Of the many types of entertainment and past times we have today, theatre is still one of the most loved. For this we have to thank the very earliest forms of ancient Greek and Roman theatre. These ancient time plays were staged often in honor of a god and have paved the way for theatre as we know today. A particular aspect that has had a remarkable effect on the way theatre has evolved is the architecture of ancient theatres. The architecture of ancient Greek and Roman theatres have had a remarkable effect on future theatre designs including the architecture of the great Elizabethan theatres. The Elizabethan time period in England was ever so popular and well accepted that specialised theatres were having to be built to cope with the large audiences.
Before this plays were being held in grape cellars and old farm houses, and so were not able to provide a large enough venue or provide the larger than life atmosphere play houses needed. By the time Elizabethan theatre was in the British mainstream the plays were being held in two types of theatre, the public and private. The public Elizabethan theatres were much larger than the private ones and were the preferred theatre of Shakespeare and other great play writes to stage a production. The first such theatre was built by James Burbage in 1576 and was called simply the theatre.
Soon after other public theatres were built, including Shakespeare own The Globe which was built in 1599. They could appear round, square or many sided and where built surrounding a central courtyard. Performances were only during daylight because there was no artificial lighting, even though many plays had night scenes. In most theatres it consisted of three levels of viewing galleries and stood about 10 metres high. A well as being viewer platforms the part of the upper two galleries that went behind the stage were used as a balcony to give the play vertical action as well as horizontal. The courtyard, called the pit, measured about 17 metres in diameter.
Those wishing to watch the show from the pit could do so for a minimal amount of money. People viewing a play in the pit surrounded the stage from three sides, thus giving the audience a sense of being right in the action. For those that were willing to pay a bit more there were the galleries with seats. But although these galleries provided a seat to sit on they also stank of urine and sweat since there were no toilets and people those days didnt bath much. These rather large theatres could hold as much as 5600 people and were generally the choice of theatre for poorer people, but built around an attractive courtyard with an open roof these theatres were far from something shabby intended for lower class citizens. Proof that the public theatre was not a cheap alternative for poorer people is the fact that Shakespeare and other well known play writers wrote almost all their plays specifically for the public theatres and often despised performing a play in the smaller rich persons private theatre.
The Private Elizabethan theatres charged higher admission prices and were designed to attract upper class citizens. Although these theatres were often owned by royalty and attracted rather rich people to view plays they quickly went out of fashion and eventually ceased to exist because Shakespeare wrote all his plays for public theatres. Because of the unpopularity of these theatres not much is known about their architecture except that they were small, had little equipment or basic machinery to assist behind the scenes work and had artificial lighting in the form of petrol lanterns. In typical Ancient Greek tradition, where grander and bigger was better the architecture of ancient Greek theatres truly were traditional, in that they were huge and grand. During the time that drama competitions were beginning to take place in ancient Greece large amphitheatres were needed to be built in order to keep up with the massive popularity of such drama competitions. Three major theatres were constructed, notably the theatre at Delphi, the Attic Theatre and the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens.
The Theatre of Dionysus, built at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, could seat 17, 000 people and during their heyday, the competitions drew as many as 30, 000 spectators. It was common for these large audiences to be noisy, lively, emotional and unrestrained. They hissed, applauded, cheered and sometimes broke out into a riot if they were unhappy with a play. These huge open air theatres were always built where a steep hill met flat ground so that the tiers of seating could be on the hill and the stage on the flat.
The stage and stage wall were elaborate structures made of wood and sandstone that provided a large set for actors to move and dance in. Although scenic sets werent created and no props were used to indicate a particular setting there was one permanent structure on the stage that represented a temple and served as the door through which actors entered the stage. There was no curtain and the play was presented as a whole with no act or scene divisions. Dionysus the wine god of which Greek tragedy originated to worship was at the centre of every play around the time of the great tragedy era and so was included in the architecture of ancient Greek theatres. At every theatre in ancient Greece there was a statue of Dionysus the god of wine and tragedy at the centre of the stage. It was common for a temple of Dionysus to be adjoined to the theatre and a procession would occur from the temple to the stage of the theatre in honor of the god.
This god of Greek tragedy and wine was paid homage to during plays by actors acting out a human sacrifice at the altar on stage. The architecture of ancient Roman theatres were typically Italian in that they were large, elaborately decorated and extremely tasteful to an artistic eye. The theatres of the Roman world were quite different from those in Greece. They were built on flat ground, not a hillside, with a large round surrounding wall of masonry that was well decorated with pictures of gods and battle scenes. The focal point of the Roman theatre was the high stage, with an elaborately decorated stage wall two stories high. Seating started at the front of the stage and went back to a standing area were people could stand and watch for free.
It can be concluded from the many paintings on walls and stage curtains that many plays of the time were based on the adventures of Zeus and Hercules. As the popularity of Roman theatre began to rise so did the number of Roman theatres being built around Italy and the World. Roman theatres had been built all over Italy, in Spain, France and North Africa. The overly garnished theatres included a curtain which disappeared into a trough at the front of the stage, vividly painted inner walls and a amazingly decorated stage wall.
Spectators could indulge under the shade of an awning while eating fruit that was sold at the theatre and if hot enough go for a shower in perfumed water. The plays witnessed in these truly majestic playhouses could not be compared with those seen in the simpler less visually appealing theatres of the ancient Greek kind. Technology has become one of mans best friends and for all the reasons in the world. It has affected us in ways that make our life easier, more enjoyable and more bare able. There isnt anything on this earth that has remained unaffected by it. And no exception is the modern theatre as we know it today which has undergone changes through various technology advances since ancient Greek and Roman times.
In particular the architecture of ancient Greek, Roman and Elizabethan theatres have paved the way for the modern theatre buildings we have become to enjoy today.