Places of Myth

43 The Theatre

A bearded actor dressed as an ithyphallic satyr, with a tail attached to his waist by a belt. He is walking with his hands on his hips and head turned to look behind him. A large jar stands on the ground in front of him.
Satyr in a play, red-figure kylix, ca. 460 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)

Theatrical Festivals in Ancient Athens

Four actors on a stage, with stairs leading up to the stage: an elderly bearded actor in a tunic standing on a podium, one hand on his hip and the other pointing upwards; two similarly dressed figures leaning on walking sticks on either side of the podium; a young man standing to the left, with a staff and phrygian cap.
Theatre scene, red-figure krater, ca. 380 BCE (Getty Villa, Los Angeles)

One of our biggest and earliest sources for ancient Greek myth is the collection of tragic plays that survive from 5th century BCE Athens. The theatre was an important civic, religious, and political space for the ancient Athenians. Many of the plays from this period explored and processed modern events using mythological themes, such as those included in epic poetry (the Iliad or the Odyssey). Some of the most famous surviving Greek plays include Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea.

These performances in 5th century BCE Athens took place during two major, multi-day religious festivals in honour of the god Dionysus. The first festival, called the Lenaia, took place in the ancient Greek month of Gemelion, which corresponds roughly to January. This was a smaller scale, local festival that involved ritual processions, sacrifices, and theatrical performances. Wealthy citizens, called choregoi (literally, ‘leaders of the chorus’), were responsible for funding playwrights and dramatic choruses, who would spend the year preparing original material for the festival. In the first half of the 5th century BCE, five comic playwrights competed. Then in the later half of the century, a competition in tragic plays was added as well. The three most famous tragic dramatists from the 5th century were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. All playwrights competed against one other in order to win prizes within their category.


An actor in a bearded mask, wearing a crown and holding a scepter, stands on stage and gestures towards another figure. The second figure is robed and also wears a comic mask, and is turned to face a third figure who is barely visible around the side of the krater.
Comic theatre scene, red-figure krater, ca. 370 BCE (Getty Villa, Los Angeles)

The second, much larger, international festival, was the Great Dionysia, which was held during the month of Elephebolion, roughly corresponding to our March-April. Five days of the festival were set aside for performances: three days for tragic plays, and two days for dithyrambic competition and comic plays. The tragic playwrights, along with their actors and choruses, would put on a tragic trilogy (three plays on a connected theme) plus one satyr play. Satyr plays were farcical plays involving satyrs (half man/ half goat creatures) as characters, usually on a similar or complementary theme to the preceding tragic trilogy. The only full tragic trilogy that survives from 5th century Athens is Aeschylus’ Oresteia, however, its satyr play is missing.

Plays were originally performed by a single actor and a chorus. Actors were able to perform as multiple characters by wearing masks, which audiences understood to represent different mythological figures. Nonetheless, over time, tragedians added a second actor, and then a third.

The chorus of Greek drama emerged from ritual traditions of song and dance. In tragedy, the chorus was made up of about twelve to fifteen young men. The chorus represented a larger group that could comment on the action throughout the plays, and also provide context on the play’s mythological background. The tragic choruses of many surviving plays are composed of the elderly, who could offer a traditional perspective or lament the loss of their youth and good fortune.

Two maenads, young women in long chitons with flower crowns, stands on a stage holding bowls and scepters. A young man stands between them, dressed in a spotted bodysuit with a cape and headdress, holding a white sphere painted with a sun.
A Dionysiac theatre scene, red-figure krater, 4th century BCE (Archaeological Museum, Thebes)

The Theatre of Dionysus

Archaeological remains of the semi-circular theatre seating of the theatre of Dionysus.
Theatre of Dionysus in Athens

The theatrical performances at the Lenaia and the Great Dionysia took place in the Theatre of Dionysus, on the southern slope of the Athenian Acropolis. The stone benches of the amphitheatre were built right into the slope of the hill, rising on steep terraces above the semicircular orchestra where the chorus performed. Behind the orchestra was the stage where the actors performed. At its peek capacity in the 4th century BCE, the Theatre of Dionysus would have held 17,000 audience members. The theatre was continually in use through the first few centuries CE, and the remains of it can still be seen in Athens today.

Many other large, open-air theatres throughout the Mediterranean were built off of the model of the Theatre of Dionysus. Many of the largest and most well preserved theatre structures come from the Roman Imperial period. Additionally, the most popular tragic plays from 5th century Athens were re-performed for many centuries throughout Greece and then Rome.


