Classical Greek drama
Classical Greek drama
Western drama originated in classical Greece. The theatrical culture of the city-state of Athens produced three dramatic genres: tragedy, comedy, and satirical drama. Their origins remain obscure, although by the fifth century BCE they were institutionalized in competitions held as part of festivals celebrating the god Dionysus. Historians know the names of many ancient Greek dramatists, not least Thespis, who is credited with the innovation of an actor (“hypokrites”) speaking (rather than singing) and impersonating a character (rather than speaking in his or her own person), while interacting with the chorus and its leader (“coryphaeus”), which were a traditional part of the performance of non-dramatic poetry (dithyrambic, lyrical, and epic).
Only a small part of the work of five playwrights has survived to the present day: we have a small number of complete texts by the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and by the comic writers Aristophanes and, since the end of the fourth century, Menander. Aeschylus’ historical tragedy The Persians is the oldest surviving drama, although by the time he won first prize in the city’s Dionysia competition in 472 BCE, he had been writing plays for more than 25 years. Competition (“agon”) for tragedies may have begun as early as 534 BC; official records (“didaskaliai”) begin in 501 BC, when the performance of satirical drama was introduced.
Tragic playwrights were required to present a tetralogy of plays (although the individual plays were not necessarily connected by stories or themes), which usually consisted of three tragedies and one satirical drama (although exceptions were made, as in the case of Euripides’ Alcestis in 438 BC). Comedy was officially recognized with an award in the competition from 487 to 486 BC.
Five comic playwrights competed in the Dionysia (although during the Peloponnesian War this number may have been reduced to three), each offering a single comedy. Ancient Greek comedy is traditionally divided between “old comedy” (5th century BC), “central comedy” (4th century BC), and “new comedy” (late 4th century – 2 BC).
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