Ancient Greek Theater: the Forerunner to Modern Theatre

1 January 2017

Unique Greek performances, which were performed hundreds of years ago, were put on to please the Greek god Dionysos. In these performances, artificial light was impossible and there were no footlights to illuminate the faces of the actors. Spectators had to have a great imagination to create a mood themselves. The actors had to loudly project their voices even more so, and they used numerous masks, to reveal different characters. Plays were done in an amphitheater, which was a circular type theater, thus, the projection was very loud, and the actors could be heard all around.

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In Ancient Greek Theater, it was not unusual to only have one individual acting as all characters. Even when the use of more than one actor occurred seldom were there more than two or three actors used to convey the story. Another difference is that women were not allowed to act, so all characters in the play were portrayed by men. Today, we are accustomed to a sharp division between the dark world of the auditorium and the over bright world of the characters. On the contrary, the Greeks were familiar with audience, chorus, and characters, all united under a dazzling sun (Webster 2).

For the most part, the Greek dramatist had to rely far more on words and less on the limited technical means at his disposal. For example, in Sophocles’ Antigone (526) the chorus describes the tears running down Ismene’s face and her cheeks as ugly red with weeping. The mask worn by the actor obviously could not reveal this effect. There were three obvious limitations that the Greek “producer” had to deal with. First, lighting effects were impossible, so the play could not expose sunlight, dawn, dusk, or evening. Except if the play was shown early in the morning, or late in the evening. Secondly, changes in scenery were extremely limited.

They usually had no more than four scenes, but even then it was scarce. Thirdly, the size of the Greek theater introduced a limitation of another kind. The distance from the front of the stage, across the orchestra to the front row of spectators, was 60ft. The back rows, were about 300 feet from the stage. So an actor of 6 feet looked about 3 and a half tall inches to spectators in the back rows. In order to make up for this, the exaggerated acting and voice production kept spectators coming back to watch more plays. Plays were performed to portray many daily events that happened in the Greek life.

Such as political rises and downfalls, stories of hero’s, stories that portrayed fears of the gods, or even success with the gods were just some events that were portrayed in the theater. Many plays were just stories that a “producer” created himself. Plays were basically started in the time when aristocrats were taking over different city-states, and running dictatorships, or very unfair governments. There was a small majority of the aristocrats who were highly amused and into the theatre. It was these certain aristocrats who made it a point to have certain theatres built and shows put on.

There were two basic forms of production, comedy and tragedy. Comedies were mostly sung, with strong instruments to back up the chorus. Tragedies usually followed the same pattern, opening with a prologue and followed by a parodos, (in which the chorus enters singing). The last “stasimon” provides the closing scene as the chorus and actors depart. Antigone is a great example of an early Greek tragedy. The theatres built had three major areas, the viewing place for spectators, the orchestra which is where the chorus and actors performed, and then a scene building which basically provided a scenic backing.

The earliest scene buildings were very simple wooden structures. The most common method for seating was to bring in native stones to serves as seats for spectators. How did they prepare for their roles and what did they do in their spare time? As stated earlier the Greeks believed in staying fit for the show by fasting and dieting and so on. But, what about their social function? The role of the lyric chorus was to be a channel for a certain deity to interact with humans.

Calame states that, “the lyric chorus is thus the line of communication between the deity and its followers, and therefore the status of the chorus members, either adolescents, marriageable women, or young wives, and so on, corresponds in most cases to the sphere of influence of the divinity and thus to the characteristics of the divinity itself” (206). Over the past centuries, theater has come a long way. It went from silly or rather gruesome masks, rocks for seats, a lack of scenery, no lighting, and characters that look 3 and half inches tall, to something so much more amazing.

However, perhaps the ancient theater involved more acting and more imagination. The benefits of both ancient and present day theaters are endless. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder, as many plays have to be, in order to be appreciated to the highest degree. Understanding your past is the key to understanding your future. As old as some things are there is nothing new under the sun. It is safe to say that the Ancient Greeks truly lived a riotous life enjoying every thing that life had to offer. The Greeks enjoyed and understood their theatre and paved the way for the art form to flourish.


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