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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


Richard C. Beacham
School of Theatre Studies
University of Warwick

The "Mute Stones" Get Their Act Together or Reconstructing Ancient Theatre with the Aid of Computer Simulation

The crucial and definitive thing about the theatre — theatron, that "seeing place" first conceived by the Greeks — is that it takes up both time and space: quite literally "taking place" as a visual medium. Moreover, in one sense the art of the theatre is itself the earliest known form of "virtual reality" — quite a sophisticated version of it actually, both for the performers as the impersonate people, places, emotions and the like which are not in fact real, as well as for the spectators as they "willingly suspend disbelief". I propose, drawing on examples of my own research, to discuss some of the ways that computer simulation applied to the investigation of ancient theatre architecture and scenic elements has contributed to and enlarged this area of scholarly enquiry.

Some years ago I began a project in which I studied a great many examples of Roman skenographic wall paintings to analyze the evidence which (according to Vitruvius) they might provide for the nature and decor of Roman stages. The earlier phases of this work are detailed in my Roman Theatre and its Audience (Harvard, 1992). More recently I have used computer modeling to pursue the process "virtually" — to in effect draw out the architecture from these often problematic paintings to determine and then test the performance spaces which hypothetically they represent. Essentially the value of creating such models is that they facilitate three-dimensional perception and greatly help both to distinguish between plausibly "real" and "fantasy" architecture in the paintings, and to compare the type of stage sets depicted in a great number of paintings. Taking the model derived from a painting in the Villa of Oplontis near Pompeii, for example, it was easy to assess the architectural and staging potential of the space (as well as the "style" it might suggest both for performance and translation), and then relatively straightforward — with to be sure the generous application of much money — to fashion a full-scale version of this, and stage my translation of Plautus' Casina upon it at the Getty Museum.

A further example of the potential of computer simulation is found in the "Pompey Project", which I have undertaken together with colleagues in architecture, computer technology, and archaeology, investigating the great Theatre of Pompey, built in Rome in 55 B.C., This (probably largest Roman theatre ever built) was one of the first and most influential "imperial" buildings at Rome, remained in constant use for over five centuries as one of the great show-places of the City, and was a major "tourist" site during the middle ages. A detailed account of the Theatre is in my Roman Grandeur. Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome (Yale, imminent). Today however, there is little to see of it — above ground. Just a remarkable ghostly image in the urban landscape. My project involves initially the creation of a computer model of the site based on existing information (by no means negligible) and plausible hypothesis. This model will then by systematically tested and continuously refined in the light of new evidence or analysis emerging and incorporated incrementally into it. It enables the viewer to explore the site in some detail, and eventually will incorporate links to primary and secondary written accounts, allowing the many decisions and choices made in creating elements of its design to be evaluated and alternative possibilities scrutinized. It can provide both a demonstration of a methodology, and its results.

With the assistance of the Rome authorities, "key-hole" archaeology will be focused at particular tightly-targeted sites where information crucial to verifying or modifying the model is likely to be found. The attraction of such an electronic model is its malleability: the capacity quickly to incorporate and react to new data. If for example, the initial model assumes that the height of the columns in the great porticus Pompeii (which was part of the theatre complex) was twelve feet, but subsequently this is revised to fifteen feet, this data can be "fed into" the model and can then be used in turn to generate necessary or appropriate modifications elsewhere.

Pompey's complex was an amenity with a message. To walk through the central court of the part was to be impressed both with munificence and military accomplishments of its patron. The site and its architecture communicated an ideological concept as well. It extended and refined associations which the area — the Campus Martius — already had. The layout of its buildings — very clearly bodied forth by the model — and in particular the placing of the Theatre and the curia (where Caesar was assassinated) at opposite ends of the central axis, tended to raise the status of the formed (crowned by its temple to Venus Victrix, Pompey's patron (to that of a formal political space when faced from the front porch of the curia which was also itself a sacred precinct. The political and religious nature of the building dominating each pole of the axis was therefore visually emphasized by being mirrored in its opposite: the effect of which (and much more besides) can be graphically demonstrated by the model.

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Last Modified: Monday, 08-May-2006 16:10:34 CST
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