The Art of Tragedy: Ancient Greek Theater

In many ways, theater looked a lot different 2000 years ago than it does today, put on with masks and small casts and strange contraptions—that was ancient Greek theater.

Feb 3, 2021By Lynnie McIlvain, BA Classics (Classical Studies)
terracotta theater props
Terracotta calyx-krater (mixing bowl), 350-25 BCE; with Terracotta roundels with theatrical masks attached, 1st century BCE


Ancient Greek theater originated at religious festivals, a celebration of the skill of man, handed down by the gods. Ancient architects erected the first theaters in the polis Athens, similar to the theaters that modern theater-goers now know. An altar and central stage called the orchestra stood in front of the theatron, the half-moon seating for an audience. Though this is not to say that there are no differences; the actors on stage looked much different than modern actors, theaters are often no longer open-air, and the ancient costuming is unique to itself. 


The Father of Ancient Greek Theater As We Know It


aeschylus dramatist head
Aeschylus, 1st century BCE, via the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh


Aeschylus is often referred to as the “father of Greek tragedy”. He was the first dramatist of Classical Greece and popularized tragedy as a respected and beloved genre of poetry. He strove to expand the form of tragic theater and succeeded. Aeschylus was born in Eleusis—the site of the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries and just west of Athens—in 525 BCE and died in 455 BCE in the Sicilian town of Gela. 


He served as a soldier in the Persian Wars and was most notably a veteran of the Battles of Marathon and of Salamis. For unknown reasons, his epitaph references only his military service, but not his literary works. His play, The Persians, comments on his experience and perspective of the war, winning first prize in 472 BCE at Athens’s largest dramatic festival, the Great Dionysia. He won a total of thirteen first-place prizes in this festival, which was dedicated to the god Dionysus. 


Among his surviving works are Prometheus Bound, Seven Against Thebes, his Oresteia trilogy, and The Suppliants

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Sophocles of Colonus

sophocles bust dramatist
Head of Sophocles, 1st-3rd century CE, via the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge


Sophocles was a novice dramatist at the time that he bested Aeschylus in the Great Dionysia with his Triptolemus play. Originally born in 496 BCE at Colonus, he traveled to Athens and held a long political career there. He died in 405 BCE at ninety years old. His works were shaped by the massive wars throughout his lifetime—the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War, and as a politician, Sophocles helped construct the response to the brutal decimation of Athens’ Sicilian Expedition during the Peloponnesian War.  


War is a central theme in many of his extant plays, such as Ajax and Philoctetes. His Cyclops is the best-preserved satyr play, though it still did not survive in its entirety. 


Sophocles is credited with one of the most important changes to ancient Greek theater—he added a third actor to the tragic cast. After the death of Aeschylus, he became the most prominent Athenian playwright, winning first place in eleven more festivals than Aeschylus for a total of twenty-four victories. Euripides, the final great Greek tragedian, won only four first-place prizes at the Great Dionysia. 


At the End of Great Greek Tragedy: Euripides

herm of euripides
Herm of Euripides, 400 BCE, Museum of Classical Archaeology at the University of Cambridge


Euripides was born in 480 BCE and lived until 406 BCE, making him seventy-four years old at the time of his death. Though he is among the greatest surviving Greek tragedians, he only won the first prize in the Great Dionysia four times over the course of his life. 


In his old age, Euripides chose a voluntary exile in Macedon after being charged with impiety in Athens. Euripides was a contemporary of Socrates, with whom he shared a close friendship until the philosopher’s execution for ideological corruption of the Athenian youth. This relationship is thought to have contributed to Euripides’s exile. The dramatist is often closely associated with Socrates in extant contemporary sources, due to their shared ideologies and intimate association. 


The charge of impiety was officially brought against Euripides, presumably for the atheist rhetoric present in his popular plays such as The Bacchae and the Trojan Women, and echoed in the works of Socrates. 


Ancient Actors

terracotta calyx krater
Terracotta Calyx-krater (mixing bowl) of phlyax play, attributed to the Dolon Painter, 400-390 BCE, via The Met Museum, New York


Ancient Greek theater began with only a single actor, reciting poetry on stage. This was called a dithyramb. Of these solitary actors, Thespis was the first. Aeschylus added a second actor to the stage and Sophocles added the third. Though there were typically more than three roles in a play, excluding the chorus, there were only ever three performers, forcing one actor to play multiple roles. 


