Gateway to the Classics: Ancient Greece by James Baikie
Ancient Greece by  James Baikie

The Theatre

OF all people who ever lived, I suppose the Greeks, and above all the Athenians, were fondest of the theatre. To see a good play, well acted, was one of the greatest delights of life to them. Everybody who could went to the theatre, everyone was a keen critic of the plays that were presented there; and the Athenian theatre has given us some of the greatest masterpieces of human genius. We have some noble pages in the story of our theatre, too, and we count the plays of Shakespeare the most precious things in our literature; but I do not think that the English theatre, even in the great days when Marlowe and Shakespeare, Webster and Beaumont and Fletcher were writing for it, ever had such a place in the life of the nation as the theatre of Athens had when its playwrights were men like Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Only a few plays survive out of the many which these great geniuses wrote; there were many other writers of plays who were held to be scarcely inferior to these three, and who sometimes even carried off the prize from them, whose plays are lost for ever. But from the little that is left to us we can still judge that never did the mind of man reach to greater heights than in these dramas which the Athenians loved to listen to and to criticize. We think ourselves, of course, far superior to these slow old folks of so many centuries ago; but I wonder in what city to-day you would get tens of thousands to gather together, and sit for days listening to the greatest and deepest thoughts of the noblest thinkers, comparing them with each other, and judging carefully between their merits. The Athenians did that regularly—not a handful of the educated among them, but vast crowds of the common people. On a great festival-day at Athens you would see a crowd almost as big as a football cup crowd pouring into the Theatre of Dionysos, not to watch professionals kicking a football, but to listen by the hour to great poetry, and seriously to make up their minds which poet they preferred. But, of course, the Athenians are hopelessly out of date now.


Athens from the Road to Eleusis

In fact, the Greek theatre was as different from our theatre as it is possible for two things with the same name to be from one another. To us the theatre is a place where we go to be amused; to the Athenian it was a place where a great religious ceremony was performed to the glory of the gods, and for the education and improvement of men. Consequently, the Athenian got plays that will live for ever because they are the noble expression of noble thought, and we get—exactly what we deserve and desire.

But, indeed, the Greek theatre is so totally different from ours—in intention, in form, in everything, that it is no use trying to tell you all the differences. The best way is to take you to the theatre at Athens, and let you see what the place was like, how the plays were staged, what kind of an audience they had, and how the spectators behaved. We have to jump over a good many years, for the great Theatre of Dionysos, to which we are going, was not completed till long after the time of Pericles, though dramatic performances were given on the slope of the hill where it stands quite a hundred years earlier.

First of all, we must go to the booking office, and get our ivory tickets, stamped with our names and the numbers of our seats. For your ticket, unless you want to sit among the big folks in the reserved seats, you will pay two obols—say threepence, though, as threepence went farther in those days, the real value might be about ninepence. If you haven't got two obols to spend, you can go to the state office and ask for them, and they will be handed over to you; for the state believes that poor folks may need a good entertainment just as much as the rich, and may get as much benefit from it. There are mean folk in Athens, just as there are mean folk everywhere, who take advantage of the public generosity, and get their two obols though they have no need of them, and certainly don't go to the theatre with them.

Now we are safely seated in the theatre, and can look round us while the crowd is gathering. By the way, I hope you have remembered to bring a cushion, for the stone seats are rather hard and uncomfortable. One thing I am sure of—you never saw a theatre like this in your life before; nor, I am sure, one half so beautiful as this. Here is no stuffy, badly ventilated, tawdry building, with tinsel and electric light everywhere to make your eyes ache; but a huge, semicircular hollow, scooped out of the flank of the Acropolis Hill, and lined with tier upon tier of seats, divided into sections by passages. They say that it holds 30,000 when it is packed—anyway, it can take in quite a big slice of the population of Athens. Of course, there is no roof, except the cloudless blue sky overhead. The theatre faces south, and as we sit we look out across the city and the plain to Phalerum, and the dark waters of the Saronic Gulf, beginning to sparkle now under the rays of the rising sun. Play-going in Athens is not an after-dinner business, you will understand; it begins at daybreak, and goes on all day long, and I hope you have brought figs and bread with you to keep you going.

