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Classics Teaching Resources

The Audience

When did they see plays?

Ancient Athenians could watch plays probably only twice a year, at the festivals held to honour the god Dionysus called The City Dionysia in late March, and the Lenaea in January or February. Each play was performed only once. As a result almost all the people of Athens probably came to watch the plays. For an imaginary account of the City Dionysia by an ancient Athenian, click here.

What was it like to sit in a theatre?

More than 14,000 people could sit in the Cavea (or koilon or theatron) of the Theatre of Dionysus on the slopes of the Acropolis. A rich man (the choregus) paid for each play to be produced, so the audience paid very little to get in. They would go early in the morning, carrying a cushion because the seating was very hard, and taking food and drink with them. They would be sitting in the theatre for a long time, because each day of the Great Dionysia festival there would be three tragedies, one satyr play and one comedy.

How long did a festival last?

The City Dionysia had three days of drama. On the first day the three tragedies and the satyr play were by one writer, and the comedy was by another writer. Next day it was the turn of another two writers, and on the third day yet another two writers. At the end of the festival ten judges voted which tragedies and which comedy were the best.

Wasn't it uncomfortable?

It must have been difficult if someone in the audience needed to leave in the middle of the plays. Aristophanes wrote a comedy called Birds, about two Athenians who left their city and went to live with the birds. They were given wings, and the Chorus of birds tell them how useful wings are:

There's nothing better than to grow a pair of wings.
In the theatre, for instance, if you get bored with the tragedies,
and you feel hungry, then you needn't stay stuck in your seat.
You can fly home and have a comfortable lunch,
and get back to the theatre in time for the comedy.

For a picture of the Birds on a Greek vase, click here.

Did any people have special seats?

Because plays were performed as part of a festival of Dionysus, the priest of Dionysus had a special seat in the front row, just at the edge of the orchestra. Much later, in Roman times, this seat was made of marble and richly carved.

In the comedy 'Frogs' where Dionysus is one of the chief characters, he is scared by talk of horrible monsters, and he rushes to the priest of Dionysus and says:

Save me, priest, and we'll have a drink together!

Important visitors from other cities, and important people in Athens, also sat in the front seats.

Were there women, or children, or slaves in the audience?

We just don't know if women, children or slaves came to the theatre. Here are some facts to think about:

  1. The writers were all men, the actors and the chorus were all men, but many of the plays were about women.
  2. The comedy 'Birds' talks about an important man sitting in the front row, while his wife is at home.
  3. Small children would have found it hard to sit and watch five plays in one day.
  4. Somebody, perhaps slaves, would have to stay and look after farm animals.

So, what do you think? Who do you think was in the audience?
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