Theatre of Dionysus
The Theatre of Dionysus was a major open air theatre in ancient Greece, built at the foot of the Athenian Acropolis and forming part of the temenos of "Dionysus Eleuthereus" (or Eleutherios, for "Dionysus, the Liberator"). Dedicated to Dionysus, the god of plays and wine (among other things), the theatre could seat as many as 17,000 people, making it an ideal location for ancient Athens' biggest theatrical celebration, the Dionysia. It became the prototype for all theatres of ancient Greece.
It was the first stone theatre ever built — cut into the southern cliff face of the Acropolis — and the birthplace of Greek tragedy. The remains of a restored and redesigned Roman version can still be seen at the site today.
At the Dionysus the audience sat around three sides of a large flat playing space called the Orchestra. Traditionally this was the performing area for the chorus although as Peter Arnott argues "it is quite possible that actors playing the named roles may also have used this space during the play." In his book An Introduction to Greek Theatre Graham Ley argues that "the extent to which the action of the plays were confined to the Orchestra is somewhat dubious." Ley highlights that in Aeschylus' Persians (472 BC) "the Queen of Persia arrives in a chariot, and in the early plays most characters arrive in the playing space from "elsewhere", apparently from side paths."
Situated directly behind the Orchestra was the skene where the actors could make their entrances and this was also possibly used a dressing room." With the construction of a skene in the theater of Dionysus, it is clear that some characters appear from it, and characters may enter it.
Whilst there is little doubt that the Theatre of Dionysus was a spectacular construction and pathed the way to many exciting and large scale performances it is also clear that it posed many problems to actors of the time and more importantly for audiences. The raked auditorium stretched so far back and up the natural slope of the Acropolis it is highly likely that the smallest gesture and the quietest of whispers was lost regardless of the excellent acoustics. The actors would have to overcome these problems by big acting and very clear gestures. And this raises questions about just how believable the performances were. The pressures on the actors would have been enormous and when we consider that the playwright was only permitted to use three actors any one actor could be called upon to play a great number of roles.
In Classical Athens, when the theatre was the venue for the Greater Dionysia, competitions were held between Greek dramatists as part of the occasion. The categories that could be entered were Greek Tragedy, Comedy and Satyr play. The plays were performed by a Chorus, and the audience served as judges. Amongst those to have competed are all of the renowned dramatists of the Classical era, such as Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus.
In the mid 4th century BC, racked stone tiers were constructed (where wooden benches probably resided before) in order to allow more seating. After this the theatre fell into disuse and little is recorded until 61 AD where there is evidence of major renovations done by the emperor Nero.
Currently the biggest problem we have in assessing the pros and cons of the Theatre of Dionysus is the relative lack of surviving reliable evidence. Therefore when studying this fascinating topic one should treat any evidence they find with a dose of caution