enpaku 早稲田大学演劇博物館


Ancient Greek and Roman Theatres

Ancient Greek theatre consists of epic dramas about gods and mortals, and these dramas are still staged today. During the 6th century BC, ancient Greeks performed dances and hymns called dithyrambs as part of the Dionysus festival. These festivities eventually became the template for Greek theatre as we know it. It was from these festivities that the elements of Greek theatre emerged, including tragedy, comedy, and satyr play. Amid the rise of the polis (city-state) of Athens, this theatrical culture helped formalise and rationalise the Greeks’ polytheistic culture. Plays were performed in open-air theatres on hilltops, and actors would perform on the stage wearing expressive masks. Each play had a chorus, who gave expository speeches about the play’s theme, the background, and what the characters were thinking. A famous tragedy from this time was “Oedipus Rex”, which told the tale of a king whose fate is at the mercy of the gods.

Greek theatre was introduced to the Roman world around 240 BC via Greek dramatists and actors who were brought to Rome as slaves, one example being the poet Lucius Livius Andronicus. When the plays were translated into Latin, the plots were made much more bloodthirsty to appease Roman tastes. Roman theatre declined after 392 AD, when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, having already imposed Nicene Christianity as the official religion, introduced a legal ban on heathen ceremonies and sacrifices. Christian culture proliferated widely in the centuries that followed, and the second half of the 10th century saw the rise of liturgical and biblical dramas.