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Dr. J's Illustrated Greek Theater

to be read in conjunction with

Dr. J's Illustrated Greek Drama

General Design of a Greek Theater

9403MID.jpg (11477 bytes)Like other significant civic events such as assemblies and orations, the Greek theatrical experience takes place outside in a prominently established site capable of holding thousands of people. Up until about the time of Thespis, theatrical performances in honor of Dionysus in Athens took place in the agora. But an accident that hurt spectators caused the powers that be (the exact date is uncertain) to build a  new theater (the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, photo left), and a spot on the south slope of the Acropolis next to the already established Temple of Dionysus Eleutherios was chosen. By the way, Eleutherios refers to the place in Boeotia (Eleutherai) where the god first appeared in mainland Greece and where his cult worship began. The Theater of Dionysus in Athens may have been the first theater, but the idea caught on fast...as you can see from this selection of the 164 Greek theaters excavated in Greece, there are 3 minimal requirements: they are all built into a hill, provide a breathtaking view to the audience, and offer a flat performance area:

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isle of Delos


The Orchestra

IMG0020MID.jpg (9098 bytes) Even the most primitive of Greek theaters had the most important of these elements: the orchestra, or "dancing-place." It was in this circular area that the chorus, a group of 12-15 actors in a single unit, sang and danced. In the archaic Theater of Dionysus in Athens (left), the original orchestra floor was just smoothed dirt and was eventually replaced with polished stone as the architecture of theater evolved. In the center of the orchestra there was an altar to the god Dionysus where a flute player was stationed.

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The Theatron

Classical theater is all about spectacle. In Greek, theaomai means "to view" and theatai were the people who viewed the performance, or the "spectators" in a theatron, or "viewing area." Roman "auditorium," conversely, comes from the Latin word audio, "to hear." Everyone in the Greek theater was assured a clear view of the orchestra and the stage (there were no support pillars that could block one's view) and since the theater is built into an already existing hill, the seats are naturally arranged on an upward slope, assuring that each tier of seats is above the next. But even though the designing focus was on a good viewing area, the Greek theater boasts magical acoustic properties as well. A single individual's voice - or even the sound of a match being struck - rises clearly to the uppermost seats, unless it is  overpowered by a raucous chorus of competing crickets, of course, a particularly vexing problem at Epidavros, which is in a wooded setting. Below are two views of the orchestra from an excellent vantage point (not the cheap seats!)

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a 1996 practice session 1998 performance of Sophocles' Electra at the Theater of Epidavros

Some people, of course, were given preferential treatment: most theaters (like Delos, below left, and Athens, below right) have a row of specially designed seats nearest the orchestra for dignitaries, judges and priests. The Theater of Dionysus in Athens even has a Throne just for the officiating Priest of Dionysus. And boy, do I wish I had a photographic record of the time the Greek Navy (in their dress whites!) was escorted into the Theater of Epidavros and seated stage center, the best seats in the house. The entire audience gave them a rousing standing ovation that lasted for minutes.

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Delos Athens


But the rest of the 15,000 or so people who filled the theatron of a classical theater got to their seats by climbing the stairwells made for that purpose. In a typical theater, radial stairs divide the theatron into kerkides, or wedge-shaped seating areas (left, Theater of Dionysus, Athens). A walkway called a diazoma (below left, Epidavros), divides the upper story of the theatron from the lower portion closer to the orchestra. The diazoma allows for a whole new arrangement of stairwells in the upper story: as the seating area spreads wider, more stairs are necessary for safe and comfortable access (below right, Epidavros).


9802MID.jpg (8977 bytes)Like the the theater in Epidavros, most extant theaters date back only to Hellenistic Greece (3rd-2nd century BC), but the Archaic theater in Thorikos (the American School for Classical Studies in Athens' first excavation!), is the earliest stone theater in Greece, with parts dating to the 6th century BC ... and it is not round: its cavea is rectangular. Is it9807.jpg (3081 bytes) possible that round theaters were a later development? Thorikos' theater has only twostairways, which divide the theatron into three sections: the central section is a nearly perfect rectangle, while the two edge sections are curved in. The upper rows of the theatron were accessed by stairways, and the corbelled archway over one ramp survives (photo on right).
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The seating areas of most classical theaters are not especially well-preserved (many of the limestone blocks were carted away to be used as building materials in ages subsequent to antiquity). For example, although the orchestra of the theater on Delos is in good shape, the theatron is an almost unrecognizable mess of stone (photo on right). 

