8 Classical Western Drama: Origin and Development

Dr. Vamshi Krishna Reddy

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Drama has been one of the most unique modes of narrating a story and emotions through performance. Drama has been a method of expression since the ancient times when man initially started to communicate his experience and feelings, perhaps orally, maybe through move or revelry, to attentive colleagues assembled around a fire.


According to Aristotle, dramatists “represent people in action”, unlike a third-person narrative or the mixture of various narratives. Hence, Drama is action. Genealogically, Greek word, δρᾶμα (drama), means “doing”, “action,” or “performance.” For both Aristotle and Plato, great western philosophers, drama is an example of mimesis, which means “imitation”. However, both perceive Drama and mimesis differently. As rightly noted by Ian C. Storey and Arlene Allan in their seminal book, A Guide to Ancient Drama as “… for Plato, mimesis was something to be discredited, something inferior, which the ideal ruler of an ideal state would avoid…Plato would have agreed with Polonius in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true.” But Aristotle found in mimesis not only something natural in human nature but also something that was a pleasure and essential for human learning”.


Hence, Drama is “doing” or “performing,” and similarly, human cultures always perform at multiple levels in different ways be used in all sorts of ways. With this nature of performativity, drama tends to keep cultural and historical events alive in the forms of legends and myths. Since the themes and subjects are derived from past, especially with a intention to bring our glory in it. Greek tragedy falls partly into this category. The most possible comparison with Classical Greek Drama can be from Ramleela tradition in India where myth and history is juxtaposed to provide a popular belief for Hindus to assert their past. Drama can also be used to provide moral instruction. Most of the religious themed plays revolve around gospels that reiterate the message of the God or its belief system.


However, it is also interesting to have a look at what brings audience towards drama other than obvious reasons of religious and performitivity. It is also believed that drama provides natural pleasure which is innately excites to humans and people watch formal performances because they render us pleasure, a relief from the routine, the joy of watching a plot unfolding and engaging with the characters, and the catharsis involved with it.




In this module, we attempt to provide basic idea of Western classical drama while focussing mainly on deferent genres that constituted ancient Greek and Roman drama. Whenever we discuss about Classical Drama, we tend to have critical focus more on tragedy or on comedy. However, we either ignore or will have only a nodding glance at the other genre called, satyr-drama/play. This module covers a comprehensive description of classical drama. Though, Classical western Drama is subsequently categorized into several periods after Greek Drama such as, Classical Drama, Renaissance Drama, French Neoclassical Drama, and Modern Drama, this module limits its scope and attempts to map the genealogy of Classical Western Drama and its development.


Components of Classical Western Drama


The major components of drama are Comedy, Tragedy and Satyr Play. We will look at each one in order to understand Classical drama holistically.




The word comedy originates from a Greek word, komoidia, which is a combination of two words, komos, which means “merrymaking,” or “festal procession,” and oidos, which means a “song.” Thus, comedy is a “happy song.” We don’t know how comic performances have originated. However, theorists note several reasons behind its origins. Firstly, comedy is propelled by some fertility rituals in which various dancers are decorated as animals and as Satyrs. Secondly, comedy is germinated from religious rituals that engaged several jests and their activities. Thirdly, it seems comedy evolved from phallus bearers in various processions according to a scholar, John E. Thorburn, Jr, who argued in his book, (Companion to Classical Drama (147, 2005). Not only is the genealogy of comedy untraced, we do not have any evidence on first date of its performance. However, what we know is that Susarion of Megara was credited with introducing comedy in Attica (the region where Athens is located).


Although some evidences of comic performances do exist in the mid sixth century, thefirst set of comic performances in festivals in Athens are believed to have occurred around 486 B.C.E. at the City of Dionysia. Similar to Greek tragedies, the surviving Greek comedies were performed at festivals that usually honoured Dionysus. Unlike tragedy writers, who put on three tragedies and a Satyr play at the Dionysia, comic poets present a single play. However, in and around 442 B.C.E., both the tragedies and the comedies began to be performed at the Lenaea, another festival that honours Dionysus at Athens. Many a times, tragedy and comedy were performed in the same theatre structure and used the same special visual effects, such as the Eccyclema (a rolling platform used to show interior scenes) and the Mechane (an arrangement that would suspend characters above the ground). Aristophanic1 comedy very often uses these devices in parody of tragedy (in Acharnians, Peace, Thesmophriazusae). Moreover, comedy had a huge chorus (around 24 members) who usually sing and dance during the performance. The manner in which the dance is composed in comedy is significantly differed from tragedy and tends to present wilder and sexually suggestive content.



