The Establishment Of Theater In Ancient Greece

One of the most debated topics among scholars is why theater was first created in ancient Greece, not any other civilization at that time. The cultural and economic advancement of Greek city-states, their constant trading with other civilizations like Egypt, China, India and Persia, its advantageous location as a crossroad affects the formation of theater in Greece. Aside from that, while no written evidence exists to inform us about the origins, there are several theories which explain how Greek drama established in the ancient civilization. This paper will focus on those theories and different factors shaping the Greek theater culture.

In order to answer the question, we must understand the position of Greece and its power in ancient world. In fifth century BCE, Greek city-states were playing a major role in trading as a crossroad and, therefore, had advance economy and culture. They were the chief merchants in Mediterranean Sea and had relations with advanced civilization which allowed cultural exchange and cultural prosperity in Greece. Among those city-states, Athens rose as a cultural leader. Along with economic stability and wealth comes progress in society. This progress reflects itself as they created the first democracy in the world which let its male citizens take part in government policies and decision-making process. Democracy is the positive force for Athenians to create works of art such as sculptures, buildings in the golden age of Greece which remains its importance after many centuries. In order to celebrate their success and superiority, also to express gratitude towards gods, they held festivals each year. First evidence related to theater and drama is seen in three of these festivals: The great Dionysia, the rural Dionysia and Lenaia, which all of them are in the name of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The festival of Dionysus regularly included dance, and at the same time impersonation of deities, the use of masks and parades of celebrants who can be seen to resemble tragic choristers. Compared to other religious beliefs, Dionysian religion emerged later in Greece and held space for new expression in its worship, making it more dramatic with all kinds of entertainment.

Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in his book “Poetics” that these theatrical performances originated from religious rituals. He claimed that “tragedy was produced by the authors of the dithyrambs, and comedy from the authors of the phallic songs. ” Dithyrambs and phallic songs were songs dedicated to Dionysus and Aristotle thought they were evolved into drama and comedy, respectively. Digging further in his thoughts, we see that Aristotle assumes dithyrambs and phallic songs which are “primitive” to him must have evolved into more complex forms. Evidences presented by him are considered as unreliable, because he lived almost 200 years after the golden era of Athens and his ideas is questionable. For example, until 20th century we had no dithyrambs and later a few examples were found in Egypt belonging to classical era, which is not the same time as Aristotle mentions. Moreover, these dithyrambs do not have intricate characterization, nor do they have plot; However, pre-classical tragedies have many characters and plot.

Another theory suggests that tragedy and comedy emerged as a result of human evolution. Basically, existence of dancing, storytelling and singing led an Athenian to combine these features and create drama. Despite the fact that dancing, storytelling and singing existed in ancient Greece, the capacity of human genius to revolutionize is questionable. Additionally, the importance of these features is debatable; while some scholars propose early theater come from storytelling, others claim dancing place at the core of it. Storytellers are likely to imitate different characters’ voices while narrating, and maybe they later added other people to narrate different characters. Historically, many prominent singers and storytellers lived in fifth century Athens who performed works with complex characterization and scenario in public. Dance theory suggests that movement and gesture was the crucial part of the theater. As we see in Dionysian festivals, attendees wore costumes with masks to personate different animals. That means with a few costumed people dancing and a few words thrown into the act, it can easily turn into theatrical performance. As a result, that explains why many comedies with animal choruses existed in Athens. Nevertheless, this theory has lacking sides as well; Dance theory puts much emphasis on chorus and claims it was the primary part of the act, yet in Greek drama chorus doesn’t play a major part.

Many scholars have come up with different theories to explain how and why drama established in ancient Greece. Some of them pointed out the importance of Dionysian religion and argued that different factors in these rituals may have shaped the formation of theater, while others emphasized it might have a relation with human evolution. Still, lack of written and other evidences prevents any theory to be proved, making it an actual topic and potential research topic for scholars.

10 October 2020
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