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 faade 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 wasnt 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.
Works Cited Allen, James T. The Greek Theater of the Fifth Century
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
Theatre. 8th ed. London: Secker & Warburg British Broadcasting
Corporation, 1984. Harwood, Ronald. All the Worlds 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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