Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Trip to the Theater-Arles

The Theater at Arles feels smaller, more intimate than that at Lyon/Lugdunum.  In fact with an original seating capacity of about 10,000 it was about the same size.

But there was no convenient hill to build into, so a larger portion of it was free standing.  And as is so often the case the upper levels have, with a small but interesting exception, not survived.

Here we see the familiar layout, but with less of the central features intact.  Note the passageway exiting the seating area.  This is our first encounter with a vomitorium.  Contrary to the popular misconception this was most certainly not a place where overfed Romans would go to purge themselves between sumptuous courses at a feast.  Rather it is an admirably descriptive word for exit passageways designed to allow large crowds to leave a theater or stadium expeditiously.  Modern stadii are essentially designed identically.

Arles has several surviving features that Lugdunum lacks. 

Roman theaters had a front curtain that could be pulled up and down in front of the stage.  They operated on ropes that came down from an overhang of the stage roof.  This curtain* was called a Aulaeum and was quite heavy.  It required lead counterweights that would run down into a deep trench in the ground, as here:
The straight rail like structure is a track on which modern stage equipment moves
Arles actually has two standing columns behind the stage, the survivors of about a hundred that once made up the Frons Scaenae.
The stage area of Greco-Roman theaters featured wings off to either side, the so called Parascenia.  One assumes the phrase "waiting in the wings" originates here.  At Arles the left hand side Parascenia survives to full height:
This is the Tower of Roland, a portion of the theater incorporated into a late/post Roman defensive wall and colorfully-if implausibly-named after the great French hero of the wars against the Saracens.  The idlers on the park bench look as if they would bear some watching, but I suspect they are not in fact Saracens.

The Theater at Arles is more heavily reconstructed than Lugdunum.  It owes its survival to the above mentioned defensive value, and to its partial incorporation into the garden of a convent.  Indeed, it still has a peaceful, cloistered sense about it.  Spend a few minutes admiring the many structural fragments laid out for your contemplation:

Practical tips for a visit.  There is an admission fee.  Usually you would have paid at the next door amphitheater for a ticket allowing admission to both sites.  I was there late in the day, but it was clear that the attendant was trying to shoo everyone out a half hour or more before closing time.  Like Lyon/Lugdunum the facility is still in use for live performances, and some elements of the stage are often covered by modern structures.

*The term curtain with respect to theatrical productions is fairly recent, and would seem to come from the Curtain Theater, an Elizabethan playhouse in Shoreditch.  It got its name from a nearby plot of land called Curtain Close.  For an interesting look at the archeology of the Curtain and its neighbor The Theater, have  look at   Digging for Shakespeare

1 comment:

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Hi Tim,

Sorry I haven't visited your blog in an age! mea culpa! My fault! I've neglected the "we dig" forum too. Wish I could do more. Your visit looks marvellous. Will try and get back to look at more - plus leave an insightful comment. Must dash - serviettes to buy & dog to walk at Walltown (with children). Hope you are well! Catherine/Hadriana :-)