The chorus was another casting component of ancient Greek theater, and played a vital role in each production. As a group, the chorus sang a narration of the play’s plot, often interacting with the three main actors, but never speaking. It was common for the chorus to be made up of female characters, though it was sometimes male as well. 


Specifically in Athens, where ancient Greek theater first took root, the rights and roles of women were restricted and women were not permitted to perform as actresses. However, of course female characters still had important and even central roles to perform in different plays. Men, using theater masks and feminine dress, costumed themselves as women and played those roles themselves on the stage


Tools of the Trade

calyx krater telephos baby orestes
Red-figure calyx-krater (mixing vessel): Medea in Chariot (A); Telephos with Baby Orestes (B), 400 BCE, via The Cleveland Museum of Art


Ancient Greek theater employed out of the box technologies for its time. A familiar term originates from ancient Greek theater: deus ex machina—this translates as ”god from the machine.” The mechane is the referenced machine. Divine characters were depicted on a higher plane than the mortal characters and thus needed a mechanism to raise them above the stage from the other actors. For this, the Greeks used a crane made of wooden beams and operated via a pulley system. In scenes such as Medea’s flight from Corinth on the sun chariot at the climax of the titular play, this is how her departure would have been achieved. 


death of eurydice moyses van wittenbrouck
The Death of Eurydice by Moyses van Wttenbrouck, ca. 1590-1647, via The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


Unsurprisingly, death is a well-worn accessory of Greek tragedy. However, all deaths take place off-stage during the productions, and many climactic moments come instead from the presentation of the bodies of the deceased. The Greeks needed a method for transporting the bodies—often a dummy or non-speaking performer wearing the mask of the dead character—and created a device to do just that. 


The ekkyklêma was a wheeled pallet that was driven onto the stage from backstage (called the skene in Greek), carrying the “body” of the deceased victim in tragedies. It would have been lifted so that the audience could clearly see its load. In scenes like the reveal of Hippolytus’s body in his titular play by Euripides or the death of Eurydike in Antigone, the ekkyklêma was the device used to bring their bodies into the view of the other characters as well as the audience. 


terracotta roundels theatrical masks
Terracotta roundels with theatrical masks attached, 1st century BCE, via The Met Museum, New York


Masks played arguably the most important role in ancient Greek theater, though they have fallen out of use in modern theatrical productions. Due to the restricted number of speaking actors in ancient plays, it was essential that the audience could distinguish between characters by a method other than their actors. For each character in the production, there was a distinct mask. Typically, masks were made of stiffened linen or other products such as leather, none of which stood up to the tests of time and for this reason, none of the masks worn in popular ancient plays survived. 


Because ancient Greek theater was a sacred pursuit, there are surviving terracotta theater masks, which craftsmen made to dedicate as offerings in temples to the gods. theater masks were characterized by their exaggerated expressions; this was in part to help the audience more easily identify which character the mask represented. Tragic masks often depicted their character in states of disgust, horror, grief, or rage, while comedic masks were often created with comically large features to further bolster the absurdity of their productions. 


The Role of Comedy in Ancient Greek Theater

terracotta mixing bowl ancient greek theater
Terracotta calyx-krater (mixing bowl), 350-25 BCE, via the Met Museum, New York


Traditional ancient Greek theater was performed in trilogies. Actors would perform three tragedies, most often all with related or linear plots, with intermissions in between for the performers as well as the audience. At the end of the final play, the actors would perform a satyr play, a raunchy comedy production with themes often related to the themes of the previous tragic trilogy. 


Though satyr plays could be risque and humorous, many were also created to mock current status quos and notable societal figures. It is from the word “satyr” that modern English gets the word “satire.” 


Greek tragedies deal with heavy topics and timeless criticisms. Unsurprising, then, that authors understood that audiences would want someone to mock or laugh at after hours of retelling gut-wrenching, bloody myths.

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By Lynnie McIlvainBA Classics (Classical Studies)Raised in Washington State, Lynnie is an alumna of the Clark College where she primarily studied Art History and English. She went on to obtain her bachelor’s degree from the University of Puget Sound in a field about which she is even more passionate: Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies. She currently lives in Tacoma WA, and quietly nurtures her love of literature and writing, foraging, and languages alongside her professional career in nonprofit development.