In classical comedy play, usually, three actors perform a play. Hence, actors are expected to play multiple roles within the play. This method poses an immense challenge for actors because comedies tend to have more dialogues than in tragedies. Similar to tragic play, Chorus wear masks, however, masks certainly have symbolisms and expressions that are designed to create laughter among audience. Naturally, costumes for comedy plays would also differ from tragic costumes; they get padded to provide additional humour with physical appearance. The language of comedy was also less formal and diction deployed in the play was more extensive use of alliteration, intended words, pun and play of words.


Important Plays under Comedy:


Though 40 complete plays have survived at present but the names of at least 150 comic playwrights are identified. Scholars have distinguished classical western comedy into three periods broadly as Old Comedy (ca. 500–400 B.C.E.), Middle Comedy (ca. 400–325 B.C.E.), and New Comedy (ca. 325 B.C.E.–250 C.E.). Among all three categories, we have more information about New Comedy, represented by around 30 plays and some fragments of Menander, Plautus and Terence and the least about Middle Comedy (represented by two plays, Ecclesiazusae and Wealth by Aristophanes). Middle Comedy captures the transition between Old and New Comedy. Middle Comedies of Aristophanes represent a marked decrease in criticism on publicfigures and a reduced role for the chorus. The Parabasis had disappeared in this period. One of the leading representatives of this period was Alexis (ca. 370–270 B.C.E.), who is said to have written 245 plays.


And our knowledge about Old Comedy rests on the nine surviving plays of Aristophanes and the fragments of such playwrights as Cratinus, Eupolis, and Pherecrates. Old Comedy is known for its wildness, obscenity and sexual humour with fantasy plots, such as, men living with the birds in Aristophanes’ Birds; famous politicians being raised from the dead in Eupolis’ Demes. These plays usually comment on intellectual happenings, current trends, and political affairs of Athens. Athenian leaders such as Pericles, Cleon, Alcibiades, and Hyperbolus were often the object of mocking in these plays of Aristophanes, Cratinus, and Eupolis. In some of the Old Comedy plays, mythologicalfigures may have been attributed to political leaders of the time. In Cratinus’ Dionysus as Alexander, Dionysus may have represented Pericles. Pericles was also believed to be behind thefigure of Zeus in Cratinus’ Nemesis. Another significant feature of Old Comedy was that the chorus is represented strange beings as animals, such as, birds, frogs, goats, and wasps. In most of the Aristophanes’ plays had the feature called the Parabasis, in which the chorus address the audience as if they are the playwright themselves.


In the era of New Comedy, surprisingly, political mocking and satire had almost completely vanished and mythological references and its attribution to different stake holders of society have diminished along with obscenity. Structurally, chorus’ appearance of New Comedy had been restricted to occur between a play’sfive acts. At this juncture, plots and characters had become more stereotypical and stagnant. New Comedy started focussing on themes to which everyone can relate, such as, love and marriage. The players involved in such type of comedy where the commonfigures of society of that period started getting central role in the play such as, nagging wife, , her son, the freeborn father, the Braggart Warrior, the Parasite, girl next door, the Prostitute, the Pimp, Slaves, Cooks, and Nurses. This period generated humour through characterisation and situating them in a context.


This kind of thematic structure had also influenced the Roman playwrights and they began to adapt the Greek plays of authors such as Menander for Roman audiences. FabulaPalliata is a Greek play in which the characters wear Roman clothing. The plays of Plattus and Tetence fall under this category of New Comedy. This kind of comedies continued to survive til the first century B.C.E. Gradually other kinds of comedies started creeping into Greek and Roman literature such as Mimes, FabulaAtellana, and FabulaTogata.




The word tragedy is derived from a Greek word, tragoidia, which means a “goat song.” Though we understand the obvious connection between tragedy and song, but the connection with goats is not particularly clear. For comedy, two cities, Lenaea and Dionysia were the host to celebrate in the honour of the god Dionysus, who is very often, is associated with goats. According to ancient greek tradition, Zeus changed Dionysus into a goat to escape from Hera. Hence, Dionysus is described to be in the company of Satyrs who were part goat and part human. Apart from this reference, we do not have any other source to trace the link between goat, song and tragedy. Since we don’t fully understand the links, genealogy of the tragedy as genre had been difficult to draw. The towns of Athens and Sicyon believed to be the birthplace of Greek tragedy.




