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Ancient Greek Architecture

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Ancient Greek Theater Architecture Many aspects of ancient Greek theaters have long been studied and debated. Much of the information about these theaters is based on speculation due to the fact that so little of them still exist today. This lack of remnants especially applies to the architecture of the early Greek Theaters. However, through archeological finds and years of studying the people, the plays, and the architecture of the time, we are able to make many conclusions about these early structures. Greek Theaters are classified into three categories: The early Athenian Theaters, Hellenistic Theaters, and Graeco-Roman Theaters. Like most new inventions or creations, the initial theaters built by the Athenians were very simple. In the fifth century B.C., it became popular to build theaters on the slope of a large hill, or an acropolis, the most famous, being in Athens. These early theaters could be divided into three parts. The theater consisted of the theatron (or auditorium), the orchestra, and the skene (or scene building) (Betancourt). The Greeks would eventually perfect a technique that would fit as many spectators into the theatron as possible. At first the spectators sat on the ground until wooden bleachers were installed. After it was discovered that the wooden bleachers were prone to collapsing, permanent stone seating was built. The architects created concentric tiers of seats that followed the circular shape of the orchestra and hugged the rising ground of a hillside, following the natural contours of the land. Usually, theatrons were symmetrical; however, there do remain examples of irregularly shaped theatrons. A horizontal passage called the diazoma separated the theatron into halves, thus allowing audience members to more easily get to their seats. The front seats were called proedria and were reserved for officials and priests. The skene of the fifth century theater is believed to have been a temporary structure, erected and taken down for each festival. It was constructed using light and perishable materials until later, when theaters were built in stone. At that point, a permanent stone skene was built (Allen 28). More became known about the skene after it changed to a permanent, stone fixture in the theater of the fourth century B.C. Lastly, but likely the most important part of theater is the orchestra. In its simplest form the orchestra is simply a circular plot of land designated as a place for dance. In fact, this is exactly how many see the Greek Theater developing. The orchestra appeared to have been circular in shape and possess supernatural powers. The surface of the orchestra was originally earth and measured about 66 feet in diameter. When many of the theaters were renovated, a raised stage was added, thus eliminating the need for the old orchestra. Therefore, the old orchestra was converted into additional seating (Betancourt). Obviously, this seating was needed because of the growing popularity of the theater. An altar (or thymele) was located in the center of the orchestra. It looked like a short drum of marble decorated with low-relief carvings of garlands and satyrs. It was used for sacrifices in honor of the god Dionysus. The altar was primarily used prior to performances. However, due to religious themes of the plays, the altar was occasionally utilized in the performances as well. Between the orchestra and the skene was a level surface known as the proscenium. The proscenium was the area in which the majority of the action took place. It was raised one foot from the surface of the orchestra. Theater and drama was born in Attica, the present day Athens. Built on the Acropolis is the theater where many of the lost and surviving plays from the fifth and fourth century B.C., were probably debuted. The Theater Dionysus, like many of its descendants was built in the open air of an acropolis. Dionysus was a very large theater, with a seating capacity of over 17,000. Regardless, it was believed to have excellent acoustics. Without the excellent acoustics, audience members in the furthest back rows would likely have very little idea what was happening on stage. Very few visual aspects of the performance could be made out from such great distances. For this reason, set designers would avoid intricate detail on most everything they constructed. Playwrights would call for designs that were relatively basic so they could be clearly discernible from the furthest seats. For the same reason, costume designers were forced to create costumes on a large scale. Very large masks were worn by many of the actors. The masks emphasized the dominant traits of the characters they were impersonating so they too could be seen from the same far away seats. During the reign of Alexander the Great and throughout the fourth century B.C., a new type of theater referred to as the Hellenistic Theater was built. Like the theaters built in the prior century, Hellenistic theaters contained the orchestra, parados, and the skene. However, architecturally speaking, that is the extent of the similarities between the theaters of the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. As previously mentioned, theaters underwent major renovations that included the installation of permanent stone seating. This feature first appeared in the Hellenistic Theaters of the fourth century B.C., which were predominately built out of stone and marble. Another new aspect of the Hellenistic Theaters was the columns used next to the skene. The columns ranged in height from 8-13 feet. These columns were typically enclosed by the paraskenia. There were painted boards located behind the columns called pinakes. Also, the auditorium was slightly larger than a semi-circle, and the skene was now divided into rooms (Nicoll 18). The skene also underwent some major alterations. There were three doors on the back wall through which actors could enter and exit the orchestra. The interior of the skene was used for the actors to change costumes and to store various machines used throughout the performance. The façade of the skene was often made to resemble a temple or palace. Sophocles, playwright of the fourth century, was one of the firsts to hang painted canvases on the skene to help create the appropriate mood and setting of the play. With the advent of the new skene came remodeled paradoi. The paradoi served as a side entrance for audience members as well as a means of entering and exiting the stage for the actors. If someone was entering from the right parodos, it