Pomp and circumstance have always proclaimed the splendor of kings, princes, and potentates, as well as the power of the sacred. Very few cultures on earth would deny that inner worth should be acknowledged by an appropriate display of outward show when the occasion demands.
An ancient concept, the theatre has provided throughout our social and cultural history a platform, that down the centuries has witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of human experience in both the fields of visual or performance arts.
Whether acting, singing and dancing or a combination of all, participants must leave feeling the performance has made an impact on those present, and themselves personally, especially if the play or piece is going to have a good run, or be remembered at all in the centuries to come.
Students pursuing achievements in any form of creative industry today will be well served at embracing avenues into ancient thought, via classical dramas and comedies at the theatre. They provide tempting entertainment, while enabling viewers to discover many truths that will assist them to move easily through societies circles during their working life.
Theatre, also spelled theater, is a live performance in which both the players and audience are participating, albeit in different ways. This aspect of a performance has not changed in thousands of years.
For any performance to be considered a success depends on whether the eye and ear of the spectator are stimulated and engaged while viewing the spectacle supplied by the performers.
It is a testament to the theatre and its enduring power.
The great charm of the many great theatres surviving from the ancient world is that they manage to still serve their original function after nearly 2500 years and are in use regularly in many parts of our world today.
In ancient Greece both mental and physical prowess was an aspect of the ideal life, one spent in the pursuit of excellence in all things and the world relating to the theatre was no exception.
The Greeks achievements in literature, thought and science are but a part of their legacy to the world at large.
They developed a skill and fluency in writing to an art form and left living scripts that survived, albeit often only in secondary manuscript copies.
They included epic stories such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, histories such as those by Herodotus and Thucydides, dramas by Aeschylus and Sophocles, two of three ancient Greek tragedians whose work has survived.
Sophocles plays were written later than those of Aeschylus and earlier than those of Euripides, who was the last of classical Athens’s three great tragic dramatists whose works still have a relevance in the modern age.
They were played out often in semi-circular theatres superbly designed acoustically, a fact recorded in the only treatise on architecture to survive from ancient times by 1st century Roman architect Marcus Pollio Vitruvius.
I have always been fascinated by the ingenuity of the ancient architects who seemingly worked with nature, not against it.
In Roman times they made some changes to the original Greek theatre ideal, such as the platform.
According to Vitruvius it had ‘to be made deeper than that of the Greeks, because all our artists perform on the stage, while the orchestra contains the places reserved for the seats of senators’.
He warned the site where a theatre was to be built should be as ‘healthy as possible and that ‘ sites which are unwholesome in such respects are to be avoided, and healthy sites selected’.
The theatre’s history started with festivals to honour the Greek Gods, when men performed songs at first during a time when the actor, director and dramatist was all the same person.
It then grew to three players on stage, followed by a chorus off stage who commented on the dramatic action with their collective voice. The buildings they played in were called a theatron, large, open-air structures constructed usually on the slopes of hills.
They consisted of three main elements: the orchestra, the skene (backstage), and the audience, with added elements such as the Machina – a crane that could make an actor fly and the Ekkyklema, a wheeled wagon used to bring dead actors into the view of the audience. Gruesome.
The theatre achieved its finest flowering four centuries before the Christ event with perhaps the most beautiful and best preserved at Epidaurus, dating from 300 BC.
It has a vast symmetrical auditorium, divided by radiating stairways and during a performance cushions aided the comfort of those enjoying the performance with everyone having a clear view of the orchestra and an ability to hear, because of the architecture providing splendid acoustics.
In the Greek theatre at Syracuse in Italy, the stories and songs of ancient playwrights were stage managed by impressive soundscapes, which brought into play the natural elements such as the sound of the sea or waters from a nearby spring.
At Syracuse a water channel constructed between the orchestra and the tiered seats was designed not only as a functional utility, but also as a work of pleasing aesthetics; both as a factor of beauty and as a vehicle for the voice.
Vitruvius urged the use of bronze or clay sounding vases placed in special compartments among theater seats to strengthen the clarity of singing voices. He reminded us ‘the ancient architects, following in the footsteps of nature, perfecting the ascending rows of seats in theatres from their investigations of the ascending voice, and, by means of the canonical theory of the mathematicians and that of the musicians.’
Vitruvius explained ‘The curved cross-aisles should be constructed in proportionate relation, it is thought, to the height of the theatre, but not higher than the footway of the passage is broad… in short, it should be so contrived that a line drawn from the lowest to the highest seat will touch the top edges and angles of all the seats. Thus the voice will meet with no obstruction’ Vitruvius said.
Architects wanted to make sure that every voice uttered on the stage flowed with greater clearness and sweetness to the ears of the audience. For just as musical instruments are brought to perfection of clearness in the sound of their strings by means of bronze plates or horn, so the ancients devised methods of increasing the power of the voice in theatres through the application of harmonics’.
Vitruvius left many instructions for all different aspects of a theatre saying ‘whoever is willing to follow these directions will be able to construct perfectly correct theatres’.
It took a while, but today’s architect’s now seem to have a handle on the fact the ancients had already surmounted many of the challenges they still face today and can now due to modern technology, access original data far more easily than their counterparts before them, at least prior to World War II.
This includes the mathematics concerning the relationship of man to nature, and his measurements to the scale of architecture.
The theatre today enables us all to learn about mythology and symbolism as we move through love-hate relationships, murder, intrigue and drama with a certain ease, with many plays as engaging as a modern day soap opera and full of love, passion, vengeance, justice, racism and misogyny, as well as comedic elements.
While many today may find studying the ancients sounds ‘dull’, there is no denying the huge impact on society that classical scholarship has provided down the centuries, with well rounded students emerging, who have also proved over the years far more adaptable than most, out there in the theatre of life.
‘…the purpose of re-ascending to origins is so that we should be able to return, with greater knowledge, to our own situation’*
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
*Quote: American born British Poet T. S. Eliot