Theatre of Dionysus: History, Performances & Facts

Instructor: Brittney Clere

Brittney, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught social studies at the middle school level for 15 years.

Heading out to see a movie just might be your idea of a good time, but did you know the ancient Greeks enjoyed an evening at the theater, too? In this lesson, we will look at the history and design of the world's first theater.

Ancient Greek Theater

Hollywood movies and Broadway plays probably come to mind when you hear the word 'theater'. Well, ancient Greeks enjoyed the same thing--sort of. Theater during that time had a deeper meaning because it was used to worship their god Dionysus, the god of wine, drama, and the bringer of freedom.

The Myth of Dionysus

Dionysus was another kid born from one of Zeus's many affairs. His birth was unusual, though, even by mythical standards. Zeus's jealous wife had tricked his pregnant lover into being killed. Luckily, though, Zeus saved the unborn baby by slicing open his thigh and inserting it into his leg, where he carried the baby to term.

Once born, Zeus sent Dionysus to live with the half-goat, half-human creatures called satyrs. When he grew older, he discovered the grapevine and taught others how to make wine. Thus, he became known as the god of wine.

Theatre of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus began as a temple in 6th century BCE. Nearby was an area used for religious ceremonies, and the people watched from the hillside. By the 5th century BCE, that space became the world's first theater and the birthplace of Greek drama.

A view of theater from Acropolis.
View from Acropolis.

The Layout

The theatre was an outdoor auditorium located below the Parthenon, on the south side of the Acropolis in Athens. It went through several renovations, and over time it grew large enough to hold around 17,000 people.

A diagram of the Theatre of Dionysus.
Theater diagram.

Originally, the audience sat on bleachers made of wood in a semi-circular area called the theatron. Later, they were rebuilt using limestone. The front row was the VIP section, complete with thrones made of marble and the only seats with back support. The priest or government official's name, for whom the seat was reserved, was inscribed in the marble. One central throne, however, was even grander than the others, as it belonged to the high priest of Dionysus.

Throne seats from the Theatre of Dionysus.
Theater thrones.

In front of the theatron was the orchestra, where the chorus sang, danced, and set the tone for the play. In the middle of this circular space was an alter for Dionysus.

The skene was the backstage area and was also used as the backdrop. It was just a few feet higher than the orchestra and had two doors for the actors to enter and leave the stage. It also had a route to the roof to facilitate actors who portrayed gods. To each side of the stage were the parodos, or the aisles used by actors to enter and exit the stage.

The Plays

Comedies and tragedies were both performed at the theater. Comedies dealt with contemporary issues, while tragedies were mostly about mythical gods. The plots of both, however, were written in poetry and often told in the form of a song. Also, there could be no more than three actors, and all had to be male. That meant the male actors would often play more than one character, including all female roles.

Masks were used to portray emotions and had wide mouths that amplified their voices so they could be heard from every seat in the theater. To make themselves more visible, the costumes were elaborate, and the actors used shoes with a wooden sole that made them taller.

A Greek theater mask.
Greek Mask

The wealthy were required to financially support one play a year. They didn't mind, however, because plays were performed as part of a competition. Supporting a winning playwright could gain them notoriety, too.

Several plays were performed on the same day, so audiences had to sit in the stone chairs from sun-up to sun-down. Originally, the cost to attend was free, but as the theater became more popular, a small entry price was assigned. However, the cost never stopped it from being a communal event. The theater was one of the few places where everyone from slaves to the elite convened together.

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