Greek Drama

The Golden Age of Greek drama saw playwrights including Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides all writing, and you can still see their plays performed at the ancient theatre at Epidavros.

A Night Performance at EpidavrosA Night Performance at Epidavros

Ancient Greece was the birthplace of modern drama. The 5th century BC, known as the Golden Age of Pericles (after the great Athenian statesman), was a time when the arts, architecture, and politics all flourished in Athens, with the dramatic arts high on the agenda.

The very word 'drama' derives from the Greek verb for 'to do', and the dramatic form developed in the 6th century BC from an acting out of stories or songs. It is thought that drama originally derived from a choral tradition in which choirs would sing hymns in honour of the gods - but hymns that included some kind of narrative or story. On one occasion, a choral leader named Thespis (hence the word 'thespian' for an actor) stepped out from the chorus and began to make the hymns more dramatic and active.

The Chorus

The chorus remained an essential part of early Greek plays. The chorus was made up of a group of observers who interpreted and commented upon the action as it unfolded, as if the audience could not understand it for themselves. The plays were written in verse and alternated the performance of scenes with choral interjections. Gradually, as the art developed and the possibilities of drama were explored more, the chorus became less important.

The works of many of the playwrights from those ancient times are still performed all around the world - and during the summer season in an original setting at the magnificent old theatre at Epidavros, as well as in Athens at the Herodes Atticus Theatre (see below).

Epidavros Theatre in GreeceEpidavros

Aeschylus

Three writers dominated the developing drama of tragedy in ancient Greece: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Aeschylus (circa 525-456 BC) introduced a dramatic feature that might seem simple and obvious to us today but was revolutionary at the time: a second character on the stage. Until then, all plays had been monologues, the telling of tales in the tradition of Homer. With Aeschylus, poetry and drama began to mingle.

Aeschylus drew on his experiences as an Athenian soldier (he fought at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, for example), especially in plays such as The Persians and Seven Against Thebes. The best-known of his works that have come down to us are Prometheus Bound, which is the only surviving part of what was originally a trilogy, and the Oresteia, a complete trilogy about the doomed family of Agamemnon.

Sophocles

One of Aeschylus's great rivals was Sophocles (circa 496-405 BC), another Athenian tragedian. The innovation which Sophocles introduced was to go one better than Aeschylus and have a third character on stage. This increased the dramatic possibilities, and at the same time Sophocles began to play down the previously important commentary role performed by the chorus. In short, Sophocles wanted to let the action speak for itself.

The greatest of his seven major surviving works is undoubtedly Oedipus Rex, a masterwork from any age of drama, let alone from an art form still in its infancy. His other well-known works include Antigone and Electra

Euripides

The third towering figure of those days is Euripides (circa 480-406 BC), who devised much more intricate plots than his predecessors had, and allowed his characters to speak with much more natural dialogue. The technique brought him much criticism at the time, but it was clearly a breakthrough in the development of drama.

The most famous works of Euripides include Medea, The Bacchae, and his version of the Electra story (it's not known whether Sophocles or Euripides wrote their version first). All three of these dramas, and some others from the almost twenty that survive, are performed today. Euripides was an early example of an artist whose works became even more popular after his death than when he was alive.

Aristophanes

But it wasn't all tragedy during this period. Many humorous and satirical plays were also being written during this great Athenian golden age. Another Athenian, Aristophanes (circa 450-385 BC), was the outstanding playwright in this genre. Humour usually has the shortest of shelf lives, but the plays of Aristophanes, including The Birds and The Frogs (in which he spoofs his fellow dramatist Euripides), continue to be performed all over the world.

However, Aristophanes' most famous comedy, with a theme that has been borrowed again and again down the ages, is Lysistrata. In this comedy, wives refuse to sleep with their husbands until they agree to stop waging war.

The dramatic art was treated as seriously in historic times as it is today, and the first work of literary criticism, Poetics, was written by Aristotle in the 4th century BC.

See a Play at Epidavros

Most visitors to Epidavros see it during the day, when the site's ancient theatre is empty apart from the visitors wandering around. The setting is spectacular at any time, but it's much better if you can also see the theatre used as it was intended to be, for the staging of drama.

