True Essence of Theatre Today and in Ancient Times


It is interesting to compare the significance of the theatre in ancient times and today. Art can sometimes tell us a lot about different eras in history, often much more than actual historical evidence. It testifies about the values of society throughout time.

Hippolyte Taine, French critic and historian, explains how a work of art comes as a result of race, milieu and moment, in which it originated. A rich palette of incredible works of art from ancient Greece tells a story with a great impact – a story of people with special mentality, incredibly deep and versatile knowledge, a people with a strong sense of space and a special relationship with architecture; people that were different among each other, but united under strong values and principles.

Given the fact that Ancient Greeks had a special relationship towards space, it is not surprising to see how they’ve constructed their theatres.

Let’s take famous Epidaurus for example. It is the only theatre building that still stands, without his general plan (dating from the 4th century BC) being significantly damaged. Theatre was built in a special way that secured an excellent acoustics under an open sky. Epidaurus was built for the citizens of the polis and could accommodate 13 000 spectators. It was divided into two parts: the first part consisted of twenty rows and was usually reserved for the general public; the second part consisted of thirty rows and was intended for priests, rulers, and honored guests. Theatre welcomed all, it was a great part of education and moral edification. Citizens were always there, foreigners also. Slaves were also allowed to come, but only as a companion to their master. Women were not prohibited to go, but they started going to theatre massively only in later Hellenistic and Roman times. Priests, messengers and orphans had the right to entry free, without purchasing tickets. The experience of the theatre was important and belonged to everyone. The entire community recognized the importance of learning through plays, especially tragedies.

Taine explains the development of Hellenic tragedy as a unique art that appeared along with a victory of the Hellenes, when they took over the Persians. By establishing hegemony and firm status in the Mediterranean, they have created a fertile ground for this type of art. Tragedies were the most popular form of art related to theatre. Let’s take Sophocles and his tragedy Antigone for an example. 

These performances had to be filled with pathos, concrete action that ensured dynamics and eventually brought destruction or pain. Aristotle pointed out that the goal of the tragedy is to purify us, as viewers, by causing fear and pity in us. Authentic tragedy should be challenging for us, it should frighten us and be overwhelming. In ancient times, it implied a certain kind of insight or epiphany for the audience. If the play was performed successfully, the audience should experience a catharsis – moral purification, through identification with the hero on stage or through empathy. In the case of Antigone, we can assume that viewers found it difficult to cope with many gray areas, because it is a complex work of art, with the matter of honor and ethics in its focus. It offers many questions and gives us very few answers. Like most of the myths, this one is also based on the animosity between good and evil. Antigone respects ancient principles and tradition, she is the personification of virtue and she wants to properly bury his brother, despite his sin; Creon, a particularly nasty and rush ruler, forbids it. Eventually he realizes his mistake, but it’s too late.

So, theatre for the Ancient Greeks was not only a form of entertainment, but a part of their cultural identity. Every drama, whether it’s a tragedy or a comedy, had a clear didactic moment. Going to theatre meant having a sense of community, of belonging to this magnificent collective. Going to the theatre was an event, but not in the sense in which it is for a modern man.

According to Cesare Molinari (in his book Theatre through ages) – theatre will always remain a performance, similar to movie shows, but with only one purely empirical difference: that it cannot be repeated. It is a unique experience and each performance is somehow different.

Today, theatre has become a space of experimentation. The avant-garde brought a huge change, especially when it comes to connecting the audience and the stage. Constantin Stanislavski brings a small revolution in terms of understanding the character and role-playing (for example, complete identification with the character, recalling the sad moments for the more realistic emotion of grief etc.). 

Modern theatre breaks down the boundary that stands between the audience and the stage, so the audience often becomes an active participant. Of course, not all modern adaptations are like this. But there is a breakage regarding the former connected elements: the relationship between text and performance is interrupted, where the text is only an excuse for developing themes and actors are given much more freedom to interpret the figures.

Today, there are rare performances that are able to shock us as viewers or challenge us, and this is the main difference between the ancient theatre and the theatre today. If it does happen, it is a negative impression. The fact is, we live in a crazy world, full of shocking events and absurd, so today’s man is used to it, became numb in a way. There are less and less plays that have an integrated element of didactics or that manage to open a new perspective for viewers. For many, it became a poor experience, reduced to a happening. Modern plays and adaptations can have the most diverse solutions, but we need to think about something: one art at some point reaches the peak of its development. What else is there for future art generations but to disintegrate old art and create something new out of it? The question is: how much is the price they pay for originality and is it worth it? 

In ancient times, going to theatre was an important part of the upbringing and it was accessible to all. Today, it can even have a negative connotation, given the fact that there has been a creation of cultural elitism. Going to theatre is often considered as a matter of prestige for two reasons: sometimes tickets can be pretty expensive, so it is a matter of financial state. But also – a society has created a bad distance, given the fact that it has become posh to attend premiers of theatrical works. It’s about to be seen, not to see or gain a new perspective. And that is what needs to be changed.

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