Ancient Greek drama




Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (24), Female (7), Neutral (0).

It is the fifth century BC and Dikaiopolis, a peasant who is forced by war to live in the city, has secured an unlikely peace for Athens in their war against the Spartans. However, not all his fellow citizens agree with the new détente between themselves and their hated enemies. It is up to Dikaiopolis, in increasingly farcical circumstances, to defend his anti-war stance and save his precious peace.

In their introduction to the play, translator Kenneth McLeish and editor J. Michael Walton write 'If Sophocles' Oidipous Tyrannos is the very model of an 'Aristotelian' tragedy, a kind of template for the form, then Acharnians could serve the same function for the comedy. The agon, parabasis, alazones scenes, and komos are fine examples of how each should be written . . . In particular the formal dialogues between Dikaiopolis and Lamachos demonstrate the maxim that adherence to rules can liberate the imagination - demonstrate it as triumphantly as Bach's Art of Fugue.'

A timely and timeless comedy, Acharnians was first produced in 452BC during one of the sporadic and unreliable ceasefires in the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta.


Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (9), Female (1), Neutral (0).

When Apollo was exiled for nine years from his Olympian home, he found shelter and hospitality at the palace of King Admetus. To pay him back, Apollo offers Admetus the chance to live beyond the day that fate has decided he will die. There is only one catch: when death comes to get him, Admetus must find a willing substitute.

Having been rebuffed by his aging (but not ailing) father, Admetus finds a willing proxy in his wife, the eponymous Alkestis, who is brought to Death's door, indeed is led through it, only to be rescued by Admetus's old friend Herakles, who wrestles with Death, and wins.

In his introduction, the translator J. Michael Walton writes: 'as a play that is ahead of its time Alkestis has no parallel in the classical world. It looks forward not only to the more domestic tragedy of later Euripides, but also to the social comedy of Menander and to the romances of the Hellenistic, and later, the Roman, world... Euripides may have changed the face of tragedy. He also reinterpreted and gave a new face to the expectations of comedy.'


Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (7), Female (3), Neutral (0).

In his Guide to Greek Theatre and Drama, Kenneth McLeish writes: “Antigone is a textbook example of how to develop one short episode from a myth-story to make a full-scale tragedy articulating universal themes and meanings… The fact that her story has had such an effect on world consciousness – she is one of the best loved characters in all Greek myth – is entirely due to the issues which Sophocles draws from the myth, and to his portrayal of Antigone herself, pulled between heroic certainty and all too human frailty.”

The story of one sister’s loyalty to both her brothers, regardless of their acts or opposing political beliefs, Antigone is one of the most consistently popular plays in the history of drama. This translation, by Don Taylor, was commissioned by the BBC, and was first broadcast in autumn, 1986.

Antigone (trans. Wertenbaker)

Acts: 0. Scenes: 12. Roles: Male (3), Female (4), Neutral (1).

Sophocles' Theban plays – Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus at Kolonos and Antigone – stand at the fountainhead of world drama; they tell the story of Oedipus, Jocasta and Antigone, and the ancient Greek theme of power both mortal and godlike is brought to the fore with stunning vitality. Antigone completes the trilogy. Oedipus' daughter protests the lack of funeral rites for her brother Polyneikes after his death in the civil war of Thebes, leading to a final tragedy.

Timberlake Wertenbaker translation of Sophocles' trilogy of Theban plays was premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford upon Avon, in 1991, under the collective title of The Thebans.

The Bacchae

Acts: 0. Scenes: 13. Roles: Male (7), Female (2), Neutral (0).

One of the greatest of all Greek tragedies – savage, comic and intensely lyrical – The Bacchae powerfully dramatises the conflict between the emotional and rational sides of the human psyche. The magnetic young Dionysus – icon, hedonist, god – returns home with his cult of female followers to exact his revenge, unleashing the full force of female sexuality on the city.

David Greig's version of The Bacchae premiered at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, in August 2007 in a co-production between the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Scotland.


Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (24), Female (1), Neutral (0).

