Ancient Greek Dramatic Festivals

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes wrote their plays in verse for an annual five- or six-day spring festival of dramatic competition called the Great (or City) Dionysia and dedicated to Dionysus.

Three tragedians competed at the festival, each presenting three tragedies and a satyr play (a tetralogy) over the course of a day; five comedians each presented one play on the last day of the festival. The playwrights not only wrote and acted in their plays, they also directed and rehearsed the other actors. This involvement in all aspects of production earned them the name didaskaloi—teachers—since they taught the plays to the rest of their companies.

The plays and later the actors were judged by ten men, one chosen by lot from each of the administrative districts of Athens and sworn to impartiality. The winning playwright and actor each earned a place in the following year’s festival.

Men performed the tragedies. Actors played the named roles and twelve or fifteen men sang and danced the part of the chorus; all wore costumes and masks, which covered their whole faces and head. The playwright was also probably the first and, at first, the only actor, in dialogue with his chorus. At some point someone added a second actor (Aristotle gives Aeschylus the credit), and then, by 458 b.c.e., a third (the addition of which is traditionally said to be an innovation of Sophocles).

In the Randolph College Greek Play, as in the ancient Greek plays, we use as few actors as possible for the named roles, our choruses sing and dance, and we perform in full helmet masks.