Ancient Theatre: 2500 Years and Going Strong

Ancient Beginnings

This is where it all began: the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens.

According to legend, late in the sixth century BCE a man named Thespis first had the idea to add speaking actors to the performances of choral song and dance which occurred on many occasions throughout Greece. (That's why actors are sometimes called 'thespians'.) Masked actors performed outdoors, in daylight, before audiences of 12,000 or more at festivals in honour of Dionysos, the god of theatre.

The comedy and tragedy that developed in Athens and flourished in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE have influenced nearly all subsequent Western drama, starting with that of the Romans. When the Romans conquered Greece they brought Greek literature back to Italy and set about making it their own. The New Comedy of fourth-century poets like Menander and Diphilus was particularly fertile material in the hands of the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence.

The Romans, with their love of spectacle, soon took over the existing theatres in Greece and began renovating and rebuilding them for their own spectacles, which included everything from pantomime (closer to ballet than to the children's 'panto') to mock naval battles. Most of the remains of the theatre of Dionysos which we can see in Athens today date to Roman times and not the fifth century BCE.

Ancient Stagecraft

Although Didaskalia is primarily concerned with modern performances of ancient theatre, in many cases, successful productions depend on understanding the original performance conditions and dramatic conventions of antiquity. We have therefore expanded our website to include an introduction to ancient theatre in antiquity. These pages are still under construction, but you may find them helpful even so.

Introduction to Greek Stagecraft

Introduction to Roman Stagecraft

Influence on Later Drama

Opera owes its existence to an attempt to get back to the Greeks; television programs like 'Spitting Image' and 'Saturday Night Live' hearken back to the topical humor of Aristophanes. Commedia dell' arte bears a strong resemblance to Roman comedy, and the modern proscenium theatre evolved from misinterpretations of the Roman architect Vitruvius' descriptions of theatrical building. French classical tragedy and 19th- and 20th-century Irish drama both feature Greek themes. Even Brecht wrote an Antigone, and Jules Dassin's film A Dream of Passion is based on Euripides' Medea.

But all that tells us is why we should study ancient theatre, not why we should perform it, and Didaskalia is concerned with performance. Greek and Roman plays have more going for them than a lasting influence: they remain some of the most powerful, moving, provocative, funny, biting, witty, and pertinent dramas there are. Very rarely are the productions recorded and discussed in Didaskalia exercises in historical research. They are living theatre, flourishing on stages around the world, moving beyond their traditional Western sphere of influence as directors explore their structural and thematic links with the performing arts of India, Korea, Indonesia, Africa, and Japan, to name only a few.

Coming Soon to a theatre near You

But don't just take our word for it. Look through the listings, find a production near you, and see for yourself what the fuss is about. Every summer in Greece there are theatre festivals in Epidavros and Athens where professional companies present Greek plays. This is a detail of the set for Andreas' Voutsinas' production of Euripides' Medea at Epidavros in 1990. Click on it to see the whole image.

Other large-scale festivals include the Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico in Siracusa's presentation of ancient plays in alternate years and the London Festival of Greek Drama, which takes place every spring.

Schools, universities, community and regional theatres, and professional companies around the world are producing Greek and Roman plays (and sometimes other forms of music, poetry, or dance) all the time. Ancient theatre provides many challenges to the actor, director, and choreographer, but it can be rehearsed in a classroom and performed in a black box.