non sibi sed toti

Classics Teaching Resources

The Actors

The Three Actors

Most ancient Greek plays were performed by a chorus and only three actors. There were often other people on stage who did not speak.

The first of the three actors was called the 'protagonist.' He played the most important character in the play. Sometimes he played other parts as well. Each actor wore different masks to show which character he was playing.

The second of the actors was called the 'deuteragonist.' He often played several different parts.

The third of the actors was called the 'tritagonist.' He played the least important parts.

Although there were only three actors, there might be many different characters in a play, because each actor could play more than one character. Can you work out why there could never be more than three speaking characters on stage at the same time?

All the actors were men. Discover the place of women in Greek plays.

How actors began

The earliest plays that we still have today were performed by the chorus and just two actors.

Before that, there were plays that were performed by a chorus and only one actor. The first actor that we know about was called Thespis. Thespis invented the idea of an actor to introduce a play, and help the chorus tell the story, by speaking with the chorus leader. We know that Thespis won the prize in the very first drama competition, which was held in Athens in about 534 BC. Some people said that Thespis invented masks. Even today, actors are sometimes called 'thespians' meaning followers of Thespis.

The writer Aeschylus Aeschylus, who was born in 525 BC and died in 456 BC, added a second actor in his plays. That made conversations between the characters possible.

A younger writer, SophoclesSophocles (born about 496 BC, died 406 BC), added a third actor. Now there could be conversations between three people.

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