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Greek Structures & Costumes

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The remains of a Greek amphitheater

Greek Theater: Stage Configurations Introduction: Greek theater was booming from about 550 to 220 B.C, with Athens being the center of the Greek empire. Theater was relatively new at this time in the world, so people were naturally drawn towards its original and exciting structure. But what made Greek theater so amazing that historians today are still marveling at the accomplishments? The structure of the amphitheaters and how amazing the acoustics were has left historians speechless since the discovery of these theaters. Thespis’ creation of Greek tragedy was the beginning of something wonderful, but it would have never started without the great amphitheaters. Greek theater would have disappeared without the innovative and breathtaking amphitheaters.

A. Greek Amphitheaters Structure and Location As seen in the picture at the top of the page, the Greek theaters were very large, open-air structures. Most of the theaters built were huge, seating up to 14,000 people. The location of the theaters was very important for two reasons. First, the Greek architects used the natural slope of hillsides to provide terraced seating for the viewers. The natural slopes of hillsides made it easy for the seats to be made.. Also, the actual location of the theater was important because it needed to be near a sanctuary. Drama had close ties with religion, so it was vital that the theaters be near or in a sanctuary. In Athens, the biggest city-state in Greece, the Theater of Dionysus was built at the foot of the Acropolis, in the sacred precinct of Dionysus. Since the sanctuaries were always built in beautiful places, the theaters that sprung up near them were also located in wonderful places with awe-inspiring landscapes. Orchestra Maybe the most important part of the Greek theaters was the orchestra, where the chorus and actors performed. Historians have discovered that the original theaters had orchestras that were full circles. However, many of the theaters that have been uncovered have semi-circular orchestras. The picture below shows an ancient Greek theater in Epidaurus, highlighting what the orchestra looked like. The orchestra ranged from 66-78 feet in diameter, depending on the size of the theater. Everyone in the audience could see the orchestra with ease, making the Greek plays enjoyable for even the people who could only afford the “cheap seats.”

Theater in Epidaurus with a modern set for a production of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound

Seating (Theatron) The audience members would sit in what was known as the theatron. The word “theatron” literally means “seeing place.” The word eventually evolved into “theater,” which people used to describe the whole structure. The seats were in a semi-circular fashion, going around the front of the orchestra, as seen in the two pictures. The earliest structures had wooden seats, but the majority of the theaters used by the Greeks were made of limestone. The theater at Epidaurus shown above had 55 semi-circular rows that seating up to 14,000 people. The seats towards the front were obviously the best seats because you could see the actors up close. The seats farthest away could still hear and see the actors, but they couldn’t see things such as the masks’ expressions and the details of the costumes.

Stage Building (Skene) The skene (which means “tent”) was located on the far side of the orchestra. The skene held all the props that were needed, such as masks and costumes. Originally the skenes were temporary wooden buildings, but they eventually became more permanent when they started being constructed with stone. Some stages had many structures that made up their skene, and it served as a “scene” to help the audience visualize the location. Painted scenes were often attached to the skene to give the audience a visual effect.

Ramps (eisodoi or parodoi)
The ramps on each side are seen in this photograph
There were long ramps on both sides of the stage building(s) that served as an exit and entrance for the chorus. The word “parados,” which was the chorus entrance song, came from the word paradoi (long ramp). The actors could use these long ramps as well, and it seems logical that the actors used them more than the chorus because the actors were constantly going on and off the orchestra.

Maybe the most impressive thing about these awesome amphitheaters is the acoustics. The people in the very top row are able to hear the actors in the orchestra with great clarity. Nobody knew (until recently) how the Greeks created such as impressive acoustic environment without the technology and knowledge needed to do so. However, through extensive research, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology proved that the seats are the reason why. The limestone seats create an acoustic filter that dims low-frequency background noises and reflects high-frequency noises. The actors on stage provide the high-frequency noises, so everyone is able to hear them. The acoustic paradise created by the Greeks might have been done by accident, but their discovery helped the Greek amphitheaters become a huge attraction.

1. Here is a link to an article that explains the discovery made by the researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology: 2. Here is another link to a video by the Discovery Channel that describes the great theater of Epidaurus: The man in the picture is seen wearing a “chiton”
B. Costumes

Why Costumes were needed: Costumes were needed in the Greek plays for many different reasons. First, men were the only people allowed to act in the plays, so costumes were needed when men had to dress up as female characters. The men chosen for female roles were usually prepubescent boys because their voices had not changed yet. Costumes also helped exaggerate the characters. The actors would often times wear large boots that were lifted called “cothornous”, making them look taller. Also, they would were large gloves to make their hands look bigger. Things like this made it easier for the audience to see what actions were being portrayed, especially for those sitting in the upper areas of the theater.
One of the biggest reasons costumes were used was to portray the social status of the character. The main character would where a “chiton” which was a special robe that had long sleeve sleeves and a belt at the top (see picture above). The other actors would dress to their character’s social status. If you played a poor man, you dressed the part. As Greek theater advanced, the costumes became more elaborate to match the advancements in made in scenery.

Need for Masks: Greek masks were very essential to Greek theater. A different mask was used for each separate character and it showed distinctive emotions based on that character. Historians don’t have any of these masks to study because they were made of linen or cork, making them rot away over time. The masks are scene on Greek statues and paintings though, allowing historians to see what they looked like. The Greek tragedies used masks that had very mournful or pained expressions, while the comedies had big smiling faces. Many historians believe that the masks helped to amplify the actors’ voices, even though the masks would cover the entire head of the actor. Masks were very beneficial to the Greek actors because it allowed the actors to play more than one role without being identified. The public viewers would never know if you were playing two roles because the masks of the characters were all very different. The picture on the left helps show what the Greek masks would have looked like; the picture on the right shows costumes and masks together.
Masks are seen at the bottom of the picture
Possible masks used in Greek drama


Barbara F. McManus. “Structure of the Greek Theater.” October 1999. 28 November 2010
Georgia Institute of Technology. "Ancient Greek Amphitheater: Why
You Can Hear From Back Row." ScienceDaily 6 April 2007. 28 November 2010­ /releases/2007/04/070404162237.htm
"Greek Theatre." Hellenica, Information about Greece and Cyprus, Michael Lahanas. Web. 28 Nov. 2010. <>.
The Theatre Of Epidaurus - Video. Metacafe - Online Video Entertainment - Free Video
Clips for Your Enjoyment. Web. 28 Nov. 2010. <>.…...

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