Ancient Greek theatre probably began as a religious ceremony for Dionysus, the god of wine, sexuality, agriculture and fertility. The religious ceremonies evolved later into plays. When attending a play, a Greek audience could expect three elements. The play would begin with a prologue or speech that introduced the context of the action to come. Then the chorus would enter. The chorus was a big part of the ancient Greek theatre; in verse, the chorus would continue to set the stage for the play and narrate sometimes throughout. The third part was the acts and scenes. Ancient Greek plays relied on bright colours and costumes. There were two genres, comedy and tragedy.
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Costumes and Masks
The costumes and masks used in the ancient Greek plays were elaborate works of art. The masks were made of carved, lightweight wood or sculpted paper mache. The masks were individual to each character and denoted gender. They were also used to express emotion to the audience. The costumes were colourful and reflected the gender, economic standing and occupation of each character.
Comedy can be divided into two periods, the old and new. Old comedy was episodic, meaning the action in the play would change in terms of time and place. These plays often made fun of politicians and their actions and other local officials. Aristophanes is considered one of the great playwrights of the old Greek comedy style because of his satirical attacks on politicians. New comedy was more romantic in theme and more literary than satirical.
Tragedy was the first genre of ancient Greek plays. These plays usually depicted the struggles of a tragic hero who perishes in the end. Tragedies involved love, loss, the abuse of power and the dangers of pride. They also were used as satires to make fun of politicians who were abusing their power or who were unpopular.
All the actors in the ancient Greek theatre were men, who played both the male and female roles. Women were allowed to attend the theatre, but it was not considered an appropriate place for high society women to be seen. Because of this, most of the women in the audience for these all-day events were either slaves or courtesans.
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