In the 5th century ancient Greece, the month of Poseideon – which corresponds to our month of December – was the occasion to celebrate the Rural or Lesser Dionysia, a festival that took place in various demes (villages) of Attica. With the City or Greater Dionysia, celebrated in Athens in the spring (March-April), these religious festivities in honor of the god Dionysus were a major event in the life of the city. They were organized by the State, and every citizen was invited to be entertained.
The Rural Dionysia lasted for almost six days and included processions, dances and libations, as well as theatrical performances. Tragedy competitions were held (The Persians, written in 472 B.C. by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, is the oldest surviving play in history), along with comedy contests (Aristophanes distinguished himself with several plays that have come to us, such as The Clouds, The Birds or The Frogs).
All theater plays were connected to the history, politics or society of the time, and were illustrated in a dramatic or satirical manner. They offered a festive celebration, but were also the opportunity of a reflection on life. Each viewer was invited to “purify his emotions” (the ancient Greek catharsis phenomenon), since, while watching the dramatic production, the audience would release of emotional tension and vent off fears and frustrations about life, through the cathartic speech delivered on stage by the character.
Greek tragedies never used more than three actors, while at least four actors performed the roles in comedies. The tragedians/comedians would therefore portrayed multiple roles in a play. Limited in the number of actors, the poets could, however, use as many silent extras as they wanted. It is worth noting that all roles were played by men, hence the importance of the masks and costumes that indicated the gender, and served to identify the character.
The long-sleeved dresses that covered the entire body of the tragedians would mark the difference between fictional and real life, that is between myth and reality, while the cothurni, these famous boots that elevated the actors who had tragic roles in the plays, became a symbol of tragedy. For its part, comedy was defined by prominent props, such as oversized phalluses or paddings placed on the chest and rump of the comedians.
The masks – female masks were light-colored, male masks were dark-colored -, covered the entire face and head of the actors, and could be provided with wigs. The masks that served for tragedies were rather realistic, while the more diversified, often grotesque comic masks would caricature contemporary well-known figures.
Because they were made of organic materials (wood, leather, textile, …), almost all original masks and costumes are now lost, but they are attested in many terracotta examples, such as small statuettes, ex-votos in the form of masks, or on the roundels of oil lamps. We invite you to come and discover a selection of these beautiful objects in our showcase dedicated to this theme, in our gallery located at 9 Etienne Dumont street. We look forward to welcoming you!
For further information about “dramatic and comic poetry”, see SAÏD S., TRÉDÉ M., LE BOULLUEC A., Histoire de la littérature grecque, Paris, 1997, Chapter 3 A) La tragédie and B) Aristophane et la comédie ancienne, pp. 117ff or also Chapter 8, Ménandre, pp. 293ff.