Greek theater is still one of the most important and long-lasting theatrical influences in the world, dating from around 700 BC and with some Greek plays still being performed to this day. Theater became significant to general Greek culture when it became an integral part of a festival honoring the god Dionysus. The three theatrical genres enjoyed by the ancient Greeks were the tragedy, comedy, and satyr play. The Greek empire was far-reaching, and as a result, theater was spread throughout much of the world, along with the mythological tales that many plays were based upon.
The origins of Greek tragedy began around 532 BC in Athens. During this time, a theater festival called Dionysia was founded to bring unity among the Attican tribes. The event included a contest, and people competing to present the best performance included Thespis, Choerilus, Pratinas, and Phrynichus, who each left a specific legacy in drama. For instance, Phrynichus was the first poet to use a historical figure as a subject of his work. Phrynichus was once fined by the Athenian government for writing a story that made the entire audience cry, and the government banned the play from ever being performed again so no one else had to endure the heartache.
The three major genres of ancient Greek theater were comedy, tragedy, and satyr plays, and a large amount of the material contained within was based upon Greek myths, familiar tales to theatrical audiences. While comedies and tragedies continue to this day to be important not only in theater but in culture as a whole, satyr plays, which were similar to burlesque shows with their sexual humor and playfulness, largely died out. While it can be argued that the genre continues in burlesque shows, it is largely agreed upon that the genre did not last long after the sixth century B.C.
Comedy plays were typically used to mock the men in power, making fun of them for their foolish decisions or their vanity. This style of comedy has continued to this day, remarkably similar to its original form. Aristophanes was the first great writer of comedic plays, including plays that are still studied to this day, such as The Birds and The Clouds. The three best-known writers of ancient Greek tragedy were undoubtedly Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These three writers wrote about some of the great motifs of their time and ours, including pride, love, power, greed, and loss, all of which are prominent themes in the ancient Greek mythology upon which many of their plays were based. Some of the great tragedies ever written, in ancient Greece or otherwise, were written during this time and by these three writers, including Aeschylus’ trilogy The Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and Euripides’ Electra.
Check out these sites to learn more about Greek mythology and the theater:
- Greek Mythology: The Ohio State University presents a nice overview of what mythology is and some of the major Greek mythological figures on this page.
- Greek Gods and Religious Practices: Greek artwork features themes found in the mythology of ancient Greece.
- Greek Myths: Learn about the Pegasus and other mythological creatures on this page from the American Museum of Natural History.
- Greek Mythology and Art: Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has put together a virtual museum of works based on Greek mythology.
- The Labors of Hercules: In the myth of Hercules, this well-known figure has to perform 12 seemingly impossible tasks. This story was adapted into a play by Euripides.
- Greek Mythology: Learn more about the history of Greek myths and watch a video on this page.
- Family Tree of the Greek Gods: Here is an interactive exhibit about the Greek gods and their families.
- The Myth of Atalanta: The Smithsonian presents this page about Atalanta, including her story and a piece of art that depicts her.
- An Introduction to Greek Mythology: Teach your kids or use these lessons yourself to learn the basics of Greek mythology.
- Greek and Roman Gods: A Quick Cheat Sheet (PDF): This document gives brief descriptions of characters from Greek mythology along with their equivalent names in Roman mythology.
- Thesaurs Linguae Graecae: A digital collection of almost every available ancient Greek text can be found here.
- The Tale of Sisyphus: This story from Greek myth tells of a king who tried to escape death.
- A Brief History of the Study of Greek Mythology: Read this academic paper to learn about how these stories have been passed on and studied from ancient times to the present day.
- Atlantis: Fact or Fiction: One of the most famous and enduring myths of ancient Greece is that there was a city swallowed by the sea. Learn more here.
- Ancient Greece: Gods and Goddesses: Read all about Greek mythological figures, including symbols and celebrations associated with them, on this site from The British Museum.
- Theater and Drama in Ancient Greece: Learn about the origins of theater in ancient Greece on this page.
- The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome: This e-book delves into both Greek and Roman myths and places them in their historical contexts.
- Dionysus: The Art Institute of Chicago has put together two videos about the culture of ancient Greece.
- The Olympian Gods: Here is a resource that tells a little about each god in order of their birth.
- Ancient Greek Myths and Legends: The BBC provides audio dramatizations of stories from Greek mythology on this page. Each resource also includes text of the story and a transcript of the audio file.
- Jason and the Argonauts: Read about this classic tale of adventure, heroism, and tragedy here.
- The Chicago Homer: Find a database of ancient Greek texts here.
- History Sourcebook: This site provides texts from ancient Greece and other geographical areas.
- Greek Mythology: An entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica explores the origins of Greek myths and the works they have inspired.
- Ways of Interpreting Myth: How should mythology be interpreted: literally or symbolically? This page explores the different ways in which the study of myths can be approached.