Helpful Terms in Greek Theatre


To this day, contemporary theatre remains greatly influenced by the tenets, words, theories and practices of early Greek theatre, and the ancient Greek plays. Any study of theatre history and literature reveals that what we know of Western theatrical tradition began centuries ago, in the open-air theatres of ancient Greece: the birthplace of our theatre. A few of these helpful terms, concepts and names are noted below:

Anagnorisis - Startling discovery; moment of epiphany; revelation when a character discovers their true identity. Anagnorisis occurs in Oedipus the King when Oedipus finally realizes who he is.


Antagonist - Chief opponent/enemy of the protagonist. The protagonist is typically the main character or hero.


Attica - Peninsula in southeastern Greece that included Athens. According to legend, Theseus, the King of Athens, unified 12 states in Attica into a single state dominated by Athenian leadership and the Athenian dialect of the Greek language. The adjective “Attic” has been associated with the culture, language and art of Athens. The great period of Greek drama, between the Sixth and Fourth Centuries, B.C., is known as the Attic Period. Drama was invented by an Attic actor, Thespis, who introduced speaking parts to accompany choral odes. We get the word “Thespian” from Thespis. 


Catharsis - In literature and art, a purification or purging of emotions. Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) used the term to describe effects on the audience of seeing a tragic play acted on a stage. This effect cleanses the audience of disturbing emotions, such as fear and pity, which releases tension. This occurs because audience members resolve to avoid conflicts of the main character–for example, Oedipus in Oedipus the King–that arouse fear or pity. Alternately, audience members transfer their own pity and fear to the main character, emptying themselves of these emotions. In both cases, ancient Greeks thought that audience members leave the theater improved intellectually, morally, or socially. They have been cleansed of fear or pity, or have vowed to avoid situations in their own lives that arouse fear and pity. In modern usage, catharsis is the process of releasing (and receiving relief from) strong or repressed emotions.


Chorus - Bystanders in a play who present odes on the action. A parode (or parados) is a song by the chorus, when it enters. A stasimon is a song during the play, between episodes of action. The chorus generally had the following roles in the plays of Sophocles: to explain action; to interpret action in relation to the law of the state and the law of the Olympian gods; to foreshadow the future; to serve as another actor in the play; to sing/dance; and to share the playwright’s views. In some ways, the chorus resembles a narrator, or perhaps background music. It can also function like captions that provide background information, to identify time and place of the action coming next, etc.


Deus ex Machina - (“god from a machine”) describes a contrived event in a literary work, play or film. A contrived event is a plot weakness in which a writer makes up an incident--such as a detective stumbling upon an important clue, or a hero arriving in the nick of time to save a damsel in distress--to further the action. The audience considers such events improbable, realizing the writer has failed to develop the story and characters in such a way that actions come from motivations. Derived from Machine (or Mechane), an arm-like device in ancient Greek theaters that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the "heavens." 


Dramatic irony - Failure of a character to see or understand what is obvious to the audience. Oedipus, for example, is unaware early on of what the audience knows: that he is immorally married to his own mother, Jocasta. 


Dionysus - Patron god of Greek drama; also the god of wine, revelry and vegetation. Dionysus (called Bacchus by the Romans), was the son of Zeus and one of the most important Greek gods. Dionysus died each winter and was reborn each spring, a cycle his devotees identified with death and rebirth in nature. He symbolized renewal and rejuvenation, and each spring the Greeks celebrated his resurrection with ceremonies that also included drama contests. The most prestigious of these was the Greater Dionysia, held in Athens for five days and participated in by playwrights including Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. Festivals held in smaller towns were called Rural Dionysia.


Dithyramb - Choral hymn that praised Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, and sometimes told a story. In his work The Poetics, Aristotle wrote that dithyrambs inspired the development of Greek tragic plays. The first "play" was rumored to take place in the 6th Century B.C. when Thespis, a member of a chorus, took the first role of a separate character in a dithyramb. The action shifted back and forth between him and the chorus.


Hamartia - Character flaw, or judgment error of the protagonist of a Greek tragedy. Hamartia is derived from the Greek word “hamartanein,” meaning to err, or make a mistake. The first writer to use this term was Aristotle, in The Poetics. 


