Anthropology Theatre

Anthropology: A Look At Greco-Roman Civilization through Theater and the Performing Arts

It is believed that well before human consciousness was discovered, humans relied on the word of the Gods as the voice inside their heads. Gods have played a huge role in human life since the beginning of time. People’s faith is what led to the creation of culture, festivals, and of course religion. One such example of faith can be traced back to the creation of Theatre.

Theatre is performing art that plays out stories or events through song, dance, gestures, speaking, and more. It is a collaborative form that can be traced back to the 6th Century B.C. in Ancient Greece. Just like the birth of Democracy, Greece is said to be responsible for discovering theatre. Faith played a huge role in the birth of theatre, for it was the followers of the Greek God Dionysus who began the tradition.


anthropology mythology
Image source: Flickr

Known as the God of Wine, Dionysus, like most tragic heroes, was an outsider among his own people. He was the son of Zeus and Seleme, a human princess who died before giving birth to him as she was tricked by a jealous Hera into seeing Zeus’ true form. However, the unborn child was said to have been sewn into Zeus’ thigh and was soon born from there. Dionysus was raised among rain nymphs on Mount Nysa where he learned how to cultivate grapes and turn them into wine. He took his knowledge and taught mortals all around the world about the secret of winemaking.

It was only after his long journey around the world that he arrived in Greece and was seen as an outsider. Even though Dionysus was a part of the twelve Olympians, he was the odd one out. His way of living life, his love for wine, music, and dance, is what attracted his followers who thought of him as a “liberator” from the limitations of society.

The God’s origins, the way he was raised, and his beliefs made him attractive to his followers and uncivilized to the Gods. He was celebrated in the ancient city of Athens during the “City of Dionysia”, a festival welcoming Dionysus through song, dance, and theatre.

Dithyrambs and The Chorus

The concept of the theatre started out a little different than what we know as theatre today. In the beginning, there were no actors, directors, or producers, it was only the performer. The festival celebrating Dionysus included ancient hymns that were sung in honor of the God. These ancients hymns were known as Dithyrambs.

Soon, the dithyrambs became a collaborative project where people would wear costumes and perform with masks on. This eventually led to certain members of the chorus taking up specific roles. It was under the rule of the tyrant Pisistratus that the “city of Dionysus” became a celebration of God under which there were many competitions of music, dancing, singing, and poetry. The winner would then be deemed a Thespis (wandering bard).

Thespis – The First Actor

Anthropology history. Special masks, worn by actors during a performance
Image source: Teaching History 100

Born in 6th Century B.C., a Thespis was a wandering bard that traveled city to city reciting poetry. According to Aristotle, the Thespis introduced the concept of the prologue and internal speeches within a tragic play. They were the first to connect choral songs with a tragic dialogue.

They were supposed to be the first actors who played out different characters within the dithyrambs by changing their masks. The Thespis was the first performer of Tragedies in the ancient Greek civilization. It is also the origin of the English word “thespian” used to refer to actors.

The Thespis was also the very first winner of a prize for their performance of a tragedy during the festival of Dionysus. This became a tradition where playwrights were called on to write three tragedies and one satyr to be performed during the four-day festival. Amphitheaters in the great city of Athens were set for performances for a massive audience and finally, at the end of the four-day celebration, a winner would be announced.

Unfortunately, not all the works of playwrights from the time survive. We only have the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who are now seen as the foundation of tragedies/tragic plays. Their plays depicted events from Greek mythology, historical events, and sometimes even recent events. Theatre became a mouthpiece for what was happening around the people, especially when Greek comedies were introduced. Through the veil of laughter, Greek dramatists would put up plays that talked about social issues, and that is how theatre became the perfect way to show what was wrong with society.


Anthropology history
Ancient Greek Theatre.
Image source: Ancient-Origins

Greek Tragedies became a regular feature at the City of Dionysia. The audience, however, consisted only of male citizens. Even though the audience consisted of only one gender, the Amphitheatre was known for its visual and acoustic range. The Greek theatres are some of the best in the world because they are acoustically some of the most advanced theatres ever built.

Microphones did not exist in the 6th Century B.C., but the next best thing was architecture and creativity. The masks worn by the Thespis are said to have been as large as an entire human torso or even bigger. But the size was not the only thing that was special about these masks. They were said to have an opening through which the Thespis could speak and that opening would act as a microphone. The acoustics of the Amphitheatre helped the sound travel to every corner of the theatre. Additionally, the Thespis was also known to wear stilts/heels to appear a normal human size for the person sitting farthest away in the Amphitheatre.

The Greeks knew what they were doing when they began the culture of theatre. They planned everything accordingly and made sure that each and every citizen that came to experience theatre got the complete experience.

The Structure

Anthropology history
Theatre of Dionysus in Athens.
Image source: Greek Theatre Notes

The theatres originally consisted of a flat floor for the chorus’ performance and the rest of the structure of the theatre known as the Theatron. With the performing arts becoming more popular these theatres were rebuilt and modified regularly. Eventually, they were converted into open-air structures with an orchestra, the skene, and the audience.

The most important and central structure of these open-air theatres was the Orchestra. It was usually a circular or rectangular area where the chorus would sing, dance, and act.

