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Classics Teaching Resources

The three kinds of Greek play

  1. Tragedy

    A tragedy is a serious play. The Greek word 'tragoidia' means 'goat-song,' so tragedy may have begun as a song sung at the sacrifice of a goat. Almost all tragedies were based on Greek myths.

    Tragedies by three great writers (called 'tragedians') of the fifth century BC still exist. The tragedians are Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

    In the earliest tragedies the songs ('odes') sung by the Chorus were the longest and most important part. In between the songs were 'episodes' when the actors spoke. In later tragedies the Chorus became less important and the actors more important. Before the first Chorus song was a Prologue. So the shape of a tragedy was often something like this:

    Prologue spoken by one actor.
    Chorus enters singing. This is called the 'parodos.'
    Episodes and Chorus songs.
    'Exodos' (the scene after the last song of the Chorus).

    At the City Dionysia each tragedian put on three tragedies and a satyr play on one day.

  2. Satyr Plays

    A satyr play was a short play based on a Greek myth. It was not solemn or serious, and came as light relief after the three tragedies. The Chorus dressed up as satyrs, half men and half animals.

    Only one complete satyr play exists. It is by Euripides and is called Cyclops. There are parts of another satyr play by Sophocles called Trackers.

  3. Comedy

    The only comedies that we have from the fifth century BC are by Aristophanes.

    Comedies were mainly performed in January at a festival called the Lenaia, though there were comedies at the City Dionysia as well. There were 24 men in the chorus.

    Aristophanes' comedies begin with a 'happy idea', like two men leaving Athens to go and live among the birds, or Dionysus and his slave going down to the land of the dead to bring back a great poet, or a farmer flying up to heaven to fetch Peace down to earth. After the Chorus has entered, there is usually a big argument, and the chorus often comes forward to talk to the audience and give Aristophanes' views on things. The second half of the play has lots of short funny scenes based on the 'happy idea.' Everything ends happily for the hero.

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