Free «Conventions of Ancient Greek Theater» Essay Sample

Conventions of Ancient Greek Theater

The theater of ancient Greece is known as one of the most organic and bright inventions of antiquity. It represented an eternal object of reception and an indispensable element of the actualization of ancient heritage. Ancient drama is an inexhaustible basis which for centuries has served as an inspiration for the culture of Europe. The theater has remained relevant though the ages as a powerful source of entertainment and is still appreciated in modern society. In Athens, the theater was associated with two annual holidays organized in spring and in winter on a national scale and dedicated to Dionysus. In addition to citizens, the population of Greece organized the so-called rural, or small, performances. Therefore, the uniqueness and brilliance of the Ancient Greek theatre can be seen in its every aspect, including the architecture, actors, choir, and organization of performance.

Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theatre

One of the essential conventions of theater in ancient Greece is its approach to architecture of the buildings wherein the performances took place. The art of theater building was formed in Greece under the influence of climatic conditions and mountainous terrain. Spectators of the first performances sat on the slopes of hills, while the actors acted below in clearings. The theater of Dionysus in Athens, which was built at the end of the 6th century BC, was located on the southern slope of the Acropolis (Brockett, Ball, Fleming & Carlson, 2015). There were theaters in other cities, Megapolis and Epidaurus, on the slopes of hills.

Initially, the space for performances was arranged in a very simple way. The choir with its hymns and dances performed on a round rammed platform around which the spectators gathered. However, gradually, as the importance of the theatrical art in the public and cultural life of Greece increased and as the drama became more complicated, a need arose for improvements (Brockett et al., 2015). The hilly landscape of Greece suggested the most fitting arrangement of the stage and spectator seats; the orchestra began to settle at the foot of the hill and the spectators were placed along the slope (Brockett et al., 2015). All ancient Greek theaters were open and could accommodate a considerable number of spectators.

In the 5th century BC, a stable type of theatrical construction was established in Greece. It served as a characteristic of the whole era of antiquity. The theater had three main parts (Brockett et al., 2015). The first one was the orchestra. The second one was the theatron which contained the seats for spectators. The third one was the so-called ‘skene’ consisting of a wooden or stone structure at the back of the stage. The size of the theater varied from 11 and up to 30 meters and was determined by the diameter of the orchestra (Brockett et al., 2015). The front wall of the skene, which usually had the form of a colonnade, represented the facade of a temple or a palace. Two side structures connected to the skene (Brockett et al., 2015). They were called parascence and served as a place for storing props and other theatrical property. There were passages between the skene and places for spectators, that occupied approximately half of the circle, through which the audience entered the theater before the performance began (Brockett et al., 2015). The choir and actors joined the orchestra. The layout of a Greek theater provides good audibility. In addition, resonating vessels were placed among the spectators for the amplification of sound in some theaters (Brockett et al., 2015). There was no curtain in the ancient Greek theater, although it is possible that in some plays parts of the stage were temporarily hidden from the audience.

The huge size of the theaters led to the need to use masks. The audience could not see the facial features of the actors. Each mask expressed a certain emotional state, such as horror, fun, tranquility, etc., so actor changed their ‘faces’ during the play in accordance with the plot (Brockett et al., 2015). The masks were created to illuminate the feelings of the characters and served as resonators to enhance the sound of voices at the same time (Brockett et al., 2015). The masks changed the proportions of the body, so the performers had to stand on curbs (sandals with thick soles) and wear thick clothes.

Actors and Masks

Due to the close relationship of Greek theater and religion, the actors were called the Masters of Dionysus. They enjoyed great respect and high social status. Only a free citizen of Athens, meaning not a slave or a foreigner, could become an actor. Similarly to the playwrights, the actors took an active part in the life of the city. They could hold high state posts and even act as ambassadors. In Greek drama, the number of actors did not exceed three (Safran, 2017). Therefore, each of them had to play several roles (Safran, 2017). If the play provided silent roles, they were performed by extras (Safran, 2017). Women’s roles were always performed by men. Actors had to recite well and possess vocal skill, because arias, also known as monody were performed during the most pathos full parts of dramas (Safran, 2017). In addition, ancient Greek actors perfectly mastered the art of gesticulation and the basics of dance.

