The ancient Greeks are often credited with creating the art of drama. Although storytelling has existed since the dawn of man, the Greeks were the first to write down these stories and act them out in front of audiences. There were three types of plays in the Greek theatre: comedies, tragedies, and satyr plays.
Greek comedies were not always funny. The term “comedy” referred to a play that had a happy ending. Comedies centered around an average person, the “everyman hero.” The ancient playwright Menander wrote what could be termed the world's first situation comedies: humorous stories about ordinary people, often told in episodic form. The leading comic author in the classical era was Aristophanes, who specialized in political satire. In a departure from the usual comic format, Aristophanes' plays highlighted the foibles and scandals of the rich and powerful, as in his best-known work, “Lysistrata.”
Greek tragedies dealt with the more serious aspects of the human condition, such as love and loss. These plays featured a “tragic hero”: an otherwise good person who makes a foolish mistake, usually as a result of arrogance. His mistake destroys him, and often those he loves. The tragic hero is usually rich, powerful, or “above average.” To the Greeks, tragedy created catharsis--it temporarily made the audience members forget about their own problems by identifying with fictional pain. Aristotle said that tragedy “cleansed the soul.” The three most popular tragic writers of the classical era were Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. Many of their plays have survived into the modern era, including “Oedipus Rex,” “The Orestra” and “The Bacchae.”
Perhaps the least-known type of Greek theatre, a satyr play was a short, comedic play performed between the acts of a tragedy. In Greek mythology, a satyr was a half-man, half-goat creature with a very large phallus. Actors in satyr plays often wore large fake phalluses for comic effect. They would mock the plight of the characters in the play, making fun of their tragic situations. In this way, the satyr plays served as comic relief for the audience. The word “satire” is derived from the satyr plays.
Structure of Greek Plays
All Greek plays, whether comic or tragic, were structured the same way. The drama began with a prologue, which was recited by one or two actors. Then the chorus would enter, singing a song. Each of the play's three acts began with an ode by the chorus. Their songs served not as a diversion, but to move the action forward. The plays themselves were performed by two or three actors, who were always male. The actors wore masks and often played multiple parts. But the playwright himself played the most parts--he also served as composer, choreographer, and choral director. Some even starred in their own plays.