The Origins of Greek Drama


    One of the enduring influences of ancient Greek civilization is the development of the dramatic arts.  Greek drama originated in the worship of Dionysus. Dionysus was the god of trees and plants, but he came to be especially associated with grapes and the consumption of alcohol.  The worship of the god was concentrated in two festivals, each of which produced a specific form of drama.  The first festival was held in the spring, celebrating the awakening of Dionysus as seen in the new growth of vegetation and the planting of crops.  During this celebration, the people sang a hymn called the dithyramb,” which was a chorus with motions used to celebrate the life of Dionysus.  The dithyramb and its components gave birth to Greek tragedy.  The word “tragedy” is derived from the Greek words for “goat song.”  Historians believe that this may refer to either a sacrifice of a goat to the god or that a goat was given as a prize for the best song.  The second Dionysian festival was held in the winter to commemorate the harvest and the end of the god’s activities.  These festivals often included choruses performing phallic songs and dancing, all of which was intermixed with satiric dialogue.  Greek comedy arose from these songs and dramatizations.  

Dionysus riding a Panther

Dionysus riding a panther

    Although these festivals greatly influenced what came to be known as Greek theater, drama as we know it did not begin until around 537 B.C.  At that time, there was a play reenacting the death and resurrection of the goddess Persephone at the shrine of Eleusis.  As a part of these celebrations, choruses used songs, dance, and narratives to describe the adventures of the deities.  However, during this particular ceremony, a man named Thespis stepped out of the chorus and began singing not to the god, but as the god.   Thespis became the first actor, and so we derive the word thespian from his name.  Most historians believe that Homer’s epic poems prompted this development due to their dramatic language and complex characters.                                                                          

    After the innovation of Thespis, drama began to take on a more familiar appearance. Aristotle recorded that tragedy reached its “natural form” when Aeschylus increased the number of actors to two, along with the traditional chorus.  Sophocles later added a third actor, increasing the dramatic possibilities. Only men were allowed to act, so female characters had to be played by male actors.  With the help of masks and costuming, actors often performed many roles, and two or three actors could create many more characters.   As the importance of actors increased, the part of the chorus became less and less important, as illustrated in the architecture of the theaters.  In the early stages of drama, theaters were simply large circular spaces with an altar to Dionysus in the center.  As plays evolved and actors became more important, the stage was raised to give them a more prominent place in the theater.  All of these changes created the style of theater we recognize today.  From its roots in Dionysian festivals, drama eventually became one of the most popular forms of Greek art and entertainment.


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Edited,  Researched and Written by: 
Erica Anderson
December 11, 2000


World History Chronology

North Park University
History Department
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Copyright 1996-2000 by David W. Koeller. dkoeller@northpark.edu. All rights reserved.