Overview

As depicted in the traditional masks that represent theater, plays in ancient Greece fell into two broad categories: tragedy and comedy. Both types were presented and celebrated in the Dionysian Festival, and each served a very different purpose in the performing arts of Greece.

Greek Tragedy evolved out of the performance of dithyrambs, which were essentially epic poems and narrative stories chanted in unison by a chorus. Playwrights such as Thespis and Sophocles began to have individual performers speak as specific characters, laying the groundwork for the structure of tragedy.

During the Dionysian Festival, playwrights would usually submit three tragedies and a satyr play. Satyr plays were shorter productions, usually staged later in the festival, and would focus on mythological stories and debauched characters (similar to modern burlesque). The dithyrambic/tragic chorus was replaced by a chorus of drunken semi-human satyrs. The play could be tragic, comedic, or both, but were generally crafted to be crowd-pleasers.

Though records have been lost, comedy first appeared in the Festival of Dionysus around 480 BCE and borrowed much of the trappings of tragedy, from choral dances, to masked actors, scenery and staging. Ancient Greek comedy can be divided into three distinct periods through 260 BCE: Old Comedy, which focused on topical satire and lampoon (like Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show); Middle Comedy (similar to Old Comedy, but simpler productions and more generic satire); and New Comedy, which was less topical and focused more on situational comedy, a fore-runner of the "sit-coms" of today.