Ancient Theater of Asklepiou Epidavros considered one of the purest masterpieces of Greek architecture – date from the 4th century. During the Byzantine period, theatre officially sleeps, but in the underground continues its course and puts its seal to the Christian Orthodox Mass. Turkish domination puts a tombstone to theatre, but the foundations of theatrical tradition are finally laid in Crete and the Ionian Islands during the Venetian occupation, with plays like "Erophile" of Chortatzis and "Vasilikos" of Matesis. The Age of Enlightenment and the Greeks of the Diaspora create the bedrock of theatre after the liberation of Greece. The 19th century is influenced by Romanticism and Neoclassicism, expressed by the purist Greek language. Demoticism proposes three ingenious and mixed styles: operetta, romantic drama and revue, a mockery of the social ethics.
The first plays were performed with just one actor (called a protagonist) and a chorus of people who helped him to tell the story. However, throughout the 5th century BC playwrights continued to innovate. The playwright Aeschylus added a second speaking role, called the antagonist, and reduced the chorus from 50 to 12. His play 'The Persians', first performed in 472 BC, is the oldest surviving of all Greek plays.
His pupil, Sophocles went on to add a third actor, while Euripides added both a prologue, introducing the subject of the play, and the deus ex machina, a divine figure who wrapped up any loose ends at the close. Wealthy citizens would sponsor plays by paying a tax called the choregia. And just like Pisistratus, the tyrant who established the 'City Dionysia' to enhance his own popularity, many of these wealthy patrons hoped the success of the play they sponsored would provide them with a way into politics.
The first plays were performed in the Theatre of Dionysus, built in the shadow of the Acropolis in Athens at the beginning of the 5th century, but theatres proved to be so popular they soon spread all over Greece. Drama was classified according to three different types or genres: comedy, tragedy and satyr plays. The Ancient Greeks took their entertainment very seriously and used drama as a way of investigating the world they lived in, and what it meant to be human.
The three genres of drama were comedy, satyr plays, and most important of all, tragedy.
Comedy: The first comedies were mainly satirical and mocked men in power for their vanity and foolishness. The first master of comedy was the playwright Aristophanes. Much later Menander wrote comedies about ordinary people and made his plays more like sit-coms.
Tragedy: Tragedy dealt with the big themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between men and gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy commits some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant he has been. Then, as he slowly realizes his error, the world crumbles around him. The three great playwrights of tragedy were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Aristotle argued that tragedy cleansed the heart through pity and terror, purging us of our petty concerns and worries by making us aware that there can be nobility in suffering. He called this experience 'catharsis'.
Satyr Plays: These short plays were performed between the acts of tragedies and made fun of the plight of the tragedy's characters. The satyrs were mythical half-human, half-goat figures and actors in these plays wore large phalluses for comic effect. Few examples of these plays survive. They are classified by some authors as tragicomic, or comedy dramas.