In the midst of the semicircle of seats lies a broad, flat, circular space, with an altar in the centre. This is the orchestra; quite a different thing from ours; and here the chorus of the play will be ranged, with its flute-player, and will sing and dance. Beyond the orchestra is a kind of platform, where the main actors will play their parts. There are two ways up to it, and if the actor comes in by the western one, you know that he is supposed to be coming from the city or the harbour; if he comes in by the eastern, he is coming from the country. Behind the platform is a simple background. The Greeks do not trouble themselves much about scenery or any of the tricks that are used in modern theatres. It is the play they are interested in, and they put up with the simplest arrangements, so long as they are pleased with the poet or the actors. When a god has to appear from the sky, as sometimes happens in a play, they swing him in quite openly by a crane, which they call "the machine," on to the higher platform called "the god-stage." And so, by and by, we begin to talk about "the god from the machine," when any wonderful intervention happens in affairs.


A Greek Theatre—Epidauros

Our whole morning will be taken up with the hearing of one set of tragedies. In the afternoon, when lunch is over, we shall have a change, and hear comedy instead. Next day there will be a fresh set of tragedies in the forenoon, and of comedies in the afternoon, and the same order will hold on the third day, which will be the last day of the festival, when the plays will be judged, and prizes given to the authors of the best tragedy and the best comedy, to the best actor in each, and to the wealthy citizen who has provided the best chorus. For the plays are not presented by a theatre-manager, who hires his company and runs his show for profit. When a playwright has been selected to take part in the competition, his star actor is picked for him by lot, and the star then chooses two other actors to help him; for no matter how many characters there may be in a play, they are so arranged that three actors can perform all the parts, except, of course, the work that falls to the chorus. These three actors are paid by the State. There are no women among them: women's parts are all played by men, as in our own theatre in Shakespeare's time.

Of course, all this preparation has been going on for months before the plays are to be presented; and while the chief actors have been preparing for their task, the chorus has been in training also. Its work is provided for in a very curious way. The public official who looks after the affairs of the theatre keeps a list of wealthy citizens who can afford to spend money on the drama. To each playwright he assigns a man from this list, and this citizen has to hire, dress, and train at his own expense a body of singers and dancers suitable for the play. If it is a tragedy, he will hire fifteen men; if a comedy, twenty-four. So you can imagine that the honour of staging a play for Euripides or Aristophanes is rather a costly one, especially if you are anxious to carry off the prize for the best-trained chorus from your neighbour in the next street.

Now we are all ready for the first play. The crier comes forward and proclaims that the tragic poet Euripides, or Phrynichus, or whoever it may be, will bring in his chorus. Everybody looks eagerly towards the entrance to the orchestra, and the fifteen performers file in, headed by their flute-player, and singing in unison as they come. When they reach their position in the flat circle, they form line three deep, the flute-player in the centre of the first row, with the leader of one semi-chorus on his right hand, and the leader of the other on his left. While they are singing, they dance also—not as we dance, but making simple graceful movements of the body to give emphasis to the words they sing. Whatever else they may do, they must say their words distinctly, so that everyone in the great audience can hear them; if they don't, the audience will soon let them know their mistake in a very uncomfortable fashion.

Now the first actor steps out on the low stage behind the orchestra, the chorus is silent, and the action of the play begins. But look at the actor. He seems a splendid figure from our seat in the huge semicircle, tall and stately, with magnificent robes, and strongly marked features. But if you could get close to him you would see that he is padded all round under his robes, to make him look bigger, that he walks in huge boots, whose cork soles are several inches thick, to give him a more majestic height, and that those strong features of his are nothing but a big mask covering his whole head. Of course, he can never change his expression. Whatever he may be saying, the words come always from behind that fixed impassive face, and if he wishes to show the audience that he has undergone disaster or sickness, he must go behind the scenes and put on another mask with the appropriate expression. It seems very ridiculous, and, if you were supposed to see him near at hand, it would be ridiculous. But remember you are in a great open space that can hold 30,000 people, and that we are all looking at the play from a considerable distance. Common features would look insignificant in such a place; ordinary stature would be dwarfed. And so the actor wears his stilt-like boots and his towering mask, and from your seat you only see that he looks tall and dignified, and has a strong face. His two companions in the work will be equipped in the same way as himself, only with masks and robes fitted in expression and character to the parts they have to play.

