Theatre’s origin is right there in the middle, in the circle, center-stage in the dancing place at the foot of a hill – this would be the focal point for spectators. That’s where Dionysus was celebrated, God of fertility and wine, born from the thigh of Zeus. Worship was ecstatic. In (or around) the 6th century BC, the celebration was formalized, ritualized: a tradition of regularity, a framework was established. The celebration of ritual was the celebration of normalcy, and contentment: women were no longer allowed to participate. Serious business.
By the orchestra – the focal point of everything – a temple, the Temple of Dionysus was built. A play would begin with a ritual sacrifice, to a goat – Tragos. The word tragedy itself comes from this word, and means ‘goat song.’ Hamlet was a goat song. The altar was right in the middle, as it was on-top of the pyramids in Meso-America; except the Athenians used goats, not people or virgins, and the sacrifice was to the God of Fertility and wine, not the sun. Wine is behind all of this. As such, the earliest results, or at least the earliest of performances, were hymns – a dithyramb – by 50 or so men, and were sang to more or less Oriental-sounding music. It was a hymn in the most traditional tradition, the religious tradition. If this were to happen in the modern world, it would manifest as a group of hundreds watching a group of maybe fifty, dancing in rehearsed movements while singing, or miming This Little Light of Mine. Or, Amazing Grace, if you’d like. Substitute a popular call to worship in any culture and perform it, and you have the efforts of the formal ritual.
Rituals are important in the way that hobbies are. The difference between a ritual and a hobby is that a ritual is a hobby you can do with other people. This was enough for the earliest performers, to drink and toast the God(s), and dance around and sing. None of this was written down, passed along, and none survive. It is thought that the poet Arion of Corinth would be the first – or first known – to base this on a literary composition. The words were recorded and memorized, and around this center rose the classical culture of Athens. This is the Athens that comes to mind when we read of democracy in ancient Greek traditions. It formed around the ritual, expanded into the broader culture as a tradition, and the traditions led to the culture and its saturation. And democracy in Athens is a true part of history, albeit a brief and unpopular one. The idea of democracy in Athens was to give all male citizens, low class, middle, or high, the right to have their voice heard in state affairs. The heads of the traditional 10 tribes would have the loudest voices, and the crowd would mingle with them at the performances.
While Arion is credited with transmuting this ritual into writing, Thespis is created with the creation of performing characters. A performer, an actor (the word thespian comes from Thespis) would impersonate the character the song was about, or take on the character doing the singing. When more actors were brought in, masks were used to differentiate between the characters. The masks were made of single-use cloth or cork. An outside character, hypokritos, would step onto the stage to interact with the solo performer, in the character of a God, mimicking a trance or state of divinity (an enthoustase).
It is believed that the writings spread out of Athens on the cart of Thespis, though this is probably apocryphal, and performances of the formal plays would take place in other towns. The traveling performance troupe, actors and singers, would be the primary form of theatre well into the middle ages, all the way to the edge of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England and on until the Golden Age of Broadway, silent films, into our own time.
At the source, it would become an annual festival, a contest and celebration in the City of Dionysia, circa 534 BC. There would be a prize for best tragedy and runners up would be officially noted and shamed accordingly. Thespis is believed to have won the first competition. His pupil Phrynichus is credited with introducing female characters into the performance, characters who would be played by male actors. He’s also credited with the introduction of contemporary personalities and subjects. None of the work of these 6th century dramatists is known to historians.
The popularity of the festival continued into the 5th century, growing into ever larger and more permanent, elaborate arenas: rows of temporary buildings would be built on the side of the Acropolis, and the orchestra, the circle – the dancing place, still the focal point and stage – and a building was built behind it, a skene – a type of hut for actors, for the changing of costumes and masks. The skene would also serve to preserve the written source, the notes a director would leave today, and each actor would decide which characters to play, when to change, and who was to take a given role. It wasn’t as strict as it is today. The first settings were temples, palaces, and royal courts. There were two or three doors actors used to enter a scene. A permanent backstage, solidified by stone, would only become standard in the 4th century.
Of the plays known to have been written in the 5th century, 32 tragedies of only 3 playwrights have survived. The first (we know) is Aeschylus, who would diminish the importance and number of the formal chorus. Aeschylus’ treatment of Agamemnon is still-performed and relatively popular today. In the time of its first performances, the actors would be in the open air with thousands of spectators. The deliveries were loud and declamatory, each starting with a prologue, to get everybody on the same page.
Next would be Sophocles, perhaps the most well-known of the ancient Greek tragedians, most famous for Oedipus the King and Antigone. He has also been credited with the introduction of the third speaking actor, making the three actors convention the convention for centuries. This favored an exchange between characters and actors and would bring theatre closer to what we imagine when we think of modern theatre, its acting and plot. He has also been credited with the invention scene-painting, achieving this by using painted panels (pinakes) similar to modern flats (or back cloths). A century later it would be closer still to modernity. Sophocles is widely regarded as the most skillful of the three dramatists, and Oedipus the King has been called “the most perfect Greek tragedy.” Compared to Aeschylus, Sophocles created more psychologically complete characters and has a relatively easy-to-pronounce name, as no academic or historian really knows how to pronounce Aeschylus.
The next of the famed trinity of playwrights is Euripides, from whom 18 complete works have survived. His plays foreshadow the ultimate form of drama as we know it today: he employed a naturalistic, more human approach than his contemporaries. In his time, however, his plays were not highly regarded, and this could be due to his questioning of Gods and their role in human misery and injustice, and by showing strong, intelligent female characters.
The most popular symbols of the period, and most endearing, have been the tragic masks, often found depicted on ancient pottery and vases. The well-known laughing / crying pair of masks has remained popular, although the earliest of these depictions are from a time long after the plays of the period were being written and performed, and are traditional for the sake of being traditional. It is the celebration of a celebration; that is tradition. For there to be an annual happening, first something happening must become annual. The City of Dionysia and its Tragedy Contest would be an annual event that would enjoy lasting fame, a popularity that would stretch across time, politics, and culture.