The ancient Greeks loved live theater. Every town had at least one open air theater. These theaters attracted crowds of 15,000 people per performance. Each town bragged about how wonderful their plays were and how marvelous their actors were. The Greeks were very competitive. They had drama contests between towns. Winners were treated with great respect, nearly as much respect as the Olympic winners.
The Ancient Theatre of Delphi.
The Greek architects built theatres on hillsides. That let them position long benches in rows, one above the other, so that everyone could see what was happening on the stage. The stage was located at the bottom of the hill. They could also hear. Greek theatres had great acoustics by design.
Types of plays.
The ancient Greeks invented three types of plays.
1. Tragedies always had a sad ending.
2. Comedies always had a happy ending.
3. Satires poked fun at real people and events.
(In ancient Greece, it was illegal to poke fun at the gods. Punishment for mocking the gods was death.) Comedies and tragedies entertained, but a well written satire could sway public opinion.
Famous Play Writers.
The first great tragedian, Aeschylus, was born around 525 b.c.e. He produced his first dramas in 498, and he had his first victory in 484. He died in Sicily, having returned there sometime after 458. His tombstone mentions that he was an Athenian and that he fought at Marathon, but does not mention his plays. His life linked the Archaic and Classical ages, and Aeschylus' plays reflect that fact. Considered even by the ancients to be difficult and old-fashioned, Aeschylus was also quite innovative in the structures, personnel, and even subjects of his plays. He wrote around 89 plays, of which we have only seven.
Sophocles, was born 497/496 b.c.e. He won eighteen victories at the Great Dionysia, and he never placed lower than second. He was strategos (one of ten elected generals) with Pericles, an office he probably held more than once. He was also personally involved in bringing the healing cult of Asclepius to Athens. He died in 406. Aristotle admired Sophocles (and particularly his Oedipus the King) because he wrote good plots about important people. Many people share Aristotle's point of view and consider Sophocles the greatest Greek playwright. He wrote a total of 123 plays written by Sophocles, of which a mere seven survive.
Euripides was the youngest of the three great tragedians. Born in the 480s b.c.e., Euripides first competed in the Great Dionysia in 455. He competed twenty-one more times, but won only four times, including with the tetralogy that included Bacchae and Iphigeneia at Aulis, produced after his death in 406. Most of what has come down as Euripides' biography is pieced together from jokes made about him in comedies, and thus is not particularly reliable. He seems not to have taken part in public life; he may have had a bad marriage; and one of his sons (or a nephew) was a tragic poet, too. There is also some evidence that he may have been an intellectual loner, and he perhaps had a large library. There are nineteen plays by Euripides.
Aristophanes, the most famous writer of Greek comedies, was born in the 440s b.c.e.
Many of his plays comment on the long war—perhaps the most famous is Lysistrata. He often made fun of tragedy and the tragedians: Aristophanes' Frogs is one of the best ancient critiques of the other playwrights that we still have. He produced his first play in 427. Before his death in the 380s he had written 44 comedies, of which we have eleven.