All the actors traditionally used masks; hence, the facial expressions in their performances were excluded. Initially, this custom was associated with the cult of Dionysus; priests depicting the deity hid their faces under masks. In the theater of the classical period, the masks lost their former cult purpose (Safran, 2017). They provided generalized images of characters in plays. All masks had open mouths so that the performer’s voice could flow freely (Safran, 2017). Expressions of such “faces” included ‘laughing’, ‘mournful’, and ‘pacified’ (Brockett et al., 2015). They were replaced every time the actor moved from merriment to sorrow or from violent emotions to a calm mood (Woodruff, 2016). The color of the mask had a certain meaning. Irritation and fury were portrayed with purple, wisdom was expressed by blue, cunning by red, and illness by yellow (Brockett et al., 2015). The execution of female roles by men required special masks, because male faces were dark, while female ones were painted lighter (Brockett et al., 2015). Masks usually had large diameter (Brockett et al., 2015). This was due to the size of the Greek theater. Without huge face masks, the actors would not be visible from the last rows of the theatron.

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The masks were an essential feature of the theatrical performance in ancient Greece. Along with costumes, theatrical machinery, and some other attributes of dramatic action, they played the most important part among all the theatrical devices established during the Greek era of theater (Woodruff, 2016). However, the context of the existence and functioning of the mask among the ancient Greeks was much larger and went beyond the theatrical stage (Safran, 2017). Therefore, the meaning of the mask and its functions in social and cultural context are extremely wide and diverse (Brockett et al., 2015). Applied to the ancient Greek society and culture, the mask acted as a means of protection against evil forces. At the same time, it could frighten (Woodruff, 2016). It enabled one to reincarnate into a totem ancestor, a deity, another mythological character or person, as well as a more stage image. Moreover, the masks assisted with self-identification and preserving one's traits even after death (Brockett et al., 2015). Finally, it is an element of artistic culture, a means of decorating architectural structures and solving the problems of theatrical expressiveness.

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The coloring of the face is typologically the same as the mask that covered the face. This means that a tattoo could be considered, but the use of face coloring or ritual masks was limited to time, so the tattoo was given once and for all without assuming a possibility of replacement (Safran, 2017). The actor’s performance in the mask conveyed the character’s inner state only through external expression, the frozen image of this state (Safran, 2017). It is one of the most striking examples of the so-called non-verbal language in ancient theater performances. Such means of communication includeposture, gestures, and actors’ facial expressions in the absence of a mask (Safran, 2017). Thus, conventionality as an artistic device, which was embodied in the theatrical mask tradition, presupposed the possibility and provided extra money to the playwrights to appeal to the audience (Woodruff, 2016). This occured for the purpose of raising the issues of political, religious, and aesthetic nature that were pressing for society at the time.


Choir is another convention of the theater in ancient Greece. Initially, the choir had the primary role in stage action. With the development of dramatic action in tragedy, dialogues extended while the role of choral parts decreased. Thus, the role of actors in the play grew. This process began with the introduction of a second actor by Aeschylus. The choir’s leading role is indicated by the ratio of choir members versus actors, which was strictly defined.

The choir usually entered the orchestra from the right entrance, which was the spectator’s side. This indicated the limits of the system of entrances and exits in the theater space, because the choir often depicted the inhabitants of the area in which the action in the play took place. When the choir appeared at the beginning of the action, it performed a parody (Woodruff, 2016). One of the most interesting elements of performance for researchers is the choir’s stage activities (Woodruff, 2016). They were the most important way of influencing the public, as well as an important part of the emotional impact of the drama presented to the audience (Woodruff, 2016). The question of how choral parts were performed both in terms of methods and with regard to the distribution of parts between performers is unclear (Brockett et al., 2015). The dance movements of the choir are similarly ambiguous, although this issue has been actively studied in recent decades.

The performance of the choir presupposed the unity of all its components: choral singing, dance, and musical accompaniment. The connection between the dramatic choir and the civic collective, which represented the male community, was emphasized by the fact that the participants of the performance were exclusively men who likewise accepted female roles (Woodruff, 2016). The choir consisted primarily of young people, for whom participation in the staging of the tragedy could be a part of a complex system of transition to the collective of full-fledged citizens (Woodruff, 2016). Other people who were associated with the choir included amateurs, namely not a community of professionals. This symbolized the participation of the civic collective as a whole instead of its specific part. In any case, many of the spectators who were present at the theater were proud to watch the performances of their brothers, sons, nephews, grandsons, neighbors, etc. (Davis & Balme, 2016). One of the scenic functions of the choir is an important manifestation of this particular relationship. During the performance, the choir was itself a spectator within the play at certain moments of the action. In a sense, it became a guide for the real public (Davis & Balme, 2016). In this case, speaking created a kind of verbal scenery or a source of additional explanations of the plot (Davis & Balme, 2016). The choir represented the reaction of the audience to what was happening on stage.


