ancient and modern performance space

Hippolytus is such a powerful play, and many of its themes so enduring, that it can be hard to believe that it was written more than two thousand years ago. Yet the original context in which the play was performed was very different to the experience that our audience will have when they come to see it at the Bloomsbury.

Image from Wikipedia. The seats in the Bloomsbury are much more comfortable

This is an image of the Theatre of Dionysus: the theatrical space of Athens, where Hippolytus would have been first performed in 428 BC. The theatre wouldn’t actually have looked like this at that date: the stone seats and buildings were put in later, and Euripides’ audience would have been sitting on wooden benches. It’s immediately noticeable how much larger this is than any modern performance space: whereas the Bloomsbury’s maximum capacity is 535 people, ancient theatres could hold thousands. Scholars disagree on how many people the Theatre of Dionysus could have held, but even the most conservative estimates suggest that between 4000 and 7000 people could have attended each performance.

Modern theatre audiences are also used to seeing each play in isolation, and a performance only takes up a small section of the day. But Euripides’ original audience would have seen Hippolytus as part of a full-day spectacle, involving two other tragedies and finishing with a humorous satyr-play, all by Euripides. Moreover, the tragedy performances lasted for three days, with two other poets also allocated a day to stage their four dramas. The reason for such a long line-up of dramatic performances was that Hippolytus, like all Greek tragedies, was originally part of a competition - one more thing we don't have to worry about. The three dramatists who staged their plays at the Great Dionysia were not just putting on art for art’s sake, but were also hoping to be awarded first prize. Hippolytus achieved this for Euripides, providing him with one of his rare victories.

And the tragedy performances were only part of the whole event: the festival of the Great Dionysia also contained performances of comedy and choral poetry (dithyramb), as well as other festive and civic events. It can be hard for us to believe that people were prepared to devote so much time to watching drama and poetry – though in fact it’s not as alien as all that, since audiences at music festivals will happily give up several days to watch live performances of their favourite bands, often in conditions much less comfortable than an ancient theatre.


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