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Conventions of the Ancient Greek Theater

Ancient Greek theater was a manifestation of specific national features and a representation of a developed theatrical culture. It first appeared in the most progressive city of Greece – Athens %u2011 and expanded to the entire ancient world. Even now, Greek theater is an exceptional culture of performance, which is more conventional than free or improvised. Greece originated three of the most important genres in the theatric art and constructed the basic structure of the theater. It was the highest level of cultural and artistic development since theaters were the places of ethical pleasure and beauty.

All citizens of the ancient cities could admire performances because of the perfect construction of the open air building. The Western world originated the majority of the theatrical norms and terms by further developing Greek concepts. The ideas of ancient citizens spread around the world. This paper aims to prove that, although the traditional Greek theater underwent many transformations during its development, it is based on the conventional system of rules.

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The Origins of Theater in Greece

The beginning of the theatric arts in Greece happened against the backdrop of political, religious, and social conventions. It was a certain reflection of the ancient people’s consciousness, ideas, and understanding of the world. Thus, the theater was a part of nature. It is possible to say that it was the main reason for the outdoor character of the theater. People started to build their places of enjoyment in the most important city states of what is now the territory of modern Greece and extended that norm to the biggest Greek colonies. Thus, Athens is considered to be the place of the origin of theatrical art, which gave the beginning to the most popular genres, though their primary meanings were not connected to the performance. Instead, it was a ritualistic part of the religious cult. The Greek tragedy was first considered to be a laudatory song to the god Dionysus. The song had certain rules connected to it.

Thus, it was transformed into a genre with strictly prescribed conventions. It gave a reason for the tradition of outdoor performance, because a tragedy performed in the open air environment could serve as a religious experience, which connected people with the sky through the air. Nevertheless, the essence of Greek tragedy was based on the structure of the relationship between gods and people. The performance reflected the tragic destiny and helplessness of humanity which was subject to the immoral will of the gods. The tragedy was the first genre. However, it gave the basis necessary for the development of comedy and satire. Comedies had funny plots about the citizens of the ancient Greek cities with their everyday problems and comical casual affairs. David Wiles considered comedy to be addressed to the audience, unlike tragedy, which was directed towards something more divine. The conventions of satire were based on grotesque. It was a certain play of happiness, which released the audience from the emotional trauma of tragedy and brought them to the dimension of celebration. Every genre portrayed something or reflected some political, social, or religious aspect of the ancient life in Greece. Thus, the structure of performance was quite varied and demanded a particular character of theater.

Peculiarities of the Buildings

The ancient Greek theater had very strictly defined traditions in architectural reflection. they were considerably different from the present norms of theatrical structures. Although the ancient place of performance was in the open air and took place in day time, the building of the theater had a complicated structure with strictly prescribed norms and conventions. The theaters were made out of stone and surrounded by beautiful and impressive landscapes. For instance, it could be situated near mountains, on a glade, or in a forest. Indeed, the complex structure was significantly different from the present theaters. The seats for the audience were directed down to the stage. In general, the buildings were quite huge. Thus, the archaeologists and researches investigated the most prominent theaters from the sky. It was necessary to build the place on hills. The place resembled a circus, but the act was performed on stage, which was located behind the circus. People could take their places around the circus. However, the best places were dedicated to special guests – priests, authority figures, or rich citizens. Thus, their seats were gradually divided into several sections. The theatrical part of the building had a complicated structure too.

The actors played the dramas on stage in front of a tall, beautiful building. Undoubtedly, that place was not used in the act but served as a set or even resembled the idea of contemporary scenery. It could represent a palace, cave, or a temple, and depended on the idea of the performance. Thus, it was a set. Then, the stage followed where the actors presented their dramas. It had the title proskenion. The stage had parodoi on each of its sides. The entrance was controlled by the doors constructed in the paradoi, and the parapet made of marble separated the place for dances and chorus from the audience. In fact, the place for the chorus was the biggest one in the theater. That place was called the orchestra – a low platform for dances, and the actors could reach it with the help of a special ramp or steps. The ancient people located the orchestra under the stage in front of the painted walls and panels – pinakes. The majority of the theaters in Greece had an altar located in the central part of the orchestra. Without a doubt, the construction of the ancient theater had to serve the conventions of performance. The plays had strict rules, influenced by the culture and style of life. It is possible to conclude that the conventions of the ancient Greek theater were expressed in the form of the pyramidal construction of the building and reflected the hierarchical positions of participants of the drama as well as the ancient society.

