Theater in ancient Greece developed from the ceremonial worship of the god Dionysus (in which the death and rebirth of the god were celebrated) and was communal in nature. The focal point of the structure in which the ceremony took place was a level, circular space at the foot of a hill. Around this space, called the orchēstra, an auditorium rose in a large semicircle. Behind the orchēstra was the skēne, a building where the actors could change costume. Between the skēne and the orchēstra was a space called the proskenion, which later developed into the stage.
The original religious nature of Greek drama made audiences particularly receptive to the cosmic themes presented in classical tragedy. Greek actors performed in masks and stylized costumes (see mask). The chorus remained in the orchēstra throughout the play, performing intricate dances and chants while commenting on the dramatic action taking place on the proskenion. The date at which the proskenion became a raised stage is uncertain, but it had definitely achieved this status by the Hellenistic period (3d–1st cent. B.C.).
The years from the decline of classical Greece through the Hellenistic period to the Roman era saw the erosion of serious drama and a corresponding increase in the architectural grandeur of theaters. As the religious and thus the choral element diminished, the skēne became an elaborate structure and the orchēstra was increasingly reduced in size.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.