In this extract from the introduction to Aristophanes: Frogs and Other Plays, Stephen Halliwell describes the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens and provides readers with insight about the performance space, actors, and stage directions from ancient dramas.
The Theatre of Dionysos in Athens, on the south-east slope of the Akropolis, was the location for the dramatic performances at both the City Dionysia and, almost certainly, the Lenaia too (cf.‘Aristophanes’ Career’, above). The details of its fifth-century form are contentious, since the archaeological remains are mostly of much later date and literary evidence is scanty. But in recent years there has been an emergent consensus that the area for the audience’s wooden benches on the hillside, and therefore the size of the audience, was smaller in the late-fifth century than previously supposed. Many scholars now believe that Aristophanes’ comedies would have been watched by around 5,000–7,000 spectators (including some non-Athenians at the Dionysia, fewer at the Lenaia). That is still, however, a substantial proportion of the citizen body, representing approximately the same scale of attendance as at political Assembly meetings.
As for the performance space itself in the Theatre of Dionysos, the main components were a substantial, probably wooden stage building (skênê), and, in front of it, a large area, possibly rectilinear and elongated (trapezoidal) rather than circular in shape (as it was later to be), known as the orchêstra (lit. ‘dancing-floor’), and used by both actors and chorus. The dimensions of the orchêstra were perhaps of the order of some twenty metres in diameter and eight in depth, and to either side of it was an entrance/exit (eisodos, pl. eisodoi) for the performers. The stage building had a main central door (which could change its identity in the course of a play: see Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs in this volume), a usable roof (e.g. Wasps 136 ff., Birds 267 ff., Lysistrata 829 ff., and perhaps Clouds 275 ff.), windows (cf. Wasps 156 ff., 317 ff., Assembly-Women 884 ff.), and, when required (Acharnians, Clouds, Assembly-Women), a second door. It is possible that there was a low wooden stage in front of the stage building, connected to the orchêstra by two or three steps; if so, it did nothing to impede the physical interaction between characters and chorus which is often evident in Old Comedy, for example in the confrontational parodoi of plays such as Knights (247 ff.) and Birds (352 ff.). Also available, though employed by Aristophanes purely for the purposes of paratragedy, were both the mêchanê (‘machine’), a sort of crane which suspended characters in simulated flight (see Sokrates’entry at Clouds 219 ff., plus Peace 174, Birds 1199 ff., and, just possibly, Women at the Thesmophoria 1009–14), and the ekkuklêma or wheeled platform, which represented interior scenes (Acharnians 407–79, Women at the Thesmophoria 101–265).
Most comedies were performed by three main actors, taking more than one role each when necessary, but occasionally supplemented by a fourth and even fifth actor for smaller parts; mute parts were additional. Masks, typically exaggerated and often grotesquely so, were always worn. All roles were played by males, and this probably held even for silent female figures such as the pipe-girl at Wasps 1326 ff., Reconciliation at Lysistrata 1114 ff., or Euripides’ Muse at Frogs 1308 ff. Even when such roles were notionally ‘naked’, as with the first two of those just mentioned, the body-stockings which formed a standard part of comic actors’ costumes would simply be designed to represent bare flesh and the appropriate anatomical externals. A body-stocking also allowed for the padding of the actor’s belly and rump, which seems to have been a frequent practice augmenting the general sense of grotesqueness. A visible phallus was a conventional appendage for male characters; it could be more or less prominent (cf. Clouds 537–9) and lent itself to stage business of various kinds (e.g. Women at the Thesmophoria 62, 239–48, 638–48, 1187–8). Those three accoutrements of the comic performer—(grotesque) mask, padding, and phallus—must have created a pervasive and inescapable sense of vulgar absurdity for Athenian audiences, ensuring that the action of a play was always visually suspended in a kind of misshapen world of its own.
The chorus, as mentioned in previous sections, consisted of twenty-four singers/dancers, including a chorus-leader who spoke and declaimed certain sections solo, especially when in dialogue with individual actors. Many of the choral dance-sections took symmetrical strophic form, involving the musically and rhythmically matching pairing of strophe and antistrophe, as indicated in the margins of my translation. Musical accompaniment was provided by a piper, whose instrument was a pair of auloi or reed-pipes (akin to oboes). Comedy sometimes draws the piper temporarily into the sphere of the dramatic action, as with the sounds of Prokne at Birds 209 ff., Euripides’ use of Teredon as part of his ruse at Women at the Thesmophoria 1176 ff., or the old hag’s address to the player at Assembly-Women 890–2.
When the plays of Aristophanes were written down, they contained, like virtually all ancient dramatic texts, no stage directions. We are therefore left to make our own inferences about the kind of staging which they could or would have been given, guiding ourselves, wherever possible, by other sources of information about the Athenian theatre. So the reader of this, as of any other, translation of Aristophanes (or of Greek tragedy) should keep in mind that all stage directions are a matter of interpretation, not independent fact, even though a fair number of them can be established uncontroversially, and more still can be persuasively justified from clues in the text. Readers should themselves cultivate the habit of picturing the realization of the script in an open-air theatrical space, and by a cast of grotesquely attired players, of the kind described above.
Featured image credit: “Greece, Athens” by michelmondadori. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.