Ancient Theatre

Uploaded by cgcclive on 30.12.2008

Where to begin a theatre history course
always involves an arbitrary decision.
Theatre, as defined as a communal human expression,
has probably been practiced since the dawn of humanity.
But the story of the foundation of western theatre
is essentially the story of the Greek city of Athens
in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.
It is a story dominated by five dramatists
three tragic, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides,
and two comic, Aristophanes and Menander
and by Aristotle, theatre’s first theorist and critic.
It is the story of how theatre as we know it started
in the worship of the god Dionysus
and grew into a civic festival linked to celebrating
both the gods and the city itself
during the golden age of Athenian democracy.
I’m standing in the amphitheater on CGCC’s campus
in The Dalles, a type of public space that comes to us
directly from the Greeks.
Ancient Greek theaters were large, open-air structures
that took advantage of sloping hillsides
for their terraced seating.
The core of any Greek theater is the orchestra,
the “dancing place” of the chorus
and the chief performance space.
The audience sat in the theatron, the “seeing place,”
on semi-circular terraced rows of benches.
The Athenian theater was not a business enterprise
like our theater but was financed by the Athenian state
as an integral part of a religious festival: the City Dionysia.
Theatre emerged from the same impulse as religion;
an attempt to make sense of the universe,
and to find meaning in the mysteries
that surrounded men’s lives.
Gradually, plays were separated from direct worship,
but dramatic festivals maintained a close connection
to the civic religion.
Plays were presented only during these festivals
and a professional theatre as we know it did not exist.
Three tragic poets were chosen each year to present
their plays at the festival. Each one of the tragedians
presented a group of four plays, three tragedies
and a satyr play, on one morning of the festival.
In the first half of the fifth century the three tragedies
often formed a connected trilogy.
which told a continuous story.
One connected trilogy survives, The Oresteia of Aeschylus.
This trilogy traces the story of the House of Atreus
from Agamemnon's murder by his wife after his return
from Troy to the acquittal of his son, Orestes,
who killed his mother in revenge.
The normal practice for tragedians of the
second half of the fifth century was to write
three unconnected tragedies,
which each dealt with a common idea or theme.
The existing plays of both Sophocles and Euripides
are examples of this development.
In his Poetics Aristotle defined theatre
as "an imitation of an action."
The Poetics is commonly understood
by critical theorists to be one of the earliest,
yet one of the most important, pieces of cultural criticism,
and has served as a model for playwrights
for the past 2,500 years.
Aristotle’s definition of the elements constituting
excellence in theatre significantly influenced
theatre practitioners subsequent periods,
and makes the theatre of the ancient Greeks
the natural starting point for the study
of western theatre history.
This first unit of our course covers the first three weeks.
We’ll spend this time looking at the ways that playwriting,
acting, and theatre architecture developed in Athens,
how these developments were interpreted by Aristotle
a century after they first occurred, and how the Romans
then incorporated and further developed
Greek dramatic forms and ideas
in their own professional public entertainment.