Theater in ancient Greece

Theatrical performances in Sophocles’ time were often staged as literary competitions. The so-called Dionysia took place every year in March.

The performances were part of the cultic-religious festivities in honor of Dionysus. They culminated in the ceremonial processions through the city of Athens, during which wooden images of the god were carried from his temple in the district of Lenaeon through the city to another sanctuary. At this time of year, the Athenians celebrated Dionysus as a liberator from the hard winter days and all the troubles and worries of everyday life.

Other components of the festivities were boys’ choirs as well as dances and songs. The special feature was the dithyramb, a choral song performed by 50 men and boys, combined with a dance around the altar of Dionysus. Over the years, the theatrical performance evolved from the cultic context described above: the choir leader turned away from the choir to accompany or interrupt it with a spoken recital, or by miming Dionysus and thus communicating with the choir.

In the sixth century BC, Thespis placed another actor opposite the chorus leader. In this way, he enabled a dialogue and laid the foundation for the independent development of ancient theater. At the same time, Thespis offered a fixed metrical form to the dialogue.

In addition to the inhabitants of Athens and guests from all over Greece, deputies of Athens’ allies, who were fulfilling their tribute obligations, attended the performances at the Dionysia. The theatrical p...

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