Classical Theater History

By: Lauren Hufford

I love theater and new, exciting things happening around the world on stage, but I am also a huge nerd about Greek and Latin. I am a Latin major here at Western Michigan University in addition to working at Miller Auditorium, so I feel a little honor bound to talk about the start of what we consider Western theater.

For ancient Greeks, spoken word had so much more weight and importance compared to written word that even the classical Greek philosopher, Socrates believed that once something was written down, it lost its ability for change and growth. This made it very easy for the Greek culture to accept theater as a form of storytelling and praise to the gods. Some of the earliest record we have of Greek theater, is a tragedy competition and festival for Dionysus – the god of wine and fertility – starting in 508 BC.



Until the Hellenistic period – from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the beginning of the Roman Empire in 31 BC – all tragedies were unique pieces written in the honor of Dionysus and were played only once. We primarily only have pieces from this era that were still remembered well enough to have been repeated when the repetition of old tragedies became popular. Accidents of survival and the preferences of Hellenistic librarians played a large role, as well, in limiting the amount of classical Greek theater we have access to now.

Now, as for Roman theater, a lot of the traditions and qualities are similar to, if not the same as, Greek traditions, because it was largely shaped by Greek theater. In 270-240 BC, there was a huge expansion of Romans into Greek territories. Also during this time was a devastating plague in 364 BC. Both of these things influenced the addition of theatrical performances to Roman public ceremonies in order to appease the gods (and hopefully stop any more plagues).

In 240 BC, during the largest public ceremony held during the year, Ludi Romani, Livius Adronicus became the first playwright to translate and create a performance of Greek plays on a Roman stage. I think this is really interesting because Ludi Romani was a celebration of the god Jupiter – the Roman equivalent of the Greek Zeus. My question is, why incorporate Greek writings into a Roman festival about the most important god? I don’t really have an answer for you, I just think that it is a really risky move.

pic2Early Greek and Roman theater was not what we would think of as traditional theater – plays, musicals; tragedies, comedies; and everything in between. The practice began as mostly dance and song storytelling. It didn’t fully evolve into what we think of as a play – filled with dialogue and action – until after the Third Macedonian War (171-168 BC) where Rome defeated Macedon, a Greek kingdom. This greatly increased Roman exposure to Greek literary drama which in turn influenced the theater that was portrayed although Romans actively decided to use the dominant local language, Latin, instead of Greek in these new productions. These productions eventually became the primary means for citizens to express their political emotions.

Sorry about going full-on nerd there for a bit, but I just really like Greco-Roman history. So now you know a very brief synopsis of how Western theater got started!

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