Acting Style

The positions of the actors were strictly conventional and arranged in the form of composition. A performance was not a casual thing and could be played only during a certain prescribed period: in January, February, March, or April in honor of Dionysus. It was similar to a competitions between poets. Ancient plays were poetic and the characters had to speak in the form of verse. Some dramas demanded a more realistic form. However, the theatrical conventions could not allow violations of rules and applied a specific form of dialogue in verse. The dialogues were iambic, which is the form of a poem, which was the closest to conversational speech.

The performance did not allow them to apply any kind of elements, which could make the play resemble reality more. The problem was that the citizens of ancient cities connected their life and theater with gods, heroes, and myths. For instance, Dionysus was responsible for theater and the actors performed in his cult collectively in order to stress his presence and power on the stage. The general act consisted of many participants, but it had to involve only a few actors. The majority of plays had three actors and some of them had to perform several parts at the same time. Some dramas were performed by one actor who was a man. He could play both the female and male parts. However, there were many different participants in the orchestra. All the actors had their particular places on stage. There was no possibility to move freely since the theater had certain conventions of performance. Actors who entered from the left part of the stage symbolized a person who came from a city or sea; strangers entered from the right part. Gods could only enter from the left part.

The researches informed that later actors invented many different machines for producing effects of the god’s appearance. The meaning of the scene was also symbolical and could not be changed. For example, the building behind the stage was a palace in tragedies, the king had red clothes, and black clothes adorned negative characters. Thus, it was the Greek theater that initiated the idea of protagonists and antagonist. In order to highlight that distinction, actors used masks. The masks had the biggest importance of all the conventions in the ancient Greek theater. Actors had to wear the masks, which were not only traditional but represented the essence of Greek theater.


The masks reflected the context of the drama and exemplified the genre of the play. The tradition of masks was a separate cult and changed during the periods of Greek theater development. Masks were used to show different connotations in the play and illustrate the steady character of the personality, which could not be changed. It was important to use the necessary mask, as it was a half of the success. The audience may not have understood the play or understood it in a wrong way because of a wrong mask. Therefore, the ancient theater initiated the most important convention of the masks’ tradition. Moreover, each genre had special masks.

The most expressive masks were used for comedies since the expression encouraged the actor to perform the mask’s character in its movements and the mask determined the motions of the actor. The power of the mask’s  appearance was impressive and had an exceptional influence on the audience. The chorus had to wear masks as well. However, their masks were the same. Although, the chorus could contain up to fifteen members, they all reflected one character only. The masks had really exaggerated features and did not correspond to the reality. They had big holes for mouths in order to show some emotions and expressions. John Richard Green was convinced that the masks’ conventions were directed to impress the spectators on the highest level since they looked like they were about to consume the audience. The functions of the masks were really important. They gave the actors an opportunity to perform different parts; they helped people to identify the heroes for their social and political status, gender, moral character, and other features. For example, the masks for comedies had wide grimacing mouth, knitted eye-browns, and black coiffure. However, the masks had some technical functions too. They were huge and covered the whole face. Additionally, they had the same effect as a resonator; they increased the voice volume and even changed the sound. Thus, they had additional meanings for metamorphic performances. The masks were made of organic materials and painted traditionally as well. Male masks were brown in order to show sun browned skin, while female masks had white skin. The masks of the ancient Greek theater were not only necessary for their performance functions but also as cultural traditions which exemplified one of the most essential conventions. They could stress some elements and hide others. For instance, the same mask identified the chorus as a single character, though it was one of the most essential elements among theatrical conventions.


The chorus should not be associated with its contemporary equivalent as its character was influenced by the times and culture specific. The chorus could take part in the play as both a participant and an observer within the same drama. For instance, the chorus in Medea was made up of women and Medea asked them to help her. Thus, the chorus did not participate in the play but they were a part of the performance and symbolized the women. The Greek theater did not apply conversations and did not give space for the audience to make choice or decision, because the chorus presented everything as the judge. In fact, the chorus finished each part and made the conclusion on whether the character was positive or negative and whether their actions were right or wrong. In other words, it was a kind of juries’ assembly, which helped the spectators to identify the character of the events on the stage. Although, they made the judgment, they could not be seen as a voice of a political community. Without a doubt, it was a kind of a storytelling method or device.

