Greek Theater Influences on Western Theater

By Martha Mendenhall ; Updated September 15, 2017
Ancient Greek theater provided the foundation upon which Western theater has developed.

Many of the conventions that we take for granted in the Western theatrical tradition were first developed by the ancient Greeks -- the relationship of the audience to the play and its characters, the use of heightened language, the importance of individual actors dramatizing specific roles, and the use of scenery and special effects. We have learned from and still emulate many of their innovations.

The Audience

The term “tragedy," first used by Aristotle in his famous treatise “Poetics,” denotes a play created with the specific intent of moving the audience to catharsis through the suffering and transformation of the play’s protagonist. The idea that the main character of a play, or “protagonist,” must be connected to the audience in such a manner was a major contribution of Greek theater to the Western theatrical tradition. From the plays of Shakespeare forward to those of Arthur Miller, this idea has become the bedrock of our conventional expectation concerning the relationship between the action of the protagonist and the experience of the audience.

The Text

Aristotle also stated that the sort of language required of a tragedy was heightened language, or verse. The Western theatrical tradition created by Shakespeare owes a huge debt to the Greeks on this requirement of verse in drama. Many would argue that Shakespeare’s plays and his use of verse add up to the finest body of work in all of the Western theatrical tradition. Though modern theatrical scripts don’t often include the use of verse, the modern sensibility is still drawn to Aristotle’s notion of heightened language, as the works of a playwright like David Mamet and his use of stylized dialogue indicate. Today, a musical also preserves the ancient Greek use of verse put to song.

The Actors

Greek theater began with the idea that the performance was a group event whose players were known as the chorus, and their job was simply to narrate the story. Over time, first one actor emerged as the protagonist to speak solo lines, and then more “characters” stepped forward. These characters began to engage in conversation, or "dialogue," to enact rather than narrate the story. Thus, the idea that the actors don’t simply tell a story but inhabit the characters and speak dialogue is an invention of the Greek theater. Though the chorus remained a part of Greek theater, the course of Western theater was forever changed.

The Scenery

In the Greek theater. the actors made their entrances and exits from a building called a “skene," a term that gave rise to the Western concept of scene or scenery. By the time of Sophocles, there were actual painted backdrops to enhance the unchanging environment provided by the skene for each performance. The entrance of gods was staged by the effect of lowering the actor from the top of the skene, so that he flew above the stage. These simple devices are still employed today, and continue to be tested and developed, as the producers of the Broadway show “Spider Man” can attest.