Greece – Greek Theatre

A PILGRIM to the shrines of Europe or America would hardly include the theatre or the ballroom among them. He would not look for an altar in the centre of the ball-room and would not expect performances to begin with an ascription to God. The estrangement between Puritanism and the theatre, and between Puritanism and the dance, has separated worship and the drama so widely that it scarcely seems to one of Puritan training that they could ever have been very close together. In early Greek times, on the other hand, they were never, either physically or religiously, far apart. Modern reactions have reduced the gap to such an extent that by unexpected atavism the church and the theatre, of an amateur sort, are now frequently united in the same edifice,—the church in the foreground, and the ” parish house ” or ” parlor,” with its stage and small stock of scenery, in the background. The preacher who thunders against such ” innovations ” forgets perhaps that the pulpit from which he speaks derives its name from the actor’s rostrum, the pulpitum of the Roman theatre. When the church architect has had to face the problem of how to get the largest number of people into the smallest space for comfortably hearing and seeing some dramatic preacher, he has frequently and consistently adopted the amphitheatrical form ; he has built a Greek theatre with a Roman stage. The Greeks did not build their temples for preaching, nor their theatres for elaborate and mystical ritual. The types of architecture these represented were as distinct as their functions. The attempt to combine these functions in either type has not been successful in large structures. What would the Greeks have thought of asking an audience to hear a man speak from the pulpit in Westminster Abbey, where a third of the people cannot see the speaker’s face and half of them cannot hear him? When it was a question of sight and hearing, the Greeks knew how to build an auditorium for twenty or thirty thousand people. The temple and the theatre were near neighbors, and it did not seem strange to go from one to the other. To climb the Acropolis, pass through the Propylaea to the Parthenon, and then to descend to the theatre of Dionysus and hear the Oedipus or Antigone, was not to a Greek an unnatural transition. It was not necessary to go so far to pass from the altar to the stage ; for close to the theatre of Dionysus were temples to that god. Temple and theatre were, in fact, both included in the sacred precincts. In Roman times the theatre was separated from religious worship, but not in the early Greek days.

With even more certainty than we can trace the development of Doric architecture from the wooden structure can we trace the successive steps in the architectural development of the Greek theatre, It was not an invention but a growth ; and it grew naturally out of the life, literature and religion of this creative people.

The Greek theatre had its origin in the circular dance, partly religious and partly festive, in honor of Dionysus, the wine god. This circular dance is among the oldest Greek customs, and one which still survives with joyful, picturesque vivacity. In early times it was danced round an altar and was distinctly connected with an act of worship. Dionysus has nominally passed away, but the wine cup with a more holy symbolism is retained in sacred ritual, and as if to perpetuate the memory of its religious origin, the Greeks of today hold their circular dance at Easter-tide in front of the village church. I was impressed with the survival of this circular dance when attending a Greek wedding conducted in a home. The central table was converted into an altar. At a certain point in the service the priest took the hand of the best man, he the hand of the groom, and he the hand of the bride, and together they swung three times round the altar, while the spectators stood in a circle round the dancers.

On Holy Monday, in the calendar of the Greek Church, on the threshold of Lent, observed with a formal asceticism by abstinence from flesh, the paganism in the blood breaks out in a hilarious revival of the ancient dance. A large number of the people of Athens may be found on that holiday dancing on the Pnyx, some hundred yards from the spot where Paul gave his Athenian address.

Similarly in ancient times, the large body of the inhabitants at first took part in these dances. Later it became customary for a certain number, that is the chorus, to act as dancers, while a circle of spectators was formed around them just as at Eleusis and Megara today. The Greeks not only preserve this ancient institution of the choral dance but they keep the same name for it. The verb to dance is xopevw, and the noun for the choral dance is xopeia.

When the circular form of dance had become fairly established, we should naturally expect that a level spot of ground would be chosen or made. It would be natural also to describe a circle upon the ground within which the dance should move. This was the origin of the Greek orchestra, which simply meant dancing-place, and must not be con-fused with the modern meaning of the word. In the middle of this circle, which afterwards came to be marked in some theatres by a stone rim or border laid in the ground, was a small stone altar upon which sacrifices were made.