The Suda, a lexicon from tenth century C.E., attributes to Arion of Corinth for inventing tropos (tragic mode) and subsequently music as important component had been added to this genre. Though scholars of Classical drama don’t acknowledge as the pioneer of tragedy, most recognise the presence of Doric (people living southern Greece) component in Greek tragedy, especially in its verse entries. Aristotle also attempted and made significant work to trace the origins of tragedy in his seminal text Poetics (335 B.C.E). However, his work gave rise further more confusion and controversy over the origins of tragedy. Aristotle had provided several theories behind the origin of tragedy. He argued that tragedy is developed over the years with improvisation of various form plays. And he also presented that tragedy had been evolved from Dithyramb. At the same time, he also suggested that tragedy had its origins in Satyr Play. Hence there were multiple interpretation and viewpoints about the genealogy of tragedy within the work Poetics. However, it is unlikely that Satyr Play gave rise to tragedy, since earliest Satyr Play was staged after development of tragedy only. And interestingly, both Satyr Play and Dithyramb have employed chorus and dedicated to Dionysus. Hence, with all probabilities, we can conclude that tragedy evolved and emanated from choral dancing and singing in honour of Dionysus.




Any scholarship on classical tragedy as a genre is essentially based on 32 complete plays that are attributed to three important Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The earliest tragedies were believed to be enacted by Thespis between 535 and 532 B.C.E, though we have little evidence to back the claim. Thespis is credited for introducing the Actor and Aeschylus is attributed to second and Sophocles, the third. However, all these assertions had not yet been confirmed. Because few episodes in Aeschylus’ Oresteia had three actors and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus surely had four actors. Most Greek tragedies had seven or eight active speaking characters apart from chorus and actors would play multiple characters. Both gender characters are played by male actors. Usually the tragic chorus consisted of 12 members for both dancing and singing but Sophocles is said to have increased the number to 15. Similar to comedy, the actors and chorus sang songs with a fixed pattern of rhyme. Unlike comedy, the importance of chorus in the play had never been diminished.


The chorus and the actors perform with masks in which, usually, costumes for the players were very sober and simple. For example, Acharnians, Aristophanes and Euripides were known for introducing his characters in rags. However, not all costumes used in tragedy were simple, for example, Aeschylus’ text Persians attempts to portray the royalty of Persian court and the costumes were intricately dressed and the costumes of the Furies in Aeschylus’ Eumenides are considered to be one of the remarkable costumes during that period.


Both tragedy and comedy were staged in the same theatre. The plays were all performed outdoors and during the daytime. Similar to comedy, tragedy also employed techniques such as the Eccyclema (a rolling space used to show interior scenes) and the Mechane (a technique deployed to suspend characters above the ground). However, compared with comedy, tragedy had used few stage properties, such as, sword, sceptre, bow, and funeral urn. Both tragedy and comedy had similar structural features, such as the Prologue, Exodus, Episode and choral songs. Tragedy, however, did not use Parabasis (in which the chorus address the audience as if the playwright were speaking to them) and Agon (debate).


Important Plays under Tragedy:


Tragedy, especially from Greek tradition also did not deal with social concerns, politics, and intellectual trends unlike its counterpart, comedy. However the treatment of contemporary issues of the period had been dealt at subtle way but not explicitly. In general, Greek tragedy plucked its stories from mythology. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were significant sources of material. Achilles, the prominent hero of Iliad appears in the title of at least eight plays by Greek tragedians. The major characters such as Andromache, Cyclops, Hecabe, Rhesus, and Trojan Women all have direct or indirect connections to the Homeric epics. Various characters of Cadmus and his descendants, who ruled Thebes were also the significant subject of many Greek tragedies. Many plays had Oedipus in their titles and characters like Jason’s barbarian bride, Medea were also quite popular subject of tragedies.


