The National Theatre’s Introduction to Greek Theatre

In 2013, the UK’s National Theatre put together an online exhibit of their productions of Greek theatre.

To accompany that exhibit, Chloe White assembled and directed a series of brief documentaries. These short films are available for viewing on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel.

The chorus from Aristophanes The Birds

The chorus from Aristophanes The Birds

These videos are fun to watch and an excellent though very brief introduction to Greek theatre. They were not intended to be an in-depth documentary – rather to stimulate the viewer’s curiosity to come see the plays and perhaps do a bit more research on their own.

In An Introduction to Greek Theatre, we have the speakers Professor Edith Hall of King’s College, Dr. Laura Swift of The Open University and Dr. Sean McEvoy of Varndean College.

Topics covered, albeit briefly, are:

  • The plays: tragedy, comedy and satyr plays. Only about 30 tragedies and eleven comedies from this era still exist
  • The playwrights: 3 tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes and one comedy writer – Aristophanes
  • The theatre – open air, built into the side of a hill
  • Masks – all the actors wore masks. 3 actors who did all the speaking parts, and up to 12 actors who were the chorus
  • The chorus – singing and dancing young men (only males were allowed on stage)

Introduction to Greek Theatre

In An Introduction to Greek Comedy and Satyr Drama, the same speakers expand on Greek comedy, with the addition of Professor Alan Sommerstein from the University of Nottingham.

The plays were performed once of year during the Festival of Dionysus.  Three tragedy plays Рor comedy plays Рwould be performed one after the other, and then a satyr play to cheer everyone up before they went home. Only one satyr play still exists.

The comedies were typically political farces in which “anything goes,” and because they were on stage, the writer and actors were not punished for “sending up” the politicians of the day. The stage was a “safe space.”

An Introduction to Greek Comedy and Satyr Drama

In An Introduction to Greek Tragedy, we have Professor Hall, Dr. Swift and Dr. McEvoy.

“Greek tragedy does one particular thing, and that is look suffering and human misery directly in the face. It can’t stare it down, but it stares at it. No other art form is so unflinching about it.”

  • Tragic structure – studied by Aristotle
  • Death – never to see the sun again
  • Structure – prologue, chorus, plot
  • Impact of Greek tragedy on modern day theatre
  • The audience – catharsis

An Introduction to Greek Tragedy

The National Theatre has produced a few more brief documentaries on Greek theatre since then. Modern Interpretations of Greek Chorus was produced in 2014.

The speakers are Dr. Lucy Jackson of Kings College, director Katie Mitchell (Women of Troy). Helen McCrory (who played Medea), Carrie Cracknell (director of Medea), Polly Findley (director  of Antigone).

  • Windows into other worlds – in ancient times there was no scenery, so the chorus explains the setting
  • Music and movement
  • The chorus as individuals
  • Chorus as stereotype

Modern Interpretations of Greek Chorus

Ancient Greece was a patriarchal society that did not value women (mysogynistic, in fact), so it’s ironic that of the surviving tragedies and comedies, the main female characters (played by men at this time) are very powerful.

In addition to Dr. Lucy Jackson of Kings College, we hear dramaturg Ben Power.

  • The importance of women in Athenian culture – producing children and running religious festivals. The tension between recognizing that women are important, and needing to control them.
  • Marginalized female characters – “it’s from the oppressed voices,¬† people who are trying to strike back against power, that the best stories can come.”
  • Women as “the other”

Women in Greek Theatre

Click on this link to view a playlist of brief videos of the National Theatre’s productions of Antigone, the Oresteia, and Baachai.


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