Participation in the choir involved dance movements accompanied by singing, though not by an individual, but by a collective, which is one way of expressing and confirming a civil identity in a socially significant context (Davis & Balme, 2016). In general, the choir was an aesthetically and emotionally impressive demonstration of the sense of community; singing and rhythmic dance movements represented ordered space and separation from chaos to the ancient Greeks (Davis & Balme, 2016). Thus, the functions of the choir, not only in the dramatic representation, but also in the public life of the cities, were extremely diverse. Acting as the source and embodiment of the essence of drama, the choir was an important part of the dramatic action (Davis & Balme, 2016). Additionally, it enabled the citizens to participate both as performers and spectator in state religious festivals, which were the most important collective action for the community (Davis & Balme, 2016). The principle of collective work embodied on stage in opposition to individualism fully corresponds to the values ​​of the civil community. It was expressed using the rich arsenal at the disposal of dramatic productions (Davis & Balme, 2016). It included music, singing, movement, artistic tradition, etc (Davis & Balme, 2016). Hence, the choir turned to be the most important instrument of emotional impact on the public with such functions as education through empathy. This instrument provided opportunities for interested discussions of the problems of a religious, ethical, aesthetic, and political character.

The Spectators

Spectators or the audience were another significant convention of ancient Greek theater. At first, the audience was given the right to choose their own seats. Often, it led to violent altercations. Later, in order to eliminate the riots and cover the costs of maintaining the theater building, the city authorities organized the sale of entrance tickets (Rehm, 2016). These tokens took the form of copper circles, which were similar to coins (Rehm, 2016). They were called symbols. The money received from their sale was transferred to the owner of the theater (Rehm, 2016). The number of spectators did not exceed the number of seats in the theater. When the people left the theater, the tokens were seized from them.

The places for various categories of spectators were strictly regulated. The seats closest to the orchestra were assigned to important state officials. They sat in personal carved marble chairs and did not need tokens. Behind these chairs, separated by an aisle, sat members of the lower tier of the wealthiest public, including wealthy landowners, merchants, and usurers (Rehm, 2016). Each sector of this tier was marked with a single letter, beginning with ‘A’ abbreviated from ‘alpha’. The letter was inscribed on the back of the medal. The heads of the goddess Athena or the lion, who were considered to be the defenders of evil forces, were depicted on the front side.

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Organization of Theater Performances

In the ordinary daily life of the ancient Greeks, a considerable amount of time was occupied by various competitions, including those of chariot riders. In addition, once in four years the Olympic games took place. Furthermore, theatrical performances were organized as competitions of both the authors of the plays and the actors. Performances occurred three times a year: in March, in late December and early January, and in late January and early February. Tragic poets presented three tragedies and one satire drama to the audience and the jury; comic poets performed separate works. The play was usually staged only once; repetitions were a rarity.

The theater in Ancient Greece was considered a state affair, so organizing performances was a duty of the city mayor. He gave permission for the production of a play and a choir was recruited at his disposal. All material costs were borne by rich urban dwellers who were also appointed by the city mayor. Similarly to other areas of Greek culture, theater was invariably accompanied by competitiveness (Rehm, 2016). Theatrical performances were held for three days in a row during the celebration known as the Great Dionysia. Three tragedies and one satire drama were required. Three playwrights participated in each performance, and the audience had to determine the best staging, the best actor, and the best organizer of the show (Rehm, 2016). On the final day of the holiday, the winners received awards. In the middle of the 4th century BC, actors appeared for the first time. They united in theatrical communities, also known as ‘synods of technicians’ (Rehm, 2016). They consisted of free-born men. Features of comedies included credibility, vitality, and the satirical tinge (Rehm, 2016). The inception of drama in Greece was preceded by a long period during which the leading place was occupied first by epic writings and then by poetry. These genres were in turn preceded by folklore.

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The traditional conventions of theater in ancient Greece include the organization of theatrical space, theater architecture, the presence of masks, actors, and choir, the nature of spectators, etc. The theater is unique in terms of its impact on humans due to the fact that it simultaneously includes poetry, dance, music, and visual art. Currently, it is possible to claim that ancient Greek theater laid the foundation for the development performance art in general, regardless of the time and locations. The basic conventions of theater in ancient Greece include actors and masks, architecture of the buildings and the organization of performances, spectators, etc. Each of them has been used for the development of the contemporary state of theater.


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