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Theatre History Essay

Our interest in the theater connects us intimately with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Nearly every Greek and Roman city of note had an open-air theater, the seats arranged in tiers with a lovely view of the surrounding landscape. Here the Greeks sat and watched the plays first of Aeschylus, Sophokles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, and of Menander and the later playwrights.

The Greek theater consisted essentially of the orchestra, the flat dancing floor of the chorus, and the theatron, the actual structure of the theater building. Since theaters in antiquity were frequently modified and rebuilt, the surviving remains offer little clear evidence of the nature of the theatrical space available to the Classical dramatists in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. There is no physical evidence for a circular orchestra earlier than that of the great theater at Epidauros dated to around 330 B.C. Most likely, the audience in fifth-century B.C. Athens was seated close to the stage in a rectilinear arrangement, such as appears at the well-preserved theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this early period in Greek drama, the stage and most probably the skene (stage building) were made of wood. Vase paintings depicting Greek comedy from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. suggest that the stage stood about a meter high with a flight of steps in the center. The actors entered from either side and from a central door in the skene, which also housed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform with sets of scenes. A mechane, or crane, located at the right end of the stage, was used to hoist gods and heroes through the air onto the stage. Greek dramatists surely made the most of the extreme contrasts between the gods up high and the actors on stage, and between the dark interior of the stage building and the bright daylight.

Little is known about the origins of Greek tragedy before Aeschylus (?525/24–456/55 B.C.), the most innovative of the Greek dramatists. His earliest surviving work is Persians, which was produced in 472 B.C. The roots of Greek tragedy, however, most likely are embedded in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysos Eleuthereios, which included processions, sacrifices in the theater, parades, and competitions between tragedians. Of the few surviving Greek tragedies, all but Aeschylus’ Persians draw from heroic myths. The protagonist and the chorus portrayed the heroes who were the object of cult in Attica in the fifth century B.C. Often, the dialogue between the actor and chorus served a didactic function, linking it as a form of public discourse with debates in the assembly. To this day, drama in all its forms still functions as a powerful medium of communication of ideas.

Unlike the Greek tragedy, the comic performances produced in Athens during the fifth century B.C., the so-called Old Comedy, ridiculed mythology and prominent members of Athenian society. There seems to have been no limit to speech or action in the comic exploitation of sex and other bodily functions. Terracotta figurines and vase paintings dated around and after the time of Aristophanes (?460/50–ca. 387 B.C.) show comic actors wearing grotesque masks and tights with padding on the rump and belly, as well as a leather phallus.

In the second half of the fourth century B.C., the so-called New Comedy of Menander (?344/43–292/91 B.C.) and his contemporaries gave fresh interpretations to familiar material. In many ways comedy became simpler and tamer, with very little obscenity. The grotesque padding and phallus of Old Comedy were abandoned in favor of more naturalistic costumes that reflected the playwrights’ new style. Subtle differentiation of masks worn by the actors paralleled the finer delineation of character in the texts of New Comedy, which dealt with private and family life, social tensions, and the triumph of love in a variety of contexts.

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar

October 2004

Spectacle was an integral part of life in the Roman world. Some forms of spectacle—triumphal processions, aristocratic funerals, and public banquets, for example—took as their backdrop the city itself. Others were held in purpose-built spectator buildings: theaters for plays and other scenic entertainment, amphitheaters for gladiatorial combats and wild beast shows, stadia for athletic competitions, and circuses for chariot races (59.11.14). As a whole, this pervasive culture of spectacle served both as a vehicle for self-advertisement by the sociopolitical elite and as a means of reinforcing the shared values and institutions of the entire community.

Theater in the Roman World
According to the ancient historian Livy, the earliest theatrical activity at Rome took the form of dances with musical accompaniment, introduced to the city by the Etruscans in 364 B.C. The literary record also indicates that Atellanae, a form of native Italic farce (much like the phlyakes [24.97.104] of southern Italy), were performed at Rome by a relatively early date. In 240 B.C., full-length, scripted plays were introduced to Rome by the playwright Livius Andronicus, a native of the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy. The earliest Latin plays to have survived intact are the comedies of Plautus (active ca. 205-184 B.C.), which were principally adaptations of Greek New Comedy. Latin tragedy also flourished during the second century B.C. While some examples of the genre treated stories from Greek myth, others were concerned with famous episodes from Roman history. After the second century B.C., the composition of both tragedy and comedy declined precipitously at Rome. During the imperial period, the most popular forms of theatrical entertainment were mime (ribald comic productions with sensational plots and sexual innuendo) and pantomime (performances by solo dancers with choral accompaniment, usually recreating tragic myths).

The principal occasions for dramatic spectacles in the Roman world were yearly religious festivals, or ludi, organized by elected magistrates and funded from the state treasury. Temple dedications, military triumphs, and aristocratic funerals also provided opportunities for scenic performances. Until 55 B.C., there was no permanent theater in the city of Rome, and plays were staged in temporary, wooden structures, intended to stand for a few weeks at most. The ancient sources concur that the delay in constructing a permanent theater was due to active senatorial opposition, although the possible reasons for this resistance (concern for Roman morality, fear of popular sedition, competition among the elite) remain a subject of debate. Literary accounts of temporary theaters indicate that they could be quite elaborate. The best documented is a theater erected by the magistrate M. Aemilius Scaurus in 58 B.C., which Pliny reports to have had a stage-building comprised of three stories of columns and ornamented with 3,000 bronze statues.

