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Roman Theatre

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Sean Robertson-Palmer

on 13 September 2017

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Transcript of Roman Theatre

Hellenistic Period
-Historians generally mark the end of the Golden Age
of Greece with the end of the Peloponnesian War
in 404 B.C.E. (Athens vs. Sparta)

-Between 404 B.C.E. and the rise of Alexander the Great in 336 B.C.E. we see a shift from playwrights-as-celebrity to actors-as-celebrity.

-Athenian actors are beginning to be sought after commodities by other nations.

-Playwrights such as Aeschylus and Euripides are still being produced as opposed to a new generation of playwrights writing tragedy.

-336 BCE becomes an important date, when Alexander the Great became King of
- The primary alterations made by the Romans on the Greek tradition include: elimination of the chorus, addition of musical accompaniment to much of the dialogue and the setting of the action (the street settings instead of a palatial setting.)

-Only a few references of Roman Tragedy survive. Most likely this is a result of tragedy being a 'fad' in the Roman theatre rather than a crucial component.

- Because of the Roman's interest in popular entertainment, it is likely that Roman Tragedy was either not particularly interesting for the Roman public, or that it was not intended to be performed in front of a large public.
Roman Social Context

-In 146 B.C.E., a divided Greece was conquered by the Roman Republic at the battle of Corinth.

-Also by 146 B.C.E., the Punic Wars had ended between Rome and Carthage (Mediterranean/African/ Southern European civilization, modern Tunisia.) The result meant that the Roman Republic controlled large parts of what we refer to as Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, Turkey and parts of North Africa (Egypt).

-During the first century B.C.E., we start to see the Roman Republic stretching itself too thin.
Roman Theatre
- Terence was the second most popular playwright of the time.

- Terence would combine two aspects of two different Greek plays to create one new work.

-Shifted from over-the-top comedy to subtle, more intellectual humour.

- This reflected his association with high society, and was received well amongst the academic and well-read audience members. The general public, however, enjoyed a more lively entertainment, and therefore his popularity never reached the height of Plautus.

-Alexander the Great saw the
importance of Greece's intellectual, artistic
and cultural achievements and sought to expand upon them.
-Throughout each country Alexander the Great conquered, he would incorporate Greek philosophy and culture.

-This led to a spread of Greek culture throughout western civilization that spanned from what we refer to as Northern Greece and Macedonia, all the way to the central Asia and parts of India.

-We refer to this era as the Hellenistic Age, and the area of his empire as the Hellenistic kingdoms or the Hellenistic civilization. Hellenism essentially means the adoption of Greek culture

-Among the many alterations to Greek culture made by Alexander the Great, he greatly increased the number
of theatre festivals that occurred throughout his
entire empire.
- Within a few years, Alexander the Great had concurred what is modern day Greece, Egypt, Turkey and Afghanistan.
-This meant theatre became a major factor in a number of secular celebrations and events as well.

-Other changes made during this era include the rise of the actor as the focal point of the theatrical events.

-This occurred through the change in costume, as actors wore larger, more detailed masks, more intricate costumes and headdresses and platform shoes to emphasize their presence. The architecture also emphasized the actors, as raised stages become common place, elevating the actors 6-14 above the ground in certain performing areas.

-A guild known as the 'Artists of Dionysus' was created to represent the interests of actors, chorus members, playwrights and other theatre personnel.

-This ensured that if a local government wanted
to stage a play, local artists had to be hired.
-The Roman Empire shrunk in size, no longer controlling parts of Asia, but still controlling all of the Mediterranean and parts of modern day Europe including Spain, France and Great Britain by the time Constantine took control in 324 CE (legalized Christianity alongside Roman mythology.)

-Romans as a civilization progressed a number of ideas conceived by the Greeks. If we look to the Greeks for the basis of democracy, mathematics and medicine, we look to the Romans for engineering and law.

-Many of the laws dealing with property, marriage and inheritance continue to influence modern law makers, and the foundation of roads and aqueducts can still be spotted in Italy today.

-The focus for Romans was on popular entertainment, stemming from Greek New Comedy. The high-minded tragedies of
the Greeks were of no interest.

-Several different theatrical contexts were
connected to create Roman theatre.

-Its first source was the Etruscans, who held a great deal of religious festivals consisting of chariot races, gladiatorial battles and performance (acting, singing, dancing etc...)

