The theatre buildings and stage devices available to a playwright in Ancient Greece
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The ancient Greeks held their dramatic shows in open air, but most modern theatres are enclosed buildings. There are a number of similarities, such as the acting area and seating; but some differences, such as raised acting areas. The open-air theatre at Epidauros. It is the most reliable theatre we have still standing, as the rest have been built over, or destroyed. The skene was situated at the back of the orchestra (dancing area), and was originally a simple tent or hut in which actors could store props or change costumes.
This developed into a more complicated wooden structure which, whilst still only temporary, was fitted with at least one door for actors to move in and out. It would also sometimes be painted to represent the front of a building; columns suggested a temple or palace. By the 4th century BC, the skene was a permanent stone structure, with as many as three doors, and accommodated the new mechanical devices that were being used. The chorus could create a shocking or startling effect by coming out of the skene doors.
The orchestra was the acting/dancing area and would have been just a flattened earth circle for the chorus with an altar to Dionysus in the centre. It began as the threshing ground for getting rid of the corn husks and evolved into a dancing area for a celebration of the god Dionysus and dithyrambs sung to him. This was later connected to a raised stage, as actors became more prominent than the chorus, which would have been raised by one to four feet. Red figured bell-krater showing a scene from south Italian comedy.
This shows the orchestra and raised stage and the short link between them. The orchestra would have been used mainly for the chorus, but sometimes the actors would move down into the area and join the chorus, or perform a monologue. The chorus would enter the orchestra via the paradoi, which was a gap left between the skene and the seating. It appears that there were two versions of the ekkyklema. One version appeared to be a simpler form of the modern revolving stage, and the other was a simple platform which was wheeled on and off the orchestra through the main doors of the skene.
The ekkyklema was used to show the result of catastrophe – death or violence, most often – off stage or inside the building that the skene was representing. The montage did not have to be still – they could interact with the actors and could further develop the action of the play. Clytaemnestra has just been killed – “Clytaemnestra: Help! Death is upon us! ” – and Orestes and Pylades have entered and exited the stage. Aegisthus arrives, believing that Orestes has just died “in a chariot-smash” and wishes to see the body: “Aegisthus: Enough then. Open the doors! ”
The Stage doors open and it is Clytaemnestra’s body The Palace doors are opened, disclosing Orestes and Pylades standing beside the body of Clytaemnestra. The body is covered. Aegisthus goes up and looks at it for a moment in silence” In this, the stage directions are not from the original Greek text. However, the author of the translation has seen these directions as the likely outcome, and they comply with the speech in the text. Electra – Sophocles. P. 115 Penguin Edition. Translated by E. F. Watling. The ekkyklema, which is a device on wheels. Dikaiopolis has arrived at Euripides’ house, to be told that he is too busy.
The Acharnians – Aristophanes. P. 67 Penguin Edition. Translated by Alan H. Sommerstein. For visual and audio effects, the playwright of ancient Greece would have relied on the imagination of the audience. Some analysts have suggested that for some sounds – such as thunder – rocks could have been used, but it seems unlikely, as the dialogue clearly describes what is happening to the audience.
A messenger has just appeared to tell news of Hippolytus’ death. Messenger speaking: “And it was here that a kind of rumbling underground, like Zeus’s thunder, rose with a deep roar that was terrible to hear. ” Hippolytus – Euripides. P. 120 Penguin Edition. Translated by Philip Vellacott. There would have been no stage lighting for the plays, as they were produced during the daytime in open-air theatres. Watchman: “I know the stars by heart, the armies of the night, and there in the lead the ones that bring us snow or the crops of summer.
Agamemnon – Aeschylus. P. 103 Penguin Edition. Translated by Robert Fagles. Another device used was the mechane – a stage crane, primarily used to lift actors playing gods from the roof of the skene, and as such was often called the ‘deus ex machina’ (god from a machine). “Jason batters at the doors. Medea appears above the roof, sitting in a chariot drawn by dragons, with the bodies of the two children beside her. Medea: Jason! Why are you battering at these doors, seeking the dead children and me who killed them? Stop! Be quiet.
If you have any business with me, say what you wish, touch us you cannot, in this chariot which the Sun has sent to save us from the hands of enemies. ” Again, the ancient Greek text has no stage directions, but the author of the translation has suggested some which he believes to be befitting with the text. They comply with the translation, and so can be trusted to the extent needed for an analysis. Medea – Euripedes. P. 158 Penguin Edition. Translated by Philip Vellacott. Modern theatrical devices include trapdoors, lighting, sound, staging, balconies, curtains and backdrops.
Trapdoors can be used for quick entrances and exits; lighting for a certain feeling or time of day; sound for emotions or to give a feeling of action (such as a busy market day, or a windy beach); staging and backdrops to give a visual representation of the setting; balconies for monologues, or to add height to a dialogue; curtains to separate backdrops or to signal the start and end of a performance. Modern and ancient theatres do have some similarities – both have and had a viewing area enclosing a performance area by up to half.
Both have and had a backdrop – in the form of the skene in ancient theatres – to show a setting. The ancient Greeks could use the roof of the skene for gods and higher beings, just as modern theatrical performances can use a balcony. However, the ancient Greeks relied on the natural lighting of the day, and the imagination of the audience for most sound and events – suspension of disbelief. At the start of an ancient theatrical performance, the chorus would enter through the paradoi – whereas, at the start of a modern performance, the curtains would open, and the actors would be in place.
Modern actors would change costumes in the wings, whereas ancient Greek actors would use the insides of the skene. The orchestra of ancient times was not a raised area, and the bema (stage platform) would have been raised by about 1ft – modern theatres tend to have raised acting areas, varying from around 2 – 6 ft. In accordance with this, ancient theatres would have had raised viewing areas, each tier of seats going higher and higher; generally, modern theatres have seating areas that are less steep, because the raised acting area negates the need for a raised viewing area, as the audience would be able to see.
Having control over the lighting and sound – and not having to leave it to the imagination of the audience – can lead to the producer’s vision of the play coming across more strongly. With the ancient theatres, the audience sat on a curved slope, which naturally carried sound; however, modern theatres tend to be in large rooms that are built with good acoustics, but actors still have to have powerful voices to carry the sound to the back of the audience.
The more advanced rigging of modern theatres means that actors can do more dangerous and spectacular stunts on stage safely. On the other hand, the simpler nature of the ancient Greek plays – leaving the extraordinary happenings in the imagination of the audience – can give a more personal feel to the performance, and a good playwright would still be able to convey his message well.
With the use of the more advanced technology in drama, the playwright can sometimes lose perspective and go over the top with amazing the audience, and not present his message – however, with ancient theatres; the playwright could concentrate on dialogue, and describing what’s happening with actions. Modern theatres have more options open to them, it seems, for the extraordinary – having more advanced technology – but the ancient Greeks stayed in the audience’s imagination, leaving the spectators more satisfied with what they’d seen.