Theater of Ancient Rome A Tale of Gladiators and Greeks
By Laura Raines
“It’s easy to enthrall a mob, Batheticus. To awaken them, difficult.” – Scribonius, You, Nero
In our culture, it seems there is always a fear that we are degenerating artistically, reducing the scope and impact of art to be broadly appealing rather than most valuable to society. You, Nero, by Amy Freed, uses the backdrop of ancient Rome to explore something we still grapple with today: the tension between spectacular entertainment and challenging art.
Rome modeled its drama on the theatrical traditions of Ancient Greece. Greek theater was religious in purpose, born from religious festivals intended to honor the Gods. It explored issues of public importance, presenting characters who faced ethical challenges and offering morality lessons for its viewers. Greek poets were deeply interested in exploring and presenting the human condition, and their plays – thoughtful, philosophical, and meant to guide the people of the polis to be good citizens – reflected that.
While Romans admired and appreciated many of the old myths retold in Greek theater, the theater of Ancient Rome had a very different purpose. Romans were not so much interested in the religious ritual of theater but in the drama and violent altercations that occur in the myths. Murders and battles are merely spoken of by messengers in Greek plays, in Rome’s adaptations they take center stage. In Greek theater scenery was minimal, in Rome it became more and more elaborate. For example, the first stone theater, built by Pompey in 55 B.C., had a stage that was 300 feet long and decorated with statues, colored marble, gilded wood, and glass panels.
Roman theater became a medium to present spectacle rather than poetry. Perhaps this is because rich citizens sponsored festivals for political purposes, to win the support of the masses, thus there was an incentive to outdo one another by creating more and more spectacular displays. The rising popularity of blood sports and other art forms may also have meant that theaters had to compete more directly for audiences. Twice, Terence’s audiences abandoned his plays mid-show: once to see a rope dancer and another to watch gladiators. Sometimes arguments would break out in the assembled crowds or bored spectators would loudly demand another form of entertainment. The competition became fiercer when other venues, like the arena, began to employ the scenic potential of theater to create more elaborate ways of killing.
The arena became a place where the scenic spectacle of theater could be combined with the immediacy and visceral appeal of blood sports. Complete battles could be reenacted, ranging over scenery evocative of the battle’s locale in a space twice as large as the stage of the largest theater. In one spectacle, the execution of a criminal was modeled after the myth of Orpheus, with plants and trained animals seemingly drawn to the condemned man by the enchanting music played in the arena, until a bear appeared and mauled the would-be Orpheus. When Batheticus says, “You and I will never be able to fill a stage AGAIN, WHY? WHY? Because Artists don’t actually KILL people!!!” he lays bare the issue so often confronted by classical art-makers in a world of new art forms, “How can I compete?”
While animals no longer kill people for our entertainment and audiences tend to stay in the theater rather than abandoning a play midway through, You, Nero grapples with the notion of whether our desire for spectacular entertainment has advanced or remained similar to the people of Nero’s Rome many centuries ago. Through You, Nero,Amy Freed prompts the question of what makes art culturally viable – from A.D. 50 to 2011.
Laura Raines is artistic development intern at Arena Stage and an aspiring dramaturg. Laura recently graduated from Haverford College with a B.A. in English and a background in history and gender and sexuality studies. She is also a contributor to Arena Stage’s blog, Stage Banter, and Sub/Text: Your Virtual Dramaturg.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.