Khusrau Islam is a 21 year-old student studying Classics at Exeter College, Oxford. His main interests are Greek epic and 5th century BCE Athens. Having benefitted from a privileged access to Latin and Greek from a young age, he is looking for any chance to spread his enthusiasm to any budding classicists. In his spare time, recently he has been trying to combine his passion for computer science and Classics. Away from his desk, he is an amateur home cook, having learned over the past year while at home.
Today, the oldest remains of Greek theatre date back to the 6th century BCE. It was most prominent in ancient Athens and hit its peak during the 5th century BCE. Most plays were performed in Athens, though other cities and areas had their own theatres and would sometimes put on plays themselves. In Athens, drama was generally performed for contests during religious festivals in honour of the god Dionysus. The festivals themselves were very religious events, and the performance of plays was a big part of the rituals. At one of the festivals, it took 4 days to perform all of the plays!
In Athens, the festivals were a democratic event, so all male citizens (scholars aren’t sure if women attended as well) from across the Athenian state came. In Athenian democracy, all the male citizens participated more directly than we do today – since there were no MPs in Athens, citizens had to vote on every policy themselves – and drama was a part of this democracy. The judges for the dramatic contests were also chosen from the Athenian citizen body. The actors and the playwrights would get awarded prizes (a bit like the Oscars nowadays) by these judges. The first Greek actor was called ‘Thespis’, and this is where we get the word ‘thespian’ (another word for ‘actor’) from!
There were two types of plays performed at the festivals: comedies and tragedies. Comedies were often set in the time of the comedic poet and his audience. Aristophanes was one of the most famous comedians in ancient Greece. In his time (5th Century BCE), plays were focussed on political satire and making fun of recent events, like in Clouds, where the poet makes fun of Socrates, or in Peace, where he jokes about Athenian politicians. His genre was called ‘Old Comedy’, and towards the end of the 4th century, it evolved into ‘New Comedy’, which focussed on everyday life. Many modern sitcoms have been influenced by this style, like The Office, and Modern Family.
Tragedians would write three tragedies and a fourth play called a ‘satyr play’, which is a combination of tragic settings and comedic plots. Tragedy was generally set in the distant past and in a remote land, and they were often based on stories taken from Greek myth. These stories were much more serious than the light-hearted comedies. The three main tragedians were called Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They wrote about lots of different characters. Some of the most famous characters from tragedy were Oedipus, who was destined to kill his father and marry his mother, and his daughters who had to choose between their family and their country.
At the end of the tragedies, often the characters would learn a lesson after making a mistake, such as learning to stop being stubborn, or their limits as humans. This mistake was called a ‘tragic flaw’. Many modern stories have adapted this ‘tragic flaw’ from Greek tragedy. For example, Peter Pan never wanted to grow up and that’s what landed him in trouble, and since Romeo (from Romeo and Juliet) was too impatient, he didn’t wait to see if Juliet was alive and this led to his death!