Ancient and modern

Could today’s Hollywood stars have made it in ancient Greece?

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

The Oscar frenzy spent, it is worth reflecting on how easy writers and actors have it these days. The ancient Greeks invented our idea of acted drama, and the conventions were tough. Here are the main ones.

In myth-based tragedies, for example, all the speaking parts – young and old, male and female – were played, and occasionally sung too, by only three fully masked male actors (one play had 11 speaking parts – work that out!). There was also a ‘chorus’ – 12 or 15 actors, all masked, singing and dancing in unison between episodes, though the leader could converse with the main characters. Of low social status, they provided an alternative collective voice to that of their ‘heroic’ superiors.


As the whole action took place in front of a building, changes of scene were effectively impossible. Entrances and exits were confined to the building and either side of the stage (usually indicating ‘city’ and ‘elsewhere’).

Further, the plot was played out in real time (c. 90 minutes). That presented serious problems, e.g. how to bring in events from the deep past, where tragedy often had its origins, or action impossible to show on stage, e.g. battles, journeys, miracles etc., all the very stuff of myth. That could be ‘shown’ only by characters remembering it, reporting it or hearing it reported (by e.g. messengers). So the playwright had to select, from the whole story of the myth, a c. 90-minute timeframe into which all the characters and events producing a tragic ending could be funnelled. The ‘action’ consisted of people finding out and grappling with the true significance of unexpected revelations.

Finally, the poet-playwright (composing in complex metres) could not get away with one play a year. He had to write four: three tragedies, unified by some theme, plus a comic satyr play. They were staged over one day, played by the same cast of actors, and in competition against two other tragedians, on two other days. Such were the conventions of the main annual festival of Dionysus, where tragedies were performed.

Beat that!

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