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Greek Theater Essay Research Paper The actors

Greek Theater Essay, Research Paper

The actors and the chorus – Costumes and scenic appearance

The actors

At first in dithyrambous, there were no actors. Thespis was the poet who imported the first hypocrite, Aeschylos the second and Sophocles the third one. Besides these actors, who were playing the leading parts, there were also some other persons on the orchestra (stage), playing “dumb” roles (the “followers”).

At the beginning the actors were being chosen by the poets. In the 5th century they were being chosen by the State.

The hypocrites were always men, even if they were playing female roles. In order to have a female appearance, they were playing wearing the “prosternida” before the chest and the “progastrida” before the belly. In order to look taller and more impressive they were wearing “cothornous” (wooden shoes with tall heels). These shoes were the same for both legs (no right and left). They were dressed in long robes with vertical stripes.

The most essential part of their disguise was the mask. These masks were made ad hoc and they had big holes for the mouth and the eyes. The mask was absolutely necessary as it was necessary in the dionyssiac religion.

The chorus

Up to the point when Sophocles imported his innovations in drama, the chorus consisted from 12 members. Sophocles added three more. The 15 members of the chorus were entering the orchestra in rows ( usually face=3, depth=5 ), which means that although in old dithyrambous the chorus was making a circle, in ancient theater the chorus was making squares.

The chorus was entering from the two “parodos”. His appearance was depending on the play. For the tragedy the chorus was very solemn and it was called “emmelia”. In comedies it was funny and it was called “codrax”, when in satyric drama it was scoptic and it was called “sicinnis”.

The chorus, who was considered to be the mouthpiece of society (in its humble form) and morality, was suffering along with the heroes.


Ancient theater was born in Athens, therefore its language was the attic, although it was not the only one ever used. In the epic part of tragedy (prologos, epeissodia, exodos), is used the attic language. In the lyrics (parodos, stassima) is used the attic with many doric elements.

Variant meters were being used in ancient theater :

+ The iambic trimetron was used in dialogue parts of the play

+ The trochaic tetrametron was also used sometimes in dialogs

+ The anapestic dimetron is used for parades and mourning. The chorus of Sophocles and Evripides was leaving the orchestra singing in anapestic meter.

+ The dactylic exameter : rarely used in some satyric dramas

The most common was the iambic trimetron. The iambos was made of two feet (two feet=one meter).

Description of a Theater of 5th Century B.C.

The ancient Greek theater was composed by three major parts: the Orchestra, the Scene and the main theater, called Koilon.

The Orchestra was the almost circular place, situated in front of the scene (stage) facing the audience. At the center of the orchestra was situated the Thymeli, which at the early years was meant to be an altar and later on, a place, where the leader of the chorus (koryphaios) was standing. Some archaeological research in the Athens aerea gave some clues for the existence of rectangular orchestras in some ancient Greek theaters, but the circular shape was the dominant one and also the closest to the dionyssiac cult (the circle was supposed to have supernatural power). The orchestra was the acting place, especially in the early years, although gradually the action moved from the orchestra on the scene and -if we want to be more specific-in front of the scene, which part was called Proscenio, because it was situated in front of the scene (pro+scene).

The side of the Scene facing the audience, served for background as it was decorated as a Palace or a Temple. The scene had one or three entrances for the actors. Later on, as scenography (i.e. theatrical painting) developed, they were placing on the background painted tables with other themes, such as woods, army camps etc.

Between the scene and the seats, there are two entrances, called Parodoi, one on the right and one on the left, from which the chorus and the persons coming from the outside (i.e. not from the Temple nor the Palace) were entering the scene. If someone was entering from the right parodos, that meant that he was coming from the city or the port. If he was coming from the left parodos, he was coming from the fields or abroad.

At the back of the scene the were two buildings with doors, that let on the Proscenio and as far as their decoration is concerned, they might extend the theme of the scene or even present another theme.

