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Eva Palmer-Sikelianos / Architectural arrangement of the Greek theatre

 

 

Eva Palmer-Sikelianos
Architectural arrangement of the Greek theatre

 

    During the lessons in the threshing floors, the villagers would gather round the circle to look on. Seats were erected later, with the first row placed sufficiently high for the audience to see above the heads of the dancers, and so obtain a view of the whole orchestra, which is otherwise obscured by the dancers who happen to be in front. Then a low stage was erected in the centre, on which the leader of the chorus, impersonating Dionysos (and later any god or hero) was placed, to distinguish him from his followers, who were the chorus. This was the Dithyrambic stage. Later, probably by Thespis, the audience were deprived of about a quarter, and afterwards of a third of the circle, when they erected a platform tangent to the circle, on which two, and afterwards three actors performed. But the circle remained intact; and this, with the audience gathered around it, was always the essence of the theatre; and today, Professor Doerpfeld and other archaeologists believe that, even in the classical period, much of the acting was performed in the circle, and that the stage was used only occasionally. The implications of these facts are not immediately apparent to those who know only the modern theatre; so I will try to show some of the intrinsic excellences of the Greek theatre which differ fundamentally from what the world is accustomed to at present.

    In this circular arrangement, the actors were separated personally from the audience in three ways: they were well below the level of the spectators; and, as it is natural, in acting, to look at one’s fellow performers, they would not have seen the audience except by expressly raising their eyes to look at them; and even then, they would have seen only a small portion of an audience which extended all around them; and if, in a moment of exultation, they lifted their eyes as it were to heaven, it would have been to a great circular heaven of attention expanding on all sides, and, beyond that, the sky. And this huge attention would be directed, not on them, but on the Idea which they were representing, on the Word: and thus would be attained the true unity between actors and audience, in a reaching-out, onthe part of both, to a harmony beyond themselves.

    This psychological phenomenon of unity realized outside of themselves was accentuated also by the use of masks.

    Again, because the orchestra was circular, and many of the dance figures moved around the outside of the circle, the performers were taught what I have called the Apollonian movement, in which the right arm moves forward with the left foot, or the left arm with the right foot, while the head and feet are in profile, and the chest or back in full view. This type of movement requires perfect balance, gives great freedom to the spine, is adaptable to an enormous variety of poses, and allows powerful springs in rhythmic passages, starting from bent knees, and culminating in the full long sweep of the body; and it also sustains very majestic bearing in tragic passages. But the most excellent attribute of this type of movement was moral even more than physical: the fact that the head was habitually in profile, looking either forward or back, separated the actor in a way from his audience: because if he turned to see them his attitude was ruined, so that when he was moving properly he could not see those who were looking at him. This had the effect of isolating him, almost as if he were by himself, and entirely obliterated the theatrical self-consciousness to which actors are otherwise subject. He was alone with what he was expressing. One might almost say there existed nothing for each individual actor but himself and the god he was worshipping, and thus his whole being was absorbed in adequately expressing the emotion which the poet’s words evoked in him.

    Considering all these obstacles to the exploitation of personality, it was as if the Greeks had consciously raised barriers against all the usual theatrical tricks which are devised to turn personality to account: it is as if some strong religious purpose had fixed conditions in which many human defects were automatically eliminated, in which silly embarrassment and self-consciousness starve for lack of fodder, in which personal aggrandizement also finds no food. In the ancient theatre an actor could not if he would smirk and look pretty, because, even without a mask, he never could be sure that anyone was looking at him. His only sure spectator was his own inner conscience, and whatever god he believed in. And it is significant that the acclamations of the audience, in the end, were for the play, and not for the actors.

    From the point of view of the audience, this architectural arrangement had tremendous consequences. The fact of looking down on the performance from a vantage ground, which was equally good in any seat among an audience of twenty to thirty thousand, so vast that, as Nietzsche says, it was like being in a solitary valley, gives to each person a complete view of the whole stage. All movement, backwards, forwards, sideways are equally visible. The ancient spectator never saw actors moving as in a flat silhouette, (except when such effects were produced on purpose by the actors on a raised stage) whereas the modern stage differs little from the photographic screen of a moving picture; he never had to crane his head upwards from the best seats; and he never saw his favourite actor with the bottom of his legs cut off. In fact the ancient spectator saw the play in three dimensions, whereas today people always see it in two.

    Beside this three-dimensional view, due to the fact that the audience sat around the play and above it, there was the further fact that the actions and attention of actors, chorus and audience were all centered round the same point, which was the centre of the circle. It will be difficult to make modem theatre-goers believe, until they have actually experienced it, that this concentration of attention in a circular form, around action which includes meaning, melody and rhythm, generates magnetic currents which are totally unknown wherever the audience is spatially divided from the stage.

    Finally in the acoustic properties of all Greek theatres they again made use of physical laws. And here it is strange that modern engineers, or architects, appear to know nothing about these laws. They must have heard and seen the disagreeable instrument called a loud­speaker which is nothing more than a device for carrying sound from a point over an enlarging circumference. But it has not occurred to them that the Greek theatre is itself a loud-speaker which carries sound to thousands, by the same physical law, but with no gadgets.

    These, I believe, are the principal differences between the Greek theatre and any other: and it will be evident that all are due to observance of physical laws which have since been disregarded. They are the moral isolation of actors within their circle, eliminating self- consciousness and histrionic vulgarity, the three-dimensional view obtained by spectators, the magnetic current generated by the circular relation of actors, chorus and audience and finally the flawless acoustics which never have been equalled or even approached.

    This living organism received its death-blow when the Romans cut off half of the Greek Circle. In this one Vandalic act they destroyed the fundamental conditions which made the Greek Theater a proper extension of the Greek Temple: a place essentially religious in its activities. From then on, the complete spatial separation of actors and audience, and all the related changes were inevitable because, as a spiritual entity, the Theatre had already ceased to exist. And now, after two thousand years, it is only a dream that a theatre has existed once, and might exist again, whose organic structure was sufficiently noble to hold up an ideal solution of the problem of MAN IN SOCIETY, a beacon for the final conquest of brutality and greed, a star for the victory of Man-the-Creator, which is the TRAGIC CHORUS.

    Perhaps it is because I have once worked in such a theatre, and have seen and felt the regenerating spirit which moves in its Circle when the Chorus moves, that I have no faith in any measures toward reconstruction of the Drama which do not include, which do not in fact give predominant importance, to architecture.

 

 

 

 

 

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