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It is extraordinary to think that we have so many plays that have survived from Ancient Greece. The greatest of the playwrights were undoubtedly Aeschylus (512-455 BC,) Sophocles (496-406 BC) and Euripides (484-407 BC).
Perhaps one of the reasons that so many of these tragedies have survived is that drama sprung from religion, and so the plays were written down out of a sacred duty.
Theatre started in Athens as a way of worshipping Dionysus, the god of wine and festivity. There would be performances of public Choral singing and speaking as part of Dionysian celebrations. These then developed into more structured storytelling, with up to three members of the chorus taking on the roles of characters in the stories.
These festivals then developed into competitions, with all the best playwrights entering. The earliest recorded winner was Thespis (from whom we get the word Thespian) in 534 BC. He won a goat!
These plays mainly focussed on the myths of Ancient Greece, and dealt with stories of heroes such as Herakles, Odysseus and Oedipus. These often came from Homer and other legends that had been passed down through the oral story-telling technique.
Although there were great comedic writers as well such as Aristophanes, the Tragedians were the most celebrated. This is because the Greeks went to the theatre not just for entertainment, but to feel a great release or purging of emotion. This best happened when you saw a horrific event played out in front of you.
For example in Sophocles Oedipus the King, we see him accidentally killing his father, marrying his mother and then blinding himself. There were no happy endings!
Two of the main concepts dealt with in Greek Theatre were those of destiny and hubris. Destiny meant that no matter how you lived your life or what choices you made, you could never change what the Fates had in store for you. Hubris meant arrogance. Being a person who possessed arrogance meant that this would lead to your downfall.
Greek theatres did not look like the theatres we have today.
How we at Hobgoblin perform for you today is not that different from an Ancient Greek performance.
Although we play both chorus and characters, at the centre lies the concept of three actors playing a multitude of parts.
We have also incorporated mask work. The Greeks would have used different masks to show when they were playing different characters.
We however prefer to use the more child-friendly concepts of different costumes and funny voices!
Firstly they were outdoors. There would be a semi circle of tiered stone seating (often carved into a mountainside) that overlooked a circular flat stage (called the orchestra.)
In the middle of the orchestra there would often be an altar in order to make sacrifices to the gods before or after the plays.
At the back of the orchestra there would be a wooden building for the chorus and actors to enter and exit from.
IDEAS FOR PRACTICAL WORK:
Work in small groups of 4 or 5. Give each group a short piece of Greek text to present as a Chorus. Use masks if possible. They should experiment with different vocal techniques for dramatic effect: speaking individually, speaking together, echoing each other, speaking on a monotone.
Discuss which techniques worked for different passages and why.
If using masks, how does the body have to work differently to working without masks? More or less physical? Experiment.
Before the introduction of written plays the Greeks had a tradition of Oral Storytelling. Does this affect how stories were told? How?
As a whole group: Pick one person to tell a short story (4 or 5 lines, long enough to be difficult to remember) to their neighbour. It should be whispered. Continue around the group in this style (“Chinese Whispers”). How does the story sound at the end?
How would this be with a story hundreds of verses long over hundreds of years? Discuss.
Using the diagram below, recreate a basic Greek theatre in your classroom. How does it feel speaking from here rather than in the Proscenium Arch style theatre that we are used to today?
Will plays written today still be performed in 2500 years' time ..?