Since the content of Greek tragedy was relatively limited, playwrights often tend to employ the same characters and themes. For example, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides written plays entitled Philoctetes in which content revolves around Orestes’ killing of his mother. Hence, after fifth century, there is an attempt to look beyond this tradition and started absorbing new material. This attempt is shown in the works of the tragedian Agathon who wrote a tragedy, Antheus (or Athos), in which the characters werefictional and not based on characters from mythology. And even Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, Helen, and Ion are example of this new kind of drama. All three plays all begin on a trajectory of tragedy but, have a “happy ending” at the surface level. Ion by Euripides, Creusa is raped, she subsequently abandons her child (Ion), the child is groomed by someone else, and eventually Ion and Creusa meet and recognize one another through things left with the infant. Likewise, Menander’s Arbitration, in which Pamphile is also raped, eventually becomes pregnant, marries Charisius, and subsequently abandon the child, Slavesfind the child, and infant’s identity is revealed through items left with the baby as the child of Pamphile’s and that Charisius was the rapist. This trend in the content reflects the constraints of Tragedy in terms handling various themes.


Moreover, there is a criticism that quality and quantity of tragedy in Greek classical period dwindled after the deaths of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. To some extent this view is accurate but tragedies continued to be written and received decent consumption. Greek tragedy had also travelled to Rome and performed its first play for the first time in 240 B.C.E., when Livius Andronicus adapted and translated a Greek tragedy and comedy into Latin. After Livius Andronicus, other important writers like Ennius, Pacuvius, and Accius who wrote tragedy in Latin, gradually emerged.


Although many of their play didn’t survive, hundreds of fragments of the plays and around 80 titles are known. Through these titles, it is understood that there is a immense influence of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and especially Euripides on the plays. Few prominent playwrights were only known from this period. Ovid wrote a Medea, and even the emperor Augustus tried his hand at an Ajax. PomponiusSecundus gained some fame, but only two titles (Aeneas, Atreus) in the first century C.E.


Understanding the Greek tragedy is hampered by the survival of only 32 plays by only three poets, but knowledge of Roman tragedy is made even more difficult since, only 10 tragedies written in Latin survive till now. Moreover, most the survived plays are attributed to only one author, Seneca. Most of his plays were heavily influenced by Greek tragedies. Most of the Senecan plays barring few such as, Thyestes and Octavia were influenced by the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Even Octavia, which is loosely based on historical events, dates back to Greek plays written on mythological themes.


Senecan tragedy differs from Greek tragedy in some significant aspects. In this kind, movement of choruses in the play is more dynamic and they make appearances frequently. Since the size of the chorus is small, this dynamism was possible with this kind. Senecan tragedy is also different in terms of its structure as its usesfive -act structure and asides (some are extended monologues). Though the influence of Senecan tragedy is minimal on contemporary drama, its impact in the Renaissance and during the 17th century was significant, and he was regarded as one of the best tragedians in Western classical drama.

Satyr Drama:


Satyr Play is one of the elusive and controversial kinds of ancient drama. Euripides’ Alcestis, is typically called as a satyr play. Satyr plays have basically the same features as tragedies such as choral songs, Prologue, Episode, Agon, Parodos and an Exodus. In Poetics, Aristotle argues that tragedy evolved from the satyr play, however, modern scholars contests the assumption and the accuracy of this assertion, by arguing that earliest satyr plays had been staged only after the foray of tragedy.


In this kind of drama, the first person to compose satyr plays was the tragedian Pratinas of Phleius, who is believed to have written around 32 satyr plays, although only four titles are known and only one of these can positively be identified as satyric (Wrestling Satyrs). Satyr plays were very often humorous in content and themes (again with the exception of Euripides’ Alcestis) and, provide a contrast to the tragedies that preceded them to the stage. Besides these two plays, numerous extant titles and fragments of satyr plays help us gain a better understanding of this elusive genre’s themes.


In addition to the comic elements, portrayal of aggressive sexuality and the consumption of wine are common features in these plays. This kind of drama seems to be propagating some sought liberation from an oppressive master, e.g., Euripides’ Cyclops. And most of these plays encounter with some kind of novelty, e.g., Hermes’ Lyre in Searchers. or a new person, e.g., the infant Hermes in Searchers), and Athletic activities, especially wrestling (cf. Aeschylus’ Cercyon; Heracles and Death in Euripides’ Alcestis), seem to be common in satyr plays, although the satyrs themselves considered to be spectators to the events rather than participants.


Other Aspects of Classical Western Drama:


It is important look at other aspects of related drama to understand Classical western Drama comprehensively.


