Ancient Theatre and Society

Greek theatre with masks. Photo: Wikipdia.

Architectural development and buildings are the best witnesses of (political) history and development of societies. Dictatorships, revolutions, monarchies and republican city-states left their marks. Although theatres rarely topples governments or incites in such direct action, like in Brussels in 1830, the theatre shifts attitudes, articulates discontent and reflects the (political and social)) mood of a nation. Internet and social media act as ‘street’ theatre nowadays.  It all started when Greek city states built theatres to give room to frame political institutions and direct participation of citizens, called democracy.

At the heart of this democracy was rhetoric, the art of persuasive speech. Male citizens could speak in the city state’s contemporary institutions and they did so by competitive and persuasive speech in rhetorical displays. Rhetorical speech, drama and comedy were one of a kind. The performances in the Greek theatre whether comedy, satire or tragedy, mirrored the political scene. The plays and theatre presented an image of an autochthonous, exclusive society that was divinely protected and democratic. Religion was omnipresent, but finally the rhetorical performances of men decided and the theatre was the centre of this process.

The word theatron means seeing place and the Greek plays and architecture, including terminology (among others skêne, orchêstra, choros, hymenaios, tragôidia, rhapsode, kômôdia) paved the way for what we call today democracy and free speech.The ‘theatricalization’ of society took shape and is more topical than ever, only the means changed  (Source: M. McDonald, J. Michael Walton (Eds), Greek and Roman Theatre (Cambridge 2007).