The theatre at Hierapolis in Pamukkale, Denizli, Turkey, picture taken from upper seats. Amphitheatre style, well-preserved stone theatre. Two large sections of semi-circular stone benches (45 rows in total) descending down a steep slope to a semi-circular orchestra at ground level. Ornate, small stone columns and niches in front of a raised, rectangular stone stage. The scaenae frons behind the stage is made up of ten ornate Corinthian columns, topped with entablature and forming six statuary niches with larger than life sized human figures in them. The surrounding country side behind the skene is flat, with greenish-brown dried grass and a copse of dark green trees off in the distance.
Theatre at Hierapolis from the 2nd-3rd century CE


Stone amphitheatre, image taken from upper seats. Curved rows of stone benches descend to a semi-circular grass orchestra, backed by a raised stone stage. The lower story of an originally three story scaenae is preserved. It is aedicular style, with 14 marble columns. Behind the scaenae the ruins of other columns and buildings at the site can be seen.
Theatre at Aphrodisias in ancient Caria (Turkey) from the Roman Imperial period

Aristotle on the Theatre

Sections & Primary Sources

The Poetics

In the 4th century BCE, the philosopher and natural scientist, Aristotle, attempted a systematic treatment of poetry in his work, the Poetics. Most of the surviving portions of the work concerns the writing of tragic plays. Aristotle both analyzes the art form and offers his own prescriptive advice for what themes, styles, and techniques make for the most compelling tragic dramas. For example, Aristotle believed that the plot of a tragedy should follow a specific formal structure, as alluded to in the selection below. This structure included a “reversal” (a sudden change in the plot), a “recognition” (a change in the characters from ignorance to knowledge), and “suffering” (some destructive and painful action, directly resulting from the reversal and recognition).


Aristotle, Poetics, Book 17 (trans. S. H. Butcher, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek treatise, 4th century BCE

In this selection from the Poetics, Aristotle discusses the construction of a tragic plot, providing examples from two tragic plays: Carcinus’ Amphiaraus, a play that does not survive, and Euripides’ Iphigenia Among the Taurians, which does survive. He also brings in, for comparison, Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey.

In constructing the plot and working it out with the proper diction, the poet should place the scene, as much as possible, before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the utmost vividness, as if he were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is in keeping with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies. The need for such a rule is shown by the fault found in Carcinus.[1] Amphiaraus was on his way from the temple. This fact escaped the observation of one who did not see the situation. On the stage, however, the piece failed, the audience being offended at the oversight.

Again, the poet should work out his play, to the best of his power, with appropriate gestures; for those who feel emotion are most convincing through natural sympathy with the characters they represent; and one who is agitated storms, one who is angry rages, with the most life-like reality. Therefore poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness. In the one case a man can take the mould of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his proper self.

As for the story, whether the poet takes it ready-made or constructs it for himself, he should first sketch its general outline, and then fill in the episodes and amplify in detail. The general plan may be illustrated by the Iphigenia. A young girl is sacrificed; she disappears mysteriously from the eyes of those who sacrificed her. She is transported to another country, where the custom is to offer up all strangers to the goddess. To this ministry she is appointed. Some time later her own brother happens to arrive. The fact that the oracle for some reason ordered him to go there, is outside the general plan of the play. The purpose, again, of his coming is outside the action proper. However, he comes, he is seized, and, when on the point of being sacrificed, reveals who he is. The mode of recognition may be either that of Euripides or of Polyidus, in whose play he exclaims very naturally:—’So it was not my sister only, but I too, who was doomed to be sacrificed’; and by that remark he is saved.

After this, the names being once given, it remains to fill in the episodes. We must see that they are relevant to the action. In the case of Orestes, for example, there is the madness which led to his capture, and his deliverance by means of the purificatory rite. In the drama, the episodes are short, but it is these that give extension to Epic poetry. Thus the story of the Odyssey can be stated briefly. A certain man is absent from home for many years; he is jealously watched by Poseidon, and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in a wretched plight—suitors are wasting his substance and plotting against his son. At length, tempest-tossed, he himself arrives; he makes certain persons acquainted with him; he attacks the suitors with his own hand, and is himself preserved while he destroys them. This is the essence of the plot; the rest is episodes.


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Media Attributions and Footnotes

  1. Carcinus was a fairly unsuccessful tragedian from the 5th century BCE. Amphiaraus is a character from Carcinus' play Amphiaraus.


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