Ancient Theater

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Study Guide

Background and Context

  1. What was the City Dionysia? What year did it first occur? What time during the year? Where was it held? What happened there? How many plays did each poet contribute? What time did performances begin, and what performances would an audience have seen? When was comedy introduced? What else did you learn about these festivals, of which the City Dionysia is the largest and most famous?
  2. The City Dionysia wasn't just a festival of plays; it was also a significant “civic spectacle” with an important function in the political life of ancient Greece. In what ways was the City Dionysia “part of the setting-up of democracy”? In what ways is drama, more broadly, a “civic spectacle”? In what ways is theater associated with the Greek “empire”? Questions 1 and 2 Taplin addresses throughout the essay.
  3. What were the precursors to (and prerequisites of) tragedy? In what ways does tragedy differ from these precursors? What is the relationship between epic and tragedy? What, in particular, needed to occur in order for tragedy to exist?
  4. Do we have a very clear picture of ancient Greek theatre? What kinds of things don't we know? How do we know what we do know?
  5. Succinctly define the following terms and their significance in the history of theatre:
    1. drama
    2. chorus
    3. aulos
    4. kommos
    5. choregos
    6. theatron
    7. orchestra
    8. skene
    9. satyr play
    10. komoidia
    11. perabasis

The Material Theatre

  1. In a tragedy, how many actors were there? How many masks? How many people in the chorus? Did tragic actors also play comic roles, and vice versa? When did actors become celebrities in ancient Greece?
  2. How did the choruses in tragedy and comedy differ? What was the role of the chorus in each form?
  3. Describe tragic, comic, and choral masks. What is the significance of the mask for the drama?
  4. Describe tragic, comic, and choral costumes. In general, what are the differences between tragic and comic costumes? In particular?
  5. Describe the ancient Greek theatrical space. How many people did it hold? What did it require of the actors—how does it shape the way the drama was performed? How did it shape the way the drama was received by the audience?
  6. Who would have been in the audience at an ancient Greek play? What does this tell us about the civic body of ancient Greece?
  7. Why was Dionysus a “particularly suitable patron-god” for theatre?


  1. What, in general, are central themes in tragedy? What are its key, defining features? The answers to this question can be found throughout the chapter—keep in mind that often comedy and tragedy are defined through one another, so you might find some useful information in that section, too!
  2. Why, according to Taplin, did so many tragedies feature women and “gender conflict”?
  3. Who are the major tragic playwrights of ancient Greece, and how is the work of each characterized and differentiated from the others? Which plays became representative of each? When did they write? What else do we know about them?


  1. In what ways does comedy “presuppose” tragedy?
  2. In what ways is comedy “metatheatrical”?
  3. When did Aristophanes write? Is he a representative of old comedy or new comedy?
  4. What are the key, defining features of comedy? The answers to this question, as above, will be found throughout the chapter, so keep this question in mind as you read. You might also consider what the relationship is between tragedy and comedy.
  5. Who were the “Artists of Dionysus”?
  6. What are the differences between old and new comedy? Who is our surviving representative of new comedy?
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