Contemporary Interpretations

Theater in ancient Greece gave us not only the roles and structures of modern theater, but also the many of the devices that make up modern storytelling. From Sophocles to Shakespeare to movies and television, here are examples of Greek playwriting concepts that are still common today.


Recognition or discovery of one's previously unknown situation or circumstances, such as when Oedipus realizes his true identity long after he has fulfilled his predicted fate. Sometimes, anagnorisis is referred to as a "twist" ending and has been used by storytellers from William Shakespeare to M. Night Shyamalan. In this example from the Kennedy Center's production of Teddy Roosevelt & The Treasure of Ursa Major, the Archie, Ethel, and Kermit Roosevelts' search for "treasure" in the White house results in a realization of what the real "treasure" is.


Before individual actors were employed in ancient Greek theater, the chorus functioned as the storytelling "performer," often singing their dialogue and dancing as one. Over time, the chorus took on a different role in theater, providing commentary and narration about the story to the audience, only sometimes interacting with the actors. Choruses are frequently used to aid storytelling in opera and musical theater, such as the trio of "street urchins" who sing ongoing commentary on but rarely take part in the plot of Little Shop of Horrors, or the musical interludes in There's Something About Mary. In this example from the Kennedy Center's production of Walking the Winds: Arabian Tales, a chorus of performers recounts the ancient story of the Sumarian king, Gilgamesh.

Deus ex machina

Literally translated as "god from a machine," deus ex machina refers to the convention of using a crane, or machina, to lower an actor playing a god "from the heavens" on to the stage. Eventually, the phrase was used to describe an unexpected or improbable solution to a plot problem. Today, deus ex machina is more frequently seen in fantasy stories, as it usually requires suspension of disbelief and can be perceived as disregarding story logic. In the Kennedy Center's production of The Phantom Tollbooth, the young character Milo is complaining about "another boring afternoon" when unexpectedly, a mysterious tollbooth appears in his bedroom and starts his adventures through Digitopolis and Dictionopolis.


In Greek storytelling, the downfall of the protagonist is frequently due to hubris, the belief that he or she can outwit the destined fate plotted by the gods, or boastful, excessive pride, such as Odysseus revealing his name during his escape to the Cyclops he has blinded, or Icarus flying too close to the sun with wings held together by wax. Though tragic heroes are less common in modern Hollywood, Anakin Skywalker's turn to the dark side of the force to become Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies can be attributed to his excessive pride or hubris. In this example from the Kennedy Center's American College Theater Festival production of Shakespare's Macbeth, the three witches warn Macbeth to "beware Macduff," while also telling him "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth." Emboldened by his previously prophesized bloody ascension to power, Macbeth proudly engages Macduff in fateful battle, only to meet his end, as Macduff was "not of woman born," having been delivered by caesarian section.


A reversal of circumstances. Often in Greek tragedy, the fatal flaw of the protagonist results in their good fortune turning into an ironic downfall. Along with anagnorisis, peripeteia is commonly used in modern morality tales, such as those found on the TV series The Twilight Zone. In the Kennedy Center's production of Blues Journey, the narrator, Willy, tells the story of "the Great One," a blues guitarist who made a deal with the devil at the crossroads in exchange for fame and fortune. Of course, with new-found glory comes an undesirable repercussion.