In ancient Greece, the drama is rooted in the rituals and fairs in honour of Dionysus, god of fertility and vegetation. His believers were disguised, danced frantically and sang the cult song of the god, the dithyramb.
In the 6th century B.C., in Corinth, the poet Arion transformed the improvised dithyramb into an artistic composition and presented it to an audience.
In Attica, around the middle of the same century, Thespis brought another even more important change. As the leader of a dithyramb chorus, he separated himself from the others, and wearing a mask, he started conversing with them. Thus, a dialogue between the person and the group started and then evolved. The myths stopped being narrations of acts and became action, imitation, representation, theatrical act.
The new form of dithyramb spread immediately across Attica. In the middle of the 6th century B.C., the tyrant of Athens, Peisistratus, decided to reorganize the festival of the Great (or City) Dionysia, in order to be appreciated by the people. So, he added dithyramb competitions to the Great Dionysia, which became an institution in Athens, and later on turned into the most impressive celebration in honour of Dionysus, as well as the most impressive celebration of theatre.
Wine jug (chous, a type of oinochoe) depicting Dionysus and a Satyr (520-510 B.C.), National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
After the overthrow of the oligarchic and tyrannical regimes, the democratic regime is gradually established in Athens in the 5th century B.C. In the middle of the same century Athens was the most powerful of all the other Greek city-states, and its democratic organization also marked the course of the dramatic poetry. The theatre became one more space for preoccupation and confrontation, which contributed to the formation of political conscience of the Athenian citizens.
In the 5th century B.C., theatrical performances were organized almost exclusively in Athens. They formed part of the celebrations in honour of god Dionysus. The most important celebration, the Great or City Dionysia, included competitions of tragedy, satirical drama and comedy.
The citizens participated with great enthusiasm. Their celebration helped them bond with their city and with each other. It was a festival open to all, attended by official representatives of other city-states, by metoikoi (foreign residents), and by numerous visitors. It was a good opportunity to demonstrate the Athenian democracy and the supremacy of the city among allies and competitors. As regards women, we do not surely know whether they attended the theatrical performances or not.
The state assumed the responsibility for organizing the drama competitions. It assigned the expenses of the plays to wealthy citizens, the sponsors. To give the opportunity of watching the performances to the poorer Athenians, Pericles established the institution of the Theorica: part of the state funds was given to the poor to pay for their ticket. The state seemed to invite the citizens to the theatre in every way, because it considered it as a “school” of democracy.