Greek Theatre: The Athenian Festival, Theatre, Architecture, Costumes                          

The Athenian Festival:

The City Dionysia (Dionysus Eleutherius) occurred in March in anticipation of spring planting at the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus in Athens.  

On the first day of the festival, a magnificent procession brought the image of Dionysus to the theatre. Everyone in the city participated: state officials, priests, citizens, young dancers, jugglers, and musicians. The leaders of the city sacrificed goats, sheep and cattle for great feasts. The citizens participated in sports and revelry. In the evening the people were introduced to the playwrights and performers who planned to compete in the dramatic contest.

On the second day, after a procession, ten dithyrambic choruses competed for a prize.

Days three through five were given over to theatre. Each playwright had composed a cycle of three tragedies followed by a satyr play. Then a comedy by another writer was performed. The audience came to the theatre early in the morning and watched plays all day.

On the sixth day, the judges would meet to determine the winner and crowned the victors with ivy. The tragic poet received the traditional goat, and the comedy winner received wine and figs. Frequently, the city fathers invited the winners of the competition to serve in important government positions during the following year.

The Physical Theatre: (see The Theater at Epidauros)

Epidau9.jpg epidauros2.jpg

 All Greek theatres were unique because they were built into the hillsides surrounding the city. The earliest theatres were created for wholly religious ceremonies. Worshippers gathered on the hillside around a flat area, perhaps a threshing floor, to watch ceremonies, sacrifices, and dancing and to listen to revel songs. In time, wooden seats were added to create a theatron (viewing place) and an orchestra (flat, circular dancing area). An altar (thymele) was placed in the orchestra. During the first half of the fifth century  b.c. a skene was added: a long, low building erected along the open side of the orchestra with wings to frame the performance area, (the proskenion). The skene was used as a dressing room. Eventually, a crane was put up on the skene’s roof to provide for spectacular entrances of gods (deus ex machina). At special moments in the action doors in the skene were flung open to reveal spectacular tableaux (like Jocasta hanging from her bed-post).

The Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus in Athens was huge. It seated fourteen thousand spectators, enough room for every one in the city (including the slaves- but no women); its orchestra was sixty feet in diameter. Of course, all Greek theatres opened to the sky, and beyond the skene the audience could see a magnificent panorama of the city and distant mountains. The audience filed in through the paradoi, the passage between the theatron and the ends of the skene. There were special seats for high officials and priests. At the moment of catharsis the audience could sense the  presence of Dionysus himself in the audience.     

Implications of theatre architecture on performances:

 Tragedy was performed in a huge structure under an open sky. Therefore, the play had to be presented in bold, broad, and simple lines.

There was little intimacy of dialogue or action; therefore, the acting style was broad and not realistic. The performances were formal, ritualized and larger than life.

To be seen and heard, the actors wore full masks, much larger than life, highly stylized with voice projection devices built into them. They wore colorful, flowing robes with long sleeves and long trains. They also wore huge platform shoes which made them appear to be well over six feet tall:

“The costume covered the whole person from head to foot, with the exception of the hands which were used for gestures. This complete covering made the viewer unrecognizable. The individual actor gave up his identity to represent characters of a higher life.” (Introduction to Greek Tragedy)

Originally, only two actors played all the speaking roles. (Sophocles added the third.) So parts were doubled, and actors portrayed both men and women. An actor had to have extraordinary voice control and projection as well as an imaginative sense of stage movement to convey different characters.

Scenery was limited to the skene: three doors and a roof. Sophocles was the first real stage designer. He would paint the skene to suggest locations. He also introduced the use of periaktoi, three sided columns that could be turned to suggest a different scene. He also created elaborate tableaux effects when doors in the skene would be opened. He would compose a scene behind the doors, and when the doors opened, the tableaux would roll out toward the audience on special platforms called eccylema. Entrances of gods, hoisted on those cranes from above, became more elaborate as well.