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.
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 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).
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.
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
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.
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.