Hubris - Great pride, great ego. Hubris is often the tragic character flaw (hamartia) of a protagonist in Greek drama, particularly in tragedy. Pride was considered a grave sin, because it placed too much emphasis on individual will, downplaying the will of the state and gods, endangering the community as a whole. Because pride makes people unwilling to accept wise counsel, they act rashly and make poor decisions. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus exhibits great hubris, while Creon serves as the counter example who does not.


Mask - Face covering with exaggerated facial features and a mouth device to project the voice. Greek actors wore masks to reveal specific emotions or personality traits; to depict the trade, social class or age of a character; and to provide visual and audio support for audience members in the rear of the large, open-air theaters. 


Ode - Poem sung in a play or a festival. The Parode (or parados) - is a song sung by the chorus when it enters.


Peripeteia - In tragedy, the sudden reversal of fortune from good to bad. The moment when the downward spiral begins.


Poetics – The Poetics, an important work by Aristotle, written about 335 B.C. The Poetics analyzed Greek theater and outlined its origin and development. One of its main tenets is that literature, plays and other forms of art imitate the activity of humans: “art imitates life.” Tragedy is the higher form of the playwright's craft, Aristotle wrote, because it imitates actions of noble people and lofty events. (Comedy, on the other hand, focuses on ordinary humans and everyday events). 


Prologue (Prologos) - Introduction of a play, that provides initial background material. 


Protagonist - Main character who usually interacts with the chorus. In Greek tragedy, the protagonist is traditionally a person of high status--king, queen, political leader, military hero--who has a grave and often fatal character flaw (great hubris/pride, for example). This character flaw causes the protagonist to make an error in judgment. Additionally, the typical protagonist experiences a moment of truth when they recognize and acknowledge their mistakes, failures, or sins. 


Stasimon - is a song sung during the play, between episodes of action.


Theater - Greek outdoor structure where plays were performed. The stage faced the afternoon sun to light a performance, while allowing audience members to view action without squinting. A Greek theater typically had these features: Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance/exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background with scenery. Paraskenia: Extensions or "wings” on sides of the skene. Proscenium: Acting area, or stage, in front of the skene. Orchestra: Ground-level area where the chorus performed. It was in front of the proscenium. Parados: Passage on the left or right, through which the chorus entered the orchestra. Thymele: Altar in center of the orchestra, used for sacrifices to Dionysus. Theatron: Tiered seating area built into a hillside, an amphitheater shaped like a horseshoe. Machine: Arm-like device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the “heavens,” the Deus ex Machina.


Thespian - Noun meaning actor or actress; adjective referring to any person or thing pertaining to Greek drama, or drama in general. The word comes from Thespis, the name of a Greek man from the 6th Century B.C., who was believed to be the first actor on the Greek stage. 


Tragedy - Verse drama written in elevated language, in which a noble protagonist falls to ruin during a struggle caused by a flaw (hamartia) in character, or an error in rulings or judgments. Following are the characteristics of a Sophocles tragedy: It is based on events that already took place, and with which the audience is familiar. The protagonist is a person of noble stature. The protagonist has a weakness and, because of it, becomes isolated and suffers a downfall. Because the protagonist's fall is not entirely their fault, the audience may end up pitying them. The fallen protagonist gains new self-knowledge along the journey. They gain deeper insights into themselves, and come to understand their weakness. The audience undergoes catharsis, a purging of emotions, after experiencing pity, fear, shock and other strong feelings. The audience leaves the theatre at the end feeling better after the final catharsis. The drama usually unfolds in one place, in a rapid fall over a short time period.


Well-Known Classical Greek Playwrights & Plays:


Sophocles: A tragedian, his best-known completed works include: Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus; Antigone; Philoctetes; Ajax; Women of Trachis; Electra.

Aeschylus: The author of many plays and fragments, and often called the father of Greek tragedy, he’s known for: The Persians; Seven Against Thebes; The Suppliants; and The Oresteia, which is a trilogy of plays including Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. Prometheus Bound is also attributed to Aeschylus, though disputed by some scholars. 

Euripides:  A third prolific Greek tragedian, his completed plays include: The Trojan Women; Helen; Medea; Bacchae; Andromache; Alcestis; Hecuba; Electra; Iphigenia in Tauris; Iphigenia in Aulis; Cyclops; Orestes; Heracles; Helen and several others. 

Aristophanes: Called the father of comedy, his surviving comic and political plays include: The Frogs; The Wasps; The Acharnians; Peace; Wealth; The Clouds; The Knights; The Birds; The Assemblywomen, and perhaps his best-known work, Lysistrata.