National Geographic : 1946 Nov
At the Theater THE ROMANS reconditioned the Greek theater into an or ganized structure. Undismayed by the weight of super imposed arcades, they solved the problem of throwing a sloping vault from "pit" to "gallery" to carry the tiers of seats for the auditorium. Having erected the high, arcaded support underneath the spectators' section, the architects naturally evolved the idea of carrying up the remaining elements of central stage build ing and wings to an equal height and of tying them all to gether into a single, homogeneous unit. They thus produced a playhouse, complete although still uncovered except by awnings, whereas the Greeks had been content with an outdoor, hillside gathering place. The portion of the circle of the dancing floor which pro jected beyond the mouth of the cavea, or tiers of seats, was sliced off, and a deep stage platform of wood was stretched all the way across. The stage was raised some five feet above the orchestra and backed by an elaborately ornate stone, or brick and stucco, facading to mask the actors' build ing. Over this broad, deep stage was suspended a sloping wooden ceiling to protect it from the weather and to serve as a sounding board for the actors' voices. Heavy wings flanked the stage and maintained the effect of loftiness. For balance in the general design, a colonnaded, vaulted gallery was often carried above and behind the topmost tier of the auditorium, moving at the same level as the ceiling hung over the stage or the eaves of the heavy, towerlike wings. The painting shows better than words the interesting unified composition which resulted. Famous Greek plays, both tragic and comic, were pre sented on the Roman stageindirect translation or modified adaptation for Latin-speaking audiences. InSicily and southernmost Italy, whereGreek continued tobespoken and many of the townsfolkwere Greek bydescent, the tra ditions of the Greek stagewere faithfully observed. Farther north, as in Rome itself, native Italic elements were introduced. Thus, until about Cicero's time, no masks were worn by Roman actors; andinthe native type of play, such as the mime, ordinary costume was worn inplace of the fantastic Athenian "mask andwig" andstilted shoe. The Roman actor's art issaid tohave reached itszenith in the first century B. c. during the last years ofthe Re public. Under the Empire, the popular preference for stage spectacles led to asteadily mounting emphasis on elaborateness, expense, and purely quantitative display. Therefore the drama as a fine art rapidly deteriorated. Interest in tragedy afterthe old Greek tradition andin the classic comedy of Plautus and Terence died out almost completely as the Romanadulation ofpageants andcon tests invaded the theaterfrom the circus andtheamphi theater. Pantomime akintomodern musical comedy alone managed to preserve sufficient popularity tosurvive. The painting shows a revival performance of aclassic Latin comedy in a theaterinSicily, active Mount Etna in the distance. The building stands on the site of an older Greek theater, which hasbeen remodeled inthe Roman manner. So good were theacoustics that even the spectators in the curving gallery at the top could hear every word.