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Timeline of Greek Drama

Although the origins of Greek Tragedy and Comedy are obscure and controversial, our
ancient sources allow us to construct a rough chronology of some of the steps in their
development. Some of the names and events on the timeline are linked to passages in the
next section on the Origins of Greek Drama which provide additional context.

(Works in bold are on the Hum 110 syllabus)

7th Century BC

c. 625 Arion at Corinth produces named dithyrambic choruses.

6th Century BC

600-570 Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, transfers "tragic choruses" to Dionysus

540-527 Pisistratus, tyrant of Athens, founds the festival of the Greater Dionysia
536-533 Thespis puts on tragedy at festival of the Greater Dionysia in Athens
525 Aeschylus born
511-508 Phrynichus' first victory in tragedy
c. 500 Pratinus of Phlius introduces the satyr play to Athens

5th Century BC

499-496 Aeschylus' first dramatic competition

c. 496 Sophocles born
492 Phrynicus' Capture of Miletus (Miletus was captured by the Persians in 494)
485 Euripides born
484 Aeschylus' first dramatic victory
472 Aeschylus' Persians
467 Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes
468 Aeschylus defeated by Sophocles in dramatic competition
463? Aeschylus' Suppliant Women
458 Aeschylus' Oresteia (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides)
456 Aeschylus dies
c. 450 Aristophanes born
447 Parthenon begun in Athens
c. 445 Sophocles' Ajax
441 Sophocles' Antigone
438 Euripides' Alcestis
431-404 Peloponnesian War (Athens and allies vs. Sparta and allies)
431 Euripides' Medea
c. 429 Sophocles' Oedipus the King
428 Euripides' Hippolytus
423 Aristophanes' Clouds
415 Euripides' Trojan Women
406 Euripides dies; Sophocles dies
405 Euripides' Bacchae
404 Athens loses Peloponnesian War to Sparta
401 Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus

4th Century BC

399 Trial and death of Socrates

c. 380's Plato's Republic includes critique of Greek tragedy and comedy
c. 330's Aristotle's Poetics includes defense of Greek tragedy and comedy

2. Origins of Greek Drama

Ancient Greeks from the 5th century BC onwards were fascinated by the question of the
origins of tragedy and comedy. They were unsure of their exact origins, but Aristotle and
a number of other writers proposed theories of how tragedy and comedy developed, and
told stories about the people thought to be responsible for their development. Here are
some excerpts from Aristotle and other authors which show what the ancient Greeks
thought about the origins of tragedy and comedy.

Aristotle on the origins of Tragedy and Comedy

1. Indeed, some say that dramas are so called, because their authors represent the
characters as "doing" them (drôntes). And it is on this basis that the Dorians [= the
Spartans, etc.] lay claim to the invention of both tragedy and comedy. For comedy is
claimed by the Megarians here in Greece, who say it began among them at the time when
they became a democracy [c. 580 BC], and by the Megarians of Sicily on the grounds
that the poet Epicharmas came from there and was much earlier than Chionides and
Magnes; while tragedy is claimed by certain Dorians of the Peloponnese. They offer the
words as evidence, noting that outlying villages, called dêmoi by the Athenians, are called
kômai by them, and alleging that kômôdoi (comedians) acquired their name, not from
kômazein (to revel), but from the fact that, being expelled in disgrace from the city, they
wandered from village to village. The Dorians further point out that their word for "to do"
is drân, whereas the Athenians use prattein. (Aristotle: Poetics Chapter 3)

