Like most Greek festivals the City Dionysia began with a pompe, a kind of parade. The pompe featured a large phallus and the carrying of wine mixed with water. The pompe ended at the theater. Bulls were sacrificed at the theater, and a city wide feast of the meat was held. After the feast a second less formal parade through the street took place, the komos, which resembled a drunken revelry more than a stately pompe.
The following day a goat was sacrificed at the theater and a series of tragic plays were performed as a competition. It is thought that the word "tragedy" comes from the Greek for "goat song".
Dionysus was often seen as the god of everything uncivilized, of the innate wildness of humanity that the Athenians had tried to control. The Dionysia was probably a time to let out their inhibitions through highly emotional tragedies or irreverent comedies. During the pompe there was also an element of role-reversal - lower-class citizens could mock and jeer the upper classes, or women could insult their male relatives...In tribute to Dionysus, here is a photo of myself, wine-soaked and vine-crowned, at a Dionysian festival last year. I'm so pleased that the Greater Dionysia is upon us. Spring is here in full force, and camping festival season is coming quickly. I've put my maenad crown aside for the winter, and am looking forward to donning it again soon!
The plays themselves could highlight ideas that would not normally be spoken or shared in everyday life. Aeschylus' The Persians, for example, while patriotic to Athens, showed sympathy towards the Persians, which may have been politically unwise under normal circumstances. The parodies of Aristophanes mocked the politicians and other celebrities of Athens, even going so far as producing his anti-war play Lysistrata at the height of the Peloponnesian War. The circumstances of the Dionysia allowed him to get away with criticisms he would not normally be allowed to voice.