IMG0018MID.jpg (7827 bytes)Although the upper seats of the theater of Dionysus in Athens are all but  gone, some of the lower seats survive intact from the fourth century BC and show a superb attention to detail: the seats are designed to allow 13 inches of foot room so that every spectator can sit comfortably with his heels back (photo on left).
As the seating area of a theater became enlarged, it became necessary to build supporting walls for the theatron called analemmata. Shown below is the particularly well articulated analemma from the theater at Delos:

The Skene

One of the first modifications to the basic performance area of archaic theaters was the addition of a portable wooden stage area, which was later replaced with a more permanent design. By the time of Aeschylus, the skene came complete with a painted (probably) facade representing the power source of the play, usually a palace or temple. The backdrop also included a door, through which actors could enter and exit the performance area. Murders and other violent scenes were usually performed out of sight of the audience, "behind closed doors." Therefore, classical theater often resorted to the use of a wheeled cart called an ekkyklema to divulge the activity acted out "behind the scenes." The most typical burdens of the ekkyklema was the corpse of a murdered individual. 

9602.jpg (3338 bytes)The circular pathway that surrounds the orchestra is called the parodos and can be accessed from either side of the skene. The parodos is an important element of the Greek theater and serves a double purpose: first, it provides the audience with a way to access their seats. More importantly for the purpose of staging the play, though, it provides access to the chorus and some actors to the orchestra. The chorus never entered the orchestra from the skene, and some characters are denied access because they lack the might and right to be associated with the power structure represented by the skene: messengers, visitors, exiles, etc (see mini-lecture below for an example of staging a Greek play). It is not uncommon, however, for characters to move freely between the skene and the orchestra. In the case of human beings, ramps or stairways serve their purpose, but in the case of divine messengers or visitors, a mechane (crane) would lift them bodily into the air.

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are the ramps that give access to the paradoi, and the Romans were particularly fond of creating elaborate stage areas. The archway in the photo on the left at Epidavros would have covered the stage left eisodos.
The Romans also greatly elaborated upon the simple Greek skene itself. On the left is the little theater at Oropos, with its accompanying Roman stoa, the sort which is usually two-storied and is used as a storage area for scenery and props, as well as the actors' changing room. On the right is the celebrated Bema of Phaedrus, a Roman addition to the theater of Dionysus in Athens.

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Oropos Athens

The Staging of Play

The purpose of this section is to prove the usefulness of knowing this information. Words in blue were introduced in this lecture. It can be helpful to know how the playwright would have used the different parts of the classical theater to stage his play. The orchestra was the chorus' domain; actors generally remained on the skene unless they entered the performance area through a parodos directly onto the orchestra. It is important to remember that the skene represents the power source in the play. Such knowledge can help to illuminate the underlying themes of a play. For example:

In the Agamemnon, the skene is dressed to look like the Palace at Mycenae (Argos). Who enters the performance area through the double doors of the skene? Clytemnestra. Who is in charge? Clytemnestra. Agamemnon, the King, arrives home after the war, but enters directly into the orchestra (via the parodos) in his chariot and joins the multitude outside the royal house, like any other citizen of the city (represented by the chorus, already inhabiting that space) - this is a clear signal that he does not hold the upper hand in his own house. He eventually does pass through the doors of the skene - and the next time we see him, he is being wheeled out through those doors again - a corpse on the ekkyklema. After the murders of Cassandra and Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus make a final appearance, passing through the double doors of the skene one more time to appear before the people of Argos as their King and Queen. A nice touch is that this scene is replayed in reverse in The Libation Bearers - the second play of the trilogy - when it is Orestes who begins as a visitor in his own home, is welcomed into the royal house through the door of the skene, and then wheels the corpses of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra out through the same double doors on the same ekkyklema they used in the first play.

Tour theaters I don't have pictures of!
Learn more about Greek Stagecraft including the buildings, scenery, props and actors' masks.
See some great aerial views of these theaters and others