2. And in accordance with their individual types of character, poetry split into two kinds,
for the graver spirits tended to imitate noble actions and noble persons performing them,
and the more frivolous poets the doings of baser persons, and as the more serious poets
began by composing hymns and encomia, so these began with lampoons....Thus among
the early poets, some became poets of heroic verse and others again of iambic verse.
Homer was not only the master poet of the serious vein, unique in the general excellence
of his imitations and especially in the dramatic quality he imparts to them, but was also
the first to give a glimpse of the idea of comedy [in the Margites]...And once tragedy and
comedy had made their appearance, those who were drawn to one or the other of the
branches of poetry, true to their natural bias, became either comic poets instead of iambic
poets, or tragic poets instead of epic poets because the new types were more important--
i.e. got more favorable attention, than the earlier ones. Whether tragedy has, then, fully
realized its possible forms or has not yet done so is a question the answer to which both
in the abstract and in relation to the audience [or the theater] may be left for another
discussion. Its beginnings, certainly, were in improvisation [autoschediastikês], as were
also those for comedy, tragedy originating in impromptus by the leaders of dithyrambic
choruses, and comedy in those of the leaders of the phallic performances which still
remain customary in many cities. Little by little tragedy grew greater as the poets
developed whatever they perceived of its emergent form, and after passing through many
changes, it came to a stop, being now in possession of its specific nature [tên hautês
phusin]. It was Aeschylus who first increased the number of the actors from one to two
and reduced the role of the chorus, giving first place to the dialogue. Sophocles [added]
the third actor and [introduced] painted scenery. Again, [there was a change] in
magnitude; from little plots and ludicrous language (since the change was from the satyr
play), tragedy came only late in its development to assume an air of dignity, and its meter
changes from the trochaic tetrameter to the iambic trimeter. Indeed, the reason why they
used the tetrameter at first was that their form of poetry was satyric [i.e. for "satyrs"] and
hence more oriented toward dancing; but as the spoken parts developed, natural instinct
discovered the appropriate meter, since of all metrical forms the iambic trimeter is best
adapted for speaking. (This is evident, since in talking with one another we very often
utter iambic trimeters, but seldom dactylic hexameters, or if we do we depart from the
tonality of normal speech. Again, [there was a change] in the number of episodes -- but as
for this and the way in which reportedly each of the other improvements came about, let
us take it all as said, since to go through the several details would no doubt be a
considerable task. (Aristotle: Poetics Chapter 4)

Stories about the poet Arion

3. Periander was tyrant of Corinth. The Corinthians say (and the Lesbians agree) that the
greatest wonder in his life was the voyage of Arion of Methymna to Taenarum on a
dolphin. He was a kitharode second to none at that time and the first of men whom we
know to have composed the dithyramb and named it and produced it in Corinth.
(Herodotus I.23)

4. Arion, of said also to have invented the tragic mode (tragikoû tropou)
and first composed a stationary chorus and sung a dithyramb and named what the chorus
sang and introduced satyrs speaking verses. (The Suda lexicon)

5. Pindar says the dithyramb was discovered in Corinth. The inventor of the song
Aristotle calls Arion. He first led the circular chorus. (Proculus, Chrest. xii)

6. The first performance of tragedy was introduced by Arion of Methymna, as Solon said
in his Elegies. Charon of Lampsacus says that drama was first produced at Athens by
Thespis. (John the Deacon, Commentary on Hermogenes)

Stories about Cleisthenes, Sicyon, and Hero-drama

7. I must not omit to explain that [the tyrant] Cleisthenes picked on Melanippus as the
person to introduce into Sicyon, because he was a bitter enemy of Adrastus, having killed
both Mecistes, his brother, and Tydeus his son-in-law. After settling him in his new
shrine, he transferred to him the religious honors of sacrifice and festival which had
previously been paid to Adrastus. The people of Sicyon had always regarded Adrastus
with great reverence, because the country had once belonged to Polybus, his maternal
grandfather, who died without an heir and bequeathed the kingdom to him. One of the
most important of the tributes paid him was the tragic chorus, or ceremonial dance and
song, which the Sicyonians celebrated in his honor; normally, the tragic chorus belongs to
the worship of Dionysus; but in Sicyon it was not so -- it was performed in honor of
Adrastus, treating his life-story and sufferings. Cleisthenes, however, changed this: he
transferred the choruses to Dionysus, and the rest of the ceremonial to Melanippus.
(Herodotus V.67)

Stories trying to explain why, if tragedy originated from Dithyrambs sung in honor of
Dionysus, not all tragedies were about Dionysus ("Nothing to do with Dionysus": (ouden
pros ton Dionuson)

8. When Phrynichus and Aeschylus developed tragedy to include mythological plots and
disasters, it was said, "What has this to do with Dionysus?" (Plutarch, Symp. Quaest.)

