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Athens – The Theatre of Dionysus
The sacred precinct of Dionysus, god of the vine, fertility, revelry, and patron of theatrical competitions, is enclosed by a polygonal wall, of which some traces are still visible, and contains the ruined foundations of two temples of different periods, an altar, a stoa, and votive monuments, as well as the remains of a fourth century BC theatre.
Passing through the main gate we come to the conglomerate foundations of the second temple of Dionysus. This temple, built around the year 420 BC, consisted of the sanctuary proper (which housed the chryselephantine statue of the god by Alcamenes, a famous pupil of Pheidias; all that remains of this masterpiece are the foundations of its great base) and the pronaos on the east.
To the right of the foundations of the temple stands a tall marble pillar on which is recorded a decree of the Amphictyonic Council honoring the Dionysian Guild of Actors, an important body enjoying many privileges and numbering among its members poets and musicians. A little farther on is a delightful circular altar of Dionysus dating from the second century BC, carved with garlands, rosettes and masks of Silenus. A short distance north of this altar, just before we reach the theatre, are the blue limestone foundations of the first temple, a small construction in antis, built under Peisistratus, which housed the primitive wooden image (xoanon) of Dionysus. East of the foundations of this temple lie those of a large stoa with a Doric colonnade which was intended for the convenience of audiences and served as a foyer during intermissions.
The Greeks sited their theatres within easy reach of the city, and adapting their construction to the natural contour of hills built them on the slopes. The earliest theatres were intended for the performance of dithyrambic choruses and consisted of two principal parts: the orchestra – literally, “the dancing place” – a circle of beaten earth, roughly 20 m. in diameter, with the thymele (altar of the god) in the center, and the theatre, that is the auditorium, built in the form of two-thirds of a circle.
At the Great Dionysia during which a he-goat dedicated to the god was sacrificed, the chorus, carrying phallic symbols and dressed in goat-skins to resemble satyrs, sang the Dithyrambos to the accompaniment of a flute, and danced round the thymele of Dionysus Eleutherius. The Dithyrambos, a combination of both song and dance, was a passionate recital of the suffering and exploits of the god and later developed into a special class of Greek lyric poetry. One of the earliest forms of the drama, tragedy (literally goat-song), is derived from the Dithyrambos.
No lover of the theatre can fail to be moved as he stands before the Theatre of Dionysus, for this hallowed spot is the birthplace of Attic drama, where the plays of the great masters, Aeschylus, Sophochles, Euripides and Aristophanes were first performed.
In the Classical period there was no stage and the actors performed on the orchestra. In the Hellenistic period a colonnade was added behind the orchestra, to the proscenium. This colonnade supported a balcony on which the actors representing gods made their appearance; hence the term theologeion (Speaking-place of the gods). The chorus entered the orchestra along passages on either side of the stage. The audience also entered the theatre through the orchestra, from which they climbed the flights of steps leading to their seats. In Roman times seats for the spectators were also added to the orchestra. The actors then started performing on the proscenium, which was levelled above the ground in order to enhance the visibility of the spectators below them. The proscenium was later adorned with statues and other sculptures, particularly by the Emperor Nero in the first century AD.
The proscenium we see today was erected in the third century AD and dedicated to Dionysus by the Athenian archon Phaedrus (AD 224-225) as an inscription informs us. The high reliefs are Attic work of the first century AD and were taken from the proscenium set up by Nero. They represent scenes from the birth and worship of Dionysus. Left of the stairs to the hyposcenium Silenus crouches in the posture of Atlas. Right of the stairs: the Birth of Dionysus; Zeus is shown seated while Hermes stands before him holding the new-born infant in his arms; at the sides two kouretes (demigods, to whose protection his mother Rea entrusted the infant) are performing the Pyrrhic dance; then a scene of sacrifice: on the left Icarius leads a goat and is followed by his daughter Erigone and her dog Maera; at the right Dionysus followed by a young satyr initiates Icarius into the cultivation of the vine; another figure of Silenus crouches in the attitude of Atlas; then the Marriage of Dionysus with the Basilissa (Queen), with Tyche (Goddess of Fortune) carrying a cornucopia, and finally the scene of the enthronement of Dionysus in the theatre. In the presence of his bride, with Theseus representing Athens, Dionysus receives the homage of the gods and heroes of Attica; above them is the upper part of a Doric building, presumably the Parthenon.
