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Ancient Greek Theater

Discussion in 'Stage Management and Facility Operations' started by gafftaper, Sep 11, 2008.

  1. gafftaper

    gafftaper Senior Team Senior Team Fight Leukemia

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    Theater Manager & T.D.
    Seattle, Washington
    I was a History Major in college who played theater tech for fun. Below is a paper I wrote about play production in ancient Greece back in my senior year in 1991. As long as we are discussing theater history you can't get more historical than this...

    Greek play production and The Clouds

    The history of producing a play is both dynamic and static. Play production since the time of Aristophanes has made some major changes in some areas and stayed relatively the same in others. Through a close analysis of how The Clouds would have been produced, a better understanding of the play and the people involved in it can be obtained.

    As Aristophanes wrote The Clouds he most likely planned to produce it in the Theater of Dionysus at Athens. Having this in mind, everything written was directly dependent on the limitations and capabilities of that theater. Built in a natural bowl on the side of the Acropolis, it was a large theater seating about 14,000 people. From the Skene to the last row it was approximately 300 feet. The "Orchestra" or "Dancing Circle" at the center of the theater was about 60 feet in diameter. The Skene, a wooden building behind the circle used in a variety of ways, was approximately 200 feet by 19 feet. Amazingly, the natural acoustics were excellent, and a person in the back of the theater could actually hear quite well. However, a person in the back would not have seen very well; a 6 foot actor would appear to be roughly 3/4 of an inch tall! (Mcleish 39-41).

    Plays were performed in a competition, as a part of religious festivals in honor of Dionysus. The audience would arrive early in the morning and judges would be chosen by lot. Any Athenian was expected to be a perfectly capable judge of how good a play was. On the day of the comedy competition, three plays were presented in repertory. There was a brief pause for sets to be changed between the first and second play. A longer pause occurred in the afternoon to allow for people to go home for a quick meal. The honored guests, mostly priests, were given seats in the front, which were chairs carved out of stone. Everyone else sat on wooden benches (Bieber 63). The comfort of these benches and the length of the day's activities did not keep people away... the theater was always full. This evidence attests to the fact that these were very sophisticated theater goers.

    The theater of Dionysus was decorated as much as possible. Scenery used in the shows had to be very portable because of the multiple plays performed in such a short time. The standard decoration was to build two large three sided frames which were covered with dried skins, painted with whatever scenery was required. These frames were then placed next to the Skene on each end. To symbolize a change in location to another town, both frames were turned. A change to a different location within the same city was symbolized by turning only the right frame. The audience also knew that if an actor entered from the aisle to the right side of the Skene, he was coming in from the city or harbor. If he came from the left, he was coming in from the country. These were all standard symbolisms that the audience knew and commonly accepted (Bieber 75). Lighting was non-existent in any form at the time. However, exhibiting this same savvyness to symbolism, it was simply commonly accepted that if the play told them it was night, then it was (Dover lxx). These techniques for setting the scene of a play clearly show us today just how in tune to the theater the audience really was.

    There were two very clever devices developed by the Greeks in order to create some quite interesting effects. The "Eccyclema" was some sort of "rolling" device. Modern historians are somewhat baffled as to what it looked like and how it worked. It was used by the directors to reveal from within the Skene a scene that had taken place inside, or to bring out props and actors for the next scene. How it did this task is yet unknown. Historians are divided into three camps over its function. Some believe that the Eccyclema was some sort of turn table, built into the Skene, which could be rotated to expose the other side of the wall. Others think it was a rolling platform, hidden by a false section of wall, that could be rolled out into the acting area. The final and least popular theory claims it was a sort of couch on wheels that could be rolled out of the Skene with a few actors on it. All three devices fit the extremely vague descriptions that can be found in the literature of the day. However, the first two ideas are more logical, considering the number of actors and scenery it would have carried at times. The scene in The Clouds where Strepsiades enters Socrates' logic factory and finds several students "studying" various things, probably used the Eccyclema. As Strepsiades approached the logic factory, the other actors would have been "rolled out" to indicate to the audience that he had entered into the interior (Mcleish 45-46).

    The second device used by the Greeks was their "flying machine"... a crane. Greek plays traditionally contained some sort of interaction with the gods. Often the gods intervened at the last moment to save the lead character; this was known as "Deus ex Machina". The crane consisted of a long beam that pivoted on a pole, with a large counter balance on one end. The actor that was to be lifted wore a harness around his waste and was attached to the crane by a large hook. It appears that the crane was able to reach across the Skene and deposit or pickup an actor a few feet into the Orchestra circle. It apparently could be completely hidden behind the Skene so that the audience would be surprised when an actor was swung into view (Mcleish 47). During the scene from The Clouds in which Socrates is hanging in a basket, he would have been suspended from a crane. He would have probably been swung into place during the commotion that took place just before Strepsiades speaks to him (about line 217) (Dover lxxv).

    The above elements of theater have changed very little in the last 2,400 years, however, acting itself has changed considerably. Actors always wore masks which covered their entire heads. The masks had an oversized mouth and very exaggerated features, so the actor could be heard and seen from the back of the theater. They often were very authentic caricatures of important people. At the performance of The Clouds, Socrates is said to have stood up and showed his face to everyone, so they could see the resemblance of the mask to himself (Bieber 44).

    A Greek tragedy play never contained more than three actors, all of whom were male. Comedies apparently could contain four or more male actors. This can be seen in two scenes from The Clouds, as they each require at least four actors. In a commentary on The Clouds, K. J. Dover speculated on the breakdown of who would have played which part. Dover thinks the parts were divided as follows:
    Actor 1- Strepsiades
    Actor 2- Pheidippides and the Second Student
    Actor 3- Socrates, Wrong Logic, and the Second Creditor
    Actor 4- Slave, the first Student, Right Logic, and the First Creditor
    -(Dover lxxix)

    Most acting and play production have changed quite a bit since the time of Aristophanes. Yet some techniques, like painting backdrops on stretched canvas, are still commonly used today. By studying how plays were produced, it becomes much easier for the reader today to picture what Aristophanes was trying to show his audience.

    Works Cited
    1) Bieber, Margarete. The History Of The Greek And Roman Theater. 2nd. ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961.
    2) Dover, K. J. Aristophanes Clouds. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.
    3) Mcleish, Kenneth. The Theatre of Aristophanes. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1980.

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