9. Nothing to do with Dionysus. When, the choruses being accustomed from the
beginning to sing the dithyramb to Dionysus, later poets abandoned this custom and
began to write "Ajaxes" and "Centaurs". Therefore the spectators said in joke, "Nothing
to do with Dionysus." For this reason they decided later to introduce satyr-plays as a
prelude, in order that they might not seem to be forgetting the god. (Zenobius V.40)

10. Nothing to do with Dionysus. When Epigenes the Sicyonian made a tragedy in honor
of Dionysus, they made this comment; hence the proverb. A better explanation:
Originally when writing in honor of Dionysus they competed with pieces which were
called satyric. Later they changed to the writing of tragedy and gradually turned to plots
and stories in which they had no thought for Dionysus. Hence this comment. Chamaeleon
writes similarly in his book on Thespis. (The Suda lexicon)

Stories about Thespis the Athenian playwright

11. From when Thespis the poet first acted, who produced a play in the city and the prize
was a goat... (Marmor Parium, under the year about 534 BC).

12. This is Thespis, who first moulded tragic song, inventing new joys for his villagers,
when Bacchus led the wine-smeared (?) chorus, for which a goat was the prize (?) and a
basket of Attic figs was a prize too. The young change all this. Length of time will
discover many new things. But mine is mine. (Dioscorides, Anth. Pal. VII. 410)
13. The unknown poetry of the tragic Muse Thespis is said to have discovered and to
have carried poems on wagons, which they sang and acted, their faces smeared with
wine-lees. (Horace, Ars Poetica 275-277)

14. As of old tragedy formerly the chorus by itself performed the whole drama and later
Thespis invented a single actor to give the chorus a rest and Aeschylus a second and
Sophocles a third, thereby completing tragedy... (Diogenes Laertius III. 56)

15. Thespis: Of the city of Ikarios in Attica, the sixteenth tragic poet after the first tragic
poet, Epigenes of Sicyon, but according to some second after Epigenes. Others say he
was the first tragic poet. In his first tragedies he anointed his face with white lead, then he
shaded his face with purslane in his performance, and after that introduced the use of
masks, making them in linen alone. He produced in the 61st Olympiad (536/5-533/2 BC).
Mention is made of the following plays: Games of Pelias or Phorbas, Priests, Youths,
Pentheus. (The Suda lexicon)

3. Staging an ancient Greek play

Attending a tragedy or comedy in 5th century BC Athens was in many ways a different
experience than attending a play in the United States in the 20th century. To name a few
differences, Greek plays were performed in an outdoor theater, used masks, and were
almost always performed by a chorus and three actors (no matter how many speaking
characters there were in the play, only three actors were used; the actors would go back
stage after playing one character, switch masks and costumes, and reappear as another
character). Greek plays were performed as part of religious festivals in honor of the god
Dionysus, and unless later revived, were performed only once. Plays were funded by the
polis, and always presented in competition with other plays, and were voted either the
first, second, or third (last) place. Tragedies almost exclusively dealt with stories from the
mythic past (there was no "contemporary" tragedy), comedies almost exclusively with
contemporary figures and problems.

In what follows, we will run through an imaginary (but as far a possible, accurate) outline
of the production of a Greek tragedy in 5th century BC Athens from beginning to end.
The outline will bring out some of the features of creating and watching a Greek tragedy
that made it a different process than it is today.