Greeks were the first who introduced the chorus as a dramatic element. At the beginning of the theatric era in Greece, the chorus had about 50 people in the orchestra. However, later it was decided to use the chorus of about 15 people. They could sing or dance, perform the content and inspire the mood of a drama through movements and actions. Despite a huge amount of people participating in the chorus, they could represent only a collective mind, concepts, and attitudes or present a single image. “The chorus functions as a storytelling device by serving as a link between the audience and the piece itself, highlighting important aspects of the scene and projecting and emphasizing the current emotional state of the piece”. The chorus could achieve that effect through songs, analytical commentary, or conversations about the actions of characters. They could also sing odes – special songs separate from the play. The functions of the chorus were extremely different: sometimes they made the audience watch the drama from a different perspective, sometimes they showed the inner world of the characters or showed the audience the sensory dimensions. In the majority of dramas the chorus played a role which corresponded to the values of the main positive character. In comedies, the chorus could represent not only people but also animals and abstract images. The meaning of the chorus for a tragedy was quite significant since it increased the essence of the tragedy and showed the conflict better. The times changed the traditions but the necessity of the chorus in ancient Greek theater was iconic and could change some elements or characters. Therefore, it was an essential convention of the theatric art.


Later on, the chorus achieved the ability to perform specific dances. It was closely connected to the songs and the performance of the ancient theater and was known as the dithyrambs. Although contemporary society uses this word, the original meaning and its true from were not preserved. The chorus performed the dithyrambs accompanied by music between the episodes. The dances were usual for comedies, but actors did not dance during tragedies. However, sometimes it happened. It was a big honor for the dancer to perform a dance in a tragedy. David Wiles considered that the Greek synthesis of dances, songs, and performance was elusive. The initiation of the dance drama was connected with the necessity to increase the effect and create a certain symbolism of motions. The present understanding of the dance is quite different from the Greek one because ancient people did not pay attention to the notion of rhythm. In fact, their dances were not simultaneous and did not have special techniques. For contemporary dances every step is essential, while ancient Greeks did not find that important and showed harmonic and natural movements on the stage, which could be considered improvisations.

The necessity of the dances was connected to the religious tendencies and the cult of Dionysus. However, it was an additional element of traditional Greek theater in its full essence. All the details were important, and all the characters had to take their specified places and could not freely choose them, since it was more than just an art. It was a conventional structural action. Even the clothes of actors had to correspond to the context. Male characters used short costumes and female ones had to wear longer ones. Every element of clothes symbolized the status, sex, social position, element of psyche, or even destiny. For instance, blue color symbolized losers, yellow or red stripes underlined happiness. The actors in a tragedy had long cloaks with long sleeves. The clothes for a tragedy resembled the priests’ attire. In order to increase the effect of a tragedy, the actors used special pillows under the clothes, but they still preserved the natural form of the human body. In comedies, they could violate that rule and change the features of the actor in order to make it more comic. The costumes for the theater had important meaning in plays and could even show some naked body parts. The actors participating in comedies had long cloaks with sewed ornaments of the body or painted organs, which showed the sex of the character. Thus, the human voice, mask, position, behavior, and colors of the clothes created a certain specific image and reinforced the unchangeable rules of the ancient Greek theater. The ancient traditions could not be violated. In contrast to the present manner of drama, ancient actors strictly served the postulates of theatric conventions and performed plays like rituals or religious performances. It is necessary to mention that the entire Greek theater tradition consisted of norms and sticked to traditions. In fact, some elements could be substituted for the purpose of making the act more impressive or effective, but its general structure had a completely conventional character.

In conclusion, the Greek theater reflected the outdoor leanings of ancient citizens, who spread their theatric art to other city states and to various Greek colonies. People honored their gods and the majority of elements in their art reflected that worship. Theatric traditions demanded implementation of strict rules and Greek culture. Even the building itself had to be conventional and include essential details. It was a part of nature and people’s relationship with gods. Every actor had their particular specified position; they could speak only in verse since the poetic form of drama was the part of conventions as well. The chorus performed the part of the judge and collective consciousness. It could dance dithyrambs and sing songs. The masks of the Greek theater were an exceptionally conventional tradition which exaggerated the essence of the play, the character of the hero, or his or hers emotional state. Ancient theater developed a system of rules, which confirmed its conventional character. It was the background for the development of contemporary genres and elements of art. Although the contemporary theatric art utilizes many features of Greek theater, they have all transformed and gained new characteristics, which in some cases are completely opposite to those of the ancient drama.

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