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Ancient Greek Theater

Autor /Dacjan Dodano /10.11.2011

Theater production , the various means by which any of the forms of theater are presented to a live audience. The term theater, is often applied only to dramatic and musical plays, but it properly includes opera, dance, circus and carnivals, mime, vaudeville, puppet shows, pageants, and other forms-all of which have certain elements in common. They are essentially visual; are experienced directly (although film, videotapes, or recorded sound may be incorporated into a performance); and are governed by sets of rules-such as scripts, scenarios, scores, or choreography-that determine the language and actions of the performers; language, action or atmosphere may be contrived, in order to elicit emotional responses from the audience.

The beginning of the theater.

The roots of the theater go back all the way to the celebration of Dionyssos who was ancient Greek god of wine. He was one of the most important gods and his celebration became crucial as a religious ceremony. In Thrace, Dionyssos was considered to be the god of fertility and he was worshipped with orgies and ceremonies not compatible with the Greek tradition. As his worship spread to the South met with the Greek worship of Dionyssos, where he was considered as the god of wine. The two forms of the same worship got mixed and the new worship of Dionyssos, the god of fertility and wine got born.

Also the oracle of Delphi had a great contribution to the stabilization of the new worship, because Dionyssos was believed to have prophetical competence, long before Apollo. Both gods were so important in Delphi, that the delphic year was divided in two periods, the dionyssiac and the apollonian. There are many legends about the birth of Dionyssos. The dominant one is that Dionyssos was born in Thebes. He was the son of Zeus and Semeli, daughter of Kadmos, king of Thebes. Hera, wife of Zeus, jealous because of the affair between her husband and Semeli, convinced Semeli to beg Zeus to appear in front of her in all his power. He did her the favor and he appeared accompanied by thunders. Semeli's house got fire and she died. Before she died she gave birth to the embryon Dionyssos(therefore Dionyssos was called:"pyrigenes",which means born in fire).Zeus took the embryon and put it inside his thigh, until the day of his birth (Some believe that the surname "dithyrambous",attributed to Dionyssos is due to this double birth of the god-Dithyrambous=dyo+thyra : from two doors).

After the 6th century BC the cult of Dionyssos had conquered the whole of Greece. The elements of extasis and mysticism, that can easily be observed in dionyssiac orgiastic ritual celebrations are not of Greek provenance. They had been transferred from the frygic-thracic cult of Dionyssos. There are two legends telling us how exactly the celebration was performed.

According to the first one, the most important element of that new worship was the exaltation of the soul, that reaches the point of enthusiasm, which is expressed by rapid movements of hands and body and by hysterical screamings. Women that had dedicated themselves to the god were moving around with pinewoods in their hands, so that they could lighten their way through the woods, where they were following by night their invisible guide, god Dionyssos. In return, Dionyssos filled their souls with physical and spiritual pleasures and at the same moment their souls are purified and exalted to the perfection of a supernatural life.

In another version of the legend, Dionyssos conquered the immortal happiness through sadness and death. According to the ideas of the orphics, Dionyssos symbolizes the everpowerful life. During the rituals and the orgies Dionyssos was called back from the dead by his followers. As we can see there is a strong bond between the legend of Dionyssos and the legend of Demetr and Persephone. The worship of these three gods was transferred as one to Greek South Italy and later on to the Romans.

The dionyssiac ceremonies, simple at the beginning, little by little became noisy and orgiastic. The enthusiasts were strolling holding the phallus in front of them, accompanied by flute, drums and other instruments, eating the raw fleshes of the animals sacrificed to Dionyssos.

Those festivities for the celebration of Dionyssos were called "dionyssia."

The first evidence of dramatic literature dates from Greece in the 6th century BC, and the first extant piece of critical writing on the origin of theater is Aristotle's Poetics (about 330 BC). Aristotle claimed that Greek tragedy developed from dithyrambs-choral hymns in honor of the god Dionysus-which not only praised the god but often told a story.

According to legend, Thespis, a choral leader of the 6th century BC, created drama when he assumed the part of the leading character in a dithyrambic story: He spoke and the chorus responded.(Encarta).

Satyr, Menade and goat : archaic vase.

Thespis was the poet who imported the first hypocrit, Aeschylos the second and Sophocles the third one. Besides these actors, who were playing the leading parts, there were also some other persons on the orchestra (=stage), playing "dumb" roles (the "followers").

In the major Athens area four festivals were being organized in god's honour: The Small Dionyssia at the end of December, the Lenea in January, the Anthesteria in February and the Great Dionyssia in March. Tragic contests were being organized during the Lenea and the Great Dionyssia (sometimes also during the Anthesteria). During the Small Dionyssia some old plays were plated again. New tragedies were presented during the Great Dionyssia,the biggest celebration after Panathenea.This celebration was lasting for six days. The first day was the day of the sacred parade (foreigners were allowed to participate). The next two days were the days, when dithyrambic dancing contests were being held. During the last three days drama contests were being organized.

Only three poets it was allowed to participate. The Honorable Archon had the right to make the choice of the three final participants. If a poet wished to participate, he had to submit to the Honorable Archon three tragedies and one satyric drama, in other words, a tetralogy. The Archon was choosing the three poets, who were paid from the State, as also the hypocrits, three for every poet.

