Playwrights and Plays

For centuries the plays of the ancient Greeks were regarded as the best ever written. Many are still performed today. They were a big influence on Shakespeare, whose plays are also divided into comedies and tragedies. The most famous playwrights are as follows.



Aeschylus was the father of tragedy, the first great playwright in history. He wrote the first play we still have - the Persians, 472BC. He also invented mask painting. His most famous plays are the Persians, the Oresteia trilogy - Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides (all presented in the same year), and Seven Against Thebes. He won the Dionysia 13 times. He also fought at the battle of Marathon and is one of the characters in the book I have just finished, Marathon.

According to legend, Aeschylus died when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it (to crack the shell and eat it). Aeschylus was buried in Gela, Sicily. Despite his great fame as a poet, the inscription on his tomb, which he probably wrote himself, mentions nothing of his plays. It says:

Aeschylus the Athenian, Euphorion’s son, is dead. This tomb in Gela’s cornlands covers him. His glorious courage the sacred field of Marathon could tell, and the longhaired Persian had knowledge of it.




Sophocles was about 30 years younger than Aeschylus. His plays were very successful at the Dionysia. He is supposed to have invented scenery painting. Some of his plays are: Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Electra.




Euripides' plays are performed today more than any other ancient poet's. His plots were more original than previous playwrights. His most famous plays are: Medea, Bacchae, Trojan Women, Orestes, and Electra.





Aristophanes wrote the only Old Comedy plays which survive. They are boisterous, rude, and often poke fun at famous people. Some of his plays are: Frogs, Birds, Clouds, Peace, Knights, and Lysistrata.

Click here to read one of Aristophanes' plays, Clouds. In Clouds, an old man is in debt and wants to find out how to get out of it by learning clever arguments from the philosopher, Socrates. Socrates didn't mind his friend Aristophanes making fun of him. He even stood up during the performance to let the audience see he took it in good humour.



Menander wrote much later than Aristophanes, in the New Comedy style - about ordinary people, with much less obscenity and chaos. He is the only writer of New Comedy whose work survives, and even then we only have one complete play, Dyskolos (the Bad-Tempered Man). His work was popular with the Romans. It is said that although every kind of joke may be found in Aristophanes' plays, Menander is the father of all modern comedy (that is, of the last few hundred years).


More facts and figures:

Name When he lived How many plays he wrote How many plays survive Number of firsts in competition
Aeschylus  525 - 456 80 7 13
Sophocles 496 - 406 123 7 24
Euripides 485 - 406 92 19 6
Aristophanes 445 - 385 43+ 11 ?
Menander 342 - 290 100+ 1 8
 *Each first place for a tragedy writer meant four plays - so Sophocles for example won with 96 of his plays. Also, some of the first places were won in the Lenaia - the other festival for Dionysos, held in January