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Greek Theatre: Staging Madness and Democracy

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In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates declared that “madness which is a divine gift [. . .] conferred great benefits on Hellas”. One of those great benefits was theatre, for ancient Greece has always been hailed the mother of both Democracy and Theatre. During the 5th century BC, Athens embarked on a long journey of modifying its political system and invented δημοκρατία (dêmos krátos) which translates into people’s power. If Athens admitted the power of its people, they might not only express their political will freely, they also could express whatever they willed and theatre was Athens’ great manifestation of what we, nowadays, call Freedom of Speech. But before that, in fact long before the advent of Democracy, there was a precise kind of “Madness” that allowed Greece to give birth to theatre.

The Origin

The story of Dionysus, god of wine, fertility and ecstasy, is the story of Greek theatre. Having been born from a mortal woman, Semele, Dionysus poured his anger upon those who denied his divinity. In one of the myths, the Theban tale of Pentheus, Dionysus visited Thebes in anger because the three sisters of his mother Semele had denied that he was truly a son of Zeus; for they claimed that Semele had invented the story to conceal a love affair with a mortal, and that Zeus had struck her dead to punish her for her lie. On his arrival, Dionysus manifested his powers by driving the three sisters mad, along with the other women of the city, causing them all to roam over mount Kithairon as Bacchants. Almost all myths told the story of Dionysus’ vengeance upon nonbelievers by maddening them and it was always women who were driven mad. This notion of mad-women was the exact meaning of the Greek word μαινάδες (Maenads) which referred to the most estimable members of the cult of Dionysus. The Dionysia was an ancient festival in honor of Dionysus in which wine was drunk to reach the state of ecstasy. The word ecstasy was driven from the Greek word ἔκστασις (ékstasis) which meant standing outside oneself. In such festivals, special hymns called Dithyrambs were recited in honor of the god. Later on, the Dithyramb was enacted by the Maenads rather than recited. Hence, these hymns were believed to be the origin of Drama and consequently theatre.

The Dionysia

Gradually, the Dionysia became an annual festival which was held in Athens during Mars or April for five days and its main event was theatre. The exact year when this festival started was unknown but it was most probably during the 6th century BC. Theatrical performances were preceded by the sacrifice of a bull to purify the stage; this sacrifice was later replaced by libations. The actors were believed to be on a purifying journey in which they literally stepped outside themselves (Ecstasy) by enacting other people and wearing masks. The Athenian political leaders usually used the Dionysia to promote themselves and show the power of Athens. An estimated mob of fourteen thousand Athenians attended the festival which made it an adequate event for political propaganda. Every year a group of randomly chosen judges chose a winner from the plays that had been performed during the festival.

The structure of the theatre was entirely different from the one we now know. It consisted of an amphitheatre, the stepped semicircle where audiences sit, an orchestra, the circle at the bottom of the amphitheatre and finally the stage which was normally backed with the front of a house. In earlier forms of the theatre, the amphitheatre was constructed from wood, but as the festival grew more popular and a greater number of people began to attend, the wooden amphitheatre became less practical and needed to be replaced by a stone-built one.

Before the 5th century BC, only one actor was used to enact all the personae of the play along with a chorus of fifty men who represented the public. The chorus usually danced and sang, but more importantly it provided the historical background information, commented on the course of action and highlighted the themes that were discussed in the play. During the 5th century, Aeschylus (525/524 – 456/455 BC) lowered the members of the chorus to twelve and added another actor, which allowed for dialogue to take place.

Scholars believed that more than a thousand tragedies were written throughout the golden age of Greek drama of which only thirty-two plays survived by three playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles (496 –  406 BC) and Euripides (484 – 406 BC).


Aeschylus grew up in the unstable period during the refashioning of the Athenian political system in which tyranny was abolished and a new democratic system was built. Directly after the establishment of the new system, the Persians invaded Greece and a long war began in which Aeschylus participated as an Athenian soldier. His experience during the war gave him the subject-matter of his play Persians which won the competition of the Dionysia of 472 BC. In this play, Aeschylus portrays how the Persians reacted to the news of their defeat. The play’s moral is that pride and ambition made the Persians disregard the gods and consequently become defeated.  Aeschylus was believed to have won the first prize of the Dionysia thirteen times, and his last participation was in the year 458 BC when his trilogy the Oresteia won the first prize. In the Oresteia, Aeschylus offered the audience a situation where they were faced with a tough decision. Orestes is obliged to avenge his murdered father, Agamemnon, and the murderer is his mother Clytemnestra. But the decision is not easy for the audience because they knew that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon in revenge for her daughter whom Agamemnon sacrificed to the gods in order to win the Trojan wars. This complex situation ends in a court in Athens where Orestes is to be judged according to the Athenian laws, and the question of whether Orestes’ revenge was lawful or not is answered through a legal process. Aeschylus idealizes justice and the law, and subjects the royal family to a trial; he declares that no one is above the law which is the cornerstone of the legal system of democracy.


Sophocles was the younger contemporary of Aeschylus. His first performed play in the Dionysia in 468 BC won him the first prize and Aeschylus came in the second place. Sophocles won the first prize of the festival twenty-four times. Many scholars consider Sophocles the finest tragedian of ancient Greece. His most well-known play is Oedipus Rex.

Ajax and Antigone represent two citizens who are in conflict with democracy. In Antigone, Sophocles portrays the conflict that emerges between the necessity of obeying the laws of the city and following justified personal urges. Antigone wants to bury her brother who was banished from the city and whose burial was forbidden. In Ajax, Sophocles tells the story of Ajax, a fearless warrior who refused to accept the vote that gives Achilles’ armor to Odysseus. He plots to kill the voters but is deceived and kills other people instead. Driven by shame of his actions, Ajax commits suicide. In this play, what initiates the course of action is a voting process and it shows the inevitability of accepting the outcomes of democracy. Ajax refuses to accept the vote; therefore he is the antithesis of the good citizen. The play also offers another key moment: after Ajax’s death, the Athenians argue whether to bury him or not, for traitors are not allowed to be buried, but Odysseus argues that he must be buried because he is not a traitor but rather a great warrior. He says “don’t let force have such / control of you that you allow your / hate to trample justice down”. In this moment, Odysseus argues that justice should not be biased or corrupted with personal emotions. Ajax represents the archaic and Homeric hero whom individuality does not allow to value the modern political system; the play’s moral is that the values that make great warriors do not make a loyal citizen and that every situation forces a certain course of action.


Euripides is the last great tragedian of ancient Greece. His play The Trojan Women is one of the most moving plays of antiquity. It tells the story of Troy after being defeated, when the Athenians condemned Princess Andromache’s child Astyanax to death. The play shows the destruction that was wrought by the Athenians upon the Trojans, and the agonies of the defeated. But what is most interesting about this play is the time of its performance. The play was performed during the Peloponnesian war, after Athens had ordered the destruction of a city during the war, and Euripides thus publicly criticized the decision.

Greek theatre was not only a means of entertainment; it played a significant role in educating people about their rights and duties. It was also a great manifestation of democracy and freedom of speech. Although Drama has its religious roots in ancient Greece, dramatists were not criticized for modifying religious myths to serve the subject-matter of their plays but rather were encouraged by the huge success this kind of plays had. Madness had accomplished his masterpiece and given us Greek theatre.

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