The expenses for the chorus were covered by Sponsors, wealthy Athenians. The Sponsors were deeply respected in athenian society. A few days before the contest the list of the judges was being formed ( 500 Athenians - 50 from each line ). Their names were written in little spheres and kept closed in ten urns in Parthenon. The presentation was beginning with the sunrise. Each of the three last days participated one poet with his tetralogy. The Athenians who were attending the presentation did not pay any ticket, because this was paid to the producer by the State (Theorica), so that even the poor could participate to the celebration.

At the end of the presentation ten judges were elected one out of every urn, five of which, chosen by lottery, were deciding for the winner. The herald was announcing the name of the winner and the Honorable Archon was putting on the winner's head a crown of ivy, the holy plant of Dionyssos. The State was keeping official records of the contests, on boards made of marble with the names of the poets, the sponsors and the hypocrits.

The actors and the chorus- costumes and scenic appearance.

At the begginning the actors were being chosen by the poets. In the 5th century they were being chosen by the State. The actors were always men, even if they were playing female roles. In order to have a female appearance, they were playing wearing the "prosternida" before the chest and the "progastrida" before the belly. In order to look taller and more impressive they were wearing "cothornous" (wooden shoes with tall heels). These shoes were the same for both legs (no right and left). They were dressed in long robes with vertical stripes.

The most essential part of their disguise was the mask . Usually the masks were made of linen, wood, or leather. A marble or stone face was used as a mould for the mask. Human or animal hair was also used. The eyes were fully drawn but in the place of the pupil of the eye was a small hole so that the actor could see. The mask was absolutely necessary as it was necessary in the dionyssiac religion.

Because the number of actors varied from one to three, they had to put on different masks, in order to play more roles.The actors were all men. The mask was therefore necessary to let them play the female roles.

Female mask.

The chorus

Up to the point when Sophocles imported his innovations in drama, the chorus consisted from 12 members. Sophocles added three more. The 15 members of the chorus were entering the orchestra in rows ( usually face=3, depth=5 ), which means that although in old dithyrambous the chorus was making a circle, in ancient theater the chorus was making squares. His appearance was depending on the play. For the tragedy the chorus was very solemn and it was called "emmelia". In comedies it was funny and it was called "codrax", when in satyric drama it was scoptic and it was called "sicinnis". The chorus,who was considered to be the mouthpiece of society (in its humble form) and morality, was suffering along with the heroes (Didaskalia) Chorus from the play "Agamemnon" Description of a Theater of 5th Century B.C.

The ancient greek theater was composed by three major parts: the Orchestra, the Scene and the main theater, called Koilon.

The Orchestra was the almost circular place, situated in front of the scene (stage) facing the audience. At the center of the orchestra was situated the Thymeli, which at the early years was meant to be an altar and later on, a place, where the leader of the chorus (koryphaios) was standing. Some archaeological research in the Athens aerea gave some clues for the existance of rectangular orchestras in some ancient greek theaters, but the circular shape was the dominant one and also the closest to the dionyssiac cult (the circle was supposed to have supernatural power). The orchestra was the acting place, especially in the early years, although gradually the action moved from the orchestra on the scene and -if we want to be more specific-in front of the scene, which part was called Proscenio, because it was situated in front of the scene (pro+scene).

The side of the Scene facing the audience, served for background as it was decorated as a Palace or a Temple. The scene had one or three entrances for the actors.

Later on, as scenography (i.e. theatrical painting) developped, they were placing on the background painted tables with other themes, such as woods, army camps etc.

Between the scene and the seats, there are two entrances, called Parodoi, one on the right and one on the left, from which the chorus and the persons coming from the outside (i.e. not from the Temple nor the Palace) were enering the scene. If someone was entering from the right parodos, that meant that he was coming from the city or the port. If he was coming from the left parodos, he was coming from the fields or abroad.

At the back of the scene the were two buildings with doors, that let on the Proscenio and as far as their decoration is concerned, they might extend the theme of the scene or even present another theme.

Along the back wall of the scene was built a narrow but raised plattform, the Logeion. It was a place designed just for the actors, by which they got separatad from the chorus. It is certain that this happened sometime in the hellenistic period, because in the classical theater there were no logeion and the performance was taking place strictly on the orchestra. The flat roof of the scene was dedicated to gods and it was called Theologion.

The Koilon (or Theatron) was the auditorium of the greek theater. It was called koilon because of its shape. At first the spectators were sitting around the orchestra.

Later the Greeks started building the ( wooden at the beginning, from stone later) Koilon.

Its shape was semi-circular, built around the orchestra. It was devided in two Diazoma, the upper and the lower.

The front seats were called Proedria and were reserved for officials and priests. The most honorable spectator of the theater was the priest of Elefthereos Dionyssos.

In the 5th century B.C. with the exception of the orchestra, the other parts of the theater were wooden and mobile. At the end of the 5th century the Greeks started building permanent Scenes and Koilons.

Inside the permanent scene were kept the machines used for the performance:

1. The Aeorema: It was a crane by which the gods were appearing on the scene (deus ex machina).

2. The Periactoi:Two prismatic pillars, put on the left and right side of the scene, turning around their axon, they changed the background of the scene.

3. The Ekeclema: a wheeled-platform on which bodies of dead persons were presented (because a murder or a suicide never takes place in front of the spectators)(Greece, p.352) Ancient Greece was one of the best developed ancient cultures ever. Greek tragedy flourished in the 5th century BC. There were more than 1000 tragedies written during that century, but only 31 remain. We owe a lot of credit to that culture, and one of the most important is our modern theater today which was started in ancient Greece. If that society had never existed, who knows if there would be a theater at all?

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