We all know what going to the theatre is like: You enter (most often) an indoor space, take your seat, the lights go down plunging the audience into darkness and the play begins, finishing (perhaps with an interval for ice cream) about two-and-a-half hours later.
Nothing could be further from the experience of going to the theatre in ancient Greece. For a start all theatres were open to the elements: semi-circular wood and later stone constructions that curled the audience around a circular stage (called the orchestra) with a small built backdrop (called the skene). Being outside meant crucially that the audience was never invisible to the actors or to themselves: audience reaction (and occasional throwing of rotten vegetables) was key to every performance.
But the differences don’t stop there. In Athens, people would not go to the theatre for an evening’s entertainment; it was an all day affair. People came to watch 3 entire tragedies, followed by a comedy play (known as a satyr play because it normally involved satyrs – half goat, half man creatures with enormous permanently erect phalluses who ran around causing havoc).
And just like in Shakespearian England, no women were allowed to act, even though a good majority of the major roles in Greek tragedy are for women. Men, instead, played these roles. With no special effects, no fancy lighting, these actors, of which there were, at most, only three, supported by a chorus in any one play, kept the attention of the audience through the costumes they wore, the extravagant masks they put on to denote different characters, and the power of the words they spoke.
But the differences between modern and ancient Greek theatre go much deeper than that. In Athens, tragedies and comedies were put on as part of a competition. Three playwrights – each composing three tragedies and a satyr play – one of whom would be crowned the winner after three full days of watching plays.
More importantly, this entire festival, called the City Dionysia, was a religious festival in honour of the god Dionysos. Watching theatre was not just a pleasure, but part of a religious duty. And what’s more, it was also a fundamental part of the display of civic identity.
At the beginning of every festival, the military generals would pore libations to the gods, the names of those who had benefitted the city would be read out, there would be parades of tribute sent to Athens by the members of its empire and parades of orphans whose parents had died fighting for the city and who were now looked after by the state. This was the spectacle in front of the citizens of Athens before the plays had even begun!