-Roman comedy is said to have evolved out of the comic improvisations rooted in their fertility rites.

-Mime, which was rooted in the Hellenistic tradition of traveling mime performers, also influenced Roman pantomime.

-Lastly, Atellan Farce, which also made its way to Italy via Greek performers, began to not only influence the performance arts in Rome, but also the literary arts, as these stories and myths expressed in the farce performances made
their way into Roman literature.

- Roman Comedy, much like the other Roman performance traditions, were heavily influenced by
the Greeks.

- The Roman playwrights took the Greek Comedy format and perfected their own kind of comedy, altered to appeal to the masses (Theatre- as-entertainment)

- Although there were comedies that dealt with Roman issues, none of these plays seemed popular for the time and we have no surviving scripts.

- The comedies that did survive are all based on Greek models and subjects.

-The official language of Ancient Rome was Latin, therefore when categorizing a playwright as “Roman” they would have had to have written their play in Latin.

-Although we know that Roman theatre flourished after its contact with the Greeks (250 B.C.E.), we know little about the playwrights before Plautus (began writing 205 B.C.E.)

-We know that Livis Andronicus wrote plays in Latin, it is believed that he was actually from Greece. Gnaeus was the first recorded playwright who was born a Roman citizen. His plays dealt with only Roman subject matter and never survived.

- Plautus, who wrote most of his works between
205 and 184 B.C.E., was the most popular of Roman comedic playwrights.

- His plays were written purely to entertain and emphasized over-the-top farcical situations and a clever use of the colloquial Latin language. They did not include references to contemporary political or social issues, which shows a departure from Greek comedy. Instead he favored tales of romance.

- Plautus was very familiar with dance and song, and actively incorporated these elements into his plays.
-Twenty of his plays have been recovered, and a fraction of one other, although it is thought he may have written around forty-five. Miles Gloriosus his most popular; the bragging soldier archetype.

-His works became influential again in the Renaissance, as Shakespeare and Moliere
both cite Plautus' work as influential.

- There is a debate between scholars that Terence could have been the first black playwright in the western world.

-The Roman author Suetonius (69 Common Era) wrote that Terence came from Libyan parents, came to Rome as a slave and had a dark complexion. His full name, 'Publis Terentius Afer,' indicates that he is North African, as 'Afer' was often used to describe a person from Libya.

- A more modern interpretation states that residents of Carthage and Libya during his lifetime were not necessarily black, and that the areas south and east of Carthage and Libya were the predominately black regions.

- No research that historians have done provides us with any conclusive answer to the question of Terence's background, but it is important to keep
these debates open.
- Roman acting technique emphasized broad physical gestures and pantomime. This was a result of the large playing space associated with Roman drama.

- Performers specialized in one type of role and would refine one stock character.

-Actors wore large linen masks that covered their entire faces, which gave a clue of which stock character they were

-The stocks characters are a precursor to Italian Renaissance Commedia stock characters.

-The position of Roman actors in their society is still a widely debated topic.

-Some believe that actors were slaves that were purchased by the head of a troupe, while others believed that the stars of the Roman theatre were in fact wealthy and well-respected members of society.

Production Elements
- The original Roman theatres were temporary wooden structures that were solely erected for theatrical presentations.

- The lack of permanent theatres meant that the most celebrated playwrights never saw their plays performed in a permanent theatre.

-The first and most famous of the permanent Roman theatres is the Theatre of Pompey. (55 B.C.E)

- Officials were originally against permanent theatres; they feared they would promote public immorality, since Roman comedy
frequently involved immoral actions
on stage.
-It wasn't until Pompey the Great built a stone theatre outside
the city walls and under the insistence that it was a religious edifice (there was a shrine near the top) that permanent theatres began to be built across the Roman Empire.

- Roman theatres still exist to this day in France, Syria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Jordan, Switzerland etc...

- The Roman theatres had the same three core elements that the Greek venues had: The 'cavea' (seating area,called the 'theatron' in Greece), the 'orchestra' (playing space) and the 'scaena' (scene building, called the 'skene' in Greece)

- The structures were freestanding, as oppose to being built into hillsides, and featured a tiered seating arrangement similar to modern hockey arenas. The orchestra was semi-circular instead of a full circle like in Greece, and the scaena was much larger than the Greek skene.