If you're staying nearby, or in Athens or in Nafplion, then it makes it easy to attend plays during the Hellenic Festival, held each summer. Modern plays are staged as well as ancient Greek classics, and theatre companies might include such illustrious names as the National Theatre of Greece and the National Theatre of Great Britain. Sometimes productions of opera and dance are also held here.

Tickets can be bought at Epidavros itself, or at the festival's box office arcade in Athens (Panepistimiou 39, Syntagma metro stop). If you don't have your own transport, don't worry. Festival-goers can take one of the special buses that are laid on from both Athens and Nafplion to Epidavros, and, Greeks being Greeks, the festival spirits gets started as soon as people step on board.

A second venue at Epidavros, the lesser-known Ancient Epidavros Little Theatre (dating from the 4th century BC when these famous playwrights were alive), also stages events during the festival. However, it is a much smaller venue than the main theatre so if you want to see a play on the main Epidavros stage, check when booking.

You might also like these pages...

  • The Icon Painter

    Icon painting is a centuries-old tradition in Crete and the rest of Greece, and Greece Travel Secrets meets a modern-day icon painter in Elounda on Crete.

  • Photos of Greece

    Greece Travel Secrets found these beautiful photos of Greece and the Greek islands by Athens-based photographer Milan Gonda.

  • Homer and the Odyssey

    Did Homer write The Odyssey and The Iliad, and what is known about the life of this famous Greek writer, when did he live, where was he born, and was he blind?

  • Great Greek Poets: Cavafy, Sappho, George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis

    There are many great Greek poets, with two authors winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and names include Sappho, Cavafy, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis.

  • Greek Literature

    Greek literature has influenced the world, from the works of Homer, called the world's first novelist, through its great poets and dramatists to modern authors.

  • Cretan Writers and Artists

    The most famous Cretan writers and artists include the painter El Greco and the author of Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis.

Latest Posts

  1. Greece Looking to Open to Travelers from the United States

    The United States is one of the markets that Greece is eyeing to form a travel arrangement that will open up tourism between the two countries this year.

    Read More

  2. Restaurants in Greece Expected to Re-open for Outdoor Service After Easter

    Restaurants and other food and beverage (F&B) establishments in Greece will most likely be allowed to re-open and serve customers initially outdoors after the Easter holiday, Greek Deputy Development…

    Read More

  3. Norwegian Cruise Line to Sail the Greek Islands in July

    Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. is planning to restart operations this summer with sailings to the Caribbean and the Greek islands.

    Read More

  4. Greeks and Tourists will Abide by Same Covid-19 Rules, Says Tourism Minister

    Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis on Monday clarified that any safety and health rules that apply to Greek citizens – such as mandatory mask wearing and social distancing – will also apply to tourists…

    Read More

  5. Celestyal Getting Ready to Offer Safe Cruise Experiences from May

    Celestyal Cruises is speeding up procedures for the restart of sailings on May 29, aiming to provide its guests with carefree holidays to the Greek islands and the Eastern Mediterranean.

    Read More

  6. Greece will Open for Tourism with ‘Five Lines of Defence’ Against Covid-19

    Greek Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis said Greece has set up five lines of defence against the coronavirus (Covid-19) in order to open for tourism safely this year.

    Read More

  7. Greece Unsure About Easing Lockdown Measures for Easter

    Greek Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister Akis Skertsos on Monday told SKAI radio that it is “too soon” to discuss if lockdown restrictions would be eased in Greece in time for the Easter holiday. T…

    Read More

  8. Piraeus Port Authority to Create New Park, Bike Lane

    The Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) has announced plans to undertake the construction of a new playground and a bicycle lane at the port of Piraeus.

    Read More

  9. Culture Ministry: Summer Operating Hours for Archaeological Sites, Museums

    The Ministry of Culture has announced the summer operating hours of archaeological sites and museums across Greece. According to a ministry announcement, the opening hours of archaeological sites, mon…

    Read More

  10. The Guardian Selects 10 Crowd-free Greek Islands and Coastlines

    The Guardian recently announced its selection of 10 crowd-free Greek islands and coastlines that can offer travelers “a taste of true Greek culture”. According to the British newspaper, with the end o…

    Read More