Theatre was an instrumental part of life in ancient Greece. Masses of people would gather for theatre festivals to pay tribute to Dionysus, the god of theatre and wine. The early Greeks forever shaped theatre arts as we now know them, particularly through their tragedies, many of which are considered classics today.
Greek theatre audiences were extremely large and unruly by today's standards. The Dionysian Theatre could hold 14,000 spectators. An audience that large would easily grow restless, impatient and even hostile if the drama being presented on the stage wasn't to their tastes. Therefore, it took playwrights and actors of great skill to hold their attention. Getting their attention to begin with was often difficult, requiring flattery or ridiculous antics by actors on the stage. Men and women attended plays as audience members, but only men were playwrights and actors.
The tragedy was the dominant form in ancient Greek theatre. In a Greek tragedy, the "tragic hero" is a man or woman from the past of high stature or nobility who experiences a dramatic and negative change in fortune as the result of a character flaw and mistake. The gods often have a role in the hero's downfall, as well. The most famous of the Greek tragedians is Sophocles, and his most well-known work is "Oedipus Rex." Oedipus the king hears a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. By desperately attempting to avoid the prophecy, his actions cause him to fulfill it, bringing tragedy to him and his family.
The other popular form of Greek drama was comedy. Comedic heroes, unlike tragic heroes, were common people who spoke in everyday language. The settings and problems of comedies were often modern for the time so the audience could relate. Tragedies, by contrast, featured lofty characters and unrealistic situations to which the audience intentionally could not relate. In a comedy, the comedic hero experiences a positive change in fortune and the ending is happy.
Plays in ancient Greece were presented in competition at festivals. These festivals were hosted in Athens at the city's theatre devoted to Dionysus. Tragedy writers would prepare three pieces and would be judged against the festival's other tragedy writers. Comedy writers only prepared one. The two genres did not compete against each other. Little is known about the value of the prizes given to winning playwrights, but it is suspected that it was menial and not a large motivating force for playwrights entering the festivals.
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