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Ancient Greek Theatres

Ancient Greek Theatres
Discover how these massive amphitheatres were built and used
With the invention of tragedies in the late-sixth century BCE, comedies in the fifth century BCE and the satyr play tragicomedies around the first century BCE, the Ancient Greeks had to build a huge number of impressive theatres to do their plays justice. As the centuries went on – and the popularity of the theatre grew and grew – the buildings had to expand and adapt to meet the demand. Indeed, many of these semicircular amphitheatres could seat well over 10,000 people and were used frequently during religious festivals such as the Dionysia, a major celebration centred around the god Dionysus.

While the theatres of the Ancient Greeks began as simple clearings with a smattering of wooden benches for the audience to sit on, before  long they had grown into full-blown sanctuary-like facilities. These included large banks of stone seats, a vast orchestra and acting area, a complex backstage network of rooms, entrances and trapdoors, as well as a wide selection of ornate and decorative scenic backdrops. These features, along with the Ancient Greeks’ love for festivals, led theatres to take a central role in cementing and spreading Greek culture – something the Romans would later adopt for themselves.
Theatres were made primarily out of stone, often with the amphitheatre’s seats placed into the side of a hill for extra support, while traditional construction methods for civic buildings and temples were transferred for the production of colonnades, scenery and entranceways. Interestingly, the greatest technical feat in constructing many of these theatres were the excellent acoustics, with the shape and angle of the seating arrangement and materials (limestone was a popular choice, for instance) serving as acoustic traps. These would filter out low-frequency sounds like spectator chatter and enhance the high frequencies of the performers’ voices.
The role of masks
The wearing of masks in a theatre setting was not invented by the Ancient Greeks but was a key part of all their productions. For one thing, masks were closely connected to Ancient Greek religion, with many of their gods – who famously liked to meddle in the affairs of humans – depicted in each performance. The masks worn by the actors therefore both allowed them to transform into a deity visually, as well as venerate them in a form of ritual performance; indeed, records indicate many masks were burned after each show as a sacrifice.
Secondly, masks enabled each actor to be better seen by the audience, with exaggerated features such as noses and mouths, as well as facial expressions, more easily transmitted at a distance. The hiding of the face also enabled each actor to play multiple roles – especially female characters, as women were banned from acting within the theatre at this time.
One of the most common deity masks worn was that of Dionysus, who among other hedonistic roles – such as the god of wine and revelry – was also the god of the theatre.

Ancient Greek Theatres, Discover how these massive amphitheatres were built and used