Ancient Greek Theater
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The ancient Greeks advanced numerous areas, including philosophy, poetry, architecture, sculpture, and theater. Any student who has encountered an English 101 class will be familiar with some of the great plays of Ancient Greek theater, including the work of the following playwrites:
Sophocles is best remembered for his Theban trilogy, which includes both Oedipus the King and Antigone, while Euripides is famous for his play Medea.
Ancient Greek theater reached a zenith in Athens during the golden age, and became a central part of the celebrations at the festival of Dionysia. The Greeks developed three different forms of drama, the tragedy, comedy, and the satyr play. Tragedy emerged first, around 532 BCE. Greek actor Thespis is called the "Father of Tragedy," lending his name to the term thespian. Ancient Greek theater kept tragedy and comedy separate, and no play exist that sought to combine elements of the two.
During the festival of Dionysia, a playwright was expected to submit three tragedies and a satyr play, a comedic version of some mythological subject. Ancient Greek theater specified that a play have a chorus, of between 12 and 15 men, performing in the traditional amphitheater. In 465 BCE, Greeks added a backdrop behind the stage, which provided not just decoration, but a place where the actors (who performed in masks) could change costumes.
Greek Theater Versus Elizabethian Theater
The Greeks had strict rules about what was and what was not appropriate for tragedies. The Elizabethans were not as rule-bound, so there are both similarities and differences between Greek theater and Elizabethan theater.
The first difference is that the Greeks did not permit any mixing of genres. There could be no comic moments in a tragedy, for example. The whole play had to be serious and dignified, as is Oedipus Rex. But in Elizabethan times there was no such rule. The porter scene in Macbeth (Act 2 scene 2), for example, injects a humorous character and his ramblings at a moment of great drama, just before the discovery of the murder of Duncan.
In Greek theater there was a chorus that commented on the action and sometimes took part in it as well. Both these elements are apparent in the first scene of Oedipus Rex. After Creon reveals to Oedipus that the town can only be cured of its blight when the murderer of Laius is found, the chorus, alone on the stage, laments the condition of the city and prays for deliverance. Then when Oedipus returns, the Chorus engages in a dialogue with him. In contrast, there is no chorus in Macbeth, since this was a practice that the Elizabethans did not revive.
In Greek theater, there was a convention that no violence was shown on stage. If there was a violent event, it was reported by a messenger, or some other character. Thus in Oedipus Rex, the violent episode of Jocasta hanging herself, Oedipus discovering her body and then blinding himself with her brooches is reported by Second Messenger in dialogue with the Chorus. This convention was not continued in Elizabethan theater, which as a popular entertainment enjoyed showing fights and other violent and spectacular events. In Macbeth, for example, although the murder of Duncan is not depicted directly, the fight between Macbeth and Macduff is.
There were no sub-plots in Greek tragedy. The action had to be confined to one central plot, and all the action directly related to the unfoldment of that plot. This was not the case in Elizabethan theater generally, and Shakespeare's plays-King Lear, for example-frequently have sub-plots, although Macbeth does not.
The lack of sub-plots in Greek theater was the last part of the rule known as the three unities of place, time and action. The action had to take place in only one setting, and the time the action took to complete had to be not more than one day. In Oedipus Rex, for example, all the action takes place in only a few hours of one day.