, while comedies meant shorter, padded attire that accentuated body parts: large rumps, stomachs, and phalluses were part of most comic characters’ appearance, along with grotesque masks.



A vase probably depicting the chorus in costume

for Aristophanes' Birds.





The Audience



The composition of the large audiences that filled Greek theaters is up for debate. While some boldly state that “women, children, [and] even slaves” sat beside Athens' citizens, many limit the audience to only Greek men and boys, placing women at home and slaves only as stagehands (Jeffrey Henderson qtd. in Mueller 11). We do know that a marble front-row gave judges and the priest of Dionysus a VIP section from which to view the show.


Whoever was in the audience, they were expected to be active participants, which is one way to keep an audience sitting through up to five shows a day entertained. In Wasps, for example, Aristophanes writes for the actors on stage to ask the audience to call out what disease a character might have before providing the answer (Robson 28). Giving weight to the idea that women were in attendance, several of Aristophanes’ plays also include actors addressing the audience as including men and women, an idea that makes the Greek theater all the more an exceptional public space worthy of study and an area of rhetoric that may have had the most diverse of  Greek audiences.

The Theater of Dionysus with the Acropolis in the background. Marble seen

here would have been a later edition from the Romans.

Image Sources


"Dionysus' Theater." University of Athens Department of Chemistry. University of Athens. n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.


"Early Greek Comedy and Satyr Plays." Utah State University. Utah State University. 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.


"Greek Theater of Dionysos in Athens." Columbia College. Columbia College. 2013. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.


"Illustration of a Greek theater." Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Ed. Edward I. Bleiberg, et al. Vol. 2: Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 B.C.E.-476 C.E. Detroit: Gale, 2005. World     History in Context. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.


Works Consulted


Aristotle. On Rhetoric. Trans. George A. Kennedy. Oxford UP: Oxford, 2007. Print.


Mueller, Carl R. Aristophanes in an Hour. Hanover: In an Hour Books, 2009. Print.


Robson, James. Aristophanes: An Introduction. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 2009. Print.




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