Difference between Greek and Modern Theatres

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Difference between Greek and Modern Theatres
Theatre today as in ancient Greek times is a popular from of
entertainment. Today’s theatres share many similarities with the Greek
predecessors however they are also very different. There are in fact
many differences for example; layout, special effects, seating
arrangement, the importance of drama and religion, setting, location
and architectural features.

In ancient Greece festivals were mainly held at the Great Dionysia.
This was the oldest theatre in Greece and many plays were performed
here for example the first performance of Antigone. The patron of the
theatre was the God Dionysus and there was a temple near which was
dedicated in his honour. There was also a statue of the patron Goddess
Athene. Today there is no link between religion and theatre, as we
live in a multi-cultural society with people who follow many different
faiths; therefore the theatre is secular to appeal to all people.

First I will discus the various aspects of ancient Greek theatre then
compare with today’s modern version of theatre. Today it is widely
believed that theatre first began in ancient Greece, the evidence
people used to come to this conclusion was from ancient Greek plays,
Greek art and architecture.



The diagram on the right shows the layout of a typical Greek theatre.
The circular area in the middle of the theatre is called the
orchestra. In ancient Greek times this area would have been used for
dancing and where the ‘chorus’ would sing and perform. A ‘chorus’ was
a group of people who would play a major part in ancient plays often
describing scenes much like a modern narrator. In modern theatres
today we do not have a chorus, as it would obscure the view of the
play and maybe set the wrong atmosphere as modern audiences are less
willing to suspend their disbelief and want things to be as realistic
as possible. However we do have an area today where the orchestra sits
but it is often beneath, behind or to the side of the stage so it is

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out of the way. The orchestra today performs music only and has a
different meaning than to ancient times where it described an actual
area. In ancient times in the centre of the orchestra there stood a
statue of the patron God Dionysus. This was here to remind people who
the theatre was in honour of. Sometimes in ancient times the plots of
plays contained religious rituals and ceremonies which were performed
at the altar. Today we do not have altars in our theatres as not all
people who go to theatres follow the same religion so it would not
attract diverse audiences. There is no link today between religion
and theatre like in modern times for instance Dionysus the God of
drama who had many religious festivals dedicated towards him.


Image of the ruins of the theatre of Dionysus – in the forefront you
can see the skene


In ancient Greek theatres the seating was arranged in a semi-circle
and curve down into the centre following the natural shape of the
hillside. There are many modern theatres which are arranged in this
way however many have the whole audience directly opposite the stage
like in a cinema. Seats in ancient Greek theatres would have been made
from stone, with the audience expected to bring their own cushions.
Today the audience sits on padded seats so the audience is more
comfortable. This is because people have higher expectations today and
society is generally more advanced, people would not sit on stone
seats today. In ancient times audiences were much larger as they could
fit more people into the theatres. The Dionysus could hold over 14000
people. This is in stark contrast to today where the average theatre
holds approximately one thousand people. This could be because there
are many more theatres today than in Greek times therefore there is a
greater amount of choice and variety. Tickets in ancient times were
made out of ivory and were needed to enter the theatre. This is
similar to modern theatres where a ticket system is also in operation.
The worst seats in the theatre were at the back, this is similar to
today as the seats at the back (the lords) are the cheapest. These
seats were used by the lower classes. The higher your social status
the better view of the play you could expect to get. Importantly women
were not allowed in the theatre at any time. In today’s modern society
everyone is considered equal, therefore if you have enough money you
can sit wherever you like in the theatre. Also women can attend and
enjoy the exact same privileges as men. This is because society has
progressed and women are seen as equals in all walks of life whereas
in Greek times they were very much second class citizens.


Theatres in ancient Greece were built so they were open air and
exposed to the elements. When being built the builders used natural
curved sides for the seating area, this provided excellent acoustics
and it is a technique used today. However today theatres are not open
air as the weather would prohibit performances for the majority of the
year therefore building them with a roof allows performances to take
place all year round increasing revenue and profit. Some modern
theatres today have domed ceilings which enable sound to circulate
better. In ancient times theatres were often built on hills to improve
acoustics however today they are almost always built in flat urbanized
areas that have a high population for example London, this is because
large urbanized areas have easy access because of good transport links
e.g. the London underground. Acoustics are not as important today as
microphones can enhance sound whereas in ancient Greek times they did
not have this luxury.

Special effects

Today special effects in modern theatres are taken for granted by the
audiences. Flashing lights, smoke, electronic sound and even
microphones for actors were all not available to the ancient Greeks.
In ancient times there special effects included; cranes for lifting
actors into the air and ekkyklema (a trolley used to roll on stage via
the central doors to carry away dead bodies. Many of these effects are
not used to today as modern audiences want the play to be as realistic
as possible and many of these effects would not achieve this. But
today they still use wires in order to make actors appear to be
flying; this is similar to the mechane but more advanced to do modern


At the back of the ancient Greek theatre stood the ‘skene’. The word
‘skene’ means stage building. The ‘skene’ was a wooden building where
the actors could change and this building could also be used for as a
house or temple or any other part of scenery. At the front of the
‘skene’ there was a large double door for the actors to make their
entrance. Actors could also enter through the ‘parados’ if they were
acting as characters from foreign lands or who had just arrived. There
were three areas where the actors could act; the platform in front of
the stage building, the orchestra and the roof of the stage building.
The roof of the stage building was often used for romantic scenes as
it would represent a balcony. It was also sometimes used to represent
the land of the Gods while the lower levels represented the
underworld. The modern equivalent of the ‘skene’ would be the actors
and actresses dressing rooms. However they would not directly enter
the stage from here and it’s not used as scenery. Therefore the
‘skene’ is unique to ancient Greek theatres.


In ancient Greek times theatre was a form of entertainment only and
there was no fee to enter. However today not only is it a form of
entertainment it is also a money making business. This could explain
why many changes have been made since ancient times to improve the
comfort and view for the audience. Therefore they can attract more
people and maximize profits. Also in ancient times religion played a
key part with many plays being based around the Gods and rituals often
performed on stage. Today’s modern culture is far more secular with
very few plays being based solely around religion. This is because
religion is dwindling in Britain and plays based on it would not
attract many people and therefore not make money which is the main
target for all theatres.

The large numbers of people visiting ancient Greek theatres is also in
contrast to today where very few attend. This is because of various
other forms of entertainment open to people today for example; sports
events, cinemas, television and the internet. With all this choice it
is no wonder the number of people attending plays is far less than in
ancient times.

Special effects today are also much more advanced giving modern
audiences a very different experience. However their experience can
not be describes as better as many people today often prefer more
dramatic based performances with low key special effects. It is
however true to say that modern theatre is more accessible to the
general public especially women and the working classes. This is due
to changes in modern values in society for example equality for all
human beings. It is also much more comfortable today then it was in
ancient times as there are plush seat with cushions instead of solid
stone rows.

However modern theatres have borrowed some things from there ancient
Greek counter parts. For example the basic layout, as many theatres
are still semi-circular today. They were built using natural curved
sides for the seating area, this provided excellent acoustics and it
is a technique used today.

So in conclusion, although ancient Greek theatres have similarities
with modern theatres the differences far out way the similarities.
This is because modern theatre has changed so much from special
effects to the clientele who are allowed to participate. Also in
ancient times women could not act, whereas today actresses are very
highly thought of.


The Greek and Roman Stage by David Taylor

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