Tired of the unending wittering of Athenian lawmen, Euelpides and Peithetairos flee the city with their trusty feathered companions. However, their hoped for exile begins with getting lost, and the play opens with them crowing and pecking at one another with all the fury of the most terminally bird-brained democrat.

Which is when they meet 'his Hoopoeness', the once king Tereus, whom they convince to take them up to a new city, high above the base and grounded demos, burying the age-old animosity between birds and men and, ultimately, challenging the mighty Zeus for the top spot in the sky.

Full of the most bawdy of Aristophanes' jokes, and rife with the exasperated cynicism typical of the early satirist of the earliest democracy, Birds is translated in all its irreverent glory by Kenneth McLeish.


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Silenus, father of the Satyrs, has been trapped on Sicily, held prisoner by the Cyclops son of Poseidon, Polyphemus. Silenus is despondent: his captive fate was found when seeking to rescue another god, Dionysus. Instead, it is Silenus and his sons who are prisoners, of a much lesser, more ravenous god.

The potential for rescue comes when Odysseus, the hero strategist of the Trojan War, washes up on the Sicilian shore. His men too get captured, but rather than bemoan his fate, Odysseus connives to destroy the Cyclops once and for all, using wit, wisdom and plenty of wine.

A celebration of the liberating effects of alcohol, Cyclops is a Euripidean take on the Homeric myth, full of jokes, tricks and stagey comedy.


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Electra is a story of revenge, of children on their mother, and the grief and fury of a woman when her filial duties are split down the middle.

When the victorious King Agamemnon returns from Troy, carting his new mistress Cassandra in tow, his wife Clytemnestra murders him. This initial act of revenge sparks off a long held grudge, kindled in the exiled and presumed dead Orestes, twin brother of Electra.

In his introduction, J. Michael Walton writes that 'Electra has fed on her hate, absorbing humiliation almost with relish. As the play progresses, so her passion is revealed as having dimensions.' It is these dimensions, rather than the moral conundrum of matricide, which Sophocles brings to life so starkly in his version of the well-known Greek myth.


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Elektra is a story of revenge, of children on their mother, and the grief and fury of a woman when her filial duties are split down the middle.

When the victorious King Agamemnon returns from Troy, carting his new mistress Cassandra in tow, his wife Clytemnestra murders him. This initial act of revenge sparks off a long held grudge, kindled in the exiled and presumed dead Orestes, twin brother of Elektra.

Just like Sophocles, Euripides was inspired by Aeschylus's great tragic cycle, the Oresteia. Unlike Sophocles (whose focus was a battered and vilified victim of circumstance, fully justified in seeking revenge), Euripides paints a character with a more confused mindset, one who cannot be fully trusted, not even by her returning twin and brother-in-arms. Euripides allows no easy judgement, forcing his audience to pick over the bones of a moral dilemma, as bloody as it is tragic.


Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (18), Female (0), Neutral (0).

Losing all faith in humanity, and their basest incarnation, the tragedians, Dionysos, god of the theatre, vows to go to the underworld to revive the greatest tragedian of all, the barely cold Euripides, who had died the year before.

Enlisting his servant Xanthias, and asking his half brother Herakles for directions, Dionysos sets off to Hades' Halls, only to find Euripides engaged in a contest with Aeschylus, as to who was the greatest of them all. Dionysos sets himself the task of judging their weighty words, but more often than not these tragedians make him the butt of their jokes.

Described in his introduction by translator Kenneth McLeish as 'one of [Aristophanes'] most brilliant comedies', Frogs is a wonderful mix of the living and the dead, of the tragic and the comic.

The theatre of ancient Greece, the fountainhead of the entire Western dramatic tradition. The earliest Greek drama is thought to have developed during the 6th century BC from imitative religious magic associated with the worship of Dionysus. The golden age of Athenian Drama (the 5th and 4th centuries BC) saw the emergence of the genres of Tragedy and Comedy and the production of the great works of Aeschylus (c. 525–456 BC), Sophocles (c. 496–406 BC), and Euripides (c. 484–406 BC). Aristophanes (c. 448–385 BC) was the greatest comic playwright. The most important development of the later 4th century was the emergence of the New Comedy of Menander. Although the Athenian tradition was in serious decline by about 300 BC, its influence had already spread to other parts of the Mediterranean world.

