Dramatic Festivals and Competitions
statuettes of comic and tragic actors

Drama played a major role in the life of classical Athens. Comedies and tragedies were performed in the city as part of an important civic religious festival, the City Dionysia, the audience and most of the performers were citizens and were present precisely in their role as citizens, and the plays were, in many respects, about the city. During the sixth century BCE, the tyrant Pisistratus established the festival called the City Dionysia (also called the Great Dionysia to distinguish it from a rural festival held later in the year). The City Dionysia was celebrated during the Greek month Elaphebolion (spanning parts of our March-April) by the whole federation of Attic states in the sacred precinct of Dionysus, which contained temples and sacrificial altars as well as the theater, at the foot of the Acropolis. During the classical period, this festival lasted several days and included several types of performance, all of which were also competitions for important civic honor and prizes (it should be noted that many aspects of Athenian society were highly competitive):

The crucial role that the Athenian polis played in these dramatic competitions can be seen from their organization. The City Dionysia was under the direction of one of the principal magistrates, the archon eponymos. During the summer, playwrights wishing to present plays in the following year would apply to the archon for a chorus by offering descriptions of their projected plays; the archon would then choose the three who would be allowed to compete. Each playwright would be assigned a choregos from among the wealthy citizens who would pay all the expenses of costumes, masks, and training the chorus. Each choregos and playwright would recruit a chorus of young Athenian citizens (originally 12, later 15); chorusmen were not professionals and required rigorous training to learn the songs and dances for the four plays they would perform. Besides writing the plays, the playwright composed music, choreographed the choral dances, and frequently served as chief trainer for the chorus.

The archon assigned each playwright a principal actor (the protagonist), as well as a second and third actor. These actors were professionals and were paid by the state; by the latter part of the fifth century the actors also competed for a state prize.

Shortly before the City Dionysia began, the archon held a Proagon, which served as a sort of advertisement for the plays to be performed. Each tragedian appeared with his choregos, actors, and chorus and presented the titles and brief plot summaries of the four plays he would present at the festival.

The judging of the dramatic competitions was very much in keeping with the general methods of Athenian democratic government—any citizen should be able to participate, not just specialists, and the principles of the lottery and random selection played a significant role (giving the gods a chance to participate?). An urn from each of the 10 tribes contained the names of citizens eligible to serve as judges; to prevent bribery, one name was drawn from each urn at the start of the festival. Each of the 10 judges wrote down three names on a tablet in the order of his selection, and the 10 tablets were placed in a container. On the last day of the festival, 5 of the tablets were randomly chosen, and these determined the winner. Great prestige was attached to a first prize victory; this elaborate monument was erected by the choregos Lysicrates to commemorate his victory, and this relief shows an ancient “cast party” where actors celebrated their victory. Walter Englert of Reed College has written a scenario that imaginatively describes the whole process of staging an ancient Greek play.

There is evidence that dramatic performances were also part of the Dionysiac festival called the Lenaea, held during the month of Camelion (our January-February). Initially only comedies were performed during this festival, but tragedies were apparently added to the roster in the last quarter of the fifth century (click here for a Roman wall painting that juxtaposes the muses of comedy and tragedy). Tragedy was always subordinate to comedy in this festival. We can be reasonably certain that the first productions of all the tragedies we will be studying took place in the Theater of Dionysus during the City Dionysia.

revised August, 2002
Barbara F. McManus
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