Listen to part of a lecture in an introduction to drama class.
Now, throughout the history of drama, there's been a, well, a relationship between the structure of a play and the structure of the space where the play was performed.
And this goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks...
The Greeks built the first theaters in the fifth century B.C.E.
These were outdoor theaters—the architects looked for sites where you had a natural bowl-like formation on the side of a hill, and that's where they set the theater.
All Greek theaters were pretty much the same...
There was some natural variation to accommodate the size and shape of the site, but as far as the basic elements went, those remained constant.
Have a look at this diagram...
Let's start with the area where the actors performed... like what we call the "stage" today... The Greeks referred to this space as the "skene".
Um, there's some confusion about the use of the word "skene" by different scholars.
Some authors use it to refer only to a structure behind the stage, while others use it to refer to the structure and the stage together.
And that's how I'll use the term...to refer to both the stage and the building.
[Getting back on track] Um, so, anyway, the skene started as a simple wooden platform, but eventually it became much more elaborate.
The front wall of the building was decorated like a palace or temple and served as background scenery for the play.
The building was also a storage place for costumes, props, things like that....
[Sees hand raised] Yes, Robert?
So did they decorate the skene for each play...or, uh, change the scenery during the play, like we do today?
Or did the whole story take place in one setting?
Well, everything the audience saw happened in that one setting, usually in front of either a temple or a palace.
But the audience didn't witness all the events in the story—some events couldn't be presented convincingly, so the playwrights had them take place somewhere offstage, where the audience couldn't see them, and then news of the event would be reported by one of the characters. Diane?
Last summer I saw Hippolytus.
[With approval] Excellent, I hope you enjoyed it.
Definitely. So, at one point, you see Hippolytus being sent off by his father.
Then a little later, a messenger arrives and describes how Hippolytus was riding in his chariot when a giant bull appeared out of the ocean and caused the chariot to crash.
And then, after we hear what happened to Hippolytus, he's carried back onstage, where he dies.
Exactly. [Humorously] I mean, can you imagine trying to show all that action, a giant animal rising out of the sea?
[Getting back on track ]Um, OK, the next area was the space the ancient Greeks called the "orchestra."
The orchestra was either round, as you see here... or a semicircle.
Um, in ancient Greek, the word "orchestra" actually meant "the dancing place," because this is where the chorus danced and sang.
But to understand Greek plays, you need to understand an additional function of the chorus.
Yes, the ancient Greek chorus did most definitely sing and dance, like choruses do today.
But the chorus' most important role was commenting on what the characters onstage were doing and thinking...
In fact, Aristotle—the Greek philosopher—thought the chorus should be considered as acting out a role in the play.
Yeah, I read that a chorus could have a distinct personality—just like a person...
Absolutely. In fact, you'll see an excellent example of that in the first play we'll be studying.
[Getting back on track] OK, the last space was the seating area for the audience.
This was called the "theatron".
In ancient Greek, "theatron" means "seeing"—that's S-E-E-I-N-G— "seeing place."
The theatron was shaped in a semicircle, with rows of seating rising up the sides of the bowl.
It was designed to take advantage of the natural acoustic benefits of the setting—the shape of the bowl captured sound and funneled it upwards, so that even in the top rows, spectators were able to hear the performers very clearly.
Actually, that the name "theatron" means "seeing" place is kind of ironic—[with an ironic, bemused tone] some theaters had 50 or more rows of seats—accommodating up to 14,000 spectators—ascending way up the hillside.
And this was long before theater binoculars were invented.