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Ancient Greek Theater
Theater of Dionysus
First performed on the stone threshing
floors, a circular “dancing place” or
orchestra in the country side of Greece.
Moved to the foot of a temple of the god
being honored. The temple served as a
background for early performances.
5th Century, completed design included its
early connections to the rural stone
threshing floors.
This is where it all began:
the Theatre of Dionysus in
Scope of Influence
The comedy and tragedy that developed
in Athens and flourished in the 5th and 4th
centuries BCE have influenced nearly all
subsequent Western drama, starting with
that of the Romans.
 What parts of ancient Greek theater are
still recognizable today?
The Romans, with their love of spectacle, soon
took over the existing theatres in Greece and
began renovating and rebuilding them for their
own spectacles, which included everything from
pantomime (closer to ballet than to the children's
'panto') to mock naval battles.
Most of the remains of the theatre of Dionysus
which we can see in Athens today date to Roman
times and not the 5th century BCE.
The Theatre of Dionysus was first dug out of the slope beneath the south
side of the Acropolis in the late 6th century BCE, possibly while Athens was
still under the rule of the Peisistratid dynasty. It was rebuilt and expanded
many times, and so it is difficult to tell exactly what its original shape was.
Theater is a ritualistic art form which
celebrates the Olympian gods who often
appeared as characters.
 Dionysus, god of wine and procreation,
was honored at the dramatic festivals.
 Legendary kings and heroes were often
portrayed as well.
Theater and the Common Man
Business and activities were suspended
during the week-long festivals held three
times per year.
It was considered a CIVIC DUTY for people
to participate in the productions in some
The plays were to give a lesson to the
The Physical Structure of the Greek
The theatron held benches on which the audience sat. The semicircular theatron was specifically built in to a hillside to provide good views
of the action.
The orchestra was the circular dancing place for the chorus.
The parados were two broad aisles which allowed the chorus to enter
the theater. Parados is also the term for the entrance song of the chorus.
The skene was a rectangular building with three doors which provided a
generic backdrop for entrances and exits of the characters.
The proskenion was a small platform in front of the skene to give
actors more visibility to the audience.
The Physical Structure of the
Greek Theater
Approx. 15,000 people fit in the Theater of
Dionysus in Athens.
No sets, props, etc.
Actors’ lines marked the passage of time
and the setting.
Design of theatron was important for
acoustics – no microphones.
The Players
Because Greek tragedy and comedy originated with the
chorus, the most important part of the performance
space was the orchestra, which means 'a place for
dancing' (orchesis).
A tragic chorus consisted of 12 or 15 dancers
(choreuts), who may have been young men just about to
enter military service after some years of training.
Athenians were taught to sing and dance from a very
early age. The effort of dancing and singing through
three tragedies and a satyr play was likened to that of
competing in the Olympic Games.
Performance Characteristics
Plays were initially held with just the chorus
singing/chanting the lines.
In 534 BCE Thespis was credited with
creating the first actor (thespians). The
character spoke lines as a god.
This begins the concept of DIALOGUE –
the character interacts with chorus.
The Role of the Actor
Aeschylus – earliest Greek tragedy writer
brought idea of second actor.
Sophocles – brought third actor – no more than
three actors on stage ever in a Greek tragedy.
Euripedes – also used three actors after
Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes each
wrote a version of the Oedipus tragedy, but
Sophocles’ version is the most famous.
Costumes & Props
Actors needed to be LARGER THAN LIFE
and thus easy to see.
Size was symbolic of their social status.
Chiton – a long, flowing robe, padded at the
shoulders for width, selected in symbolic
Cothurni – platform shoes for added height
Greek Actor
The Greek Actor
Participation is a civic duty; many
volunteered for the chorus.
Experienced speakers became actors
(often govt. officials or imp. businessmen)
Actors were revered and exempt from
military duty.
Women were excluded from acting and had
to sit in the higher seats in the theatron.
Declamatory Acting Style
Actors could not move easily, so lines
were delivered in a “speech” style.
 Broad sweeping gestures.
 General movements to express emotions:
Bowed head – grief; beating chest –
mourning; stretching arms – prayer.
 Minor props – scepter – king, spear –
warrior, elderly – cane.
Greek Theater Masks
The large size of the theatre dictated a non-naturalistic
approach to acting.
All gestures had to be large and definite so as to 'read'
from the back rows. Facial expression would have been
hidden by masks.
The masks worn by the actors looked more 'natural'
than bare faces in the Theatre of Dionysus.
The masks of tragedy were of an ordinary, face-fitting
size, with wigs attached, and open mouths to allow clear
Masks, cont’d
Theatrical masks were made of wood,
leather, or cloth and flour paste .
 Various theories are advanced in favor of
each material, but no originals remain,
only stone carvings which may have been
used as mask-molds and the paintings on
Paradox of the Mask
The most distinctive feature of the mask was its
ability to limit and broaden at the same time.
It identified a specific character, but it also had
generalized features which gave an “Everyman”
This allowed the audience to “get” the personal
message intended for each member of the
Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King)
Written by Sophocles in 430 B.C.E.
Based on a great legend of western culture
from Ancient Greece.
Greatest Greek tragedy; drama of extreme
tension; one person rules action
Sophocles’ version deals with the discovery
of Oedipus’ fate.
Tragedy lies in Oed. learning of his guilty deeds
rather than the committing of them.
Shows Oed. at war with himself
Tension lies in the first realization of outcome and
his push for full truth and proof.
Free will cannot blame fate.
“Reason is man’s greatest possession and
power.” – Sophocles.
Oedipus shows how man’s strength
becomes his weakness
Loss of eyesight is symbolic regarding
Oed.’s abuse of Teresias, Oed.’s own
blindness to his fate, and our blindness to
our own calamities.
Important Vocabulary Terms
Hubris – overweening pride which results in
the misfortune of the protagonist in a
Harmartia – tragic flaw which brings down
character; hubris is a form of harmartia
Peripeteia – reversal of fortune, example:
event that should bring good news turns
out to actually confirm bad news.
Important Vocab cont.
Apostrophe – addressing a concept as if it
were human. Ex. “Ah miserable…” or “Oh
Pastoral imagery – images that glorify the
rustic life, esp. of shepherds
Anagnorisis – recognition or enlightenment
when the tragic hero realizes his fate.
Important vocab cont.
Golden Mean- Greek belief in moderation,
balance, and proportion in all aspects of
Catharsis – emotional release audience
experiences at the end of a tragedy
Modern Cultural Allusions
Sigmund Freud’s Theory
Oedipus for Everyday Living
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