- The Roman theatre was also the first recorded western theatre to use curtains to alter the scenic environment: two kinds of curtains the Romans used.

-The auleum was used to mask the front facade, much like how the front curtains are used in modern theatre.

-The siparium was a painted backdrop curtain used to alter the appearance of the standard facade. Again, because of the size
of the scaena, it was impossible to cover the entire
Decline of Roman Theatre
- By the fourth century C.E. we see the unraveling of the Roman Empire.

- At this time, theatre falls out of favor with early Christians in Rome, who connected theatre with pagan religions and general immoral teachings.

-As invaders raided Roman cities, the art, play texts and philosophical writings spanning from the golden era of Greece through the early Christian era of Constantine were destroyed, effectively ending a 1000 year evolution of theatrical practices.

- The slow deteriorating of the Roman Empire leads into the dark ages, an era that we know little about.

- The time frame frequently changes, but most recently is referenced between the 5th-10 century C.E.

- Although some historians refuse to use the term because certain innovations are now credited to the dark ages, theatre scholars frequently still use it based on the lack of
information we have about theatre during this time.
Old Comedy
- Also featured in festivals during the Golden Age of Greece was old comedy, an era generally marked by its entry into the City Dionysia, which occurred around 487 BCE, and finishes around the beginning of the Hellenistic period.

- The content of old comedy satirized the social and political norms of the time. (Aristophanes "Lysistrata"; sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War)

- The important distinction between the two types of theatre is in their form:

-Comedy uses chorus and dramatic structure similar to tragedy, alternating scenes with choral odes

-Comedy adds its own unique elements such as the "agon", where two opposing forces in the play discuss a social or political issue, and the "parabasis", where the chorus has an extended monologue to the audience.

- Aristophanes is the most prominent writer of the era, and his work best represents how satire evolved, as he would make fun of contemporary figures and
events such as the Socrates and
Peloponnesian War

- Seneca is the only Roman tragic playwright whose
plays survived.

- All of his nine surviving plays are based on Greek myths, although his tragedies are quite different. He uses a chorus, but they are not integral to the story, and he depicts his death scenes as violent spectacle that occur on stage. This of course fits in with the nature of theatre-as-entertainment which is so common with the Romans.

-This isn't to say that Seneca exploited violence, but more so that he emphasized the themes and the tragic circumstances through his violence.

- Seneca, although never as popular as Greek tragic dramatists, had a great influence on later periods. Because his plays were written in Latin, not Greek, they were more accessible to future generations.

- This is most relevant to the playwrights of the English Renaissance, who included elements of Seneca's work such as: the use of supernatural characters, the depiction of on-stage violence and the use of soliloquies and asides.

The most obvious example is Shakespeare's
Hamlet, which uses all of the elements
mentioned above.
New Comedy
-New Comedy is associated with the Hellenistic era, and generally marked between 360-150 BCE.

-This transition from Old Comedy to New Comedy is marked by changes in form and content:

- Less political satire and topical references, more focus of subtle humour based on domestic situations.
-More "realistic", resembles everyday life for most Athenians rather than the lives of royalty or gods.
-Virtually no use of chorus, although singing and dancing between scenes still present.

-Menander was the most prominent playwright, and his use of the structure above heavily influenced the Roman comedy of Plautus and Terence to develop the genre even further.
From Greek Theatre to Hellenistic Theatre to Roman Theatre.
-By his death in 323 BCE he had successfully disseminated Greek culture, and subsequently theatre, to about a dozen countries
-We will explore what occurred during these dark ages in Medieval theatre.
-Costume Designers
(What did they wear? Materials, colours, footwear, masks etc.)
-Set and Props Designers
(what set pieces existed. What was permanent? What could be altered? Where did the set live in the space? Materials, paint, construction material etc.)
(How would this be staged? Who influenced acting technique? How many actors were common in productions? What was the role of the chorus? What modern adaptations might need to be made? )
(What are the important texts of this era? What are the key themes/images/ideas that carry through these texts? What text should we use for our show and why?)
(what are the key attributes of the theatre? How can these be re-imagined in a modern context? What materials were used? What was the significance of the location of these buildings? How could that also be re-imagined?)
(Who attended theatre in Ancient Greece? What function did it serve for them? What interesting angles could we take to attract modern audiences?
Roman Theatre
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