The Latin Theatre - Theatres In Rome, And Formalities In Connection With The Dramatic Representations

( Originally Published 1902 )

Principal Roman festivals—The Curtain—Temporary theatres—First permanent theatre—The Stage—The Chorus of Roman Tragedy—Wigs and masks—Division of the plays—Literary copyright in Rome—Limited number of tragedies—The public and the performances—Use of the tesserae (counters)—Principal theatres in Rome and in the provinces.

THE dramatic representations in Rome, as in Greece, were for a long time accessory to religious worship. Every year there were four or five gatherings : the Roman (or great) Games, the Plebeian Games, the Games of Apollo, the Megalesian Games, and under the Republic the Floral Games. These functions were regulated by the magistrates, whose duty it was to watch over the health and the amusements of the people. Custom demanded that dramatic performances should figure in the programme of these entertainments.

The Roman theatres were originally vast en-closures in the open air, usually in the form of a circus, with a scaffold in the centre which was removed after each performance. The spectators stood round the arena, or seated themselves on little mats stuffed with rushes. Under these conditions the plays of Livius Andronicus, Naevius, Ennius, Pacuvius, and Accius were acted.

After 145 B. C. a complete theatre was constructed from the Greek model, with tiers of raised seats surrounding it. At the end of each year it was demolished, to be rebuilt the next season. It was not till 55 B.C. that Pompey built a stone theatre upon level ground (as all Roman theatres were built subsequently). It consisted of three floors separated by ample corridors, and reached by stair-cases that enabled the spectators to get to their respective places. The senators occupied the orchestra, i.e. the place reserved for the chorus in the Greek theatre.

A low wall divided the orchestra from the stage, at the back of which was another wall of bricks, with three large openings for the principal comedians ; behind were the stage-buildings and dressing-rooms for the actors. At first the theatre was quite open ; later on a canvas sheet was put up above the auditorium, and worked by means of cords, to protect the spectators from the heat of the sun. The scene, instead of representing a palace as at Athens, depicted a market-place, with several streets leading into it. The Romans also provided their theatres with a curtain, supposed to be unknown on the Greek stage. This curtain was lowered at the beginning of a play, and raised at the end. It was a light frame, and worked from below upwards; and could be lowered beneath the level of the stage, and pulled up, as required.

Before the commencement of the play, it was for a long time customary to call on the people to pause and acknowledge the religious character of the festival.

The Romans could not have a chorus like that of the Greek theatre. The arrangements by which the orchestra was assigned to the Senate excluded the possibility of a dancing chorus. On the other hand, there must have been a great number of actors on the stage who sung, more especially at the time of Pacuvius and Accius. The tragedy comprised quiet passages, and other more animated parts, with songs and dialogues. The music (that is, the flute) accompanied the voice of the actors, and its melodies filled up the intervals.

During the early centuries, the Roman actors used no mask : Livius Andronicus replaced it by paint, and employed special head-dresses. These wigs differed according to the age and condition of the characters : they were white for the old people, blonde for the young, red for the slaves. Later on the mask became obligatory on the stage. The exact date of this revolution is unknown ; we are told that under Plautus its use was optional, while under Terence it was obligatory.

The earliest Latin plays were as to division an exact copy of the Greek plays. The same musical intervals are found, as a rest for the actors. It is attested, without any decisive proof, that Latin Comedy was divided into five parts or scenes, the name of act being given to the three principal parts of the subject : the beginning, middle, and end. This, however, is merely a supposition.

Literary copyright was a thing unknown in Rome. Any individual might copy the play when it appeared, and dispose of it as he pleased. The writer, in selling his play to the aedile, did not part with his author's rights in the future. At the outset the magistrates dealt directly with the poet whose performance was ' for sale.' By the terms of this sale the author was obliged to meet all expenses of staging, and of producing the different copies to be used by the actors. Later on he formed a permanent company, headed by some popular actor to whom he resigned his rights. The magistrate then negotiated with the actor at the risk and peril of the latter that is to say, the actor's salary would be reduced if the piece did not satisfy the crowd.

The number of Roman tragic poets during the three centuries from Livius Andronicus to Curiatius Maternus is, at most, thirty-six, and the number of tragedies does not exceed one hundred and fifty. The tragedies of Seneca are the only pieces that have come down to us.

The performances were public in Rome, and in the third century B.C. the humblest persons vied with the most important in obtaining the best places : to this end they often went at daybreak to the doors of the theatre, and waited in line for the play to begin.

All classes of society elbowed each other on the tiers of the theatre : patricians and people, as well as the slaves, who often managed in the general confusion to slip into the theatre. Women always attended in numbers ; even nurses came with their charges on their arms. The courtesans were especially noisy, and played a preponderating part in the cabals intended to cry down a piece. It may have been partly for this reason that Augustus, in the first century of the Christian era, interdicted women from entering the theatre.

At the beginning of the second century, when special places were reserved for the equites (knights) and senators, what were called tesserae were distributed beforehand : these were counters securing to the bearer a particular seat. The director of the theatre disposed of a number of tesserae to his friends and acquaintances. These counters, available for a single performance, were much like the counterfoils of our own theatres. They carried designs of gods, temples, or theatres ; sometimes a single password in Greek was written on them. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris possesses eleven of these tesserae, the British Museum has seventy, the Naples Museum fifty-eight.

In the first century A.D. the principal Roman theatres were the theatre of Pompey, which was of enormous dimensions ; that of Scaurus, constructed by Scaurus, son-in-law to Sylla, (the most ornate of the Roman theatres) ; the theatre of Balbus Cornelius, built under Augustus, and entirely constructed of marble ; the theatre of Marcellus, anterior by a few years to the Christian era. There were also some notable theatres in the provinces : at Orange, Lyons, Herculaneum, and, in the East, at Antioch.

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