The Theatre of Dionysius, which was
both a religious and entertainment structure, was a first a rather
informal structure, which was created around the sixth century. From
the start it was located at the foot of the Acropolis, the highest
hill in Athens. The Parthenon, in which Athens’ treasury was kept,
and the Shrine to Athena were both located at the top of the
Acropolis. Thus, this area of Athens was considered to be extremely
important to its citizens.
Original Physical Structure
At first, the theatre was simply
composed of a “dancing circle” (orchestra), which was
where the plays were performed, and the “seeing place”
(theatron), which was the area in which the audience sat.
There was no formal seating in the theatron and audience
members reclined on the hillside, sitting on rocks or on the ground.
In the center of the orchestra, there was the thymele
or alter, which was used on the first day of the theatre festival
when Dionysius was directly worshiped and honored through the ritual
sacrifice of animals.
It’s thought that the actors changed
their costumes and masks in a tent (skene), which was located
at the point of the orchestra that was furthest from the
audience. The chorus and actors gained entrance to the orchestra
via one of two paradoi. The paradoi were entry ramps
that connected with the stage on either side of the skene. Over many years, especially during the middle of the fifth century,
this theatre structure became more formal and permanent.
Evolution of the Physical Theatre
In terms of the playing space, the
orchestra was a constant, while the original skene
developed into a solid, elevated structure that was probably made
from stone and wood. As in any theatre enterprise, the Greeks, who
seem to have been the first to create a formal theatre for the
presentation of plays, were very inventive.
Thus the skene evolved into a
multiuse structure. Although it was still used as a dressing room,
this structure became an important elevated playing space that loomed
above the orchestra. Most believe the ground level of the skene
was outfitted with a large opening in its center that had two doors
and two smaller doors or openings on either side of this central
entryway. These entryways led to the orchestra. The middle
doors were useful for big entrances while the other two openings may
have held scenic elements, such as periaktoi.
Periaktoi, which are still used
in today’s theatres, were three-sided flats. A flat is a frame
covered with material and then painted to represent a setting. The
periaktoi revolved on a central pivot, which meant each of the
three sides could be painted to represent a different setting. When
they were placed in the side openings, the periaktoi could be
turned as a new play was done that day. Usually a day at the Theatre
of Dionysius was composed of three long plays and a much shorter
Special Effects and Improvements
This theatre was relatively simple when
it came to special effects. Two major devices developed over many
years. One was called the eccyclema. This was, in essence, a
platform on some type of roller or wheels. In today’s theatre it
would be called a wagon. The eccyclema was pushed through the
central doors and on it would be something that was to be revealed in
a powerfully dramatic fashion, such as the lifeless bodies of
characters who had been killed off stage.
The other effect that this theatre
utilized was the mekane or machine. The mekane was a
type of crane. It was set on top of the skene and characters
could be flown in or about the theatre space. Gods, characters with
special powers and those engaged in a comic bit are all believed to
have been flown via the mekane.
The theatron also changed in
time. The rocks were eventually replaced by a tiered semicircular
structure that was made of wood. This seating area created a more
formal space for the audience. The wood structure eventually
collapsed and was replaced by a stone theatron. The seating
capacity for the theatre was judged to be 14,000.
The Theatre’s Connection to
One striking feature of the Theatre of
Dionysius, and theatres constructed later by the Greeks in other
parts of the world, is that it was built directly into the hillside,
conforming to the topography. Situated along the city’s highest
hill, when people sat and watched a play at the Theatre of Dionysius
they simultaneously saw the city of Athens, making a visual
connection between the play and their city-state.
The theatre was intimately connected to
Athens where public service was seen as being an essential aspect of
every citizen’s duty. Those who served in the chorus were young men
who were about to enter military service, and by being members of the
chorus, they were making a transition by participating in an endeavor
that included rigorous physical training, a disciplined work ethic
and a high degree of skill. All of which paralleled the military
training they would soon undergo.
The fact that the Theatre of Dionysius
was a physical link between the city below and the Parthenon and
Shrine to Athena above it is also revelatory. To be in the same
physical proximity as the treasury and the goddess of war and wisdom
for whom Athens was named indicates exactly how important the Theatre
of Dionysius was to the people.
There was one major yearly theatre
festival in ancient Athens—the City of Dionysia. It was held
at the end of March or early April. Like Dionysius himself, this
event was a symbolic celebration of spring renewal and fertility, and
it involved the direct worship of Dionysius. It was the largest of
the festivals and was attended by Athenian citizens and those
visiting the city. Held over numerous days, it lasted about a week.
Tragedy was first produced at the City of Dionysia around 536 BCE and
comedy was introduced in 486 BCE.
The Lenaia, which was produced in
January, was first held at the Theatre of Dionysius in 442 BCE. This
was a much smaller festival that may have been presented in the Agora
in Athens prior to being produced at the theatre. One other festival,
the Rural Dionysius, was held in December and featured a procession
with a giant phallus, which was perhaps intended to revive fertility
in the dead of winter.
The World’s Oldest Permanent Theatre Space
Although the worship of Dionysius has
long died out, the Theatre of Dionysius is still in existence and is
used today for various types of performances. More than 2,500 years
old, the theatre is, as it was back in ancient times, still
acoustically perfect. This is due to the fact that it is carved into
the hillside and the combination of the slope’s natural topography
and of the stone theatron creates a natural amplification
The Athenians are said to have invented
the theatre as we know it today; they also seem to have designed the
first theatre space that was devoted to the production of plays. It
was an amazing accomplishment then, and it stands as a lasting
tribute to their society and culture.