The word ‘theatre’ comes from the Greek theatron, literally “seeing place,” or “place where something is seen.” The word was first used in its current form in 1576 when James Burbage named his playhouse the Theatre. Since Burbage’s playhouse was one of the first, if not the first, structure built specifically for the production of plays, the name theatre eventually came to mean first the buildings and then the entire genre. The companion term ‘drama’ comes from the Greek word dran, literally “to do.” It is “something done.” Frequently the terms are used interchangeably, although the theatre always refers to the structure where the performances are held as well as to the company of players who perform.
Theatre also refers to the designers, administrators, technicians, etc. who work together to produce plays as well as the body of ideas that animates the artists and brings the plays to life. Drama is a more limited term and tends to refer mainly to the plays that are produced. In other words, drama is the script itself; theatre is all the elements that combine to bring that play to life. Drama requires the reader to contribute more than any other form of literature does. Not only must the reader see and understand what is explicitly said and done, but he/she must also be aware of all that is merely implied or left unsaid.
We can trace the history of theater to as far as 700BC and the Ancient Greek civilization. We know that the Greeks enjoyed musicals, but sadly, we don’t have the actual music or understand what compositions were most popular. However, we can still see how the Ancient Greeks’ love of theater plays a part in the Broadway, and the West End shows we know and love today.
Theater first established in Greece in what was then the city-state of Athens, shortly before the classical period of Ancient Greece. The authorities held annual festivals to honor the God Dionysus to promote peace and community between individuals and neighboring city-states following the Great Destruction of Athens in 480 BCE.
The first shows were often individual poets acting out their written works. These shows quickly started to attract large audiences, which subsequently led to the production of
longer scripts and people specifically choosing to act out certain roles. It wasn’t long before these shows started to have writers, directors, and a cast of actors.
Most plays in ancient Greece would also take the form of competitions for who could create the best performance. The earliest recorded competition winner was Thespis, who became known as “The Father of Tragedy.” Thespis is also regarded as one of the founding fathers of drama, which is why we sometimes refer to modern actors as thespians.
Another important aspect of these festivals was performances of the work of Homer, who lived sometime between the 12th and 8th centuries BC. Around the start of the classical period of Ancient Greece, scholars at the time were beginning to curate Homer’s works. Their readings at these shows would be the first stage of bringing Homer into the public consciousness, and he remains revered today. It wasn’t just drama and the theater that took off as Ancient Greece entered its classical period. The entire civilization went through a “Golden Age,” where the people were passionate about advancing and creating art, architecture, literature, monuments, philosophy, and drama. Greece was the foundation of modern culture.
Many of the plot devices and other writing tools used by Ancient Greek playwrights still apply and can be seen in modern works. Although we may not know the specifics of what happened during each performance, the dramas of Ancient Greece have stood the test of time. Three genres came to characterize Ancient Greek Theater: Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire.
Early plays were typically tragedies; hence the cultural use of the term “Greek Tragedy” that is still widely used today. Tragedies were popular because they were the most in- demand stories at the time. Audiences wanted to see a story that ended with a tragedy or that had a tragic moral. Some of Aristotle’s writings indicate dithyrambs inspired many theatrical tragedy productions. Dithyrambs were choral hymns sung in honor of Dionysus at each year’s festival. Tragedies were also often played alongside annual rituals undertaken by the Ancient Greeks to honor Dionysus. Citizens would wear masks and sacrifice animals, usually goats while singing dithyrambs or performing a tragic poem or play. This link led to the adoption of Dionysus as the god of the theater, in addition to the other things for which the Ancient Greeks worshipped him.
Comedies represented ancient Greek’s daily lives and the absurdities that could happen to them. In contrast, tragedies often were set in the past and were more likely to include appearances from the gods. Aristophanes is credited with writing most of Ancient Greece’s first comedy plays. In Aristotle’s writings around the emergence of the genre, he explains comedy consists of characters who are there solely for the audience to laugh at. They make a mistake, and the audience does not feel pain from seeing it, representing the opposite of tragedy. At the time, comedy was a means of offering an alternative to tragic stories and performances. Ancient Greek theater allows us to gain insights into how Ancient Greek society was and comedy offered a window into the legal system, education, religious practices, and political systems of Ancient Greece. Analysis of Ancient Greek pottery designs suggests that actors have been wearing costumes and doing silly actions on stage for thousands of years.
Satire emerged from tragedy and quickly became popular. Ancient Greek satire was a mix of comedy and drama, sometimes referred to as a tragi-comedy. Ancient Greek satire would rely heavily on sexual themes and topics such as drunkenness and is meant to get a lot of laughs from the audience. Writers designed the characters’ actions to shame people into change by seeing the actors mocked for things they do themselves. These were the main difference between satire and comedy in ancient Greece. Comedy was to be light- hearted, while satire used laughter paired with shame to provide social commentary and to make people or society change. There were many restrictions in place to keep the quality of the plays high. For example, only three actors ever got speaking parts to ensure that everyone accurately memorized their lines. This set up also meant the audience could easily distinguish between the actors. It also helped to keep the competitive festivals balanced. However, the costs would have been too high for the state to handle on its own. They enlisted wealthy citizens to fund production costs, and they were afforded enormous amounts of respect as a consequence, wealthy citizens oversaw expenses of Costumes, Musicians, Rehearsals, and Choir Singers. They became known as “choregos” (like the modern day choreographer) and oversaw the costumes, musicians, rehearsals, and choir singers. At the same time, the state paid for professional actors to attend and take part.
Ancient Greece was home to some of the best architects of the time. They were continually learning and developing their buildings. The theaters of Ancient Greece are a marvel to behold. Their remains are among the most popular tourist attractions in the country to this day. It’s also easy to see where these theaters had a significant impact on the design of today’s theatres especially in terms of architecture.