Tragedy was at its highest when Greek society was at its highest. Comedy was an outlet against and for the frustrations of society, as a diversion for the masses, and was therefore greatly popular during the decline of the Greek government after losing the Peloponessian war against Sparta in 404 BC. In 336 BC, Alexander the Great, a Macedonian King came to power in Athens. Political issues were to be ignored in comedy, understandably, and familial and family relationships were brought to the fore. This was called New Comedy.
For the first time in ancient drama, as much is known, love became a principal element in the drama, though hardly was it considered an honest love. Dialogue was still cast in verse, as the role of the chorus diminished in New Comedy. The costumes and masks were based on the dress of normal life. The masks were more realistic, except, that is, the masks for slaves and the elderly; they remained exaggerated, caricatured. There is only one complete New Comedy known to historians, and it was recently discovered.
Dyskolos, The Grouch, was written by Menander, and contained a common theme in comedy, a parent’s disapproval with a child’s chosen partner in marriage. And it had a happy ending. Menander’s characters spoke in contemporary dialect, using colloquial language, and concerned themselves with the affairs of the day-to-day instead of the great myths of the past, as had most popular tragedies at the height of the Dionysia, and it would not be presented there, but at a smaller festival, the Lenaia.
As hard the forms of the past, after the 3rd century BC, new comedy as well began to decline, as did the contests of the Dionysia ceased completely in the first century AD, bringing an end to the classical period of Greek theatre. Its importance, to the audience and performers, is apparent in its surviving monuments and texts, such as the Lysicrates (334 BC), which commemorates the triumphs of the Dionysia. It would be the choregos, a financier of the winning play, likely the myth of the god Dionysis, and the monument served as a pedestal, a reminder of better times; with a bronze tripod upon its summit and trophy for the victor. A modern replica of this monument can be seen in Berlin.
Athens was to be rebuilt in grand fashion after victory in the war against the Persians. Temples most magnificent rose on the acropolis. Pericles was a popular statesman at this time, a period most known for the period of the Parthenon. The orchestra was still known to be circular in the theatre of Dionysia. During the festival a temporary wooden changing hut (the skene) was placed. The theatre was further excavated to make a more secure foundation for the wooden seats. It’s likely that these seats were divided into ten different benches, for the ten different tribes. It is believed another bench would have been put aside for women.
One of the first permanent, roofed theatres was built adjacent to the theatre of Dionysus in 440 BC: The Odeion of Pericles. The possibilities offered by this unique facility were many: dramatic activities as well as recitations. Using existing archaeology, the popular theory is that the roof would have been supported by a forest of columns, which would, of course, result in a sight-line disaster for nearly half of the spectators.
In the 4th century, under the statesman Lycurgus the theatre of Dionysus would finally be rebuilt in stone. This is around the same time period Menander began producing new comedies. Also, racked-stone tiers were constructed where wooden benches had once been. It is believed to have allowed for as many as 17,000 spectators.
The orchestra, the dancing place was still in front of the stage building, a circular pit, and behind facing each side were projecting wings behind the skene (the paraskenia). The word theatre originated from the word for the auditorium, theatron; it meant, ‘seeing place’, (koilon / cavea / auditorium).
Foreigners would have watched from the upper part of the theatre, highest in altitude and furthest from the stage. The proskene, the acting platform, was a low acting platform behind the orchestra, becoming ever more like what we know as a stage. To the rear, behind the skene and backstage area, was a Dionysus sanctuary, with the old temple and the new. Opposing entrances (paradoi) allowed for opposing entrances to the stage by the actors. There would be two diazoma, upper and lower crosswalks between levels of raked seating areas. The front row could consist of 76 marble stalls; the theatre of Dionysus can still be seen today, each seat carved from stone.
When the king of the Balkans took over the city-states in Greece, plays were no longer performed at the Dionysia in Athens. Many new theatres were built and some are still standing, including the best-preserved theatre in all of Greece; consisting of an estimated 14,000 seats, the theatre at Epidaurus still contained the traditional, circular orchestra as its focal point. Another is the Delphi theatre, c. 350 BC, and it has an estimated 5,000 seats, and is spectacularly sited, using the same focal point. This wouldn’t change until the next major period — the Hellenistic period. Which we’ll come to presently (in the sense that, in some future present, I will have finished writing it, and it will be available on this site. Check back for the rest!)