Theatre of Dionysus
Delphi heard the roar of the crowd echoing into the sky. She climbed the hill trying to look like she was supposed to be there. It wasn’t out of the question for women and children to be allowed to watch the performances, but not on her own and her dad had refused to let her come because it lasted all day and he insisted she would get bored. She had decided on the spot that she would be coming anyway.
The theatre was cut into the side of the Acropolis hill, its steps reaching up towards the Parthenon above. The great sweep of steps served as seats for the spectators while stone thrones were at the front and centre – where the judges of the drama sat. Theatre was a competitive sport in Athens. The crowd watched three new plays in one huge sitting, then the judges would declare one the winner.
Delphi found a space in an out of the way corner, above the main crowds. The first play had already started – the chorus were standing at the back singing, while a man wearing an unconvincing mask kept answering them. She had absolutely no idea what was going on.
She kept glancing around, but the space in front of her had a way of focusing your attention, making it impossible to look at anything other than the stage. The whole place felt like a temple with large statues to Dionysus watching the performance. There was a small shrine to the god, with his biggest statue, behind the stage, but it was out here where the real worship took place.
The crowd were hypnotised, occasionally laughing at a line that Delphi didn’t quite understand. It was in many ways the heart of Athenian culture - this was the birthplace of drama, of tragedy and comedy, where Oedipus married his mother and killed his father, where the god Dionysus travelled down to the world of the dead, and where the great heroes of the Trojan war met their fates.
Delphi watched for a while, then decided it was boring.
Theatre of Dionysus: Fact box
The Theatre of Dionysus is one of the world’s first open air theatres. It was used for the performances of Greek tragedies and comedies – a mix of drama and music that played a big part in the social calendar for Ancient Greeks!
The theatre was dedicated to the god Dionysus – the god of wine. Each Dionysia, the festival to the god, three plays would be put on and there was a competition to see which one was best. Many of these plays are still read and performed today!
The theatre wasn’t just for performances – it was also the site for huge meetings when the Assembly moved here from its original site at the Pnyx. It was also an important religious site with a sanctuary dedicated to Dionysus, as well as having other nearby shrines, such as to the healing god Asclepius.
The theatre continued to be used into Roman times, though performances were more often put on in the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, a spectacular theatre built by the Romans in 174 AD. It is still used for performances today.
Greek Tragedies & Comedies
Although not all of them have survived, we still know about some of the most famous Greek tragedies and comedies. Here's a few of them:
The Oresteia - A trilogy of tragedies by the playwright Aeschylus. They tell the murderous stories of King Agamemnon and his family and are full of tales of revenge.
Oedipus Rex - A very famous tragedy written by Sophocles. In the play, Oedipus receives a prophecy that he would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother! Spoiler alert - it turns out he does both by accident!
Medea - A tragedy about a powerful but terrifying woman written by Euripides. Like a lot of Greek tragedies it is full of strong passions, love and horrible deaths!
The Frogs - A comedy by Aristophanes which makes fun of other Greek plays. The story concerns the god Dionysus who travels down to the underworld to find Euripides the playwright.
The Clouds - Another comedy by Aristophanes, this play mocked the famous philosopher Socrates (who would have been in the audience) by portraying him as a bumbling idiot! They even used a crane to make the actor fly above the stage to show that he thought himself 'above' everyone else.