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How did ancient Greek theatre begin?

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Quick Answer

Ancient Greek theatre grew out of festivals honoring the gods and goddesses. Around 700 BC, at the same time ancient Athens rose to political and military power, it became the cultural center of the festival of Dionsysis, god of wine and religious ecstasies. Out of the Dionysia developed three dramatic genres: tragedy in the late 6th century BC, comedy in 486 BC and the satyr play.

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Though Greeks had celebrated festivals to their gods for many centuries, plays presented at the Dionysia became more about contemporary politics and less about traditional obeisance. Athens in particular sought to build and promote a common cultural identity by exporting drama to its colonies. More than set pieces, the Greek plays passed news about military and political business, satirized politicians and, in the case of satyr plays, celebrated the bawdy with drunkenness, frank sexuality, pranks and props. Easily the most serious in content, tragedy originates with Thespis, the first Greek actor. His “goat-songs,” which may refer both to the goats sacrificed to Dionysis and the skins the actors wore, drew on mythology, which he sang about in dithyrambs. Tragedy could be object lesson and political commentary simultaneously. The Dionysian comedies were plays with happy endings peopled by what Aristotle called the Ridiculous and the Ugly.

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