SINCE the inception of theatres their mode of construction has undergone a gradual formative evolution, invariably influenced by the everchanging uses for which these edifices have been intended. The history of the theatre dates from time immemorial. *The early Greek theatre evidently had no prototype. It was enormous in size and exposed to the open air, with no roof covering of any kind.
*Chinese tradition claims the establishment of the Oriental theatre centuries before the Greeks came into being, yet it is unlikely that the latter race knew of its existence, and much less likely that they copied its form. The Chinese, like the Greeks, have ever been disciples of true art, and it is not impossible that in these days of convenient international intercourse many of the claimed innovations in advanced dramatic art may have had their inception in this remarkable country, where an older civilization has better borne the realization of true art. For centuries Chinese plays have been founded on noble legends, written in poetic language, and produced with the most artistic touches of suggestion, rather than mechanical realism. They portray the characters in the play by their dress and masks, as did the early Romans. Scenery and stage "properties" are generally regarded as accessories, although the author recalls seeing in China in 1890 essential exterior scenes represented by numerous folding screens, an idea afterward employed as an innovation by Gordon Craig. The writer also saw the stage of a Chinese theatre flooded with actors pouring through the auditorium aisles and across temporary bridges from the balcony, a highly effective feature supposed to have been originated by Max Reinhardt, and at another Chinese theatre was witnessed the revolving stage patented in Germany years later by Herr Lautenschlager. The elaborate and costly costumes, too, of the Chinese players are very remindful of the brilliant coloring of the celebrated Russian Leon Bakst.
In its first form the Greek theatre consisted of a circular dancing-place or "orchestra" marked out by a narrow margin of flat stones. This space was reserved for the use of those participating in the exhibitions. The earliest performances were developed from the songs and dances dedicated to Dionysius, the god of wine and vegetation, and were intensely religious in their character. They were presented during annual feasts lasting several days, and the whole city kept holiday. All business was abandoned, and even prisoners were liberated to participate in the universal merriment. Every day, from morning until evening, was devoted without intermission to the rendering of these plays, which consisted of dialogues between the "coryphaeus," or leader of the chorus, and the other bacchanalians, the "coryphaeus" declaiming his lines from a sacrificial platform. At first this platform was located in the center of the orchestra, alongside the altar. Later, after its removal, it became the Greek stage. These sacred exhibitions were invariably preceded by some divine sacrifice, usually that of a "trayos" or goat. The religious significance of these plays, however, gradually diminished. The performances became more frequent, and the plays themselves came to be written more and more from a purely human point of view, and to the present day this motive remains the essential element of the drama.
Thespis was the first to introduce professional actors in place of the "coryphaeus." and to this day actors are called "thespians." In the time of Thespis, the sacrificial table upon which he took his stand, surrounded by the choristers, was removed to a place immediately in front of the dressing booth erected just outside the orchestra, in which the actors changed their dress and masks. As the exigencies of the performances demanded, changes were made in the formation of the orchestra and stage building; the stage platform was widened and a proscenium built, with a series of dressing booths behind it.
The loss of one-third of the original orchestra space to make room for the establishment of the sacrificial table had necessitated placing the festival grounds at the foot of a hillside. Here the audience, seated one above the other like flights of steps in the space surrounding the orchestra, could have an unobstructed view of the performance. These wooden seats or rather benches were arranged in a semi-circle with the two ends prolonged. Their fatal collapse later led to their being replaced by stone seats with solid foundations, a fact which suggests that even at that remote period the safety of the public was an essential element in the construction of theatres. Apparently the first stone theatre was the ancient theatre at Athens, illustrated at the beginning of this chapter. It is today one of the most interesting ruins in the world. This edifice was probably erected near the middle of the fourth century, and undoubtedly occupied the identical site of the old wooden structure that preceded it. In many ways it embodied in more permanent form the main characteristics of that historic building, in which the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had been declaimed.
The vast importance of the religious plays enacted in these ancient Greek theatres is indicated by the enormous expenditure of state money required for their production. These sums were raised by obligatory duties levied upon the wealthy, like the income tax of the present day. Plutarch tells us that the expense of presenting a single play of Sophocles at Athens involved an extravagant sum equivalent to half a million dollars in American currency.