Between the pauses of the dance the leader of the chorus probably ascended the steps of the altar and declaimed his verses in honor of Dionysus, and perhaps engaged in dialogue with the other members of the chorus. To Thespis is ascribed the introduction of the first actor, who represented different parts in connection with the leader of the chorus. The first plays were extremely simple, chiefly dialogue with little action and scenery, but for dramatic effect it was necessary that the actors should pass in and out of the orchestra. It was also desirable that they should be distinguished from the chorus by dress and position. Thus in the gradual development of the drama two things became necessary, — first, that the actors should have some retiring place near the orchestra, and, secondly, that an auditorium should be provided for the great throngs which these popular feasts attracted.

The actor’s need was supplied by the skene, a tent or hut which Aeschylus is credited with introducing, but which in all probability was of much earlier date. The actors passed from this dressing-room to the orchestra circle. They acted on the half of the orchestra nearest the skene, while the chorus occupied the other half.

For the spectators the problem was solved in the most natural way. They no longer formed a complete circle round the orchestra. They wished to face the actors. They would naturally gather in a semicircle opposite them; they would prefer to sit rather than to stand. Under these circumstances the Greeks might have elevated the whole orchestra and turned it into a stage, leaving the audience to sit on the ground. But in this position fully half the people in an assembly of twenty thousand could not see, and probably nine-tenths of them could not hear. If the stage were low, those behind could not have seen ; if the stage were very high, the view of those in front would have been impaired. Acoustically something was needed to bring every auditor within range of the actor’s voice. Instead, therefore, of building a high stage for actors and chorus, the Greeks adopted the better plan of elevating the audience, and so dispensed with the stage altogether. The slope of a hill was chosen, and a large auditorium of horseshoe shape was cut out, while the circle for the actors was described below. On these ascending seats every spectator was brought within sight and hearing of the actors. In the highest row of seats at Epidaurus I have heard perfectly well a person speaking in the orchestra below.

To shut out the actor’s tent from the view of the audience a wooden wall or screen, with a central door through which the actors could pass, was set up before the skene and called the proskenion, a word latinized into proscenium. None of the words, orchestra, scene, and proscenium, which are so familiar in a modern theatre, are used to-day in their original signification. Different theatres varied in particular features, but the general plan of all was the same, so that one which was truly Greek could be easily distinguished from one which was Roman.

To convert the temporary theatre into a permanent one it was not necessary to change the plan, but to solidify and elaborate the parts. At first the spectators contented themselves with sitting on the bare ground ; wooden seats naturally followed, and held their place a long time. In the days of AEschylus and Sophocles the Athenians sat on wooden benches. Later, stone steps and benches were introduced. The auditorium was strengthened by a solid supporting wall, and divided into segments by aisles that served as stairways. It was also divided into an upper and a lower portion by a passage called the diazoma. The orchestra was preserved as before. As the theatre was uncovered, there was no protection against rain, but to prevent it from flooding the orchestra a canal at the foot of the auditorium carried it off to an underground drain. The provisional tent gave way to a low permanent building, and the provisional screen to a marble one made of a row of columns with niches for pictures or statues between them, and a central door for the actors.

In none of the numerous theatres excavated in Greece and Asia, Minor has any trace of a stage been found. Reent literary and architectural researches combine to prove that acting in the Greek theatre was done within the circle of the orchestra, as in the ancient days of the dance.

The generally accepted theory that the Greeks used a stage was founded not upon the buildings themselves, whose evidence the spade has but lately brought to light, but almost entirely upon the statement of Vitruvius, a Roman architect, who wrote just before the beginning of the Christian era. In an account of the Greek theatre he described a stage which he said must not be less than ten nor more than twelve feet high, adding that ” on this pulpitum which the Greeks called Iogeion the actors performed, while the chorus acted in the orchestra.”

