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The Greek Theater
Evolution and Influence
  Without a doubt, the Greek theater remains one of the most recognized and distinctive buildings in the world. While we associate many features of modern theaters with their Greek counterparts, the ancient theater was a very different animal. The size, shape, and functions of the various pieces, though analogous to the modern theater, were quite different in ancient times. The Greek theater evolved to fit the changing specifications of tragedy, eventually into the form that survives at hundreds of sites around the Mediterranean. At the same time, the overarching simplicity of the Greek theater, despite the many changes, demanded certain features of the tragedies. As tragedy evolved from choral songs to works such as Oedipus the King, a unique, reciprocal relationship developed with the theater.
  The earliest Greek theaters recall tragedy's origins in choral songs sung to local heroes and divinities.Choral dances Choral songs were an early Greek performative art, in which a large group of people, the chorus (in Greek, literally = "dance"), would dance and sing raucous songs in honor of a god. Choral performances in honor of the god Dionysus evolved into what we know as tragedy, an enduring artform that the Greeks invented in the 6th c. B.C.E. These performances took place in a large, circular orchestra, or dancing area, in which the chorus performed. The orchestra was simply a flattened patch of earth, unpaved, and delimited by a rim of large stones. At the center of the orchestra stood an altar to Dionysus, the patron god of tragedy. The chorus did not use the altar per se during performance; instead, the altar acted as a focal point around which the chorus danced and sang. A simple, undecorated wooden tent, or skene, stood behind the orchestra and provided a place for the chorus to store instruments or other props needed during the dance. Audiences began to attend these performances, and orchestras started to be built against hillsides. The rising earth formed a natural seating area, a theater (in Greek = "watching place"), from which spectators could view the performances.
  These choral songs evolved into tragedy with the addition of actors. The actors, naturally, needed some way to physically separate themselves from the chorus and the orchestra. The small tent gave way to larger wooden buildings. These new and improved skene provided a degree of separation for the actors, as well as doors through which the actors could enter and exit. These wooden platforms, though still temporary, were painted with architectural features; though our word "scene" comes from the Greek skene, these paintings were purely decorative and in no way influenced the tragedy or its content. During this time, other areas of the theater became more defined. First, the orchestra was sunk just below the level of the audience, thus formalizing the stone rim; the orchestra was also paved with large, flat stones. Second, rows of wooden seats were built on the hillside. These benches wrapped more than halfway around the orchestra and began the Greek theater's distinctive architectural form.
  Over time, the actors supplanted the chorus as the dominant characters in tragedy, and theater design reflected this important shift. The skene evolved again, this time into a complex and permanent stone structure. This generation of skene allowed the actors to perform on stage level as well on the roof. The building became large and sturdy to accommodate the various machines that became popular in tragic performances; such skene were also higher and elaborately decorated with sculpture and architectural features. The new tragic pattern also had ramifications for the orchestra. As the prominence of the chorus diminished, the orchestra got smaller and smaller; late Greek and Roman theaters often reduced the orchestra to a semi-circle. Further modifications came to the audience: Stone seating replaced the wooden benches, and large walkways partitioned the seats for easy access.
Theater at Orange, France
  Even in its later form, the Greek theater remained starkly simple, and this heavily influenced the tragedies' performance.Tragic mask in terracotta First, the Greek theaters were much larger than their modern counterparts, and some theaters held over 14,000 spectators. On these grand scales, actors' tools for communication with the audience were entirely different than modern ones. Body language, facial gestures, and vocal tones, though very effective in a small, modern theater, would have been lost in the sheer size of an ancient one. Instead, the actor wore a huge tragic mask to roughly depict his state of mind and relied on his speech to do the rest. Lengthy monologues were the only means available for character development. These passages contrast with modern drama, but in ancient times were entirely necessary. Second, the theater provided no special effects, save a crane in the skene capable of raising and lowering characters onto the stage. Lighting, background changes, curtains, and sounds - the staple special effects in modern dramatic performance - were unavailable to the Greeks. Instead, all "special effects" had to be done through the script. Murder, sex, natural disasters, suicide, and battles all took place offstage; messengers then reported the results. Given the practical constraints, this was the only sensible way of doing business. Modern readers often desire to "see" these important actions, as they are often the critical points in the tragedy. They take place off-stage not because of incompetence, but because of the limitations of the theater.
  Greek tragedy and the Greek theater influenced each other in such a way that the discussion of one necessarily involves the other. As Greek tragedy developed from hymns of praise to local gods to the complex works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the theater adapted accordingly. All the while, the theater remained an essentially simple building and affected the way the tragic poets developed their works. In the end, the distinctive features of Greek tragedy and the Greek theater resulted from the interaction between the two.
  Green, Richard and Eric Handley. Images of the Greek Theater. London, 1995: Trustees of the British Museum
  Arnott, Peter D. Introduction to the Greek Theater. Bloomington, 1959: Indiana University Press
  Wiles, David Tragedy in Athens. Cambridge, UK, 1997: Cambridge University Press
Timeline of Relevant Events
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