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A Brief History of Roman Theatre

this page includes:

Influences on Roman Theatre
Various Sites of Theatres (with pictures)
Layout and Design of Roman Theatres

Influences on Roman Theatre

There were three major influences on the Ancient Romans' perspective of theatre, the Greeks, Etruscans, and the Oscans. The two major influences were the Greeks and the Etruscans.

The Greeks were already an established culture in southern Italy whean Rome was created. Because Rome and Greece's city-states in Italy were so close together, Greece strongly influenced Rome in many different ways. Rome's ideas on many things were borrowed from the Greeks, things ranging from gods to theatre construction. The layout of the Roman theatre is very much like that of the Greek theatre. They both have an orchastra pit, a backstage area, and seating arrangments. Also, the ideas for plays were 'borrowed' from Greek plays. The plots were basically the same only the characters' names were changed and some other minor things. Even the rules on producing plays were similar to those in Greece.
The Etruscans too had a great influence on the Romans. They were also a well established culture in Italy when Rome was just starting out. The Etruscans were a more powerful people and so they had many battles with Rome, because of these battles, many Etruscan ideals took hold in Roman culture. The Etruscans brought the Romans horse racing and many other popular civic activities. Paintings have been found that pointed out that in Etruscan theatres, there were curtained off boxes that the wealthy would watch plays from.
A far lesser known influence on the ancient Romans were the Oscans. They too came from northern Italy but overpopulation caused them to spread out. Beacause of this, they came into contact with the Romans. With them they brought their own way of doing things which greatly effected the Romans. The Oscans broght with them their ideas about plays.

The Oscans had a type of comedy called Atellan Farce. This was a type of improvised comedy played with stock characters (player types that repeated from play to play). There were typically four stock characters, Maccus (a boastful buffoon, a fool), Bucco (a fool and stupid guzzler), Pappus (a foolish old man), Dassenus (a hunchback, wise fool, others thought he was like Mandacus), and Mandacus (a monster with big jaws). These stock characters were the idea for the typical Roman play's stock character.

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Major Sites of Roman Theatres

The major locations for theatres tened to be around temples so various gods could look at certain plays that were either for them or about them. Later on however, theatres began to be built on hillsides (hill provided extra support and is easier to build on). All over the Roman Empire theatres were erected to entertain the masses.

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Layout and Design of Roman Theatres

The Roman theatre was laid out similar to that of the Greek theatre. There was a backstage area, seating arangements for the audience, and an orchastra. The Roman stage went through many different stages before reaching the form we all recognize today.

Theatres started out as simple, temporary wooden structures. The layout of the stage was the same as in later stone stages-3 doors each opening to the brothel, temple, and hero's house. The stage itself was inclosed by wings at each side and the scene house had a roof.

The Romans didn't have a permanent (stone) theatre until the final years of the Republic, the latest reference to the Romans building a new theater was in 17 b.c. The large stone theatres seated tens of thousands of Romans. There wasn't a front curtain nor were there performances done in the orchastra pit (unlike Greek plays). The patrons to the plays sat on temporary wooden benches where there was room, ushers would direct the patrons all through out the performance.

Roman Temple Most plays were comedies and few information is known about tragedies except that instead of having three doors on stage, there would only be one (the temple). The plays were all basically identical: they all contained some sort of mistaken idendity, three doors, and stock characters (actors wore masks). The doors would lead to the brothel (stage right), temple (center stage), and the hero's (young man) house (stage left). It's never shown
Roman Theatre what happens in the doors, hinted at however. If a character were to enter or exit by stage left they would be going to or coming from the harbor; if they entered or exited from stage right they would be exiting to or entering from the town.

Since the plays were staged outside, the characters heard only what they needed to hear. If someone was eavesdropping, they would stand near the speaking characters and the speaking characters just wouldn't see them. "If a developing plan needed interuption, the characters conviently heard a door squeak announcing arrival of interloper" (Gillespie, 116).

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