Stage machinery and scenery were employed in the Greek Theatre from at least the fourth century BC. A light portable screen on which was painted the scene of the play (in tragedies invariably the facade of a royal palace) served as the background. Scenic changes were mainly effected by a periaktos, set up towards the foreground on each side of the stage. The periaktos was a device consisting of three side-scenes, turning on wooden pins and painted to suggest changes of locality, thus permitting the scenery at one or both ends of the stage to change, the background remaining always the same. The scene to the right of the audience indicated the city; to the left a far country. Actors entering from the right were shown as coming from the immediate neighborhood; those entering from the left, from a distance. There was a whole repertoire of stage noises, thunder, for example, being imitated by rolling casks filled with small stones down metal chutes. In various parts of the theatre bronze vessels of different tones amplified the actor’s voices and carried them to the most distant parts of the auditorium.
In the earliest days of the drama there was only one actor in the cast; later a second was introduced, and by the time of Sophocles (495-406 BC) the usual number was three. These three actors (apart from the chorus) constituted the entire cast. This called for great versatility as they had to take all the parts in the play, including those of women, and necessitated rapid and frequent changes of costume. Besides acting, the players were required to be skilled dancers and singers, and since their features were hidden behind masks corresponding to the type of character they represented in a play they also had to be accomplished mimes. Certain conventions were observed as to their height and color of the hair: goddesses and young persons of either sex wore fair hair; gods, or older persons, were represented by brown hair; white hair was the color of old age, while black was reserved for Pluto (In Greek mythology, Prince of Hades) and his minions.
Actors playing heroic roles in tragedy wore thick-soled buskins to enhance their presence. Kings and queens wore splendid long-sleeved robes reaching to their feet, richly embroidered with bands of color. Actors impersonating women wore, of course, chiton and peplos, which varied in color according to the character they portrayed. Those playing the part of Teiresias, or other soothsayers, wore a net-like woolen robe. Hunters and athletes wore a purple mantle rolled round the left arm. Soiled garments of somber hue were symbolic of persons in distress.
The chorus, to the strains of a solemn march, entered the orchestra with the flute player at their head, sometimes in three lines of five, or five lines of three, where after arranging themselves in the form of a square they remained until the end. The chorus represented the perfect audience, and through their choryphaeos (leader), the third in the line nearest the spectators; the second and fourth were the leaders of the semi-choruses, their actions and comments assisted to the development of the play. As the plot unfolded it would change position on the orchestra, and if the action required it, break up into semi-choruses. At crucial moments the chorus would execute long lyrical pieces with appropriate gestures and dances.
Apart from being padded in comical fashion, actors in comedy mostly wore clothes modeled on those of everyday life. At times a short close-fitting tunic made them appear almost naked, while yet again in other comic plays the actors would wear either the usual goat’s skin cloak or a threadbare mantle. Slaves were dressed in a leather jerkin and tight-fitting trousers. In a comedy the members of the chorus, twenty-four in number, were dressed according to the nature of the play. In Aristophanes’ comedies for example, the chorus in The Birds wore bird-masks with open beaks, combs, feathers and wings; in The Wasps they carried stings; in The Clouds, they wore voluminous transparent draperies, while in The Frogs they were dressed in costumes to represent these amphibians.
It must be noted that the ancient theatre was no mere recreation, but a semi-religious function under the absolute control of the State. No individual had the right to produce a play without the sanction of the selection board presided over by the first archon, to whose judgement the poets submitted their plays for acceptance. Theatrical representations were an essential part of the religious festivals of the Dionysia in which, as we have already noted, the drama had its origins.
In addition to paying the successful authors an honorarium, the State engaged the actors, financed the production of the plays and undertook to maintain order during the performances. The expense of providing, and training the chorus was borne by a wealthy citizen, the choregus (sponsor), whom custom obliged to perform this public duty. Once accepted, authors had an entirely free hand in directing and producing their plays, in which they often acted themselves, sometimes designing the costumes and even composing the music. Since they could count on the support of the State and were certain of large and discerning audiences the standard of acting and production of the plays was correspondingly high.
