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  • Andy

History in Theatrical Architecture

Who among us doesn’t remember the first time our parents or our school took us to the theater? For me it was to see a matinee of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at the “old” Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and West 39th Street. It was a grand spectacle that took place in Carrère and Hastings’ 1903 golden auditorium resplendent in gilded bronze, lustrous marble, and gold damask stage curtains. There was an incredible set of a gigantic sailing ship fighting a stormy sea, an orchestra playing beautiful music, and singers belting out the most incredible German libretto. It was a momentous occasion I will never forget.

Many years later, I attended a play in the antique amphitheater of Epidaurus. Nothing had changed there for 2,300 years, except perhaps that cushions were given out to cover the bare stone of the benches. The acoustics were superb, reaching clearly to my high seat chosen for the view. I felt as if I was participating in the most ancient and classical form of catharsis. The play was Hecuba by Euripides, written in 424 BC. It has been performed all over the Western world ever since and 20 years ago I saw it again at San Francisco’s American Classical Theater with Olympia Dukakis in the title role.

The Ideal City' painting by Fra Carnevale

The Ideal City of Baltimore, a 15th century Italian Renaissance painting that is kept at the Walters Art museum, is usually attributed to the architect and artist Fra Carnevale. On both sides of the wonderful perspective are large palaces. In the very center is a Roman triumphal arch reminiscent of the Arch of Constantine in Rome. To its left stands a building modeled after the Roman Colosseum. It is clearly a place for theatrical productions. It stresses the importance of providing entertainment for the well-being of the people in the ideal city.

Our modern theaters derive from the theaters of the Greeks and the Romans. Vitruvius, the 1st Century BC architectural scholar described in his 5th book of De Architectura the construction of theaters in detail. He describes two kinds of theaters: the open air or large amphitheaters used by the Romans to show gladiators or animal fights, and the smaller theatrum tectum (roofed theater) or odeon, the direct ancestor of most of our present day theaters. He explains the layouts and even details for good acoustics.

While the London area theaters offered 5,000 seats in the late 16th century, and 10,000 in 1610, the construction itself was a fairly simple thing, polygonal in plan to give a circular effect, built in timber and plaster, mostly open to the sky in the center. The upper level of the stage was used as a balcony, for instance to play Romeo and Juliet. What else do you need when the playwrights are called Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, or Marlowe?

A design of a Tragic stage by Serlio

Indeed, for a long time theaters were fairly simple constructions. The Italians developed extraordinary technical skills for theaters, and it was in the Renaissance that they became increasingly complex. Princes and patrons hired the most famous architects to build elaborate theaters with decorations by the best artisans of their time. In 1545 Sebastiano Serlio published his Trattato di Architettura, in which he worked out the stage of the early 16th century. Andrea Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza was finished in 1585 and has remained intact to this day. The reason why Leonardo da Vinci painted so few large canvases is because, having followed Francis 1st to France, he was extremely busy conceiving the decor for the king’s lavish stage sets and parties.


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