The Greek Theater
“The arts of the western world have been
largely dominated by the artistic standards established by the Greeks of
the classical period” (Spreloosel 86). It is from the Greek word theatron,
meaning a place for sitting, that we get our word theater. According
to James Butler, “The Greeks were the first people to erect special structures
to bring audiences and theatrical performers together” (27). “The
theaters were normally located near a populated area at the bottom of or
cut out of a carefully selected, sloping hillside overlooking a seascape,
a plain, or a city” (Butler 30). “They eventually with few exceptions
consisted of three distinct parts: theatron (viewing place) for spectators,
orchestra (dancing place) where the chorus and actors performed; and a
later addition, a skene (scene building), which provided a scenic backing”
The theatron was the place where
the audience sat. At first the spectators sat on the ground, later
on wooden bleachers and finally on tiers of stone seats which followed
the circular shape of the orchestra and the natural contours of the countryside.
The theatron surrounded the orchestra on three sides. Describing
the theater of Dionysus, David Taylor writes, ” The spectators seats were
in a curving area, a little more than a semi-circle and slope down to the
center” (Taylor 19). Even though all classes of people attended the
theater there were reserved areas for the more prestigious, such as the
” The audience arranged in rows,
looked out across a rounded orchestra” (Kennedy 1102). Because most
of the early dramas were religious and required a sacrificial ceremony,
a thymele (an altar or sacrificial table) was located in the center of
the orchestra. The orchestra was where the chorus and actors
performed. Arnott states, ” the nucleus of the drama was the chorus”
(Arnott 9). David Taylor comments, ” The theater actually did start
without any separate actors; there was only the chorus” (15). Later
actors were added, but the chorus still remained the center of attention.
The audience sat at a considerable distance from the orchestra and looked
down on the performance. Although the amount of detail perceived
was limited, they often were drawn into the play and became characters
themselves. ” The action has spilled over from the orchestra to the
auditorium to embrace the whole community, players and public alike” (Anott
The third distinct part of the theater
was the skene (scene building). “The earliest scene buildings were very
simple wooden structures ” (Butler 31). ” Originally, the skene was
a dressing room; later it is believed to have borne a painted backdrop”
(Kennedy 1102). This area was known as the actors place. It
was intended to provide a background against which actors could perform.
“In Greek theater as we know it, the skene appears as a appendage, adjunct,
breaking the perfect circularity of the design” (Arnott 13).
Although the origin of the Greek theater
is unclear, many historians believe that it developed out of religious
ritual and its performances were connected to religious festivals. The
performances were used to educate and entertain. “The theater is certainly
not the same as it was in ancient Greece – but it has not changed completely”
(Taylor 8). This form of art has always had a special appeal for
Arnott, Peter. The Ancient Greek
and Roman Theatre. New York: Random
Butler, James H. The Theatre and
Drama of Greece and Rome. San Francisco:
Kennedy, X.J., and Dama Gidia, eds.
Literature: An Introduction To Fiction,
and Drama. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 1102-1105.
Spreloosel, Jackson J. Western Civilization
Volume I. St. Paul Mn: West,1994.
Taylor, David. Acting and the Stage.
London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978.