Exhibition: The Roman Theatre. Staging the Performance
Zaragoza, 11 April 2003
Tragedies like Seneca’s Phaedra and Medea or comedies like Plautus’s Aulularia are alive even today. Classic works of dramatic art, they continue to be performed in theatres the world over, enabling us to see how people lived and felt two thousand years ago. The archaeological vestiges that have come down to us reflect the architectural importance of the Roman theatre. However, more than its monumental external appearance, The Roman Theatre. Staging the Performance aims to show how it operated, what kind of entertainment it presented, its dramatic genres and the characteristics of its actors and audience. The exhibition also focuses on the relevance of Roman theatre as a social event. From the first century BC on, the theatre complemented public and religious festivals, propaganda and the imperial cult. It was also an important factor in Romanisation. The show presents an extraordinary collection of objects from such leading archaeological museums as those of Mérida, Córdoba, Berlin, the Vatican Museums and the Musée du Louvre.
This exhibition is an initiative by Zaragoza City Council and is part of the plan for the recovery of numerous monuments belonging to the city’s historical and artistic heritage. It will also herald the official opening of the Caesaraugusta Theatre Museum. ”la Caixa” Foundation has collaborated in its production and subsequent tour, which will take it to Mérida and Córdoba, where two of the Roman theatres of greatest archaeological and artistic value in Spain are located.
The Roman Theatre. Staging the Performance, has been curated by Isabel Rodà, Professor of Archaeology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and by Olimpo Musso, who holds a doctorate in Classics and is a lecturer in the History of Greek and Latin Drama at the University of Florence. The exhibition can be seen in Zaragoza at La Lonja (Plaza del Pilar, s/n) from 12 April to 15 June 2003.
For the Romans, the word theatrum (derived from the Greek) referred to the building where plays were performed. These received the name of “stage games” (ludi scaenici) and constituted an important part of the public games held in honour of the gods. The games were not only a recreational event but also a venue for social communication. Thus, play production was not only an artistic activity but also an expression of civic-religious life. This has been confirmed by many of the archaeological vestiges that have come down to us through history. Models, masks, musical instruments, paintings, mosaics, portraits of authors and vessels with dramatic scenes are all included among the 170 objects, of enormous historical and cultural value, which make up the exhibition. They provide an excellent channel for discovering the chief characteristics of the performances of antiquity. The pieces are on loan from the archaeological museums of Berlin, Bonn, Munich, Split, Mérida, Córdoba and Tarragona, the Musée du Louvre, the Vatican Museums and the National Museums of Rome and Florence, among others.
The exhibition The Roman Theatre: Staging the Performance is divided into five sections: Dramatic Genres, The Theatrical Framework, Religion and Politics, The Performance, and Actors and Audience.
Latin theatre put special emphasis on tragedy, comedy, citarodia (songs accompanied by the zither), and “Atellan” farce (from the city of Atella). Nonetheless, the most popular genres were unquestionably mime and pantomime, which sought to please the audience. Here even nudatio mimarum (a sort of striptease) was sometimes staged or, more surprising yet, the reenaction of real executions and torture.
Mime was based on action and performed without masks. It was the only type of performance in which women played the female roles.
Dance played a major role in pantomime, and the actor, who significantly wore a mask showing a closed mouth, did not speak but rather made use of gesture and corporal expression.
Tragedy and the comedy could not be performed without the mask, in Latin persona, which means “what is in front” or “distinct character”. In Etruscan this was called phersu, derived from the Greek prosopon.
The Theatrical Framework
The earliest theatres, with their temporary wooden structure, were gradually replaced by stone ones. Pompey the Great built the first permanent theatre in 55 BC.
The three main sections of the theatre were the cavea, where the spectators were seated in hierarchical order; the orchestra, a semicircular space originally intended for the chorus and which in Roman times was also reserved for seating the maximum authorities; the scaena, where the actors moved and which was closed off by a pulpitum (scaenae frons), usually an elaborately architectural façade with three doors: the central or regia door and two hospitalia, the side doors.
Religion and Politics
The origin of the theatre unquestionably lies in religion and it possesses a tutelary god par excellence: Dionysus / Bacchus. Apollo and the Muses also played a vital part of it. As mentioned previously, the dates for holding the ludi scaenici coincided with festivities in honour of the gods.
Yet the theatre was destined to become a multipurpose building, equipped to host spectacles of another variety, such as gladiatorial games or acrobatics, and what were known as tetimimi, aquatic choreography competitions.
The theatres were also ideal for gatherings and assemblies and, from the time of Augustus Caesar on, they became the perfect scenario for the imperial cult and dynastic commemoration: statues, inscriptions and special enclosures in the form of chapels were a clear manifestation of imperial power, emanated from the divine.
The debate goes on even today as to whether certain works, such as Seneca’s tragedies, were written to be performed or read. This latter hypothesis seems increasingly likely.
The production tended to be accompanied by musical instruments. There were pieces that were sung (cantica) which were inserted between the dialogues (diverbia), dance interludes (embolia) and farcical afterpieces (exodia). The number of days devoted annually to the games gradually increased over time. At the end of the third century BC there were probably twelve at the most and, yet, at the beginning of the Empire, there were already 56 consecrated to theatre performances, reaching 100 by the mid-fourth century AD. If we take into account that circus and amphitheatre games were even greater in number, we can deduce that the Romans of the final days of the Empire devoted far more time to play than to work.
Actors and Audience
The theatre represents society on two different levels: the stage and the tiers.
Actors could achieve great fame and amass considerable fortune, but also, as has occurred over many centuries, an ambiguous prestige. To appear onstage, they donned a specific costume and covered their faces with stereotyped masks, thus enabling the audience to recognise the character immediately. Satirical performances were particularly colourful, featuring Buccus the swaggering show-off, Cicirrus who came onstage sporting his cockscomb, or Dosennus, an avaricious and deformed old man. The only entertainment performed without masks was mime, in which women took part. The actors worked in travelling theatre companies (greges or catervae), which also included musicians and singers, and played various roles under the direction of a patron (dominus). In general, the number of troupe members did not exceed half a dozen and the majority possessed the legal status of slaves or freedmen.
The distribution of spectators in the ima, media and summa cavea was strictly laid down in the lex Roscia theatralis (67 BC) and lex Iulia theatralis (27-17 BC), with the municipal law of Urso (Osuna, Seville) being a noteworthy Spanish example.
Women, slaves, freedmen and non-citizens watched from the uppermost section. Naturally we assume that the wives of illustrious personages did everything within their means to accompany their husbands and avoid being relegated to this place. Citizens and their guests took their seats in the middle part. Finally, the lowermost tiers were reserved for the privileged classes. Civil servants and military officers sat in the highest part of the ima cavea; members of the equestrian order or equites sat in front of them; the senators, governor and local magistrates were seated in the first rows, and even in the orchestra on portable chairs (subsellia).
The Roman Theatre. Staging the Performance
From 12 April to 15 June 2003
Official opening: Friday 11 April 2003 at 8:00 p.m.
Plaza del Pilar, s/n
Admission free of charge