The stage or skene was made of wood and was approximately a meter high with stairs in the center. There were areas on either side of the stage and a central door for the actors to make their entry. The skene usually separated the changing area from the stage that was visible to the audience, what we today know as the backstage. It also depicted different sceneries and served as a backdrop for different plays.

The ekkyklema was a popular trope used in theatres at the time. It was a moving platform with wheels that was brought in for a change of scene. The mechane was used within the plays and gave the actors the height and authority to represent gods and heroes. It was simply a crane that allowed the actors to step in and take them up in the air for a scene involving Gods. The setting of the stage mattered a lot to the Greek dramatists and the structure of the theatre incorporated these dramatic needs.

Roman Theater

Anthropology history
Roman theatre actors.
Image source: Wikipedia

The Roman theatre took inspiration from religion and Greeks. Ceremonies that included theatrical performances to please the gods were transformed into theatrical performances for entertainment.  Before transforming entirely into a form of entertainment, Roman theatre was known to take inspiration from Greek tragedies, Etruscan influences focusing on an acrobatic/circus-like performance, and Atellan farces.

It was later discovered that Greek comedies such as the ones written by Aristophanes were also performed. However, most of these plays were performed in Latin in Italy that means a huge portion of the public might not have been privy to these performances. Latin was not the language of the people.

Temporary Theaters

Around 240 B. C., the theatre had become a casual form of entertainment for the crowds to enjoy during major festivals. However, unlike the Greeks, the Romans were forced to have a temporary theatre structure built with wood. These structures would stay up for the duration of the performances and would then be taken down. Permanent performance spaces were objected to by the people of higher rank within the Roman society for they believed that regular consumption of theatre would ruin the minds of the people.

The temporary theatres could allow only a minimalist atmosphere where spectators had to sit or stand to watch the play within the Cavea, along with a stage or scaena. The scaena frons acted as the backdrop for the stage, and the main stage where the actors performed was called the proscaenium.

Moreover, building a theatre was not an easy feat. It required a massive amount of resources and infrastructure. While theatres were built, later on, the idea of having a permanent stone structure took generations of help, resources, and infrastructure.

The Structure and Discrimination

Anthropology history
Leptis Magna, Libya: Roman Amphitheatre
Image source: Britannica

A lot of the theatres built later in the Roman empire were inspired by the structure of the Greek theatres. The seating was arranged around the orchestra in a semi-circle. The stage and scene(skene) were a part of the auditorium and were as high as the seats went forming a sort of enclosure. The structures were in fact, very similar to the modern-day theatres.

Despite the fact that theatre was accessible to almost everyone in Roman society, Feudalism was still at play. The class division within society could be seen in the way the theatres were divided as well. Most theatres were divided into ima, media, and summa cavea. The women, children, the poor, and the slaves had to be seated at the back or the summa cavea. Gender discrimination was very strong at the time and the women who decided to participate in these male-dominated activities were subject to the same treatment as the slaves.

The discrimination did not just stop at the seating arrangements. The actors who performed in theatre shows were of low standing within society as well. The actors did not possess any political or civil rights within Roman society because they were not even considered citizens. Furthermore, they were denied participating in the military as well which completely obliterated their chances of ever becoming a part of Roman society. All Roman citizens were expected to have a military background to be considered a citizen. However, the slaves had a better chance of being free if they proved themselves to be good actors.

It was believed that women were not part of these theatre troupes in Italy, that only men performed on stage. However, there was speculation of female actors being a part of the chorus and even having speaking roles in some of the plays.

Western Theater Today

Theatre went on to take on many forms over the years. While tragedies and comedies remained the basic structure of the performance, performing styles changed. Over the years the stories that were depicted in theatre took a drastic turn. The West was known for its radical literary movements that were a major influence on the theatre of the time as well.

Anthropology history
Commedia dell’arte troupe
Image source: Britannica

Commedia dell’arte, melodrama, prose-style dialogues, and a more realistic approach to acting became the norm. The Renaissance gave rise to humanism and modernity that influenced playwrights of the time. Then came the Puritans, who simply disliked the idea of performing arts and put a halt to theatres altogether.

By this time most of Europe was comfortable with the idea of theatre and playwrights from all over were emerging. This also gave rise to different forms of theatre at the time.

Anthropology history
A still from
Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”
Image source: World of theatre and art

The historical and political events of different countries shaped the form of theatre. Romanticism, burlesque, Naturalism, Realism, Musical theatre all became popular during the 19th Century. These trends continued into the 20th century with the realistic form of theatre by Stanislavsky, Theatre of the Absurd of Samuel Beckett, Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, Bertolt Brecht, and Erwin Piscator’s Political theatre.

Significance in Anthropology: Greco-Roman Relations and Theater

Theatre has always been a form of art that has informed its audiences in the present and future of what society was like. A lot of the historical evidence we have today of the Greek and Roman civilizations comes from their theatres and their art. One of the few reasons we knew that Greco-Roman relations were good for a long time was due to art and theatre.

The modern-day theatre has been built on the basis that these two civilizations created for Western society. From the structure of the theatres to the types of plays being written, almost everything comes from the Greco-Roman times. However, it is important to note a lot has changed as well. While the structure and the idea behind the concept of theatre remain similar, the discriminatory practices have been eliminated. In fact, theater going has become a luxury experience in most countries and theatre actors are now celebrated for their talent.

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