Ancient Greek Theatre Architecture Essay, Research Paper
Ancient Greek Theatre Architecture
We all look for our beginnings. Whether we look for them in our personal life or in our professional life, we still look for them. As I was looking around the theatre recently, I was looking at and wondering where the idea of the theatre came from. Rather, who built it and why it is built the way it is. Who made the first one? Where do the roots of the theatre lay? All very good questions that I hope will be answered.
In the beginning of time, man did not understand the complex workings of the universe. To compensate for this not understanding, man created mythical gods that held the power to cause nature to be nature. People who performed extraordinary accomplishments, like win wars, would be elevated to a god. Prehistoric man would perform rituals to please the gods. The gods, in turn having been pleased, would ensure the success of the land and hunting as well as protect them from their enemies. These rituals were performed in many places. At times, these rituals would involve the entire community. At other times, small groups would perform for the rest of the community. From that time until the present, every type of performance has created its own environmental conditions of performer-audience relationship, and these have varied from a patch of beaten earth to complicated built structures (Leacroft 1).
The various Greek tribes worshipped many different gods. Dionysus, or Bacchus, was an important god for the Thracians, a tribe who lived in the northern part of Greece. When the Thracians discovered how to make beer, they thought intoxication divine and gave honor to Bacchus, and when they came to know wine, they thought even better of him. Greek songs honoring the god of wine, Dionysus, which were originally sung by masked choruses, developed later into a singing exchange between a leader and the choruses. During the fifth century BCE, music, costumes, and dancing all became more elaborate, and antiphonal singing between leader and chorus evolved into dramatic dialogue.
Everywhere in Greece, the festivals were regarded as public acts of worship, but only in Athens did these crude beginnings develop into tragedy. The tragic performances of ancient Athens presented a magnificent spectacle. All citizens could attend freely, for the festivals were still regarded as public acts of worship. Everybody could easily respond to the rhythms of dance and song, because the words were sung by the chorus and the actors line conformed to poetic meters.
The tragic poets of Athens took advantage of the traditional celebrations handed down to them to construct stories that confronted fundamental problems of human life. Three great poets worked this remarkable transformation of the ancient wine songs: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. (Brockett 2ed 12-15)
In the sixth century BCE, accompanied by singers, dancers, and flute players, the priests made sacrifices in honor of Dionysus, the god of the vine (Leacroft 3-7). There were four festivals held each year to honor Dionysus. During one these festivals, The City Dionysia, the last of the four festivals, drama was born. This festival commemorated the coming of Dionysus to Athens. It was held each year at the end of March and extended over several days (Brockett 4ed 18-25). In 534 BCE, Athens instituted a contest for the best tragedy at The City Dionysia (Brockett 2ed 13). Thespis was the first actor to win the contest. Tragedy in its earliest stage was entirely choral until the prologue and speeches were first introduced by Thespis. Thus, Thespis was indeed the first “actor,” and tragic dialogue began when he exchanged words with the leader of the chorus. The term Thespian, which is still used today, comes from here.
As theatre started to become a more accepted form of ritual, characters or roles started to become more refined. There were several groups of actors. The main actors roles were that of the gods or leading characters. They would play roles such as Apollo, Agamemnon, or Aegisthus.
The chorus served many functions in Greek drama. First, it was an agent in the play; it gave advice, expressed opinions, asked questions, and sometimes took an active part in the action. Second, it often established the ethical or social frameworks of the event and set up a standard against which the action may be have been judged. Third, it frequently served as an ideal spectator, reacting to the events and characters as the dramatist might have hoped the audience would. Fourth, it helped set the overall mood of the play. Fifth, it added movement, spectacle, song, and dance. Sixth, it served an important rhythmical function, creating pauses during which the audience may have reflected upon what had happened (Brockett 4ed 29).
Then there was the role of the messenger or servant. Tragedies were never shown on stage. Therefore, when a tragedy took place, one of these two characters broke the news. If the tragedy was nearby, such as a murder in the next room, it was the servant s duty to break the news. If the tragedy was far away, such as a war, the messenger would break the news (Brockett 4ed 29).