The first permanent theater in the city of Rome was the Theater of Pompey, dedicated in 55 B.C. by Julius Caesar’s rival, Pompey the Great. The theater, of which only the foundations are preserved, was an enormous structure, rising to approximately forty-five meters and capable of holding up to 20,000 spectators. At the rear of the stage-building was a large, colonnaded portico, which housed artworks and gardens. Constructed in the wake of Pompey’s spectacular military campaigns of the 60s B.C., the theater functioned in large part as a victory monument. The cavea (seating area) was crowned by a temple to Venus Victrix, Pompey’s patron deity, and the theater was decorated with statues of the goddess Victory and personifications of the nations that Pompey had subdued in battle.

Pompey’s dedication effectively canonized the form of the Roman theater, providing a prototype that would be replicated across the empire for nearly three centuries. This new building type differed in striking ways from the traditional Greek theater. The latter consisted of two separate structures: a horseshoe-shaped seating area and a freestanding stage-building. The Roman theater, in contrast, was a fully enclosed edifice, unroofed but often covered with awnings on performance days. The seating area in the Greek theater was supported against a natural hillside, whereas the Roman theater was carried at least in part on concrete vaults, which provided access from the exterior of the building to the cavea. In the Hellenistic world, the stage-building was a relatively low structure, ornamented with painted panels but rarely with large-scale sculpture. The Roman theater, on the other hand, was characterized by a tall, wide scaenae frons (stage-front) with multiple stories, articulated by freestanding columns and lavishly ornamented with statues of gods and heroes and portraits of the imperial family and local luminaries.

The architectural differences between the Roman theater and its Greek predecessor are not satisfactorily explained by functional factors such as optics, acoustics, or staging needs. Rather, Rome’s adaptation of the Greek theater seems to have been driven largely by social and political forces. The columnar scaenae frons, for example, may have developed to house statuary looted from Greece and Asia Minor by Roman generals and exhibited at triumphal games as evidence of their military prowess. The architecture of the Roman theater also signals Roman concern for social control and hierarchical display. In contrast to the Greek world, where seating in the theater was largely open, Roman audiences were rigorously segregated on the basis of class, gender, nationality, profession, and marital status. This is reflected in both the enclosed form of the Roman theater, which restricted access to the building, and the system of vaulted substructures, which facilitated the routing of spectators to the appropriate sector of seating.

Amphitheater in the Roman World
In contrast to the Roman theater, which evolved from Greek models, the amphitheater had no architectural precedent in the Greek world. Likewise, the spectacles that took place in the amphitheater—gladiatorial combats and venationes (wild beast shows)—were Italic, not Greek, in origin. The earliest secure evidence for gladiatorial contests comes from the painted decoration of a fourth-century B.C. tomb at Paestum in southern Italy. Several ancient authors record that gladiatorial combat was introduced to Rome in 264 B.C., on the occasion of munera (funeral games) in honor of an elite citizen named D. Iunius Brutus Pera. By the mid-first century B.C., gladiatorial contests were staged not only at funerals, but also at state-sponsored festivals (ludi). Throughout the imperial period, they remained an important route to popular favor for emperors and provincial leaders. In 325 A.D., Constantine (26.229), the first Christian emperor, prohibited gladiatorial combat on the grounds that it was too bloodthirsty for peacetime. Literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence indicates, however, that gladiatorial games continued at least until the mid-fifth century A.D.

As in the case of theatrical entertainment, the earliest venues for gladiatorial games at Rome were temporary, wooden structures. As early as 218 B.C., according to Livy, gladiatorial contests were staged in the elongated, open space of the Roman Forum, with wooden stands for spectators. These temporary structures probably provided the prototype for the monumental amphitheater, a building type characterized by an elliptical seating area enclosing a flat performance space. The first securely datable, stone amphitheater is the one at Pompeii, constructed in 80-70 B.C. Like most early amphitheaters, the Pompeian example has an austere, functional appearance, with the seats partially supported on earthen embankments.

The earliest stone amphitheater at Rome was constructed in 29 B.C. by T. Statilius Taurus, one of the most trusted generals of the emperor Augustus. This building burned down during the great fire of 64 A.D. and was replaced by the Colosseum(59.570.426), dedicated by the emperor Titus in 80 A.D. and still one of Rome’s most prominent landmarks. Unlike earlier amphitheaters, the Colosseum featured elaborate basement amenities, including animal cages and mechanical elevators, as well as a complex system of vaulted, concrete substructures. The facade consisted of three stories of superimposed arcades flanked by engaged columns of the Tuscan, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. Representations of the building on ancient coins indicate that colossal statues of gods and heroes stood in the upper arcades. The inclusion of Greek columnar orders and copies of Greek statues may reflect a desire to promote the amphitheater, a uniquely Roman building type, to the same level in the architectural hierarchy as the theater, with its venerable Greek precedents.

In addition to gladiatorial contests, the amphitheater provided the venue for venationes, spectacles involving the slaughter of animals by trained hunters called venatores or bestiarii. Venationes were expensive to mount and hence served to advertise the wealth and generosity of the officials who sponsored them. The inclusion of exotic species (lions, panthers, rhinoceri, elephants, etc.) also demonstrated the vast reach of Roman dominion. A third type of spectacle that took place in the amphitheater was the public execution. Condemned criminals were slain by crucifixion, cremation, or attack by wild beasts, and were sometimes forced to reenact gruesome myths.

Laura S. Klar
Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2006

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