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Skidmore College
First-Year Experience

2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes
Theater - Space

by Prof. Leslie Mechem, Classics

Physically, ancient Greek theaters look quite different from modern ones. Typically located in sanctuaries to gods such as Dionysus or Apollo, ancient theaters inhabit sacred spaces close to temples and other sacred buildings. Built of stone and semi-circular in shape, the open-air nature of the Greek theater took advantage of its topographical setting to enhance the acoustical and viewing experience. As drama evolved, so did the form of the ancient theater, resulting by the 4th century BCE in a somewhat radical departure from its earliest inception.

The Greek word theatron means "place for seeing." Situated strategically within the natural landscape, the theatron occupied a space on the lower slopes of a hill. At the bottom the Greeks constructed an orchestra, a large flattened circular dancing place with an altar in the center to receive sacrifices in honor of Dionysus. For the earliest theaters the Greeks did not create permanent structures: the audience sat on the hill slope on the ground, while the chorus and actors performed on the pounded-dirt orchestra with little or no background scenery.

Interestingly, evidence from Attica, the area around the city of Athens where drama originated, indicates the earliest theaters were rectilinear, and that round orchestras developed later; archaeologists have discovered at least six theaters in Attica outside of Athens, four of which have rectilinear theaters. For example, Thorikos, a modest but prosperous town on the southeast coast of Attica, has one of the earliest and first excavated theaters in Greece, although only the retaining wall of the orchestra remains from the earliest period, the 6th century BCE. By the 5th century the theater evolved into straight rows of stone seats curved only at the end of each row with a clearly rectilinear orchestra. In the middle of the 4th century Thorikos enlarged the auditorium, more than doubling the seating capacity to 6000 people. For a town of modest size probably numbering in the low thousands (by comparison, Athens by 400 BCE contained 100-200,000 inhabitants), the construction of a theater one-third the size of that of Athens indicates the importance of drama outside the metropolis.

Theater - SpaceIn Athens, the citizens viewed the tragedies and comic plays of such dramatists as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes in the Theater of Dionysos. Sometime in the late 6th to early 5th century the citizens set out a simple rectilinear orchestra with a skene (“tent” or “hut”) as a backdrop for the dramatic action, while the Acropolis' southern slope served as the theatron. At a later date, perhaps in the mid-5th century, a skene of wood was constructed at the same level as the orchestra. Prior to the introduction of the skene, theaters had no scenery beyond the natural setting behind the actors and orchestra; the development of the skene, which will eventually include a doorway, allowed the playwright to indicate location(s) visually - a palace, a tent, a house - by painting scenes on whitened wooden boards.

These images depict from top to bottom three stages of the development of the Athenian Theater of Dionysus, constructed on the south slope of the Acropolis (situated above and to the left, or north, of the images):
  • Late 6th to early 5th century
  • Mid-5th century with simple wooden skene
  • Mid-4th century with permanent skene
Theater - SpaceThe fifth century witnessed the development of other features that enhanced the advancement of a play's narrative. For example, the death of an individual never occurred on stage, no doubt because both playwrights and audiences thought that death could be handled in more subtle and discrete fashions. One solution employed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform which represented the indoors brought outside. If someone died in a palace, tent or house the ekkyklema would roll out with the shrouded dead on display. In addition, Athenian playwrights introduced the use of the mechane or crane (literally, the "machine"), which extended over the top of the skene and could convey actors, particularly those portraying a deity to resolve a tragic story - hence the deus ex machina, or "god from the machine." Playwrights began to incorporate sound effects such as thunder as well, by beating leather bags filled with stones against metal plates, or rolling a bronze jar full of stones on the ground.

theater reconstructionSuch technical innovations presaged more critical changes in the theater at Athens. Most significantly, in the late 4th century the theater received one of the first round orchestras. This stone theater with a permanent skene held between 15-17,000 people, and its size dictated cutting into the slopes of the Acropolis to accomodate it. The front row contained seats of marble for magistrates, priests and visiting dignitaries; the remains today include inscriptions on the seats indicating who sat where.

The image here depicts the Theater of Dionysus in Athens as it would have looked after the 4th century, with stone seats, a round orchestra and a permanent skene.

We are not sure why early theaters were rectilinear. The chorus for tragedy danced in a rectangular formation and so early orchestras may reflect that form. Perhaps the orchestra changed to a circular shape to accommodate acoustical advantages. A semi-circular theater set against a natural bowl-shaped hill, with round orchestra at the base, made viewing and hearing easier from all seats.

The Theater of Dionysus in Athens, on the Acropolis' south slope, lay adjacent to inhabited parts of the city. One of the city's streets, called the Street of the Tripods for the prize tripods which lined it, led from the back of the theater east around the Acropolis. The choregos or well-to-do citizen responsible for a winning production received as his prize a bronze tripod, which would later adorn an elaborate monument paid for by the choregos. Of the many choregic monuments which once lined the street, only the Lysikrates monument survives in good condition. In 335/4 BCE Lysikrates won for the dithyramb contest, where competing choruses sang hymns to Dionysus.