It is interesting to note that the accuracy of this statement of Vitruvius was impeached almost simultaneously from two sides, — from a study of the plays, and from a study of the theatres where they were given. In 1884 Dr. Julius Hopken wrote a thesis on the Attic theatre in which he combated the view of Vitruvius that the actors were on a high stage. He maintained that both actors and chorus played in the orchestra, but assumed a low wooden platform. Meanwhile Dr. Dorpfeld had been greatly perplexed in his excavations of Greek theatres to find in them no trace of a stage. He did find in nearly every one some indication of a proscenium, which is assumed by Haigh’ to be the supporting wall of the stage itself. Dorpfeld, judging solely from the stones themselves, could see in this proscenium only the decorated wall, with a central door in front of the actors’ room.

Hopken’s thesis was not received with the respect it deserved. To Dr. Dorpfeld, however, it was suggestive. Approaching the subject purely from the standpoint of the architect, he had found no permanent stage in the Greek theatre, and no indication that even a temporary stage was used. Hopken’s study raised the question whether the internal evidence from the plays and the evidence from the stones might not be in accord. This led to a new study of the plays by Dr. Reisch, a collaborator of Dr. Dorpfeld, and also by Professor John Williams White, of Harvard College, with luminous results.

It may seem at first to be an insignificant matter whether the Greeks had a stage ten or twelve feet high, or whether they had none at all ; but when it comes to the interpretation of the plays the question, from a literary and dramatic standpoint, assumes great importance. If it be true that the actors acted on this high stage and the chorus acted below in the orchestra, it is extremely difficult to understand how they could have been brought into the close physical relationship which the play sometimes demanded. Thus in twenty-five instances in the plays of Aristophanes alone, the chorus and actor, as Professor White shows, are at a given moment on the same level. How can we suppose, then, that the actors were on a stage ten or twelve feet high? Again, the Greek proscenium, though long, was not broad. It is apparent that on a narrow stage it would be hazardous for actors to perform any violent action. To fall from a stage twelve feet high into the orchestra might turn comedy into tragedy.

It is admitted by advocates of the stage theory that there is occasional necessity for the mingling of the actors and the chorus, and that there may have been wooden steps from the orchestra to the stage. Wooden steps are assumed, because in no Greek theatre has a vestige of a stone staircase been found. But the shallowness of the supposed stage would be even more of an obstacle if the chorus were supposed to be on it. With that addition the stage would have been overcrowded. There could have been no gathering around the actor. It is not easy to see how a chorus of twenty-four persons could have executed a dance movement upon the stage, as required in the ” Lysistrata.” Haigh admits that ” there must have been some difficulty about the appearance of the chorus upon the stage. Their presence must have been felt to be an anomaly.” This bewilderment of one of the chief advocates of the stage theory is not surprising. It is not, how-ever, the presence of the chorus which is the anomaly, but the supposed stage. Remove the stage, and the difficulty at once disappears.

On the other hand, if one assumes a stage twelve feet high, the anomalies multiply rapidly. In the ” Oedipus at Colonus,” when Creon is attempting to carry off Antigone, he is held back by the chorus. If Creon and Antigone had been on a stage twelve feet high, the chorus would have needed gigantic arms to reach them. According to the conventional theory, we must suppose that the chorus rushed breathlessly upstairs, and that the violent action took place on the narrow stage. The difficulty is removed if we assume that the actors and the chorus were both in the orchestra. This argument from impossible situations is developed with much ability by Professor White in the treatise referred to.

Mr. Haigh has rashly ventured to appeal to the stones themselves. He argues from the plan of the theatre at Epidaurus, where the stone border of the circular orchestra comes within two or three feet of the proscenium, that if the actors had stood in front of the proscenium they would have been sometimes inside the stone border and sometimes outside. This objection vanishes when one sees the theatre itself, and finds that this stone border is not elevated, but is set in flush with the ground. There is no more difficulty in crossing it than there is in crossing a hearthstone, or a chalk line in a tennis court.

Haigh’s gravest objection to the new view is the following: “In the Greek theatre the front row of seats was nearly on the same level as the orchestra, and the tiers of seats behind ascended in a very gradual incline. If, therefore, the actors had stood on the floor of the orchestra, with a chorus in front of them, they would have been hardly visible to the majority of the audience. An occasional glimpse of them might have been caught as the chorus in front moved to and fro, but that would have been all. It is difficult to believe that the Athenians should have been contented with this arrangement for more than two hundred years, and should not have resorted to the simple device of raising the actors upon an elevated platform.” This objection, which is assumed to be fatal to Dorpfeld’s theory, totally vanishes when you compare it with Dorpfeld’s facts ; in other words, when you appeal to the building itself. I have practically tested this objection in more than one theatre, especially at Epidaurus, where a number of archaeologists entered the orchestra to represent actors and chorus. I took photographs of this performance from different parts of the auditorium. From top to bottom there was not a seat in the theatre from which the actors could not be seen and easily distinguished from the chorus if they had been differently dressed. There was no need of a stage, because every one could see, even those on the lowest seats.