meant that he was coming from the city or the port. If he was coming from the left parodos, he was coming from the fields or abroad. As time went on, the paradoi became known for their beautifully decorated gates and hallways (Nicoll 12). Along with the advent of painted canvases, the decorated paradoi indicate the growing importance of mood and atmosphere of the productions. One last change was the wing space that was added on both sides of the orchestra. These wings were officially called paraskenia. Each of the paraskenia measured about 16.5 feet deep and 23 feet wide. After their inception into the theater they became heavily used in a variety of performances (Allen 11). The paraskenia added an element of depth and height to the sides of the orchestra that was not there before. The final type of theater came to fruition towards the end of the second century B.C., when the Roman influence became more prominent. The Romans had conquered the Greeks, and began changing everything in society, including the theater. Graeco-Roman theaters were built, bringing about even more changes to the physical appearance of the theater. The Graeco-Roman era fused together the ideas of Romans and Greeks into the theater. These theaters had a larger theatron, so that more people were able to attend performances. The lower level of seats was built at the same level as the orchestra, and the background of the orchestra became intricately decorated. The columns present throughout Hellenistic Theaters were done away with and replaced by a plain stage area. Most prominent, however, were the changes to the orchestra. The skene was moved forward, thus cutting into the circular orchestra and, for the first time in any theater created a semi-circular orchestra (Nicoll 20). These theaters also allowed for “machines” which were used to accomplish some of the special effects. It wasn’t until the two-story skene was created that many of these machines could be successfully hidden from the audience. A few “machines” in particular were most impressive. One of these impressive machines was the mechane, invented around 430 B.C. The mechane was attached to the top of the skene toward the left side of the stage. It consisted of a hook and pulley used to float actors through the air. It was most commonly used to fly the actors portraying gods. The Clouds by Aristophanes was one of the first plays to have employed the mechane. As the mechane became more widely used by Aeschylus and Euripides, the Latin phrase “dues ex machina” arose. The phrase originally referred to the flying of the divinity but later “came to signify a dramatic device introduced for the purpose of bringing a problem or an action to a swift, and often to an unsatisfactorily artificial, conclusion,” (Nicoll 22). Playwrights began to rely on this device as an easy way to conclude a performance when they simply could not think of anything else. Another significant machine was the eccyclema (often spelled ekkuklema). The name was derived from the Latin word “ekkuklein” meaning, “to roll out,” (Nicoll 21) because the eccyclema was simply a platform rolled out of the skene. Its purpose was to reveal the aftermath of something that supposedly took place off stage. Usually that “something” would be dead bodies (Harwood 48). Since murders would very rarely take place on stage, the eccyclema became a frequently employed machine. For example, it appeared at the end of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon when Clytaemestra emerged from the palace doors, revealing the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. It was probably a low platform, semi-circular in shape so that it may easily be brought out from any of the three back doors. While all of the information presented thus far seems reasonable enough to be fact and is predominantly accepted by scholars, there does remain a certain level of doubt and opposing views regarding many topics. Even elements of the theater as basic as the stage and when it first emerged are often debated. Some scholars challenge the widely accepted (however not unanimously accepted) view that the Theater of Dionysus embodied a stage as early as the fifth century. Those who take this stance argue that there are no architectural remains to prove them wrong. Also, they argue that any type of man-made stage would have prevented many of the special effects used in the theater (Brockett 34). Another frequently debated topic is over where the actor stood on stage. Due to the presence of the altar in the center of the orchestra, the actor was essentially robbed of the most prime place to stand in order to address the entire audience (Harwood 50). Therefore, he was forced to find a new place where both he and the audience would find his presence acceptable. Scholars also have trouble agreeing on exactly where the skene of the fifth century B.C. theaters was located, in relation to the orchestra. Some hold the belief that the skene was built directly atop the orchestra, while others place it behind the orchestra (Allen 29). There will always be room for speculation regarding these issues do to the lack of conclusive evidence. It is likely that many of these issues will never be unanimously agreed upon. The remains of the Theater of Dionysus, which can be seen in Athens today, date to Roman times and not the Greek fifth century B.C. There are many reasons why scholars have drawn this conclusion. For one, the classical Greek Theater would have had a circular orchestra, not a semi-circular orchestra. Also, the stone and marble remains of the theatron and the orechestra indicate Roman architecture. A lot of important and revealing information about the theater of the fifth century B.C. has been lost forever due to changes made by the Romans. This leaves scholars of today with scant evidence of ancient Greek Theater architecture.

Bibliography:
Works Cited Allen, James T. The Greek Theater of the Fifth Century Before Christ. Berkeley, California: University of Californioa Press, 1924. Betancourt, Philip P. The Ancient Greek Theater. CD-ROM. New York: Pseudo News Films & CD-ROMS, 1996. Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre. 8th ed. London: Secker & Warburg British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984. Harwood, Ronald. All the World’s A Stage. London: Secker & Warburg British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984. Nicoll, Allardyce. The Development of the Theater. 6th ed. London: George G. Harrap & Company Ltd, 1966 Bibliography Corrigan, Robert W. Classical Tragedy Greek and Roman. New York: Applause, 1990.…...

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