The Golden Age of Greek Theater Arts

The period around 600 BC – 200 BC was known as the Golden age of Greek Theater arts. Athens was the focal point for the flourishing arts. The political and military epicenter gave birth to great emperors, soldiers, philosophers, poets, writers and actors.

Annually plays were staged at Theater of Dionysia. Songs were sung at first in praise of God of wine and fertility, Dionysus. Out of them Aristotle’s poetry was outstanding. Its major element was tragedy which was the inspiration behind the tragic stories. Another poet Arion developed chorus singing which was known as Dithyramb. Later on chorus became an integral part of Greek Theater alongside actors, commentators and narrators who were also a part of the chorus team. In some plays chorus acted as a separately different character. They all synchronized with each other to project the image of a single entity rather than a group. In the beginning chorus comprised of twelve singing and dancing participants known as Choreutai. Later the number was increased to fifteen and two groups of seven, known as Hemichoria, were made with a lead singer known as Koryphaios.

Plays were written by Thespis in the beginning with one actor who enacted different characters by wearing different masks. He interacted with the chorus which narrated some parts of the story and sang when required. His play’s themes were tragedy and God Dionysus. Aeschylus introduced a second actor, followed by Sophocles, who introduced a third actor. This increased the complexity of the story and opened the horizons as other Greek mythological characters were being considered. And this was when the leader of the chorus was also introduced. He was responsible to interact with the actors on stage and with the audience too, for their opinion and for the summarization. Sometimes the interaction was in the form of a song and at other times he spoke directly. The rest of the chorus sang along in the background and illustrated on the main theme.

And thus two masks became the symbol of Greek Theater or Theatron. One had a smile and gleeful expression representing the comic aspect of the play and the other mask bore a sad expression which represented the tragic aspect of the play. By 500s BC, theaters were more dignified and became the pride of Athenian culture. The first renowned theater was the Theater of Dionysus. Annual competitions were held where three tragic plays were performed and the best play was rewarded. Competition between comedy plays started in 430s BC.

In the fourth century BC, King Alexander attacked Athens which led to the Peloponnesian War. It was then when the power of Athens began to deteriorate. In spite of the threat to the theatrical traditions of Greek, it still survived and passed onto the Hellenistic period. It was in this period when Comedy Theater came to its full form which reflected the lives of common man. The storyline of the plays was never mixed, i.e. comedy was never intermingled with tragedy and vice-versa. Menander was the writer who attained fame during this period.

The three main elements of theater became Orchestra, Skene and Audience. The platform on which artists performed and chorus performed was known as orchestra or the dancing place. At other times it was used to conduct religious rites. Skene was a huge rectangular building behind the orchestra. Originally it was a simple hut or tent used as a backstage. Actors changed their costumes here and it was used for religious purposes also. But later it took the form of a firm stone structure with two to three doors which opened into the orchestra. Paintings were done on this structure which was used as the background of the play and that’s how the term Skene came into existence. Later on another structure named as Proskene was also erected in front of the Skene which was exclusively meant for the performance of the actors. The audience sat in round ascending stair-case form of seating. Therefore the shape of the mountain into which the whole structure is being sculptured is important.

The theater arts that emerged during that era are mirrored in the plays of today all over the world. Out of all the plays written at that time plays of tragedians like Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles and plays of comedian Aristophanes became famous in the golden history of Greek arts. Their work was taken one step further by Plautus and Terence.

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