The Athenians had a device for giving the actors a superhuman prominence. They used the cothurnos, a boot with a very thick sole. AEschylus is credited with inventing this likewise. The soles were made thicker and thicker, until the actor stood high on a clumsy stilted boot. Then his stature was still further heightened by a tall mask with a prolonged crown. The introduction of this stilted boot seems to point distinctly to the fact that both actors and chorus were on the same level. ” This cothurnos was awkward,” says Haigh, ” and actors had to be very careful to avoid stumbling on the stage.” Very likely, if the stage were twelve feet high. The use of such a stage as Vitruvius describes was unnecessary, and would have been too high for those on the lower seats. In no modern representations of Greek plays that I know of, has a stage twelve feet high been used to separate actors and chorus. It has been felt that such a stage would be too high. In no Greek theatre has any trace of steps been found from the orchestra to the top of the proskenion. We cannot suppose that wooden steps were used there. Why have a proskenion with columns, and pictures or statues between them, if they were to be hidden by stairs !

The arguments for a stage adduced from Graeco-Roman vase paintings, in which comic or tragic scenes are staged, are of little force, because they are representations of a later age and not of the Greek theatre of Aeschylus or Sophocles. In the vast number of vases found in Greece itself, none have a stage upon them. In the Italian vases appealed to, there is no chorus ; they are not descriptive of the Greek theatre.

That the Greeks did not have a stage may be inferred from the fact that they had no name for it. The word logeion is first used by Plutarch. In an inscription two or three centuries older, in which the word appeared, it was found to have been an interpolation or restoration of a later time.

There is little left in support of the stage theory but the statement of Vitruvius. Living four hundred and fifty years or more after the Attic drama was introduced, he had seen the Greek theatre, and had concluded that the proscenium was a stage. He was fairly accurate in describing its height, but he misconceived its functions. He mistook a decorative or scenic wall for a stage. That the top of the proscenium may have been used for appearances of the gods, and occasionally in comedy to represent the roof of a house, is quite probable, but that the whole play was acted there is inconceivable.

It is necessary to understand the original construction of the Greek theatre to understand what it afterwards became. The Greek theatre is the key to the Roman. Just how the logeion or stage afterwards appeared is easily seen. In Roman times the chorus disappeared entirely, and the space which it occupied in the orchestra could be used for other purposes. The Romans, therefore, cut the orchestra in two and deepened the half which was nearest to the spectators. The other half used by the actors they left as it was. The actors thus stood on the same level as before, and those who sat on the lowest seat in the auditorium sat higher than the deepened orchestra, and on the same height as the floor on which stood the actors. This deepened part of the orchestra the Romans used as an arena for gladiatorial spectacles. Its Greek name was konistra, while the part reserved for the actors was called the logeion. A barrier or fence was set between the arena and the auditorium, and doors were made to open into it from the side. When gladiatorial exhibitions were abandoned, the deepened portion of the orchestra was filled in with seats which were assigned to senators and other dignitaries. When musicians were required, they may have sat in this portion of the orchestra. The semicircular platform or logeion (Latin, pulpitum), thus created by sinking one half of the orchestra, has been retained essentially in the modern theatre. Musicians now play in that deepened part of the orchestra once occupied by the chorus, and have taken the name of the place where they sit. In modern times, however, we build up the stage half instead of lowering the other half. This was also done in Roman days, and sometimes the four lower seats of the auditorium were cut away. Those who maintain that the proskenion in the Greek theatre was used as a stage, are obliged to answer the question why the Romans did not take this stage already made and use it instead of making a logeion out of the orchestra.

