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Theatre Origins and Ancient Greek Theatre Notes

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Period 1 2 3 5 7 8
Ancient Theatre History Cornell Notes
Directions: After you read over the notes in the section on the right, use the column on the left to summarize in
the form of questions about the material, main ideas, or do a quick illustration that summarizes it. Aim for 10-15
summaries total; at least one per number below.
My Summaries (Questions, Main
Ideas,or Illustrations)
Prehistorical Origins of Theatre
1. You could argue that all theatre comes from at least one of the following
a. Theatre could have begun with religious rituals that eventually lost their
meaning (ex: Abydos Passion Play, City Dionysia Festival)
b. Mimetic Impulse Theory (ex: Stanislavski and Method Acting)
Mimetic= Imitation.
Impulse= Desire
Aristotle said that humans enjoy imitating things, persons, and
actions, and watching those imitations helps humans think about
themselves and the world.
c. Theatre is a result of fantasy (ex: Musicals, Shakespeare)
Humans create fiction to objectify their problems and deal with
them or escape from them. Western civilization begins
Theatre as A Performance Art
2. First recorded origins of live theatre were in Ancient Egypta. When a Pharaoh was crowned, rituals were performed that reenacted the
death and resurrection of Osiris and his son, Horus becoming king.
b. The most important one of these that we know about today is the A
​ bydos
Passion Play​. The text of the play does not survive, but the plot was
recorded by observers:
Osiris (son of Earth and Sky) succeeds his father as the ruler of the
earth, but his brother Set is jealous and kills him, burying his body
parts all over the land.
Osiris’ wife (and sister, ew!) Isis finds the body and with the help of
Anubis, revives him, but he can no longer stay on the earth.
Osiris is buried in Abydos and returns to the underworld to become
the judge of all souls.
Horus, his son, defeats Set, and becomes pharaoh.
Greece: The Birthplace of Western Civilization
3. 508 BCE- Greece becomes the world’s first Democracy
a. They had defeated Persian invaders and outlasted the Spartans,
making Athens the main city in the Mediterranean for the next 100
years or so.
b. Athens becomes the center of art, government, and culture.
c. Becomes a very wealthy and powerful nation, building structures of
cultural importance
4. Religion and Culturea. Greek gods were viewed as humanlike-- fallible, easily swayed, but
also subject to Fate. Therefore, Greeks believed that Fate made all
things uncertain.
b. Greeks were also increasingly skeptical and questioning of religion
and concerned with humanity.
c. “Man is the measure of all things.” -Protagoras
d. They believed that humans are amazing and complex, but the Fates
still control the world, so they wrote t​ ragedies​ that remind people of
life’s uncertainty.
5. Architecture
a. Theatron-​ “Seeing Place”;
space that could hold
14,000-17,000 spectators
b. Orchestra-​ “Dancing Place”;
performance space that
was over 60 feed in
c. Parados-​ entrance/exit for
actors and audience
d. Skene-​ “hut” or “tent”;
building with at least one
door on it that served as a
backstage area for
performers, storage for
needed items, and as a
background for the performances
6. City Dionysia Festival (Athens)
a. The First “Official” Theatre Event
b. First recorded in 534 BCE
c. This was a five day long, state-sponsored contest with a prize at the
end for the best playwright (and later, best actor).
d. Originally, the festival started out as a series of hymns performed by
a chorus called d
​ ithyrambs​. Dithyrambs were songs and dances
performed in honor of Dionysus, the god of fertility, wine and revelry.
e. Things changed when an actor/writer named Thespis, the leader of
his chorus, stepped away and gave himself a bigger part and played
a character other than himself. Thespis is credited with being the
first actor
i. The Greek word for actor is ​hypokrites​, meaning “interpreter”
or answerer”. Thespis was “answering” and responding to the
7. The First Playwrights
a. For the City Dionysia contest, writers had to write three tragedies
and one satyr play (a rude comedy about the gods that made the
audience happy after the three tragedies).
b. The ONLY surviving works are from “The Big Three”:
Aeschylus- won the contest 13 times;
Known for adding a second actor in the tragic episodes
Sophocles- won the contest 24 times; writer of O
​ edipus
Known for introducing a third actor in the tragedies, and also
fixing the size of the chorus at 15.
Euripides- won the contest 4 times but became more popular
after his death;
Known for using controversial themes and topics, but he also
made the dialogue and characterization more realistic.
8. Tragedy
a. Origin and Definition: Comes from the word t​ ragoidia​, which means
“goat song,” because it was believed that goats were sacrificed at
one point in the festival.
b. Aristotle said tragedy should be
“an ​imitation​ of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain
“with incidents arousing pity and fear, to accomplish its c
​ atharsis​ of
such emotions.”
1. Catharsis- Purging of emotion, usually in the form of crying or
screaming, with clear thought as a result
c. Structure and Plot
Prologue- provided exposition/background
Parados-​ Chorus entered, further establishing the exposition and
setting the mood.
3-6 tragic episodes in which the main character learns of his fate
Exodus-​ Exit of the chorus
d. All “action” is offstage- commonly a messenger character conveyed the
bloody events
e. Unity of time and place- The events of the play take place in one day and in
one location.
9. The Greek Chorus
a. a group of 12-15 male performers who provided several important
Interacted with the actors as characters
Gave advice, opinions, and asked questions of the other main
Established the moral definitions of the play
Reacted as an “ideal spectator” to whatever was happening with the
Created a mood, and provided movement and spectacle that
delighted the audience
Broke up the pace of the tragic episodes
10. Acting in Greek Tragedy
a. No women were allowed on stage, so men played all of the roles.
b. Actor training was focused almost completely on the voice, so it was more
like training for an opera. The voices were loud, clear, and resonant, but not
necessarily realistic.
c. Movements were simple but broad to convey to a large audience.
d. The actors wore large masks that suggested the character, as well as
tunics and cloaks and platform shoes to make them look larger than life.