Theatre of Dionysius

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 satyr play.

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 Athenian Culture

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.

Theatre Festivals

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 system.

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.