Along the back wall of the scene was built a narrow but raised platform, the Logeion. It was a place designed just for the actors, by which they got separated from the chorus. It is certain that this happened sometime in the Hellenistic period, because in the classical theater there were no Logeion and the performance was taking place strictly on the orchestra.

The flat roof of the scene was dedicated to gods and it was called Theologian (theos=god).

The Koilon (or Theatron) was the auditorium of the Greek theater. It was called Koilon because of its shape. At first the spectators were sitting around the orchestra. Later the Greeks started building the ( wooden at the beginning, from stone later) Koilon. Its shape was semi-circular, built around the orchestra. It was devided in two Diazoma, the upper and the lower.

The front seats were called Proedria and were reserved for officials and priests. The most honorable spectator of the theater was the priest of Elefthereos Dionyssos.

In the 5th century B.C. with the exeption of the orchestra, the other parts of the theater were wooden and mobile. At the end of the 5th century the Greeks started building permanent Scenes and Koilons.

The indoor theaters were called Odeia. They were reserved for musical performances and for tragical Proagones (something like contest qualifications)

Machinery used in ancient Greek theater

Inside the permanent scene were kept the machines used for the performance:

+ a) The Aeorema: It was a crane by which the gods were appearing on the scene (deus ex machina). It is wrong (but frequently written) that in ancient Greek that machine was called “geranos”. Geranos is the translation in modern Greek of the word “crane”.

+ b) The Periactoi: Two prismatic pillars, put on the left and right side of the scene, turning around their axon, they changed the background of the scene.

+ c)The Ekeclema: a wheeled-platform on which bodies of dead persons were presented (because a murder or a suicide never takes place in front of the spectators).

The form of the play

Three were the composing elements of tragedy: the Prose, the Lyrics and the Dancing. The tragedy was beginning with the entrance of the chorus on the orchestra singing an ode, called Parodos. The chorus were also singing between the dialogue parts of the play other songs called Stassima in ensemble or devided in two groups (Hemechoria).

The songs for the chorus were written in Doric dialect. Beside these songs there were also other songs performed by one actor (Monodia) or two (Diodia). Parodos, stassima, monodies and diodies composed the lyric part of tragedy.

The prose was beginning with Prologos, the part before the entrance of the chorus. The plot was developing with the Epeissodes and finishes with the Exodus.

Prologos, Epeissodia and Exodus were written in attic dialect and in verses. As far as the metrics is concerned these parts were written in Iambic Trimetron.

The poets were also composing the music for their plays. The songs were performed by an orchestra composed by flute, phormigx, drums and sometimes guitar (Kithara).

Masks in Ancient Greek Theater

The use of masks in ancient Greek theater draw their origin from the ancient dionysiac cult. Thespis was the first writer, who used a mask.

The members of the chorus wore masks, usually similar to each other but completely different from the leading actors. Picture 1 portrays a sort of mask suitable for the chorus.

Because the number of actors varied from one to three, they had to put on different masks, in order to play more roles.

The actors were all men. The mask was therefor necessary to let them play the female roles. Picture 2 portrays a woman’s mask.

Some people claim that the masks had one more significance : they added resonance to the voice of an actor so that everyone in the huge ancient theater could hear him (Baldry 1971). I do not quite agree with that point of view. I think it’s enough for someone to attend a modern performance of a play in the ancient theater of Epidavros to feel the perfection of the acoustics in an ancient theater. Even the audience of the last row can hear a whisper from the orchestra.

An interesting idea (Wiles 1991) is that the mask could give to the character some sort of universality, creating an average figure, so that the audience would judge him on his actions and not his appearance. Certainly that was a result of the use of the mask but I am not quite convinced that it was one of the purposes of its use.

Usually the masks were made of linen, wood, or leather. A marble or stone face was used as a mold for the mask. Human or animal hair was also used. The eyes were fully drawn but in the place of the pupil of the eye was a small hole so that the actor could see.

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