Dear spectators, welcome to Arles’ Roman theatre. You’re about to discover the history of this ancient theatre by travelling through the arts and games, or Ludi, so dear to the Romans, once represented here. The Ludi Romani or Roman games were the glory of those who produced them and a great pleasure for those in attendance. Be it at the Roman Circus, the Amphitheatre, or here at the Theatre, the different forms of Roman entertainment were played out in these places, a bit like in our modern stadiums and concert halls.
However, the collective idea and image that we have of these historical structures come mainly from cinema and are often falsely represented. To truly understand what the Ludi really were, we have to go back to the historical resources: frescoes, mosaics, statues, and of course, texts. When rigorously studied, these resources provide a better understanding of the Roman games. When we look at the theatre today, there are a number of important sources that can be of use, but we also have to correctly interpret them. Luckily, the Roman theatre is the descendent of the Greek theatre about which there is a lot of available information.
Greek theatre goes back to rituals honouring Dionysus made up of festive processions where people sing and dance freely. Little by little these processions become organized, structured and finally put on stage: the Greek theatre is born. The next step is to construct venues: the “theatron” is literally “the place where one sees”. Theatrical performances take place twice a year during religious festivities. The playwrights compete against each other within the limits of a rigorous organisation: each author must present three tragedies and one satirical drama, which comes out to about 5 hours of performance! With costumes and masks, the three actors on stage take turns with the choir, made up of 15 unmasked choristers who move around in the orchestra, at the centre of the theatre. The chorus is what remains of the Dionysian processions: dancing, singing and playing instruments. It is indeed impossible to separate these three art forms from ancient Greek or Roman theatre; the latter could not function without them. It is for this reason that the theatre is really the place where all of these artistic disciplines take form, whereas the amphitheatre and the circus were used for more “athletic” performances.
In terms of music and singing, you’ve already had a first glimpse here today. The instruments currently being played before you were inspired by those that existed in Antiquity. The modern sense of a “song” didn’t exist at the time; instead, we would have heard poetic texts set to music.
In terms of dance, you will now get an idea of what this art form would have been like in Antiquity. Of course, the sources here are very limited. It is therefore difficult to be certain of what would have taken place at the time, and the goal of this performance is not to be an exact, faithful restitution. We nonetheless hope that you will find yourselves in an atmosphere that the Romans may well have known…
Let’s now come back to the Roman theatre and more specifically to the Republican theatre. At this time in the Roman world, there are no “solid” theatres: wooden stages are made for each performance and the spectators remain standing throughout. The theatre is nonetheless flourishing, and numerous authors write tragedies and comedies inspired by “scenarios” taken from Greek plays. We know much more about Roman comedies as it turns out that these are the plays that history has preserved best over the centuries. A considerable number of texts by Plautus and Terence, two authors from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, have survived. These plays used a lot of the same mechanics and characters as the Greek Menander plays, full of farcical yet universal scenes. There is a long list of slaves, courtesans, soldiers and lewd, avaricious, old men whose “descendants” are just as numerous. We can easily pick out Scapin, Harpagon and Géronte as well as other Molière characters. Think back to The Miser, and then take a second look at the following extract from Plautus’ The Pot of Gold or Aulularia in Latin. Euclion, a miserly old man, is found out by Strobile, a slave, while hiding his pot full of gold in a temple…
An important element of Roman theatre that is difficult to represent correctly is the versification, as we are obliged to work with translations. Latin is a musical language, like Italian or Spanish today, and the line between diction and song is often hard to draw in these theatrical performances. Nonetheless, the lack of historical sources force us to test various hypotheses as the ancient authors did not leave any details as to how lines should be read. This is of course one of the main difficulties of working with immaterial cultural heritage: until a time-machine is invented allowing us to verify details “in situ”, we’ll never be able to certify anything.
In the 1st century BC, the Roman world finally endows itself with theatres made of stone. The first two are built in Rome as early as 55 BC, and the third is this very one, built in 12 BC. Unlike Greek theatres, the Roman theatre is an entirely closed venue, finished off by a great wall that serves as a backdrop for the stage, decorated with columns and statues.
At this time, the Roman world is a vast geographical space that includes all kinds of very different populations, cultures and customs. In order to create a sense of unity, the Romans very intelligently offered “modern”, in other words “Roman”, comforts to all of these different populations. Thermal baths, aqueducts and, most importantly, structures for games and performances are built throughout the Empire, setting in place a gradual Romanisation.
The Ludi must be not only physically accessible to everyone, with free entry to all Latin “spectacula”, but also intellectually so. And yet for the theatre, there is a significant problem in terms of understanding: language. Although Latin is the official language spoken by patricians and rich merchants, it will take quite a long time for the recently conquered popular classes to actually adopt the language.
The simplest and most obvious solution is to transform the traditional theatre with its written texts into a theatre based on mime and therefore without texts. This type of performance, which already existed under the Republic but was considered as a lesser, more vulgar form of theatre, becomes the most popular form under the Empire. The plot is often quite simple, reinterpreting scenes from the Republican theatre.
The plays are shorter and the actors wear masks or heavy make-up and play characters dressed in the “Roman style”. A lot of special effects are used (and abused!) as the solid structure of the theatre allows for the use of machinery. As there’s no text, the actors improvise a lot: the head actor sets down a basic structure to follow and the actors then play their parts quite freely, while remaining within their role. Music of course continues to be used, providing a rhythm to the plays that wouldn’t otherwise exist in absence of dialogue.
The universal impact of this type of theatre and of the Ludi in general bring the popularity of the Roman games to an unprecedented level, turning the actors into real “stars”, just like our greatest artists and athletes today…
*Translated from the original French version