The changes brought about in the Greek theatre by the Romans were many. In the Greek times the audience had entered by the parodoi, or side entrances. These entrances remained, but they were used exclusively for the actors. Other entrances had to be made for the audience. An archway was built under the seats for this purpose. Different parts of the theatre were brought into close relation. The actors’ room and the screen before it were united and developed. The proscenium was built up into a high decorated wall, and the wings of the skene were extended so as to close in the logeion, which could also be roofed over. This new structure furnished rooms and windows for royal spectators. In the modern theatre the name proscenium is limited mainly to the arch over the stage and to the side-walls, fitted with boxes, before the curtain. When the Romans began to build stone theatres they no longer chose the site of a hill, but built them on level ground, preserving the ascending auditorium. The halls and colonnades which the Greeks had near the theatre, to which the audience might retreat in case of rain, were afterwards included in the building itself, and later the whole structure was roofed over.

From the simple circular dance of the early Greeks we have eventually the magnificent opera house at Paris, with its elegant foyers, but enough of the old Greek words, though with new meanings, — orchestra, scene, proscenium, — cling to the structure to remind us of its Hellenic parentage.

As an example of a Greek theatre, with all its essential features well preserved, there is nothing more beautiful than that of Epidaurus. The photograph reproduced here will be easily understood from the foregoing description. The theatre of Dionysus at Athens has suffered so many alterations since the days of .Eschylus that it is difficult to find the re-mains of the ancient structure beneath the mass of later Greek and Roman additions. The visitor who today steps into the orchestra of that theatre, which the Greek archeological society excavated, is standing on Roman pavement. The chairs, as some of the inscriptions show, are of Roman time. Parts of the structure go back to the time of Lycurgus of Athens in the fourth century before Christ, under whose ad-ministration the scene and other portions were built of stone. As he looks casually around, the spectator will see nothing that is older than the fourth century. He will not find the full circle of the Greek orchestra, but the half circle of the Romans and a Roman logeion.

If he wishes to find the theatre of Sophocles, Euripides, and . Eschylus, he will need some other guide than the one he finds at the hotel. He will not have to walk more than fifty feet in any one direction after stepping into the orchestra; but it will take three hours to tell the whole story, and there is only one man in Athens who can do it from original acquaintance, and that is the eminent guide to whom this book is dedicated. Under the spell of his magnetic exposition the broken circle of the ancient orchestra is restored, the logeion swept away, and the auditorium divested of its stony sheathing. Misty forms of the past come up from their tombs. The hillside is thronged once more with ancient Athenians, listening with moist eyes to the sorrows of Antigone or shaking their sides at ” The Knights ” or ” The Clouds.”

Beyond the wall of the Roman logeion, almost hidden from sight, is a segment of stone set deep in the ground. A close examination shows that it was originally part of a large circle. This is all that remains of the orchestra of the early theatre, but it is enough to tell us where the circle must have been drawn. Old as they are, these stones are but monuments of a remoter age, when the dance of the wine god was held in these precincts under the shadow of the Acropolis. A few feet away is the broken course of an ancient wall, and near to it at a different angle another, similar in length, each belonging to the foundation wall of an ancient temple. The material, workmanship, and orientation show that one was much older than the other. Both were doubtless temples of Dionysus, one of them containing a great statue of gold and ivory.

One does not need to go from Athens to Rome to see how the Roman theatre was developed from the Greek. He may see it partially in this theatre of Dionysus, but more fully in the Ode-ion of Herodes Atticus, a little further around on the same slope of the Acropolis — a theatre built about 60 A. D., by a wealthy public-spirited Athenian.

Ideas have a vitality and a power of growth independent of the material in which they are expressed. Written on paper, chiselled in stone, spoken on the air or uttered in the poetry of gesture and pose, they may live in architecture, literature or tradition. The germinal idea of the Greek theatre survives in them all. Megara, Eleusis and Athens preserve the tradition in the rhythm of the dance. The material form chronicled so beautifully in stone at Epidaurus is an example of Greek architecture which has found a more perfect fulfilment in our own age. But the building was only the shell. The formative soul was the drama. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, were the real architects, and posterity, with its just sense of value, has more carefully preserved their works than the theatre in which they were first given to the world.