In the early days, they held the performances in open spaces surrounded by a hillside where the audience sat. This is what was known as the theatron or watching place . There may have been trees around to provide some shade for comfort. The sixth century BCE saw the addition of wooden seats for the comfort of the guests. This resulted in a more permanent structure. Supposedly, after a fire broke out in the middle of the fifth century BCE in Athens, stone steps, flanked by wings that curved or angled forward, replaced the wooden seats (Norwich 56). At the same time, the interest in theatre was in full swing. Athens at the time was the cultural Mecca of the world (Brockett 4ed 41). As a result, they had to keep increasing the size of the theatre. The lower part of the theatre in Athens had 34 rows while the upper part had 21 bringing the total number of rows to 55. The capacity of the theatre was anywhere from 14,000 to 17,000 spectators (Brockett 4ed 40). Even with this huge capacity for spectators, with the population of Athens around 150,000-200,000 residents, only a small portion of the society could attend. The front seats were called proedria and were reserved for officials and priests. The honorable spectator of the theatre was the Priest of Elefthereos Dionysus (Foundation 1).
The action took place in an area called the orchestra. Almost twenty meters in diameter, the orchestra was a flat, circular space. Also called the dancing place it is the place where the chorus mainly performed. As the theatre grew, so did the orchestra. During this time of growth, it underwent a transformation from a circular space to a semi-circular, sometimes even an oval or rectangular space (Rawl 12). The circular shape was the most dominate one, being the closest to the Dionysian Cult. The circle was to have had supernatural powers (Bangham 1). At the center of the orchestra, in front of the skene, was situated the thymeli or altar. The priests would use it for religious ceremonies. Later it was used for the leader of the chorus.
Behind the orchestra, across from the theatron, is the skene. The skene started as a tent, changed to a booth, then to a wooden hut, and finally to a large building with doors. The skene would act as a backdrop or a changing place for the actors. The side facing the audience was decorated to look like a palace or temple. As the skene developed it would be decorated with painted scenery. On the front of the skene, there were three doors. These doors were used in various ways. The center door was where the priest or the leading actors would enter. The chorus, messengers, or servants would enter from either side door. The flat roof of the skene was called the theologion. There, the main actors would act out their parts of the drama during the performance (Foundation 1). The theologion was also a place that was reserved for the gods. Along the back wall of the skene was a narrow, raised platform, called the legeion. The legeion was a place designed just for the actors. It is unclear whether they would act back there or whether it was used for a dressing room of sorts. In later years, a paraskenia was added. The inner faces of the paraskenia were originally open with doors being added later. The decoration of the paraskenia could have the same theme as the skene or they could have had its own theme.
In the Greek theatres, the orchestra and the paradoi separated the theatron and the skene. The paradoi were entrances used by patrons of the theatre as entrances or exits. During the performances, the chorus and sometimes the main actors would use them. If a messenger or servant would come from a far off land, they would also enter through the paradoi. (Bangham 1) If horses or chariots were to be used, they would enter through the paradoi.
