Pat Breheim Professor Gregory Jones THE1000.004 28 February 2008 A Study of Theatres: Greek vs. Roman To begin, let us examine the construction of the individual theatres themselves. When constructing a theatre, the Greeks tended to use the existing landscape; searching for a hillside with the proper profile in which they could fashion a ¾ circular arena with open sides. This allowed the audience a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside as well as their fellow spectators. The Romans, being the industrious engineers they were, usually built their theatres on their own foundations. Roman theatres were constructed in a semicircular fashion with enclosed sides. The Greeks were the first to employ both stone in their construction techniques and the use of staggered seating built into the hillsides. They were also the first to employ higher mathematics in perfecting the science of acoustics such that an actor’s voice could be heard on the very top rows. Contrasting the Greek theatres, the first Roman theatres were of wood and were shortlived constructions, disassembled directly after being used. This custom was due to a prohibition on permanent theatre structures that lasted until 55 BC. This was the year that the emperor Pompey erected the Theatre of Pompey which was built both with the addition of a temple to sidestep the law and the first to use stone and concrete in its construction. The Greek theatres typically held around 15,000 people while the Roman theatres held up to 40,000. In the Greek theatre the presentation area was a circular space, the orchestra, built level with the skene. The orchestra was where the Greek choruses sang and danced as well as where

the actors performed. The orchestra was placed on a level terrace at the base of a hill, the slope of which produced a natural theatron, symbolically a "watching place". Afterward, the word "theatre" was applied to the whole area of theatron, orchestra, and skene. In conception, the Roman theatre differed from the Greek in building a spectator area that was semicircular. The Roman stage itself was large, elevated five feet and back dropped by a 2-3 story tall façade. In a Greek theatre, behind the orchestra, was a large rectangular structure called the skene (meaning "tent" or "hut").It was employed as a backstage area where actors could change their costumes and masks, but also functioned to signify the location of the plays, which were usually set in front of a palace or house. At first, the skene was a tent, put up solely for the religious festival. The killing of a character was always heard, “ob skene”, or behind the skene, for it was believed to be improper to show a death in sight of the audience. Later on, a stone scene wall, called a paraskenia, became an ordinary extension to skenes in the theatres. A paraskenia was a lengthy wall with projecting sides, which provided doorways for entrances and exits. Just behind the paraskenia was the proskenion. The proskenion was columned, and was similar to the latterday proscenium. Greek theatres also had doorways for the actors and chorus members called parodoi. The parodoi were tall arches that opened onto the orchestra, in which the performers entered. Roman theatres received their fundamental design from the first permanent Roman theatre, the Theatre of Pompey. The theatres held affairs such as plays, pantomimes, and lectures. The scaenae frons was a tall rear wall of the stage floor, supported by columns. The proscaenium was a wall that supported the leading edge of the stage with niches to the sides. This served to act as a picture frame for the performance. The Roman theatre, contrary to the Greeks, also had a podium, which occasionally supported the columns of the scaenae frons. The scaenae was


originally not part of the building itself, but built simply to provide a backdrop for the actors. Upon the scaenae were painted elaborate landscapes which helped to illustrate a plays locale, thus the term–scenery. Ultimately, it grew to be a part of the structure itself. The theatre was separated by the stage (orchestra) and the seating section (auditorium). However, the orchestra, rather than containing the chorus, was usually filled by senators, and eminent guests. Thus it was easier for the Romans to dispense with a chorus in general, which following Plautus’ example; they did (Heather, Roman). Vomitoria (entrances and exits) were often used by the audience to purge themselves after reveling too much during a performance. When looking at the differences and similarities in dramatic styles, Greek and Roman dramatic performances often paralleled their respective building techniques. When performing a play, the Greek and Roman actors employed the use of masks which made the doubling of actors' roles easier. Another similarity was that both cultures did not use women actors. Greek theatrical productions were mostly tragedy with some satyr or comedic type plays while the Romans performed several types of plays which included dramas, tragedies, commentaries, pantomimes, and comedies (Heather, Roman). The Greek performances employed a chorus ranging in number from 50 in the time of Thespis to 15 in later Greek drama. The chorus consisted of ordinary citizens which were not practiced actors. The chorus served many functions as it offered “a sense of rich spectacle to the drama; it provided time for scene changes and to give the principle actors a break; it offered important background and summary information that enhanced an audience's ability to follow the live performance; it offered commentary about and underlined main themes animating the action; and to model an ideal audiences response to the unfolding drama” (Baynes ,Richard). “It has been suggested that it was the rhythmic dance and chants of the chorus, placed always to mediate the physical space separating audience and actor, which evoked the visionary

experience that was the very essence of Greek tragedy” (Sourvinou-Inwood). Greek drama tended to teach moral lessons, whilst the Romans favored entertainment. Roman theatrical performances generally did not use a chorus, but relied heavily on the use of musical accompaniment as well as imagery and scenic elements to help set the drama. Roman actors were more vigorous in their approach to acting and the actual performance than their Greek counterparts. Roman theatres were the first to utilize both the concept of stock characters and color coded garments which allowed the audience to tell much about a character at first sight. When comparing and contrasting Greek and Roman theatres, we find that the Roman theatre was less influenced by religion as a reflection of Roman culture and habits. The Greeks were the first to employ scenic elements designed to enhance the spectacle of their productions. Several of the scenic elements used by Greek theatre were; Machina (a mechanical crane that gave the illusion of flying—hence the term–Deus Ex Machina), Phallic props (used in satyr plays in honor of the Greek god of fertility, Dionysus), Ekyklema (wagons used to bring deceased characters in sight of the spectators), and trap doors (or similar openings in the ground to lift people onto the stage) The Roman theatre was the first to use soliloquies and asides, as well as graphic blood and violence in their presentations. Roman theatre productions were paid for by the state or by wealthy citizens. The officials in charge were called Praetor/Aedile. They contracted with a manager of a theatrical company who was then responsible for all details of the production. He could choose to have his own group perform the plays. This was the beginning of acting companies (Heather, Roman) In short, today’s theatre is forever indebted to the heritage established by these two diverse and ambitious empires. One can only stand in awe of the majesty and grandeur of their


civilizations constructions, particularly in light of being erected some 400 years before Christ. So much of the terminology and concepts employed within the Theatre today is derived from our theatrical ancestors; that you could say today we owe them a rousing ovation!

Works cited Baynes ,Richard. The Classical Greek Chorus. 20 February 2008 <>. Heather, Roman. Heathers Roman Theatre. 23 February 2008 <>. Sourvinou-Inwood. Tragedy and Athenian Religion. Oxford: University Press, 2003.

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