Anthony and I share an interest in the theatre and we have both seen numerous performances in our countries as I assume most of you, our readers, have done, as well. In this week’s blog, I will introduce you to the Ancient Greek Theatre in an attempt to show you how it all began and why theatres have that special shape of theirs.
The first type of a theatrical performance was called a “dithyramb” (Διθύραμβος). The dithyramb was an ancient Greek hymn sung and danced in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility.
The teaching of dithyrambs was always held in the open air during daylight. A round place, the orchestra, with the altar of Dionysus in the middle was adequate for the performance of a dithyramb. People stood around the circle and watched.
When drama was born, though, the actors performing in the orchestra needed some kind of roofed establishment in order to wait for their turn and change their masks or clothes, since they had to impersonate several different characters. Therefore, they built a rectangular wooden shed, the stage “skene”, near the circle. The viewers were then standing around the remaining part of the circle.
Later on, wooden seats were built for the viewers in a crescent shape. The back rows were higher so that the viewers who were far from the orchestra could watch without disturbing the people in front of them.
Thusly, the ancient theatre consisted of three parts: the orchestra, where the performance was held, the stage (skene), where the actors were getting dressed, and the main theatre, which was designated for the viewers. The main theatre was also called “koilon” (concave) because of its shape.
The side of the stage that overlooked the viewers usually depicted the façade of a palace or a temple; it had one or three gates through which the actors impersonating people who were inside the palace or temple entered the orchestra.
Between the main theatre and the stage were two corridors, on the right and left respectively, which were called “parodoi” (πάροδοι). The choir and the people who were supposed to be coming from afar entered the orchestra through them. If actors entered from the right corridor, it meant they were coming from the city or the harbour, but if they entered from the left, then it meant they were coming from the countryside or from a faraway place.
In the 4th century, all the seats were made by stone as well as the stage. Lykourgos, a lecturer who was managing the city’s finances during the years 338-326, finished the construction of a permanent public theatre. This theatre still exists but unfortunately not intact.
The main theatre was comprised by 78 rows of seats; most of them were carved on the rocks of Acropolis. The marble thrones of the city officials were in the first row. The most prominent throne was for the priest of Dionysus. His throne, as well as several others, is still intact and is engraved.
Along the stage, they built a narrow but rather high platform, “λογείο”, where the actors were performing and they were thusly separated by the choir. Near the roof of the stage there was a kind of balcony, “θεολογείο”, where the Gods appeared.
Inside the stage there were also some simple machinery the ancient Greeks had invented. These were: a) the machine (μηχανή ή αιώρημα), which was a kind of crane that presented the Gods (deus ex machina), b) periaktoi, two wooden revolving prisms, set on each side of the stage, used for displaying and rapidly changing theatre scenes, and c) ekkyklema “εκκύκλημα”, a wheeled platform, on which mannequins of dead people were presented to the viewers. It was very rare to re-enact a murder or a suicide in front of the viewers.
One of the features of the ancient theatre that people still marvel at is their exceptional acoustics, which permit perfect intelligibility of unamplified spoken word from the orchestra to all the viewers, regardless of their seating.
One of the most visited ancient theatres in Greece is the Theatre of Epidaurus where performances are held every summer. If you ever find yourselves in Peloponnese, don’t forget to visit it for an unforgettable lifetime experience.