The Dramatic Festivals:


Athens drama was principally produced at two of the festivals on the name of the god Dionysos, at the Lenaia and at the City Dionysia. Here the drama was essentially a form of “religious” expression. Though the festivals were conducted honouring the god Dionysos and the plays performed in a theatre at the side his sacred precinct, they were also sponsored by the state and performed on sate occasions, run by the officials of Athens. And most importantly this activity is part and parcel of the communal life of the city (polis). Dionysos was honored at Athens with a number of celebrations such as the Rural Dionysia (festivals held with locals of Athens); the Lenaia in late January; the Anthesteria (“Flower Time”) in mid-February; and the City Dionysia in late March or early April. There is some evidence that popular plays are restaged at the various celebrations of the Rural Dionysia around Attica, but the two principal festivals for the performance of drama were the Lenaia and the City Dionysia at Athens.




In Greek theatre, men played both the roles of gender. In the initial days of Greek drama, only the Chorus comes to the stage later, a single actor used joined the chorus. The usual Greek word for actor, hupokrites, means “explainer,” and this term indicates fundamental relationship between the chorus and the actor. The tradition one solo actor continued until Aeschylus introduced a second actor and that Sophocles introduced a third, although clearly three actors are needed at certain points in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. While the number of actors eventually increased to three, two major acting styles, the “grand style” and the “realistic style,” emerged from Greek drama. As the names imply, the grand style deployed more glossy and grand language and costumes than the realistic style.

Aeschylus is known for his extremely complex vocabulary, remarkable dressing with his characters and introduced his heroes who speak and conduct in a manner that is “larger than life on the stage. Euripides, in contrast, often uses rags on his heroes and they speak in a much simpler and sober fashion. Around 450 B.C.E., actors started competing for a prize in the dramatic festivals, and, with occasional exceptions, this ended the practice of playwrights acting in their own plays. This particular development is believed to have played important role in the rise of actor and the decrease in the importance of the chorus. Actors became increasingly professionalized and self centric. With the aura that has been created behind actors, acting guilds also started in Rome as early as the second century B.C.E. Roman people considered acting a vile profession and Where as Greeks treated actors as ordinary citizens. Probably one can draw genecology of stardom in contemporary art and culture industries.




The discussion on classical western drama has clearly shown that it is a unique literature rich in imagination and culture. As a literary and historical document, classical drama offers scholars and students golden information to be understood, analysed, criticised and interpreted. Most of the literary theories can be understood while reading these texts closely. From New Criticism to modern theories, classical drama provides valuable insights. Understanding the classical period is essential to proceed further into renaissance and modern literary periods. Even to understand, contemporary drama, one needs to holistically look at various aspects of classical drama in order to have better understanding on literature in specific and life in general.


Further Information:


Important Dates in the Classical Western Drama:

ca. 600 – Arion “invents” the Dithyramb

534 – First official performance of tragedy at Athens (Thespis)

501 – Reorganization of the festival; first official satyr-drama

498 – Début of Aeschylus

486 – First official performance of comedy

468 – Début of Sophocles

456 – Death of Aeschylus

455 – Début of Euripides

440 – Introduction of dramatic competitions at the Lenaia

427 – Début of Aristophanes

407 – Death of Euripides

406 – Death of Sophocles

385 – Death of Aristophanes

330 – Building of the stone theatre at Athens



In this module, we have looked at the origins, evolution and essential features of Classical Western Drama. The module covers major components of classical drama, namely, Tragedy, Comedy and Satyr Drama. Apart from major genres, other aspects such as various drama festivals during classical age, the literary structures and details of acting crew are covered. In Comedy, structure and the important plays under the genre are provided such as Old Comedy (ca. 500–400 B.C.E.), Middle Comedy (ca. 400–325 B.C.E.), and New Comedy (ca. 325 B.C.E.–250 C.E.) with major playwrights and their styles. In Tragedy, origins, structure and important plays under the genre are discussed. We tend to assume that Classical Drama is all about Tragedy and Comedy and ignore other important genre like Satyr Drama. Hence, this module looks at Satyr drama, features and controversial nature of the genre. This module also looks at important aspects of classical drama such as various dramatic festivals in ancient Greece and Rome, religiosity and performativity. On a whole, module attempts to provide basic idea of Western classical drama while focussing mainly on deferent genres that constituted ancient Greek and Roman drama.

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