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The Greeks

The ancient Greek theatre not only stands as the origin of the known history of Western theatre but is a theatre whose artistic achievement has rarely, or perhaps never, been surpassed. It was a theatre of intense sound and movement, of sometimes obscene, scandalous, and blasphemous images rooted in the violence of life, of persistent examination of the social and ethical aspects of war, murder, lust, and betrayal. Greek theatre's origins lie in religion, both in terms of its portrayal of humans' relationship to the supernatural and in its form. From the dithyrambos, a drunken fertility ritual celebrating the god of wine and fertility, Dionysus, in the ninth to eighth centuries B.C., annual festivals developed. Written versions of the dithyramb appeared about 600 B.C. and the need for "safer," less ecstatic entertainments acceptable to trading partners led to the regularization of Attic rites into what we recognize as drama, giving rise to the Classic period of Greek theatre in the fifth century B.C.

During the Classic period, tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays became defined as separate forms, their greatest difference from the dithyramb being the appearance of the actor. This addition of impersonation to performance is attributed to Thespis, with masks allowing for the portrayal of multiple characters. During the fifth century, a second actor was added and then the number was finally set at three. By the middle of the century, the form of the tetralogy was set to include a limited number of masked characters, a singing and dancing chorus, and three tragedies followed by a satyr play. Comedy, by contrast, reflected little religious origin in its audacity, sexiness, scatological references, and political commentary.

The Greek theatre, the "theatron," emerged from a large, cleared threshing area with a hillside for spectators overlooking it, into a flat staging area (orchestra) with wooden changing room (skene) behind it and wooden seating built into the hillside overlooking it. During the classic period, these structures were made of wood; only in later periods were the stone structures that survive today created. Spectacle in the Greek theatre, created through costuming, masks, dances, music, and acting is in many respects conjectural, but seems to have been designed to create a richly sensual experience.

Although Greek plays contained identifiable, recurring elements (such as a prologue, parados, episode, staisimon, exodus, and parabasis) the themes, styles, conclusions and manners of the four known playwrights are dissimilar, dispelling the notion that there was any kind of formula or controlling concept uniting the plays. Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus, and Oedipus Tyrannos by Sophocles, illustrate some of these differences, similarities, and developments.

Roman drama is in part significant because it was the first ancient drama known to poets and scholars of the Renaissance. However, these dramas, usually adaptations of earlier Greek models, are not highly original. Comedies predominate, with those of Plautus and Terence being extant influences on Moliere, Shakespeare, and Stephen Sondheim. Seneca's closet dramas with their charged scenes of passion, violence, and horror, would influence Renaissance works, such as Shakespeare's Hamlet.

You should be familiar with the practices and impulses from which ancient Greek theatre originated, as well as how it developed up to the classical period.

You need to know the qualities of Greek theatre during the classical period.

You should be familiar with the configuration and features of Greek theatres and the elements of spectacle in the plays performed there.

You need be familiar with the three major Greek writers of tragedy and know the qualities and issues of Greek plays.

You should be acquainted with the components of and ideas surrounding Prometheus Bound and Oedipus Tyrannos.

You should have a general idea of the nature of Roman theatre and the qualities of its major playwrights.

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