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Facts About Greek Tragedy and Comedy

Facts About Greek Tragedy and Comedy


Dionysus and Panther in the Domus dell'Ortaglia 2nd C. A.D.

Dionysus and Panther in the Domus dell'Ortaglia 2nd C. A.D.

Stefano Bolognini

Ancient Greek Playwrights

These are the major ancient Greek writers of tragedy and comedy. They are poets whose plays you  still see in performance today, more than two millennia later.

Features of Ancient Greek Tragedy

  1. Suffering:
    Tragedy revolves around a tragic hero who suffers misfortune.
  2. Cleansing:
    In his Poetics, Aristotle wrote about the qualities of tragedy, which include a catharsis or cleansing. See: Aristotle's Tragedy Terminology.
  3. Religious:
    Greek tragedy was performed as part of an estimated 5-day Athenian religious festival, which may have been instituted by the tyrant Peisistratus in the second half of the sixth century B.C.
  4. Honored Dionysus:
    The Great Dionysia, the name of this festival, was held in the Attic month of Elaphebolion, from the end of March to mid-April.
  5. Competitions:
    The dramatic festivals were centered around competitions, agones.
  6. Prizes:
    Three tragic playwrights competed for the prize for the best series of three tragedies and a satyr play.
  7. Myth:
    The subject matter was usually from mythology.
  8. History:
    The first surviving full play was not mythological, but the recent history-based play The Persians, by Aeschylus.
  9. Not bloody:
    Violence usually occurred offstage.
  10. The original Thespian:
    The first competition is thought to have been held in 535 B.C. at which time Thespis, the person credited with the first speaking role, won.
  11. Limitations:
    There were rarely more than a chorus and 3 actors, regardless of how many roles were played. Actors changed their appearance in the skene.
  12. Why Masks?:
    The theaters were so capacious that actors couldn't count on people in the back rows seeing their facial expressions; hence, masks.
  13. No microphones needed:
    Actors needed good projecting voices, but the theaters also had impressive acoustics.

Aspects of Greek Comedy

  1. Greek Comedy is divided into Old and New.
  2. Since the only Greek comedy comes from Attica -- the country around Athens -- it is often called Attic Comedy.
  3. Old Comedy tended to examine political and allegorical topics while New Comedy looked at personal and domestic themes. For comparison, think of the The Colbert Report vs How I Met Your Mother.
  4. Euripides (one of the 3 great writers of tragedy) is considered an important influence on the development of New Comedy.
  5. The primary writer of Old Comedy is Aristophanes; the primary figure for New Comedy is Menander.
  6. The Roman comedy writers followed Greek New Comedy.
  7. The relatively modern "Comedy of Manners" can be traced to Greek New Comedy.

General Information on the Greek Theater

  • Theatrical performances were religious and political.
  • Always competitive, the winning Greek choregos and playwrights accrued great prestige.
  • Men played the role of women.
  • Actors wore masks and costumes.
  • Performances were outdoors often on hillsides.
  • The word "theater" comes from the word theatron which was the viewing area for the Greek audience.

Greek Theater Study Guide

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