4. Greek Theaters
Greek tragedies and comedies were always performed in outdoor theaters. Early Greek
theaters were probably little more than open areas in city centers or next to hillsides
where the audience, standing or sitting, could watch and listen to the chorus singing about
the exploits of a god or hero. From the late 6th century BC to the 4th and 3rd centuries
BC there was a gradual evolution towards more elaborate theater structures, but the basic
layout of the Greek theater remained the same. The major components of Greek theater
are labled on the diagram above.

Orchestra: The orchestra (literally, "dancing space") was normally circular. It was a level
space where the chorus would dance, sing, and interact with the actors who were on the
stage near the skene. The earliest orchestras were simply made of hard earth, but in the
Classical period some orchestras began to be paved with marble and other materials. In
the center of the orchestra there was often a thymele, or altar. The orchestra of the theater
of Dionysus in Athens was about 60 feet in diameter.

Theatron: The theatron (literally, "viewing-place") is where the spectators sat. The
theatron was usually part of hillside overlooking the orchestra, and often wrapped around
a large portion of the orchestra (see the diagram above). Spectators in the fifth century
BC probably sat on cushions or boards, but by the fourth century the theatron of many
Greek theaters had marble seats.

Skene: The skene (literally, "tent") was the building directly behind the stage. During the
5th century, the stage of the theater of Dionysus in Athens was probably raised only two
or three steps above the level of the orchestra, and was perhaps 25 feet wide and 10 feet
deep. The skene was directly in back of the stage, and was usually decorated as a palace,
temple, or other building, depending on the needs of the play. It had at least one set of
doors, and actors could make entrances and exits through them. There was also access to
the roof of the skene from behind, so that actors playing gods and other characters (such
as the Watchman at the beginning of Aeschylus' Agamemnon) could appear on the roof,
if needed.

Parodos: The parodoi (literally, "passageways") are the paths by which the chorus and
some actors (such as those representing messengers or people returning from abroad)
made their entrances and exits. The audience also used them to enter and exit the theater
before and after the performance.

Greek Theaters Click here to explore more about Greek theaters in Perseus, with
descriptions, plans, and images of eleven ancient theaters, including the Theater of
Dionysus in Athens, and the theater at Epidaurus.

5. Structure of the plays read in Humanities 110

The basic structure of a Greek tragedy is fairly simple. After a prologue spoken by one or
more characters, the chorus enters, singing and dancing. Scenes then alternate between
spoken sections (dialogue between characters, and between characters and chorus) and
sung sections (during which the chorus danced). Here are the basic parts of a Greek

a. Prologue: Spoken by one or two characters before the chorus appears. The prologue
usually gives the mythological background necessary for understanding the events of the

b. Parodos: This is the song sung by the chorus as it first enters the orchestra and dances.

c. First Episode: This is the first of many "episodes", when the characters and chorus

d. First Stasimon: At the end of each episode, the other characters usually leave the stage
and the chorus dances and sings a stasimon, or choral ode. The ode usually reflects on the
things said and done in the episodes, and puts it into some kind of larger mythological

For the rest of the play, there is alternation between episodes and stasima, until the final
scene, called the...

e. Exodos: At the end of play, the chorus exits singing a processional song which usually

English Drama

Drama was introduced to England from Europe by the Romans, and auditoriums were
constructed across the country for this purpose. By the medieval period, the mummers'
plays had developed, a form of early street theatre associated with the Morris dance,
concentrating on themes such as Saint George and the Dragon and Robin Hood. These
were folk tales re-telling old stories, and the actors travelled from town to town
performing these for their audiences in return for money and hospitality. The medieval
mystery plays and morality plays, which dealt with Christian themes, were performed at
religious festivals.

William Shakespeare, chief figure of the English Renaissance, is here seen in the
Chandos portrait.

