Conventions of Greek Drama

The most important convention of the Greek stage was the wearing of masks with attached wigs by all performers. The elaborate costumes worn by the actors and chorus members were often the most striking visual element. Staging was usually limited to the painted background behind the stage. Greek tragedies are all set outside, so this background usually depicted the exterior of the main characters’ residence—in the case of the Oedipus Rex , the palace of Oedipus and the shrine to Apollo in front of it. The action of a Greek tragedy takes place in a single day, so changes of scene are rare, and props are kept to a minimum. In addition to the chorus and the three actors, mute characters could also appear on stage as needed. In front of the stage, which was not raised from the ground as in modern theaters, was a circular area called the orchestra , in which the chorus performed its dances. These would be accompanied by the music of an aulos, a double pipe similar to a modern oboe.

The plays followed a fairly strict structure, with a prologue, the entrance of the chorus, and then several episodes separated by choral odes. The dialogue of the plays is written in meter, but was spoken, like the plays of Shakespeare, whereas the choral odes were written in a more complicated meter for the chorus to sing and dance. The plays also include a kommos , in which the main character(s) lament in song with the chorus. All in all, the form of Greek tragedy somewhat resembles a cross between Shakespeare and opera. It is important for modern readers to remember that, without the benefit of any music or the elaborate costumes and scenery, we are getting a small portion of what the original audience received.