How Old Is Drama?


Quick Answer

Western-style drama originated in ancient Greece in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. During harvest rites of Dionysis, Athenian priest Thespis introduced an innovation: dialogue with the Greek traditional chorus. In doing so, he became the first actor in the first dramas.

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Full Answer

Although many ancient cultures used festivals to teach community values, the rites they celebrated didn’t constitute what is now called drama. As with liturgical recitation during church services, the same traditional texts were repeated each year. By entering into dialogue with the chorus, Athenian priest Thespis introduced an organic, changeable element that grew into the three genres of classical drama: tragedy, comedy and the satyr play.

The earliest plays known in Western drama are the works of five dramatists: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (tragedians) and Aristophanes and Menander (writers of comedies). The oldest surviving tragedy is Aeschylus’s drama “The Persians,” which won first prize at the City Dionysia in 472 B.C. The first competitions for tragedies had begun as early as 534 B.C., though official records weren’t kept until 501 B.C., when satyr plays were introduced.

Aeschylus is credited with introducing a second actor in drama. Sophocles, who defeated him in later competitions, is credited with introducing a third. Euripides introduced a more natural style of dramatizing Greek myth by experimenting with editorial perspective. Later, the comedic playwrights introduced satire and comic juxtaposition.

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