Cinema is perhaps one of the oldest and revered forms of arts. It has survived and accompanied mankind ever since its very first beginnings that are officially attributed to the 6th century BC when the Greeks were the first people to invent it. Credit being thus given to them, what we see today in our modern day theatres and cinemas with all the special effects and eye candy, goes all the way back to ancient Greece, in the city of Athens where the very first actors laid out their theatrical performances at stages and Greek theatres that still stand today on the city’s outskirts.
Little is actually known about these very first performances. Unlike most theatrics and motion pictures of today that list out credits in the end involving the whole crew, back then, scribes and casual writers used to store the details. Since these were more prone to destruction and mishandling, their whereabouts still remain unknown. It might be of some people’s opinion that history has been unfair to those unsung actors and dramatists who invented cinema for the first time, but it is rather not surprising that records that date back to the 5th and 6th centuries are liable to remain obscure.
What is actually known is that certain dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were some of the best and earliest known writers. The nature of theatrics and cinema was somewhat different than our modern day concept and also less frequent. Most performances and plays related to nature and all its elements, wild animals, so and so forth. Greek theatre was primarily distinguished by three categories where dramatists agree still exist pretty much the same manner in our modern times. These categories were tragedy, comedy and drama. Three of these genres are some of the most commonly seen and dominant genres even to this day with drama being one of the highest watched. During the classical period of Greece when city states like Athens, Sparta and Thessalonica played the most part in shaping further the Greek civilisation, these plays and performances used to be limited only for certain festivals and social gatherings. Athens was never a purely monarchical state, so most functions here were ‘state sponsored’.
Greek city states also had differing cultures and value setups. While Athenians were more of a commercial, trading people with expansionist beliefs, states like Sparta and Thessalonica were more localised and practised different values than the rest (Sparta for example was more of militaristic state with stress laid on maintaining itself as a state with the military playing the dominant role). Now, in this classical period, Athens probably shaped Greek culture more than anyone else. Athens was a wealthy and a large city state and exercised political influence over its contemporaries. At some point of time, Athenians had also dreamt of uniting Greece under the Athenian banner, although they failed in that aspect. Such circumstances had direct cultural implications on Greek society and cinema. Since Athens distinguished itself as the most ‘culturally rich’ Greek state, several writers and dramatists that we read about mostly belonged to this state.
In the history of cinema, Athenians are thus given important credits for inventing cinema and theatrics and also keeping it as an art that would survive for most part of human history. Archaeology has been extensively executed in this aspect and several plays and scripts of those times have been unearthed. What most people might have imagined as non-existent, there are only 32 of over a thousand plays that have been kept safe and secure at several museums. The rest have through time been destroyed. The three authors listed above themselves have had an unfortunate telling in that quite an appreciable portion of their contribution has not been able to uncover.
One of the primary reasons why cinema thrived in the old days was because of the prestige and importance they carried socially and politically. Most of these performances related to mythology, and as already been described above, nature and its elements. Wars and heroes were another popular topic as also satyr plays and theatrics that could have acted as political propaganda. Whatever might be the motive behind those performances, these were mostly staged during special occasions like festivals and gatherings commissioned by leading individuals and statesmen. Performances were finely executed during festivals; for example, during the festival of Dionysus (the god of fertility and wine). Special competitions were held in this regard in the city’s Dionysia. Dramatists participating in the competition were required to present a tetralogy of plays that included three tragedies and one satyr play. The festival of Dionysus was not the only festival of ancient Greece; like all other contemporary ancient societies, it too followed a widely varying festival culture with importance of each on people’s perceptions, values and beliefs.
Athens itself was a classical city with a classical culture. Most of the ‘Greek mythology’ that is taught and is read by millions today is mostly an Athenian contribution. Old Greek theatre was more or less based on these mythologies produced by Athens. The best known Athenian form of theatre was the tragedy that involved intense performances by several actors on various stories and dramas of that era. Although much of these performances have disappeared, archaeologists still have clues on their contextual aspect with close to only 30 being survived till now. Perhaps the most famous of these tragic plays is The Persians, a tragedy that involved the reaction of Persians at their defeat at Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. The Persians is also one of the noted exception when it comes to dramatizing tragic events – this play was strictly based on true facts with tragic incidents of the battle that took place just 8 years prior to the performing of this play. Most Athenian performances that related to the tragedy genre were more mythological than real, The Persians was an exception.
In 472 BC, the year that Aeschylus won the first prize for his tragic plays, his work was also immortalized. More than a century later, Aristotle appreciated Aeschylus’s work and wrote an analysis on it, known as Poetics, written down in 335 BC, around the same time when Macedonians had well established a Hellenist regime in almost of middle east, eastern Central Asia, all the way to the gates of India. His theories on plays and performances with his usual rhetoric (for which he is considered to be one of its founding fathers) were influential enough to lay down an imprint on Asian theatre as well. During the time when the Greeks were reaching their zenith, the dominant power in the middle east and central Asia was held by Persians. Not much is known of Persian theatre although performances were conducted at the pleasure of the Shah. Asian theatre however, consisted of a number of other cultures as well. Theatrical performances during Vedic times was quite common in Indian kingdoms and that is still observed to a considerable extent in Indian rural areas; schools and local gatherings hold small skits and plays for the children to cherish with several important events from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and several other ancient Indian texts being one of the most commonly observed themes. For most part, Greek theatre also might have had an influence on Indian performances as well. Since this culture was already prevalent in the subcontinent, the contact with the Greeks and their settlement around Balkh and Kabul regions, that were at that time categorised as being composed of Buddhist and Hindu populations moulded theatrics just in the same manner as happened with other forms of art.
Athenian tragedy would go on to relinquish and enjoy much popularity in the coming decades and centuries to come. As with all other art forms that survive the test of time, Greek theatre would henceforth get adopted by an even greater political power that was rising in the Mediterranean, just after Alexander’s death. The Romans were now at the centre of everything, and they would ensure that theatre would permanently become a human art.
Would you like to read more about this topic? This book might interest you: History of Cinema.