One thing the Athenian audience is very particular about. They insist on hearing every word that the actor has to say. His unchanging face and his big boots don't trouble them; but they are there to hear the play, and if the actor's voice does not carry to the farthest seat in the theatre, or if he shouts too loud in his effort to make himself heard, or if he pronounces a word wrongly, he will very soon hear of it, and not in any complimentary fashion. Above all, if he overdoes his part, and rants about the stage, his audience will very quickly tell him to stop "playing the monkey," and to act properly.

As the play goes on, and the speeches of the actors alternate with the songs and dances of the chorus, the spectators are wound up to great excitement. Indeed, it is just about as interesting to watch them as to watch the actors. If the play is pathetic, and the actors do it justice, you will see the whole vast gathering, perhaps, absolutely silent, clutching the sides of their seats, and gazing with painful eagerness at the stage; or perhaps they will start from their seats with tears and exclamations, and sway back and forwards as the strain of the action comes to a height. The Athenians love to have their feelings moved; but there are limits, and it is dangerous to harrow them up too much. Poor Phrynichus found that when he gave his play "The Sack of Miletus." His audience resented being made to suffer so much, and promptly inflicted a heavy fine on the too successful playwright.

On the other hand, if the play does not interest them, the audience is not slow to show disapproval. From all sides of the theatre comes a deafening chorus of whistling, clucking, banging of heels against the seats, till the unhappy actors are fairly driven from the stage. Sometimes, if an actor gets on the wrong side of them too much, they go even further, and pelt him with figs, or nuts, or whatever comes handiest. In fact a great Athenian orator once said of his rival, who had been an actor, that, when he was playing in the country, he was so pelted with figs and other fruit that he was able to set up a fruit-shop from the missiles gathered off the stage. However, that was probably a little bit of exaggeration, and, anyhow, the Athenians don't often go the length of throwing things, even at the worst of actors. They leave that to the provincials who know no better.

Three days of solid playgoing, tragedy all morning, comedy all afternoon, seems rather a surfeit to our minds; but you have to remember that it only comes once a year, and that even comedies are only staged twice or thrice in a twelvemonth. So our Athenian playgoers have plenty of time to think over and digest what they have heard. For weeks and months they will talk over the plays they have heard, and quote the finest passages, and repeat the jokes. But, before the great audience breaks up on the third day, the prizes have to be awarded. A list of representative citizens has been drawn up; ten of these are chosen by lot to act as judges; these ten write down their verdicts, and place them in a vessel prepared for the purpose. The first five of these judgments drawn haphazard from the vessel will determine the prize. So that what we arrive at is really pretty much the judgment of the average intelligent Athenian on what he has heard; and, on the whole, the result seems to have been fairly creditable to the good taste of the citizens. When the verdict has been given, a money-prize is awarded to the writers of the best tragedy and the best comedy, and to the best actor in each; while the citizen who has trained and equipped the best chorus is rewarded with a bronze tripod. Generally he is so proud of the honour that he does not keep it to himself, but either dedicates it in one of the temples, or builds a pedestal in the street, called Tripod Street, and sets his prize up there for everybody to see. Some of you, no doubt, have seen the Burns monument in Edinburgh, or on the Banks of Doon at Ayr. Probably you never thought of any connection between the Ayrshire ploughman-poet and the Greek theatre; but these monuments are just imitations, (not very brilliant ones,) of one of these old pedestals which an Athenian named Lysicrates set up in Tripod Street of far-off Athens to bear the prize which he had gained for training the best chorus in the Theatre of Dionysos.

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