Greek theatre

Theatre at Segesta, restored

Figure 1. Theatre at Segesta, artist's reconstruction.

Theatre at Epidaurus

Figure 2. Theatre at Epidaurus, artist's reconstruction. This is the finest in Greece, and the best preserved anywhere. As is usually in Greek theatres, it is built on a hillside in the open air, and its acoustics are wonderful. 1. There are 55 semicircular rows of stone seats without backs, giving room for more than 7,000 spectators. 2. The orchestra. 3. Gutter to collect the rain. 4. The front row of seats (with backs) for the magistrates and important visitors. 5. The skene – the permanent background to the action. 6. Columns supporting 7. The proskenion, or stage proper. The Greeks used very little scenery. 8. Ramps leading up to the proskenion. The inset shows ehe remains of the Greek theatre at Syracuse, one of the largest in the ancient world. With a diameter of a 151 yards, it now has 46 rows of seats; but it is thought that at least 15 more rows have been destroyed. It is still used for performances of ancient Greek plays.

The theatre (or theater, to use the American spelling) is largely a Greek invention and, appropriately, bears a Greek name. Theatron, "a place for seeing," means literally any building used for purposes of exhibition; but is now generally taken to mean any place devoted to dramatic and musical performances.


The classical theatre arose among the Greeks. It stemmed from the ring in which dithyrambs and phallic songs were performed by choruses in honor of Dionysius. These were performed in an orchestra or circular dancing place, on all sides of which the spectators were ranged. Later a table was introduced, on which the leader of the chorus stood while he carried on a dialog with the rest of the choreutae in the intervals between the choral odes. This was the rudimentary form of the stage.


Next an actor, a single actor, was introduced by Thespis, and, as he played many different parts, a tent had to be erected in which he could change his mask and dress. Out of this tent arose ultimately the stage buildings of the Greeks, which, even after they became elaborate structures of stone, retained the name skene, meaning a booth or tent. From the remains of various Greek theatres that have been excavated it is possible to reconstruct , at least in its main features, one of these edifices.


Figure 1 shows the design of the theatre at Segasta. The central circle is the orchestra, in which the chorus sang and dance, and in the middle of which the altar of Dionysius probably stood. In the oldest theatres the orchestra formed an exact circle, but eventually the circle was cut on the side next to the stage, as shown in the figure. Round the orchestra, the stone seats for the audience rose tier upon tier like a large flight of steps. As the theatre was intended to accommodate practically the whole population of the city in which it stood, these rose of seats were of enormous size, the theatre of Dionysius in Athens holding nearly 30,000 people, and that at Megalopolis about 44,000. In order to obtain the necessary slope for the tiers of seats, the Greeks always chose some natural hollow, where the shape of the ground aided the design of the architect. Between the auditorium and the stage were the passages of entrance (parodoi), which, in the theatre at Segesta, seem to have been of unusual breadth.


The stage (logeion) was a long, narrow platform, standing about 12 feet higher than the orchestra, and was used by the actors, as distinguished from the chorus. It was bounded at the back and on each side by the wall of the buildings that contained the dressing-rooms of the actors and the other necessary apartments. The stage and back wall were called the proskenion; the side walls, or wings, in each of which was an entrance door, being named paraskenia. A flight steps connected the stage with the orchestra, and these steps, continued out of sight, were the means by which apparitions from the lower world ascended. The wall of the dressing-rooms, etc., which formed the back wall of the stage, was ornamented with columns, and represented the front of a temple or other building , before which the action of the play was supposed to take place. It had three doors in it, by which entrances and exits were made. When the actions of the play required a different scene, the back of the stage was covered with painted curtains or boards, which were practically never changed in the course of a play. At either end of the stage were the periaktoi, large revolving prisms each side of which bore a different scene, thus providing, as it were, three sets of wings. For machinery there were the ekkyklema, a platform on which a tableau, depicting an incident which could not be shown on the stage, was rolled forward from one of the doors of the proskenion, exhibited to the audience, and rolled back again. There were also the mechane (machina), by which a god could be lowered from heaven to earth. From it we derive the phrase Deus ex machine. The curtain, which was not an invariable feature of Greek theatre, rose from below, instead of falling from above as in modern times.


In dealing with the early Greek theatre it must be remembered that the stage was only of secondary importance, the orchestra being deemed the chief point of interest. The Romans, whose theatres were founded in most respects on Greek models, differed in this point. They transferred all the singing and dancing to the stage, and gave up the orchestra to the most important section of the audience.


The most perfect existing specimens of the early Greek theatre are to be seen at Epidaurus, at Aspendus in Pamphylia, and at Athens , where the remains of the theatre at Dionysius, on the rising ground at the foot of Acropolis, are most interesting. At Orange, in the south of France, is an excellent example of an ancient Roman theatre.


Tragedy and comedy

All Greek plays, whether tragedy or comedy, were written in verse throughout. The plot of a tragedy was nearly always a well-known myth or legend: the interest to the audience lay in exactly how the dramatist handled the plot. The three great tragedians were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who all lived in Athens in the fifth century BC. Comedy, however, used plots invented by the dramatist. The 'Old Comedy' of the fifth century BC was more like a modern television variety show than a play; the plot was quite loose, and the comedy was a riotous satire, very often political, of a particular idea or person. Aristophanes, for instance, satirised the idea of political rights for women, the philosopher Socrates, and the politician Cleon, all with amazing freedom of speech. The 'New Comedy' of the4th and thirrd centuries BC was the forerunner of the modern domestic comedy. Its greatest dramatist was Menander, whose plays were later adapted in Latin for Roman audiences by Plautus and Terence.


The Chorus of the actors

An important feature of both Tragedy and Old Comedy was the Chorus of 12 (or, later, 15) singers who also danced in the orchestra, the circular dancing-floor in the middle of the theatre. The Chorus in its lyric songs would comment on the dramatic situation. It also spoke advice to the characters. Drams, in fact, originally developed from dialogue between the Chorus and a hypocrites. This Greek word, originally meaning 'the answerer', came to mean 'actor' (hence the modern word 'hypocrite', someone who pretends to be other and better than he is). Aeschylus introduced a second actor, and Sophocles a third.