Before Ancient Greece, history is obscure and evidence is scanty. People didn’t really start writing things down and recording events and commentary until the Ancient Greeks came back from their Dark Age (1100 – 800 BC) and got on their way to their Golden Age. And wow, what a golden age that was! Never before in recorded history had people been so enthusiastic about art, philosophy, and theater.
Much of today’s western culture can be traced to the ancient Greeks. Democracy, pottery, flush toilets, poetry, architecture, and of course, theater are some examples. The roots of drama, satire, and comedy – elements which today often emerge from modern Hollywood productions – have their origins in the theater of Ancient Greece. Grab some souvlakis and get ready for a blast to the past.
Who Were the Ancient Greeks?
Even with all the evidence we have, the ancient Greeks are still paradoxical to us. Who were they? On the one hand, they were pioneers of democracy and the concept of citizenship. But on the other, they were always at war and they squandered countless lives and resources on fighting each other. They were masters of logic and learning. But many of them attributed much of what was going on in the natural world to incomprehensible divine activity.
They were luminaries in criminal justice and women’s rights, but their economies were held together by slavery. Even with all we know through their writings and archaeological evidence, the true nature of the ancient Greeks still holds a lot of mystery. One thing, if nothing else, is sure though: they loved the theater and the performative arts. Modern cinema would not be what it is today without the rich foundations the ancient Greeks laid.
Welcome to the Cinema in 500 – 300 BC
When we talk about the Golden Age of Ancient Greece, we are talking about the Athenians. True, the Spartans are also fabled and very popular, but it’s the Athenians who were such meticulous writers and performers. At Athens, the theater was located (and still is) on the slopes of the Acropolis. This structure, which was sacred to the god Dionysus, could fit around 14,000 people, and it has a slightly raised stage at the bottom
Going to the theater to see a performance is a far cry from the modern-day cinematic experience. Plays were staged in the middle of the day since visibility relied on natural light. There were no speakers or microphones, so actors – all men – needed to rely on their voices and the architecture of the theater to be seen and heard. They used loud sounds, emotive masks, and extravagant body gestures.
The main genres of plays featured in the ancient Greek theater were tragedy, comedy, and satire. Themes often focused on issues of life, death, politics, war, and the deeply troubled relationships between gods and men. Interestingly, though women in Ancient Greece did not hold significant power in the political sphere, many Greek plays portrayed women in empowered positions.
During the Peloponnesian Wars in the 5th century BC, things weren’t looking good for Athens. People were poor, resources more scarce, and lots of men never came home after going off to war. Athenians were fed up. Some plays, particularly those of Sophocles, composer of the famous Antigone, were super critical of the government and its policies. This says something about free speech in Athens. Don’t try that 1200 years later in Medieval Europe; you won’t last long!