In 5th Century Athens, theatre was closely connected to the cult of Dionysus, in whose theatre on the southern slopes of the Acropolis tragedies and comedies were staged at an annual festival.
But the origin of theatre is a much-debated issue. One tradition tells of the actor Thespis (hence the word ‘Thespian’) standing on a cart and playing a dramatic role for the first time around 532BC; another claims that drama began with ritual choruses and gradually introduced actors’ parts.
Aristotle (384-322BC) supposed that the choruses of tragedy were originally ritual songs (dithyrambs) sung and danced in Dionysus’ honour, while comedy emerged out of ribald performances involving model phalluses.
As a god associated with shifting roles and appearances, Dionysus seems an apt choice of god to give rise to drama. But from the earliest extant tragedy, Aeschylus’ Persians of 472BC, few surviving tragedies have anything to do with Dionysus.
Comic drama was largely devoted to making fun of contemporary figures – including in several plays (most famously in Aristophanes’ Clouds) the philosopher Socrates.
See other: Which Greek Legends Were Really True?