The Theater Of Dionysus Essay Research Paper

The Theater Of Dionysus Essay, Research Paper

The Theater of Dionysus

The Theater of Dionysus was Europe’s first theater, and stood immediately below

the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. It was originally built in the late 5th

century B.C. The theater was an outdoor auditorium in the shape of a great

semicircle on the slope of the Acropolis, with rows of seats on which about

eighteen thousand spectators could comfortably seat. The front rows consisted of

marble chairs, and were the only seats in the theater that had a back support.

The priests of Dionysus and the chief magistrates of Athens reserved these rows.

Priests claimed 50 of the 67 front row seats, then came the officials, the

guests of honor, then finally the ordinary citizens of Athens. Beyond the front

row, stood a circular space called the orchestra where the Chorus would sing and

dance, and in the center of which stood the alter of Dionysus. The orchestra

level was around 3 meters higher than the shrine. Behind the orchestra, there

lied a heavy rectangular foundation known as the stage on which the actors would

perform their section of the play. The back of the stage had a building painted

to look like the front of a temple or a palace. Here, the actors would retire

when they were not needed on stage or would go to when they had to change their

costumes. Above lay the deep blue sky, behind it was the Acropolis, and seen in

the distance was the olive colored hills and lush green of the forests that


The theater was built as a result of the Athenian’s religious practice in honor

of the god, Dionysos, who personified both wine and fruitfulness. Long before

the theater itself was built, an annual ceremonial festival was held for

Dionysus in the same spot. This ancient ceremony was performed by choruses of

men who sang and danced in the god’s honor. Spectators would gather in a circle

to watch these dancers; that was the way that the theater took its circular

shape. When the theater was built, the performers only sang and danced about

the stories of Dionysus’s life, then later the stories of other gods and heroes.

The stories were told in the form of a song, chanted at first by all who took

place, then later by a chorus of about fifty performers. During the intervals

of a song, the leader would recite part of the story himself. As time passed,

these recitations became more and more important, as it eventually overtook the

chorus. They were now presented by two or three people, while the chorus

consisted of only fifteen performers. A maximum of three speakers were allowed

on stage at once, and only one story was told during one performance. The

chorus, although less important, still set the atmosphere for the play, and as

well gave the audience a time of relief from a tragedy.

The Festival of Dionysus was a great dramatic one that was held during

March and April inside the theater. Three poets were chosen every year, and

each wrote a series of three tragedies based on some well-known Greek legend.

Originally, admission to the theater was free, but as the crowds grew, the

leaders realized that a small entrance fee would be economically beneficial for

the theater. Several plays were given in one day, and a prize was awarded to

the best, so the audience was obligated to start at dawn and would remain until

sunset. While watching the plays, the Athenian audience was very critical as

they would bluntly show their signs of approval or disapproval by their applause,

or lack thereof. The legends and traditions from which most of the Greek plays

took their plots were well known to the Athenians. They were stories honoring

some great event or explaining some religious observance. These legends were

chosen by the different dramatists, each of whom brought forth a different side

of the story to enforce some particular lesson he wished to teach the audience.

The plays were written in poetry which deeply stirred the emotions of the

audience. It gave the Athenians much to think about their eternal problems of

human life and conduct, and the proper relationship between humans and gods.

Each play followed certain guidelines which created the culture of the theater.

When the play began, only three actors were allowed on stage at once. They

would usually wear very elaborate costumes, and on their feet would be a strange

looking wooden sole called a buskin. This would add about six inches to their

height to make them look taller and more impressive to the audience. A facial

mask would also be worn to identify whom the character was, and the moods and

feelings that the character portrayed. The mask included a wide mouth to

project the voice of the actors so that everyone in the immense audience would

be able to hear what the actor had to say. The actors would change their masks

as they changed their characters. There were no curtains used, even though the

plays were not divided into different acts. When there was a pause in action,

the Chorus would fill up the time with their songs. When a tragedy was

performed, the final calamity would never be shown on stage, but a messenger

would appear to give the audience an account of what had happened.

The creation of drama and the theater was a very large stepping stone for the

Greeks, as it showed surrounding and future societies many things about the

Greek beliefs, lifestyles, and culture. The building of the theater itself

showed their degree of engineering and architectural ability that they used in

creating their structures. It also showed that they had a vague form of

understanding the way that acoustics work, as all the seats, no matter where

they were, could hear the sounds from the stage. The plays that were performed

gave an insight on Greek history and mythology. Naturally, they would not have

performed any plays which did not interest the audience. They would only

display what they believed to be important for civilians to know, such as their

heritage and religious beliefs. Finally, the innovation of the drama and the

theater undeniably confirmed their absolute belief in religion, as the theater

would never have come about if it weren’t for the worship of Dionysus by the



1) Powell, Anton, Ancient Greece. Facts on File, Inc., 1989.

2) Onians, John, Art and Thought in the Hellenistic Age. Thames and Hudson

Ltd., 1979.

3) Mills, Dorothy, The Book of the Ancient Greeks. G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1977.

4) Skipp, Victor, Out of the Ancient World. Penguin Books, 1967.

5) Erim, Kenan, Aphrodisias, the City of Love. Facts on File Publications,



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