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Classical Greek Theatre

New Views of an Old Subject

Clifford Ashby

Publication Year: 1998

Many dogmas regarding Greek theatre were established by researchers who lacked experience in the mounting of theatrical productions. In his wide-ranging and provocative study, Clifford Ashby, a theatre historian trained in the practical processes of play production as well as the methods of historical research, takes advantage of his understanding of technical elements to approach his ancient subject from a new perspective. In doing so he challenges many long-held views.

Archaeological and written sources relating to Greek classical theatre are diverse, scattered, and disconnected. Ashby's own (and memorable) fieldwork led him to more than one hundred theatre sites in Greece, southern Italy, Sicily, and Albania and as far into modern Turkey as Hellenic civilization had penetrated. From this extensive research, he draws a number of novel revisionist conclusions on the nature of classical theatre architecture and production.

The original orchestra shape, for example, was a rectangle or trapezoid rather than a circle. The altar sat along the edge of the orchestra, not at its middle. The scene house was originally designed for a performance event that did not use an up center door. The crane and ekkyklema were simple devices, while the periaktoi probably did not exist before the Renaissance. Greek theatres were not built with attention to Vitruvius' injunction against a southern orientation and were probably sun-sited on the basis of seasonal touring. The Greeks arrived at the theatre around mid-morning, not in the cold light of dawn. Only the three-actor rule emerges from this eclectic examination somewhat intact, but with the division of roles reconsidered upon the basis of the actors' performance needs. Ashby also proposes methods that can be employed in future studies of Greek theatre. Final chapters examine the three-actor production of Ion, how one should not approach theatre history, and a shining example of how one should.

Ashby's lengthy hands-on training and his knowledge of theatre history provide a broad understanding of the ways that theatre has operated through the ages as well as an ability to extrapolate from production techniques of other times and places.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

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pp. xi-xii

Many knowledgeable and perceptive scholars have listened to what must have seemed an almost endless barrage of speculations, arguments, theories, and, occasionally, conclusions; I am very grateful to all of them. The following were particularly helpful in providing advice, counsel, and corrections...

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pp. xiii-xix

This study began some sixteen years ago. It started with a summer tour of Italy and Greece, one undertaken not only to seek explanations for some of the puzzling contradictions found in the standard histories of Greek theatre, but also to formulate answers to questions that had been posed by...

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1. The Limits of Evidence I: The Writings

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pp. 1-14

Both written and archaeological sources concerning the Greek theatre are generally well known. Ronald Vince has discussed them at some length in Ancient and Medieval Theatre; more recently, Eric Csapo and William J. Slater have covered much the same body of material in The Context of Ancient...

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2. The Limits of Evidence II: Physical Remains

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pp. 15-23

A host of researchers study the physical remnants of Classic Greek theatre. Four overarching disciplines, archaeology, architecture, art history, and epigraphy, supply the bulk of information that is useful to anyone concerned with how the theatre operated in the fifth century. At times, specialists in...

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3. The Shape of the Orchestra: A History and Critique

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pp. 24-41

The Greek theatres which first became known to scholars had partially circular orchestras with a wrap-around hillside viewing area: The theatres at Priene, Sikyon, Eretria, and the Theatre of Dionysos at Athens were among the first excavated, and all exhibited this part-circular pattern. ...

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4. Where Was the Altar?

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pp. 42-61

After centuries of study, there is general agreement that the City Dionysia of fifth-century Athens involved an animal sacrifice to the god Dionysos and that this event took place in the theatre before the beginning of the play competition. The usual assumption has been that this sacrifice was offered...

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5. The Scene House: The Dithyramb, Found Space, and the “Royal” Door

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pp. 62-80

Theatre begins in space created for something other than theatre. As the last of the arts to flower, theatre does not emerge until other institutions are in place and functioning; only then do the actors begin to infiltrate the buildings and structures originally intended for other purposes. A major part of...

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6. Stage Machinery

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pp. 81-96

A mountain of speculation has centered upon the mechanical devices the Greeks used to enhance performances of their plays. Many versions of these devices have been proposed, ranging from simplistic to overengineered. ...

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7. The Orientation of Greek Theatres

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pp. 97-117

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, theories attempting to explain the orientation of buildings in ancient Greece received considerable scholarly attention. But even during the heyday of siting studies theatres were usually passed over, with attention focused on temples. Von...

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8. Dawn Performances: Three Days in a Row?

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pp. 118-127

The spectators, thousands and thousands of them, begin arriving in the chill hours before the equinoctial dawn; a few torches cast huge shadows over the cavernous theatron as they move to their seats. Clutching woolen himations about them, they arrange the cushions that will soften the long...

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9. Ramifications of the Three-Actor Rule

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pp. 128-138

While previous chapters have questioned several of the near-sacred absolutes regarding Greek theatre, this one adheres mainly to the orthodox: the three-actor rule for tragedies and satyr plays is alive, well, and not presently refutable. The following pages apply the rule to the extant scripts in an effort...

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10. Validation by Authority: Margarete Bieber’s Comparisons of Hellenistic and Roman Theatres

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pp. 139-146

Of the many archaeologists who have written about the ancient theatre, Margarete Bieber speaks most directly to the interests of the theatre historian. Almost alone among the diggers-up of ancient civilizations, she shows an obvious concern for the requirements of performance and performer....

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11. Validation by Repetition: The Menander Reliefs

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pp. 147-164

While some assumptions regarding Greek theatre are rooted in the pronouncements of authority figures, others have grown from tentative speculations elevated to the status of "fact" by nothing more substantial in the way of evidence than being frequently cited. This brief chapter examines the...

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12. Validation (and Discovery) by Experiment: Producing a Three-Actor Ion

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pp. 165-179

In January 1997, I staged a production of Ion for the Lubbock (Texas) Community Theatre, giving me the opportunity to test whether Euripides' "tragedy," as it was classified in the fifth century, would take the stage in modern times as a "romantic comedy." Asecondary aim was to see whether...


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pp. 181-186


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pp. 187-191

E-ISBN-13: 9781587292682

Publication Year: 1998