The period known as the English Renaissance, approximately 1500—1660, saw a

flowering of the drama and all the arts. The most famous example of the mystery play,
Everyman, and the two candidates for the earliest comedy in English Nicholas Udall's
Ralph Roister Doister and the anonymous Gammer Gurton's Needle, all belong to the
16th century.
During the reign of Elizabeth I in the late 16th and early 17th century, a London-centred
culture that was both courtly and popular produced great poetry and drama. Perhaps the
most famous playwright in the world, William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon,
wrote plays that are still performed in theatres across the world to this day. He was
himself an actor and deeply involved in the running of the theatre company that
performed his plays. Other important playwrights of this period include Christopher
Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and John Webster. Various types of plays were popular. Ben
Jonson, for example, was often engaged to write courtly masques, ornate plays where the
actors wore masks. The three types that seem most often studied today are the histories,
the comedies, and the tragedies. Most playwrights tended to specialise in one or another
of these, but Shakespeare is remarkable in that he produced all three types. His 38 plays
include tragedies such as Hamlet (1603), Othello (1604), and King Lear (1605); comedies
such as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1594—96) and Twelfth Night (1602); and history
plays such as Henry IV, part 1—2. Some have hypothesized that the English Renaissance
paved the way for the sudden dominance of drama in English society, arguing that the
questioning mode popular during this time was best served by the competing characters
in the plays of the Elizabethan dramatists.

Aphra Behn was the first professional English woman playwright.

During the Interregnum 1649—1660, English theatres were kept closed by the Puritans
for religious and ideological reasons. When the London theatres opened again with the
Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, they flourished under the personal interest and
support of Charles II. Wide and socially mixed audiences were attracted by topical
writing and by the introduction of the first professional actresses (in Shakespeare's time,
all female roles had been played by boys). New genres of the Restoration were heroic
drama, pathetic drama, and Restoration comedy. Notable heroic tragedies of this period
include John Dryden's All for Love (1677) and (Aureng-Zebe) (1675), and Thomas
Otway's Venice Preserved (1682). The Restoration plays that have best retained the
interest of producers and audiences today are the comedies, such as George Etherege's
The Man of Mode (1676), William Wycherley's The Country Wife (1676), John
Vanbrugh's The Relapse (1696), and William Congreve's The Way of the World (1700).
This period saw the first professional woman playwright, Aphra Behn, author of many
comedies including The Rover (1677). Restoration comedy is famous or notorious for its
sexual explicitness, a quality encouraged by Charles II (1660–1685) personally and by
the rakish aristocratic ethos of his court.

In the 18th century, the highbrow and provocative Restoration comedy lost favour, to be
replaced by sentimental comedy, domestic tragedy such as George Lillo's The London
Merchant (1731), and by an overwhelming interest in Italian opera. Popular
entertainment became more dominant in this period than ever before. Fair-booth
burlesque and musical entertainment, the ancestors of the English music hall, flourished
at the expense of legitimate English drama, which went into a long period of decline. By
the early 19th century, the drama was no longer represented by stage plays at all, but by
closet drama, plays written to be privately read in a "closet" (a small domestic room).
A change came in the later 19th century with the plays on the London stage by the
Irishmen George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde and the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, all of
whom influenced domestic English drama and vitalised it again.

Postmodernism had a pround effect on English Drama in the latter half of the 20th
Century. This can be seen particularly in the work of Samuel Beckett (most notably in
Waiting for Godot), who in turn influenced writers such as Harold Pinter and Tom

Today the West End of London has a large number of theatres, particularly centred
around Shaftesbury Avenue. A prolific writer of music for musicals of the 20th century,
Andrew Lloyd Webber, has dominated the West End for a number of years, and his works
have travelled to Broadway in New York and around the world, as well as being turned
into film.

The Royal Shakespeare Company operates out of Stratford-upon-Avon, producing mainly

but not exclusively Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespear tragiccomedies

• Hamlet
• Othello
• King Lear


1. Sonnet
2. Venus and Adonis
3. Lucrece