In Ancient Greece, the theatre was a communal and highly artificial, almost ceremonial, form. Actors would wear masks that very clearly identified what kind of character they were supposed to be, and it’s from these that we get the famous happy and sad face masks that are still used as an emblem for the theatre.
The style of performance was declamatory and had nothing to do with naturalistic imitation of real human emotion. In fact, the whole thing was stylized and schematic to the point that a modern audience would find it stiff and – because of the masks – somewhat uncannily alarming. This 1957 filmed version of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex captures some of the weirdness of the Greek Theatre.
This, you should be aware, is an exaggerated, 1950s configuration of a classical Greek model, and should not be viewed as an exact imitation of what the Greeks did. For one, they didn’t have cameras; second, they performed their plays outside, in great amphitheatres of stone or wood; and third, they spoke in Greek, whose rhythms are very different from English. Still, it does give us an idea of how different Ancient Greek drama must have been from what came later.
So, what were the genres like, that the Ancients developed? What are the most important traits of comedy and tragedy, and why did these genres take the shapes they did?