The late 400 BCE introduced the ekkuklema, or tableau machine which was a platform or couch set on wheels. Since scenes of violence were not shown on stage war, rape, and murder for example, took place off stage. In the off stage area, there would be a tremendous amount of commotion. This was done to represent the calamity or tragedy that was taking place. At the same time, the chorus would be reacting about it in an attempt to excite the audience. A messenger or servant would report on such calamities. Following the announcement of, perhaps a murder, the ekkuklema with the dead body would be rolled in. Even without the violence being shown, patrons of the theatre would still have shuddered and gasped at the sight. (Rawl 14)
It is undoubted that the skene served as the main focal point and background for all of the scenes. During the overlapping years of Aeschylus and Sophocles, painted scenery was beginning to be employed. Vitruvius description of the first scene painting suggests; that it was an architectural design on a flat surface (Brockett 4ed 37). There were two major devices used. The pinakes, which were painted panels similar to modern flats, could have been attached to the skene and changed as needed. Though the practice of using them in the fifth century BCE was well documented the practice of changing them for different plays is not. Another mechanism that was employed at around this time was the periaktoi. The periaktoi were triangular with flat sides that could be used to paint scenery on. They would be mounted on a pivot and revolved to show the appropriate side. These could make scene changes go quickly and effortlessly. When the play was to be changed, or when gods would enter to the accompaniment of sudden claps of thunder, these may be revolved to present a face differently decorated. (Leacroft 7)
Sometime after 400 BCE a special effects machine was developed. The methane, or deus ex machina, (god from the machine) was a large crane or derrick. In order for the machine to be put into use, the stone foundations for the skene had to become the accepted practice (Leacroft 6). By raising and lowering ropes and pulleys attached to the machine, stagehands could make a deity appear to fly through the air. When the sequence of events in a play made a good ending seem impossible this machine could be incorporated into the final scene with an actor swinging above the stage acting as a deity. This deity would then use his supernatural powers to bring about a just ending to the play (Rawl 12). In Euripides Bacchae, it is the god Dionysus, who appears on the machine. After explaining his behavior, he ends the play by telling why the character Pentheus had to die and what the fate of the other main characters will be. The crane was primarily used for the appearance of gods but it did have other uses as well. It could have been used for Perseus on his flying horse. In comedy, it was often used to parody tragedy or to ridicule human pretensions (Brockett 4ed 38-39).
Another aspect of the Greek plays was the mask. Although not a direct part of the architecture, they played a very important role in the production. Later on in the history of Greek plays more than one actor would perform. These actors would be on stage as more than one character. The masks, sometimes several for one actor, would be used to tell one character from the other. Since all actors were male, the masks would be used to portray females. The masks, when constructed, were shaped almost like a bullhorn, giving them the ability to amplify the voices of the actors. This, along with the bowl shape of the theatres, made the acoustics nearly perfect. It is said even in the structures that are still standing today that a whisper spoken on the orchestra can be heard perfectly in the last row. (Brockett 4ed 42-43)
I have discussed in very detailed ways how the ancient theatres evolved around the text of the plays. In other words, as the plays themselves evolved so did the demands on the physical structures. The early plays of Aeschylus, who is generally credited with the introduction of the skene and of painted scenery, required only simple settings, an altar with surrounding statues, or a simple building with a single door. When the drama developed beyond what was readily available, scenic backgrounds were instituted. The orchestra was often backed by curtains, or a wall containing a door, window, or other openings. The addition of the paraskenia is more proof that as the audience of ancient Greece became more sophisticated, so did the design of the sets become more sophisticated. The theatres themselves are a testimonial to this. With Athens becoming the cultural Mecca of the world, the physical size of the structure had to be enlarged.
In the words of T. S. Eliot, Behind the dialogue of Greek drama we are always conscious of a concrete visual actuality. Ancient Greek theatre architecture is more then just something to look at. It took on a shape all its own. From its infancy through its growing stages, and into its adulthood it has never let us forget whence theatre came from. Over the years, it was transformed and given life to help the playwrights tell the stories of their day. It provided that visual actuality that imposed an emotional response. If we sit back and say that it is nothing more than just a building, then we are guilty of having no passion for the art that we love so much. As sophisticated as theatre is today, most of what we know started almost two thousand years ago.
1. The spelling of the Greek terms varied from resource to resource. I tried in vain to use the spelling that occurred most often.
Bangham Jerry, Greece-Turkey 1999, 8/15/99, 10/19/1999,
Brockett, Oscar G., History of the Theatre. 2nd edition, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1974
Brockett, Oscar G., History of the Theatre. 4th edition, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1983
Dukore, Bernard F. Dramatic Theory and Criticism. New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. 1974
Foundation of the Hellenic World, the Theater, 1997, 10/19/1999,
Norwich, John Julius, Great Architecture of the World. New York, Bonanza Books, 1982
Leacroft, Richard and Helen, Theatre and Playhouse. London, Methuen, 1984
Rawl, Mariam F. The First Theaters. Calliope. November 1997: 12-17