Ancient Greek Theater

Contributor: Elephango Editors. Lesson ID: 12611

Isn't it a tragedy that there are few good comedies in modern entertainment? There are lots of dramas, but not in the Ancient Greek sense. Learn the history and characteristics of comedy and tragedy!


Theatrical Arts, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What do these two strange faces represent?
  • Who would wear them?

Greek theater has its origins in religious rituals, particularly the festival of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and song.

Dionysus and Ariadne

Just as your family gets together to celebrate important events, like births, weddings, or graduations, these festivals gave the people an opportunity to get together and celebrate!

By the 6th century BC, the festivals were very popular throughout the country. Songs in praise of the god eventually evolved into one singer stepping out of the chorus and acting out the part of one of the characters.

Eventually, more actors and scenery and props were added, and they began to use masks. Only two or three actors, and only men, played every part in the play, so they had to have a lot of masks to portray the different characters.

Ancient Greek masks

In the late 6th century, a Greek ruler turned Athens into one large festival and theater competition for 5-6 days. It was called City Dionysia and was a huge gathering of people from all walks of life.

The highlight of the festival was the competition: playwrights competed for the honor of putting on the best play. Their plays were performed in a large open-air theater, in front of about 14,000 people!

open air theater in Acropolis, Greece

That, in a nutshell, is where our idea of theater or drama comes from.

Drama here means the use of a scripted play performed for an audience to tell a story. The ancient Greeks divided drama into two categories.

  • Can you guess from the picture of the masks above what those two categories are?

If you guessed "comedy" and "tragedy," you're correct!

To learn more, watch Plays of the Ancient Greeks: Tragedies and Comedies - The Basics (w/Mr. P.), from MrPsWorldHistory:

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Write a reflection in your notebook or journal in response to the following questions:

  • How can you distinguish between a comedy and tragedy?
  • If you knew nothing about a play that you were about to see, what specific features would tell you that it was a comedy or tragedy?

The Ancient Greeks started the tradition of drama that was followed in the Western world for many centuries.

In the Got It? section, learn more about the history of comedy and tragedy. See if you can tell the difference between the two using the summaries of real Ancient Greek plays.

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