Who knows what modern theater would look like without the influence of ancient Greek playwrights and theaters? Most likely it would look very different, maybe less interesting, maybe less colorful, maybe less dramatic. For the Greek people theaters have been a very important part of their lives in the past (modern Greeks are a little different in that aspect). Each town in ancient Greek had their own theater, the bigger towns and cities usually had more than one, some of them could easily fit 15,000 spectators in it. There was a fierce competition going on between the different theaters. Each town wanted to win the competitions, each actor (there were no female theater actresses for a long time) wanted to be the best, each playwright wanted to write a winning script.
One of the most famous actors of ancient Greece was called Thespis. He was very popular with the audience and apparently quite talented, too. His name is where the name for modern theater actors, Thespians, comes from.
Aristotle was the first to mention the word catharsis in connection with plays. It was his opinion that tragedy was meant to cleanse a person's soul by evoking feelings that are connected to pity and terror. Everyday worries, that were often not very serious, were washed away by the connection to the play, and the audience became aware of the nobility in suffering. This is was Aristotle called Catharsis, and many playwrights up to this day hope to touch their audience in a profound way.
All theater plays were dramas – unfortunately, people these days confuse the word drama with tragedy. However, drama simply means “action”, i.e. the word stands for a play in which actors act. A drama can either be a tragedy or a comedy. A comedy is a play which originally simply was meant to have a happy ending, while a tragedy is a play about human suffering that is usually not self-inflicted, and tragedies often do not have a happy ending. A third kind of play is the Satyr play which originated in Athens, just like comedies and tragedies. The Satyr play included a lot of bawdiness, drunkenness (mock of course), and also a lot of sexual topic. Sometimes the props included phallic symbols. You certainly would not take a child with you if a Satyr play was on in your local theater.
While we know that Greek theater had a huge influence on the rest of the world, we are not so sure about what the actual original of Greek drama itself was. This question even had the ancient Greeks putting up one theory after the other. Aristotle explains that the Dorians claimed to have invented drama, while others claimed drama developed from Dithyrambs that were sung to honor the Greek god Dionysus. So, nobody is quite sure how it all started.
Ancient Greek theater plays were quite different from what we see in theaters today. For one, the actors were all male and wore masks. There was a maximum of three actors. If there were more than three characters in the story, then the actors would simply go behind the stage and change their mask. There also always was a chorus, which told/sang the story of the play while the actors simply acted. Comedies usually were about the everyday life of contemporary people (speak: Ancient Greek people), while tragedies were almost always dealing with topics from the mythological past.
The structure of ancient Greek plays was different from the modern structure of plays. Usually you had a prologue, in which the scene was set, then there was a song from the chorus. Then you had one episode followed by one chorus song, then another episode, another song and so on, until the play arrived at the exodos, the end of the play. The Exodus usually consisted of song who content you could compare with something along the lines of “and the moral of this all is this...”.
There were many playwrights in Ancient Greece, but not many plays have survived, as not much care was being taken with the works of playwrights whose plays have not turned out to be very popular. The plays we have from ancient Greece are mainly from the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Some of the Greek plays you should either read or watch (in a modern theater, unless you can time travel):
- Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
- The Oresteia by Aeschylus
- Lysistrata by Aristophanes
- The Frogs by Aristophanes
- Ajax by Sophocles
- The Persians by Aeschylus
- Antigone by Sophocles
- Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus
- Medea by Euripides