Structure of Greek Theater

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Structure of the Greek Theater

Ancient Greek theaters were very large, open-air structures that took advantage of sloping hillsides for their terraced seating. Because of drama's close connection with religion, theaters were often located in or near sanctuaries. The theater pictured here, for example, is set on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus above the famous temple of Apollo at Delphi (home of the Delphic oracle that figures so prominently in the myth of Oedipus). Similarly, the Theater of Dionysus in Athens was situated in the sacred precinct of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis. See also the theater on Apollo's sacred island of Delos. The theater in Epidaurus, discussed below, was near the sanctuary of Asklepios, god of healing. Many of these theaters were built in relatively open areas with lovely vistas, and the view from the Delphi theater is truly breathtaking. The core of any Greek theater is the orchestra, the “dancing place” of the chorus and the chief performance space. Almost nothing remains from the fifth-century structure of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, but later theaters suggest that the original orchestras were full circles; see, for example, this aerial view of the theater at Epidaurus. This is the best-preserved of all extant Greek theaters; the ancient plays are still being performed here, and this computer animation will help you to recreate the experience. Although this theater was built at the end of the fourth century BCE and rebuilt and enlarged in the second century, it does enable us to visualize what the ancient theaters must have been like. The orchestra is approximately 66 feet in diameter; this photo shows the orchestra at Epidaurus with a modern set for a production of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. An altar of Dionysus was usually located in the center of the orchestra. The audience sat in the theatron, the “seeing place,” on semi-circular terraced rows of benches (in the earliest theaters these were wooden; they were later built of stone). The Greeks often built these in a natural hollow (a koilon), though the sides were increasingly reinforced with stone, as can be seen in this overhead view of Epidaurus. Scholars often use the Latin word for hollow, cavea, to designate the seating in an ancient theater. Stairs mounting to the highest levels divide the sections of seats into wedges; at Epidaurus there are 55 semi-circular rows, providing an estimated seating capacity of 12,000-14,000. Although the name theatron suggests an emphasis on sight, in reality actors and chorus would look rather small even from seats only part-way up, and from the top rows one would see mostly colors and patterns of movement rather any details of costuming or masks. The acoustics in this theater, however, are magnificent, and words spoken very softly in the orchestra can be heard in the top rows (as long as your neighbors are quiet). On the far side of the orchestra was the stage building, or skene (meaning “tent”). This was a covered structure, originally a temporary wooden building, where the actors stored their masks and costumes and performed quick changes out of the sight of the audience. We know very little about the skene in the fifth century; however, there seems to have been some type of stage building by the time Aeschylus’ Oresteia was first produced (458 BCE), since these plays require central doors and an upper platform (the “roof” on which the watchman appears). The wooden stage buildings of the fifth century were replaced by more permanent stone structures in the fourth century; stone foundations reveal the outline of the stage building at the theater of Epidaurus. It is thought that the original stage buildings were relatively low, rectangular structures with large central doors, possibly two other doors flanking the central one, a flat roof on which actors could appear, and possibly a higher platform above this “roof.” There may have been projecting wings on either side of the stage...
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