Drama was one of the most distinctive and influential cultural innovations of ancient Greece. Although its origins are obscure, we do know that by the end of the sixth century B.C.E. in Athens, the theater had developed characteristic features, many of which continue to define our understanding of theater today. Over the century that followed, dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (tragedians) and Aristophanes (in comedy) dominated the Athenian stage with performed narrations of myths as well as social and cultural commentary.
During the spring each year, Athens hosted the City Dionysia, a festival in honor of the god Dionysus. Held in the Theater of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis, the festival featured three tragedians, each of whom would put on a tetralogy of plays, consisting of three tragedies and a “satyr play.” A jury of Athenian citizens voted to determine the winner of the competition. Nearly 15,000 people gathered each year to watch the performances, which took place over several days. In a separate event during the festival, five dramatists would each put on a single comic play in a similarly judged competition. The City Dionysia had both religious and civic contexts: while the festival was held in honor of Dionysus, it was also a celebration of Athenian culture, with embassies from other regions in attendance.
Greek dramas, whether comedy, tragedy, or satyr play, shared a few key characteristics. A few actors played the principal roles while the chorus provided context, continuity, and commentary. All performers wore masks, and the performances typically included some form of dance and song.
The works of Aristophanes typify comic drama since he exploited traditional myths for comic effect. In his parody Women at the Thesmophoria, Aristophanes manipulates Euripides’ tragic tale of Telephos. He portrays the women of Athens, infuriated at Euripides’ monstrous depiction of women, plotting revenge during the Thesmophoria, a sacred ritual in celebration of the goddess Demeter. Fearful of their schemes, Euripides asks his friend Agathon to spy on the women, which involves dressing in drag. This mingling of the mythic and everyday life provided an opportunity to satirize life in Athens, with comic results.
By contrast, tragedies dramatized the events of Greece’s mythic past. The Trojan War and its aftermath was always a popular source for tragedians: the Oresteia (Aeschylus); Philoctetes and Electra (Sophocles); and the Trojan Women and Iphigeneia at Aulis (Euripides). Other mythic sources were also frequently staged, such as the life of Heracles (Sophocles’ Women of Trachis) and the familial crises of Oedipus (Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone). Tragedy is the best preserved of the Greek dramatic forms, and in these plays we can see the dramatists’ explorations of the human condition.
Less is known about the satyr play, of which only two examples have survived: Sophocles’ Trackers and Euripides’ Cyclops (Euripides’ play is the only one to have survived fully intact). Satyrs were wild and lewd followers of Dionysus, and satyr plays would take mythological narratives and reduce them to farce.