The first Greek plays were performed in a circular dancing area known as an orchestra. Later a raised stage was added behind this area while a tent (Skene) behind the stage functioned as both a stage set and a dressing room. Scenery became more elaborate and such devices as the ekkyklema and the mechane for the Deus Ex Machina were added during the 5th century.

The influence of Greek theatre persists in the manifold translations, adaptations, and updatings that have appeared since the Renaissance. It also appears in numerous major and minor conventions of the Western stage; the issuing of a ticket (metal token) for each seat, and the habit of applauding to denote approval, and whistling to express disapproval were all originally Greek customs.

Ancient Greek Drama in the Twentieth Century In Britain and the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, classical theatre meant almost exclusively the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In his projected renewal of the theatre the leading interpreter of Shakespeare, Harley Granville Barker, saw no real future for Greek plays. But this was also a period in which traditional classical education, of which Greek drama formed a central part, was more widespread and prestigious than it later became. Since then, whereas production of Greek drama has moved from a peripheral to a much more central (albeit somewhat uncertain) place in the classical repertoire, the study of the plays themselves as texts has, in the educational and cultural sphere, moved in the opposite direction. Inherent in this dual process is the progressive detachment of production from classical education. Such productions and play readings as did occur at the beginning of the century were still to a large extent associated with the schools and universities. It is no accident that the dominant figure was a professor of Greek, Gilbert Murray (1866–1957). His personal enthusiasm for production, and the immense popularity of his translations of tragedy, represent a partially successful attempt to take Greek drama outside the confines of the academic world. On the other hand, the translations seem from a later perspective hopelessly unsuitable for production, with their high-flown late Victorian poetic diction and their scant sense of the visual dimension of the Greek theatre. It was as a result of developments within modernism around the time of the First World War that the situation began to change. The poets Pound, Yeats and Eliot were all, for different reasons, interested in Greek tragedy. In Ireland, Yeats’s interest and his translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex led to a notable production by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1927; and in Britain, Eliot’s attack on Murray’s translations played an important role in opening up the originals to contemporary writers no longer encumbered by the rhetoric of a dead poetic tradition and with a better understanding of theatrical practicalities. Eliot’s own plays were heavily influenced by Greek tragedy, and so assisted its integration into the tradition. In this respect Eliot was not a solitary figure. In the United States the monumental efforts of Eugene O’Neill to develop modern tragedy in plays like Mourning Becomes Electra and The Iceman Cometh were saturated with the values and assumptions of the ancient models, and had the same effect of encouraging audiences and practitioners to see the plays as part of a living theatrical language accessible to writers and producers alike. In both countries, however, the lack of publicly subsidized major theatre companies was a handicap to the development of productions of the original plays themselves. The infrequent opportunities to see them depended, in Britain, on the efforts of enlightened managers such as Annie Horniman with her Manchester Company, who gave the young Sybil Thorndike a notable opportunity to play Hecuba and Medea in the early 1920s. But even these companies, of which Lilian Baylis’s Old Vic was the most prominent before the Second World War, found it very difficult to integrate Greek drama within the normal repertoire. Baylis’s dedication to the work of bringing Shakespeare within the orbit of a new theatre-going public led to the complete neglect of ancient drama in the prewar Old Vic; and it was not until 1945 that Laurence Olivier played his outstanding Oedipus there, in Yeats’s translation of Sophocles.