These theatrical competitions took place only twice a year. The first and more ancient took place during the Lenaea, or Feast of Vats, in the month of Gamelion (JanuaryFebruary) and the second during the Great Urban Dionysia which was celebrated with exceptional splendor in the month of Elaphebolion (March-April).
For days before the celebration of the Great Urban Dionysia the whole town was astir. Business was at a standstill, the law courts were closed and sentences suspended. The festival lasted for six days, three of them devoted to the plays, three tragedies and a satyric play, or comedy, being performed each day, in all twelve plays. From daybreak immense crowds besieged the theatre, for it was only at the Great Urban Dionysia that plays could be seen during the author’s lifetime.
Every play was judged by a committee, composed of one representative from each phylae, chosen by lot and bound by oath to give its judgement on the merits of the plays, the sponsors and the actors. At the end of the contests prizes were awarded. A golden crown was publicly conferred upon the winning poet. A crown was also awarded to the best choregus, who moreover had the privilege of dedicating a votive offering (usually a tripod) to Dionysus, while besides their customary honoraria monetary prizes were awarded to the best actors.
The auditorium, hewn out of the rock of the Acropolis, measuring approximately 100 m. in diameter, rises in tiers to a height of 30 m. Built to accommodate audiences estimated at between fourteen and eighteen thousand, it could, if necessary, seat a larger number. To allow easy access to the various parts of the theatre the parallel tiers of seats were divided horizontally into three concentric zones, running from one end of the auditorium to the other, and vertically into thirteen kerkides (wedge-like blocks).
The front row consisted of sixty-seven marble stalls reserved for priests, generals, heralds, and other high ranking officials, ambassadors of foreign states, and any other citizen or distinguished foreigner it was desired to honor. The existing stalls date from the first century AD and are presumably copies of older originals.
The central seat in the first row is the throne of the Priest of Dionysus Eleutherius; in spite of its damaged condition it has retained much of its former splendor. The throne is supported on lions’ paws; below the seat a front panel depicts a fight between kneeling Arimaspi and winged griffins. The griffins were mythical monsters believed to be the guardians of the earth’s gold, and the one-eyed Arimaspi, a Scythian tribe of ferocious robbers living on the northeastern borders of the world, somewhere in Siberia.
Behind the throne of the Priest of Dionysus stands part of the pedestal, with a Latin inscription, of a statue raised in honor of the Emperor Hadrian. To the left of the pedestal is the seat of the Priest of Olympian Victory. To the right another doublestall bears the inscription stratigou and kirikos, indicating that the seats were intended for a general and a herald. Higher up, on the third row and left of the seat of the Priest of Olympian Victory, is the throne offered to Marcus Ulpius Eubiotus, a benefactor of the City of Athens, and higher to the left of this is the base of a statue set up in honor of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Parts of the bases of statues honoring other illustrious personages are to be found in various places in the auditorium.
Above the Theatre of Dionysus, and under the Wall of Cimon, the face of the rock is cut vertically forming a scarp within which is a cave; at the entrance lie the scanty remains of the choregic monument erected by Thrasyllus of Dekeleia in 320 BC. This monument stood on a base of two steps and consisted of three pilasters supporting an architrave on which, in addition to the dedicatory inscription, the frieze, with a design of leaves and fruit, was carved in low relief. The architrave was surmounted by a three-stepped base on which rested the victor’s bronze tripod. Later, in 271 BC, Thrasyllus’ son, Trasycles, set up a statue of Dionysus as well as a votive tablet, recording his own triumphs as choregus. The statue was removed by Lord Elgin and later sold to the British Museum; the monument itself was destroyed during the siege of the Acropolis in 1826.
On the higher level, at the foot of the wall of Cimon, stand two Corinthian columns erected during the Roman period for the support of votive tripods.
East of the Theatre of Dionysus was the Odeion of Pericles, built mostly of timber. This splendid building, completed in 443 BC for rehearsal of the music and drama contests held during the Panathenaea and Dionysia, was considered the finest in the Hellenic world and served as the prototype of all successive odeia. It was destroyed by fire during Sulla’s siege of Athens in 86 BC but was rebuilt on the same plan some twenty years later.
A path above the last tier of the theatre leads directly to the Asclepeion, which may also be reached from the proscenium by following a winding path to the northwest, skirting the Stoa of Eumenes.
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