The Attic Greek Theatre: Was There a Stage?


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

One of the most controversial questions in the field of theatre history involves the use of the raised stage in the Attic Greek (5th Century BCE) theatre structure. In my opinion there was no raised stage for three reasons: 1) there is no mention of its existence in classical writings; 2) it is not called for in the plays; and 3) it is not necessary.

Scholars are generally agreed upon the many parts of the Greek theatre structure: the skene, the paraskenion, the mechane, the orchestra, the thymele, etc.(1) All these parts are mentioned and discussed at great length. It is on the subject of the stage that there is disasgreement. Haigh believes that there was one. Flickinger does not.

Haigh, in his book The Attic Theatre, states that the stage was the descendent of a platform next to the altar, both called the thymele, upon which the leader of the chorus stood during the dialogues between the chorus leader and the chorus. Later, this table was attached to the stage house and used by the actors. (Haigh, 1907, p.80)

One very strong argument against the existence of a stage is one that I have never seen advanced, and yet I believe it is an obvious one, perhaps so obvious that it hasn't been seen. That is the nonexistence of a single word. Every other part of the theatre has a name: skene, mechane, etc.. However, there does not appear to be a word for the bone of contention, the stage. It is a fact of linguistics that societies do not invent words for those things which they do not have a referent -- what they don't imagine they don't name. For example, a society that has no conception of war will not have a word for war.

Haigh, in The Attic Theatre, has taken a word, thymele, to mean the stage, though the word is also applied to a quite different part of the theatre, the altar. (Haigh, 1907) However, if thymele is the name for the stage, why did Phaedrus, governor of Attica, when he dedicated the stage in the 3rd or 4th Century BCE when he had the final alterations to the Athenian theatre, not call it the Thymele? Instead he called it the "platform of the theatre." (Flickinger, 1936, p. 74) It is not a compound word nor a name: it is a description. It is quite obviously an attempt to name something for which there had previously not been a referent: the stage. Thus, it seems to me that the Attic Greeks did not have a stage because they had no word for one.

My second point is that the stage is not called for in any play of the period. The only requirement is for a high place for gods to stand, and that is amply provided for by the roof of the skene, called the theologion, or god speaking place.

On the contrary, there is evidence in the plays against the stage. Throughout the Attic plays there seems to be easy communication between actor and chorus. This is particularly evident in the plays of Aeschylus, as in The Suppliant Maidens in which the chorus is the protagonist and speaks directly and easily with the characters. However, it is also true of the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

In Euripedes' Electra it is easy to imagine the chorus of Argive peasant women coming up to Electra and gathering around her to cheer her. (Euripides, 1971)

In Euripides' The Bacchae, how much more effective it would be to have the chorus of women swirling around the actors than to have the actors raised above them in a scene of superiority over foolishness. (Euripides, 1971)

Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae is a fine example. The actor must mingle with the chorus. How would this be possible if he were isolated above them on a stage? It is true that he could descend from a stage to the orchestra, but is seems to me that that would give an impression of slumming.

It is clear that from the plays the stage would not be an aid to production -- it would be a hinderance.

If the above is so, what then of the greatest argument for the existence of a stage, that of visibility? That is my final point: a stage was not necessary.

First, let us take a look at the physical surroundings. There is a large raked seating area surrounding on three sides the orchestra. On the fourth side is the scene house. What interests us most at the moment is the orchestra.

When one considers the size of the orchestra a stage seems superfluous. True, a chorus of 50, as in The Suppliant Maidens, could give the impression that they filled it (if they moved fast enough), but a chorus that size was soon dispensed with and reduced to 12. (Flickinger, 1936, p. 133)

An orchestra 66 feet across (Brockett, 1968) is over 3400 square feet in area. If each of the 12 chorus members needs two square feet to stand, that is only 24 square feet, or less than .7 of 1% of the area of the orchestra, leaving more than enough room for two or three actors. In fact, at two square feet per person there is room for 141 choruses, or 1700 people. There is room for three actors, a wildly dancing chorus, and animal acts on the side.

But what of visibility? This is the greatest argument for a stage, and yet there is no argument against the many theatres-in-the-round where often an audience member is blocked momentarily by a member of the cast. In this light, the argument seems specious. One or two or three actors would be perfectly visible against a chorus of 12. In addition, with the costumes and, more importantly, the magnificent masks, the actors would be easily distinguished from the chorus.

Two advantages of having the actors in the orchestra is the greater freedom of movement and the fact that the actor could approach the seating area, thus reducing the 60 foot gap a stage would necessarily impose.

I believe that, consider the rest of the physical layout of the Attic Greek theatre, a stage would have imposed a burden on production, and that, due to the lack of necessity and the lack of a name, there was no raised stage in the Classical Greek theatre.

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(1) These include A. E. Haigh (The Attic Theatre, passim pp. 101-120), James H. Butler (The Theatre and Drama of Greece and Rome, passim pp. 27-37), Roy C. Flickinger (The Greek Theatre and Its Drama, passim pp. 57-74), T. B. L. Webster (Greek Theatre Production, passim pp. /-20), Oscar G. Brockett (History of the Theatre, passim pp. 32-40), Phyllis Hartnoll (The Oxford Companion to the Theatre, pp. 33-34), and others.


Aeschylus. (1969) Aeschylus I. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. N.Y.: Washington Square Press.

_________. (1968) Aeschylus II. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. N.Y.: Washington Square Press.

Aristophanes. (1962) The Complete Plays of Aristophanes. Edited by Moses Hadas. N.Y.: Bantam Books.

Aristotle. (1967) Poetics. Translated by Gerald F. Else. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Brockett, Oscar G. (1968) History of the Theatre. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Butler, James H. (1972) The Theatre and Drama of Greece and Rome. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co.

Euripides. (1955) Euripides I. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

_________. (1956) Euripides II. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

__________. (1971) Euripides V. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Flickinger, Roy C. (1936) The Greek Theatre and its Drama. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Haigh, A. E. (1907) The Attic Theatre. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sophocles. (1957) Euripides I. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Webster, T. B. L. (1956) Greek Theatre Production. London: Methuen and Company, Ltd.

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