The developments within contemporary poetry and drama had not been the only influence on the production of ancient drama. The Greek plays no longer seemed to belong to the classical scholars, but the manner of their production continued to be influenced (albeit indirectly) by academic work, which was itself rapidly changing. Two of the various factors deserve emphasis. The first is the new interest created by archaeological rediscovery of evidence for ancient production (costume, masks, gesture, etc.), and in particular of the ancient open-air theatres themselves. This has contributed to the recent widespread recognition, in literary and scholarly interpretation of the plays, that the visual dimension must not be ignored. Interest in the original conditions of production accompanied the establishment in 1932 of the Greek National Theatre, which began to produce the plays, with a success that continues to this day, in the ancient theatres themselves, especially renovated for the purpose. The company’s 1939 tour to London was influential, in particular the production of Sophocles’ Electra with Katina Paxinou in the title role. Equally successful were their tours nearly 30 years later in the World Theatre Seasons at the Aldwych Theatre, with tragedies and comedies directed by Karolos Koun. The gradual rediscovery of the theatricality of what had for centuries been disembodied texts extended even to an influence on the design of modern theatres. The abolition of the proscenium arch and the development of the modern thrust stage has led theatre architects to re-examine the design precepts of the Greek theatres to find what is relevant to modern design problems. Perhaps the most notable example of this influence is the Olivier auditorium of the National Theatre in London, which is directly based on the proportions of the theatre at Epidauros. The second important respect in which production has been indirectly influenced by academic progress is one element in a gradual, basic shift in our perception of Greek culture as a whole. The Victorian concept of Greek society as a pure and rational source of moral, political and aesthetic values was from the beginning of the century being gradually subverted by a more historical perspective. The work of the Cambridge school, which explored the close relationship of Greek drama to ritual, acquired a social and political dimension in the work of Professor George Thomson, which has had an influence well beyond the academic world. Thomson combined various disciplines, notably archaeology and anthropology, to relate the development of Attic tragedy out of ritual to the transition of Attica from a tribal society to a democratic state. The idea of drama as an expression of fundamental social change may have been particularly attractive in periods of political turmoil (and stories from Greek drama have been revisited by playwrights as diverse as Hauptmann, Cocteau, Brecht, Sartre and Anouilh as well as practitioners of alternative theatre such as the Living Theater). But the conversion of Greek drama from a merely aesthetic to a social product has had an enduring appeal. For example, the recognition that the alien quality of Greek drama derives from a society fundamentally different from our own has perhaps facilitated the success in Britain of such recent non-European adaptations as the Nigerian Wole Soyinka’s Bacchae (1973), Lee Breuer’s black gospel music version of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (1983), and the Japanese Ninagawa company’s Medea (1985). This range of idiom is one symptom of a general increase in the number and variety of productions of Greek drama in the last decades of the century, which saw some notable work (e.g. by Peter Stein, Andrei Serban and Ariane Mnouchkine). This has extended even to occasional productions of Aristophanes, an author whose grotesque rumbustiousness may have had an influence on some drama of the 1960s (Joe Orton, for example, was a devotee of Aristophanes), but whose comedies are notoriously difficult to produce – at least in the English-speaking world; the visit to London of Koun’s production of the Acharnians provided a splendid glimpse of the Greeks’ gift for beautifully controlled anarchy. One obstacle was removed by the abolition in 1968 of the Lord Chamberlain’s Censorship in 1968, which allowed full exploitation of the obscenity which is one of the more accessible features of Aristophanes for a modern audience. However, tragedy has continued to predominate. Notable productions have included two ambitious attempts to combine more than one tragedy in a single performance: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s cycle The Greeks (1979) and the National Theatre’s Oresteia (1981). These productions represent the culmination of a 60-year progress of ancient Greek drama from the margins of professional theatre to its central institutions. They also represent diametrically opposed approaches. The Greeks was deliberately modernistic, using new versions of the plots written largely by John Barton, and no attempt was made to simulate ancient conditions or technique; whereas the Oresteia used masks, music, formal chorus procedures, an all-male cast and a concentration on formality and ritual, in conscious imitation of the original techniques of production. Both approaches, inevitably, had their admirers and detractors, but of more importance to the future of Greek drama in production was the fact that both productions were enormous box-office successes. Such a public response seems to justify optimism for the future of Greek drama in the theatre. Recent years have also seen the establishment at Oxford University of an archive for modern productions of ancient drama. Granville Barker’s gloomy prognostications have finally been dispelled.

Jonathan Law, ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011); Richard Seaford, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).