GREEK THEATRE 

         It's been a long journey from the drama of the Greeks to modern entertainment. Greek plays would bore most modern audiences stiff. They had no gory death scenes (all the carnage occurs off-stage), no sex, no special effects (apart from lowering an actor in on a rope).  In spite of its lack of "frills," the theatron (hillside theatre) in Athens,which seated 14,000 spectators, was frequently filled to capacity.  It was an impressive crowd even by modern standards.
         Actors were required to have massive lungs in order to reach "the cheap seats." Their costuming did give them a bit of help. All actors wore masks made with exaggerated features (those at the top needed to be able to make them out). The mouthpiece cut into each mask acted as a megaphone, projecting the actors' voices even further than they could on their own.
         The masks also helped for those problematic female roles, because women were not allowed to participate in the theatre. An actor wearing a feminine mask with blonde tresses attached played the female roles. (Even 2,000 years later in Shakespeare's time, women were still forbidden to act.) Some parts required actors to wear padded robes and raised boots to increase their size. Acting (as we know it) would be nearly impossible in this get-up. While modern actors rely on facial expression, Greek actors had to rely on hand gestures and voice inflection to mimic emotion. Yet, because of the limitations put on acting, the playwright's words came center-stage.
          The chorus was an integral part of every Greek play. As the name suggests, the chorus was a group of twelve to fifteen men who sang and danced in response to the actor's words and actions. During the events of the play, they were the voice of the people and public opinion. The democratic Athenians would want to know, "What do the people think of this?" In fact, the very first plays were probably just a chorus, relating all the events of a story solely through song and dance. Thespis, a legendary playwright, allegedly first came up with the idea of adding a speaking part, or an actor who was not a part of the chorus. This revolutionary idea is why actors are now called thespians.
          Before drama really hit its peak, only one speaking character inhabited the stage at a time. Because characters didn't interact and were differentiated by masks, one actor could play all parts. Just imagine a movie made up entirely of monologues--not the most interesting way to tell a story. Modern audiences want to see how characters interact, but the Greeks were so used to the old way, they never dreamed it could be improved upon.
          When the playwright Aeschylus came up with the idea of adding a second character to the stage, it again revolutionized the industry. Now there was the interaction the audience never knew they were missing. Of course, once this innovation hit the scene, no one thought the two-actor approach could be topped until Sophocles wowed them again by introducing a third character to the stage. In this period of rapid innovation, drama was truly born.
          As mentioned before, "special effects" were almost nonexistent. The only device that could remotely qualify was a crane called the
mekhane, which allowed gods or magical characters to "fly" out from behind the skene (painted backdrop) and give the audience a shock. Characters committed their grisly murders, suicides, or eye-pluckings entirely off-stage, leaving it to their servants to run back in and recount what happened in full detail.  In fact the Greek word obscene, indicating acts that should not be shown on stage, has made its way into our vernacular.
         Today we are merely adding more bells and whistles to what the Greeks started long ago. Television and film may seem far removed from those humble beginnings, but beneath it all, the goal is still the same: To trigger human emotion (whether it be gasps, screams, tears, or laughter) and give the mind a temporary escape.

READ ABOUT THE THREE TYPES OF PLAYS

READ ABOUT FAMOUS GREEKS

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BOTH ABOVE:  The Theater of Dionysus in Athens

BELOW: Two Examples of Masks Used in Greek Theatre