Difference Between Greek and Modern Theatres

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Theatre today as in ancient Greek times is a popular form of entertainment. Today’s theatres share many similarities with the Greek predecessors, however, they are also very different. There are in fact many differences, for example; layout, special effects, seating arrangement, the importance of drama and religion, setting, location and architectural features.

In ancient Greece, festivals were mainly held at the Great Dionysia. This was the oldest theatre in Greece and many plays were performed here, for example the first performance of Antigone. The patron of the theatre was the God Dionysus and there was a temple near which was dedicated in his honor. There was also a statue of the patron Goddess Athene. Today there is no link between religion and theatre, as we live in a multi-cultural society with people who follow many different faiths; therefore the theatre is secular to appeal to all people (Gill).

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The various aspects of ancient Greek theatre, then compare with today’s modern version of theatre. Today it is widely believed that theatre first began in ancient Greece, the evidence people used to come to this conclusion was from ancient Greek plays, Greek art and architecture.

In ancient Greek theatres the seating was arranged in a semi-circle and curves down into the center following the natural shape of the hillside. There are many modern theatres which are arranged in this way, however many have the whole audience directly opposite the stage like in a cinema. Seats in ancient Greek theatres would have been made from stone, with the audience expected to bring their own cushions. Today the audience sits on padded seats so the audience is more comfortable. This is because people have higher expectations today and society is generally more advanced, people would not sit on stone seats today. In ancient times audiences were much larger as they could fit more people into the theatres. The Dionysus could hold over 14000 people (Gill). This is in stark contrast to today where the average theatre holds approximately one thousand people.

This could be because there are many more theatres today than in Greek times, therefore there is a greater amount of choice and variety. Tickets in ancient times were made out of ivory and were needed to enter the theatre (Robinson). This is similar to modern theatres where a ticket system is also in operation. The worst seats in the theatre were at the back, this is similar to today as the seats at the back (the lords) are the cheapest. These seats were used by the lower classes. The higher your social status the better view of the play you could expect to get. Importantly, women were not allowed in the theatre at any time. In today’s modern society, everyone is considered equal, therefore if you have enough money you can sit wherever you like in the theatre. Also, women can attend and enjoy the exact same privileges as men. This is because society has progressed and women are seen as equals in all walks of life, whereas in Greek times they were very much second class citizens.

Theatres in ancient Greece were built so they were open air and exposed to the elements. When being built the builders used natural curved sides for the seating area, this provided excellent acoustics and it is a technique used today. However, today theatres are not open air as the weather would prohibit performances for the majority of the year, therefore building them with a roof allows performances to take place all year round increasing revenue and profit. Some modern theatres today have domed ceilings which enable sound to circulate better. In ancient times theatres were often built on hills to improve acoustics, however today they are almost always built in flat urbanized areas that have a high population, for example London, this is because large urbanized areas have easy access because of good transport links e.g. the London underground. Acoustics are not as important today as microphones can enhance the sound, whereas in ancient Greek times they did not have this luxury.

Today special effects in modern theatres are taken for granted by the audiences. Flashing lights, smoke, electronic sound and even microphones for the actors were all not available to the ancient Greeks. In ancient times there special effects included; cranes for lifting actors into the air and ekkyklema (a trolley used to roll on stage via the central doors to carry away dead bodies. Many of these effects are not used to today as modern audiences want the play to be as realistic as possible and many of these effects would not achieve this. But today they still use wires in order to make actors appear to be flying; this is similar to the machine but more advanced to do modern technologies.

At the back of the ancient Greek theatre stood the ‘skene’. The word ‘skene’ means stage building. The ‘skene’ was a wooden building where the actors could change and this building could also be used for as a house or temple or any other part of scenery (Gill). At the front of the ‘skene’ there was a large double door for the actors to make their entrance. Actors could also enter through the ‘parados’ if they were acting as characters from foreign lands or who had just arrived (University Press Inc). There were three areas where the actors could act; the platform in front of the stage building, the orchestra and the roof of the stage building. The roof of the stage building was often used for romantic scenes as it would represent a balcony (Gill). It was also sometimes used to represent the land of the Gods while the lower levels represented the underworld. The modern equivalent of the ‘skene’ would be the actors and actresses dressing rooms. However, they would not directly enter the stage from here and it’s not used as scenery. Therefore the ‘skene’ is unique to ancient Greek theatres.

In ancient Greek times theatre was a form of entertainment only and there was no fee to enter. However, today not only is it a form of entertainment it is also a money making business. This could explain why many changes have been made since ancient times to improve the comfort and view for the audience. Therefore, they can attract more people and maximize profits. Also in ancient times religion played a key part with many plays being based around the Gods and rituals often performed on stage. Today’s modern culture is far more secular with very few plays being based solely around religion. This is because religion is dwindling in Britain and plays based on it would not attract many people and therefore not make money, which is the main target for all theatres (Hearst).

The large numbers of people visiting ancient Greek theatres is also in contrast to today where very few attend. This is because of various other forms of entertainment open to people today for example; sports events, cinemas, television and the internet. With all this choice, it is no wonder the number of people attending plays is far less than in ancient times.

Special effects today are also much more advanced giving modern audiences a very different experience. However, their experience cannot be describes as better as many people today often prefer more dramatic based performances with low key special effects. It is however true to say that modern theatre is more accessible to the general public especially women and the working classes. This is due to changes in modern values in society, for example equality for all human beings. It is also much more comfortable today than it was in ancient times as there are plush seat with cushions instead of solid stone rows.

However, modern theatres have borrowed, some things from their ancient Greek counterparts. For example the basic layout, as many theatres are still semi-circular today. They were built using natural curved sides for the seating area, this provided excellent acoustics and it is a technique used today.

So in conclusion, although ancient Greek theatres have similarities with modern theatres the differences far out way the similarities. This is because modern theatre has changed so much from special effects to the clientele who are allowed to participate. Also in ancient times women could not act, whereas today actresses are very highly thought of.

Works cited

  1. BBC. Ancient Greek: Arts and Theatre. BBC. Web. 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/ancient_greeks/arts_and_theatre/
  2. Gill, N.S. Layout of the Ancient Greek Theater. About.com Guide. Web. 2013. http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/greektheater/ss/120109GreekTheater_2.htm
  3. Hearst, William Randolph. Greek Theatre. Hellenica. Web. 2013. http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/LX/GreekTheater.html
  4. Nederlander-Greek, Inc. Greek Theatre facts. Nederlander-Greek, Inc. Web. 2013. http://www.greektheatrela.com/about/facts.asp
  5. Robinson, Scott R. Theatre and Drama in Ancient Greek. Web. 2000-2010. http://www.cwu.edu/~robinsos/ppages/resources/Theatre_History/Theahis_2.html
  6. University Press, Inc. Theatre. Web. 2003-2012. http://www.ancientgreece.com/s/Theatre

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Difference Between Greek and Modern Theatres. (2016, May 19). Retrieved from


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