Reviewed by Gary Decker
Department of Theatre and Drama
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
This book is the first to examine, in detail, the roofed theatre sites of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. The author, Professor Emeritus of Theatre Design and Technology - Yale School of Drama, is a distinguished expert in theater design, lighting, engineering and acoustics technology. He has made major contributions in the field of theatre design and technology and has been consultant designer on many important theatre complexes throughout the world. His two previous books, Theater Design (1977) and Theater Technology (1988) are landmark books in the field.
Roofed Theaters of Classical Antiquity is in many ways like the previous two books. It is the same large folio size and has the same accurate, detailed plans, sections and reconstructed drawings. Izenour again strongly advocates a technology based study of the history of theater. The book is an investigation and plausible reconstruction of ancient roofed theaters by a man who has spent his life creating the modern version of these same buildings. Professor Izenour has spent the past 25 years conducting an initially informal survey of roofed theater sites, photographing, measuring and speculating as to their original construction. This book is the detailed culmination of that speculation, or as he calls it - 'empirical structural engineering in hindsight'.
The author has studied the written record of classical archeologists, visited, measured and photographed the sites himself and has provided a 'realistic technologically based view of the ancient roofed theaters'. What follows is a detailed study of 23 ancient roofed sites. Documentation includes pertinent historical background, site information and probable reconstruction. These reconstructions are explained by clear and detailed architectural drawings, roof geometry diagrams, and other details as needed. Included in each investigation is a discussion of interior illumination, ventilation, audience comfort and entrance/egress. Sight lines and probable room acoustics are also considered.
Chapter One treats buildings of mainland Greece and Hellenic Asia Minor (700-100 BC). The seven sites investigated are: the Telesterion at Eleusis, the Odeum of Pericles in Athens, the Thersilion at Megalopolis, the Ecclesiasterion at Priene, the Bouleuteria at Militus, Termessus, and Arriasos.
Chapter Two treats buildings of the late Roman Republic and the Roman Empire (100 BC-200 AD). The seventeen which are presented all take the form of the odeum: at Pompeii, Pausilypon, Agusta Praetoria, Agrippa at Athens, Argos, Buthrotum, Aphrodisias, Anamurium, Nysa, Cosa, Epidaurias, Gortina, Herodes Atticus at Athens, Patrae, Ephesus, Lugdunum, and Aspendos. Here Izenour suggests that the 'artistic aim of theater became divided between a steady degradation of populist theater art performed outdoors and a more modestly scaled, elitist theater art performed on a much reduced scale indoors' (63). He feels many of these buildings were built for this purpose and views them as having been 'a Roman success story of spectacular architectural and technological proportions' (66).
Chapter Three is a general commentary on timber-trussed roof structures, and a specific and detailed study of room acoustics. Here Izenour the theater consultant gives a complex, in-depth analysis of the of seating geometry, lighting and room acoustics of these ancient spaces. He speculates that the evolution in design of these roofed theaters between the first century BC and the third century AD provides more information about production practice 'at that time than the continued repetition of all the tired literary and sketchy iconographic references put together' (176). (Here again, as in his other books, he strongly advocates technology-based historical investigation.)
The concluding chapter is an appraisal of the theatre building of today in 'Pax Americana' and a fascinating comparison of the Odeum of Agrippa and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, a late nineteenth century return to 'steeply raked, long-radii-generated, truncated auditorium' (177). The size, shape and scale of the auditoriums these two buildings, built seventeen hundred years apart, is almost identical. He concludes:
The high water mark of both technological and artistic change in Western theater design occurred when live performance came indoors to stay, in order to escape both natural and human-made ambient visual distractions and acoustical disturbances, as well as the overriding unpredictability of the weather. Common sense tells us that it is the combination of these practical operational factors that has drastically limited the size and profoundly altered the artistic end use of the roofed theater building......that the infinite impedances of the visual and aural fields of the open-air auditorium had to give way, finally and irrevocably, to the predesigned finite impedances of the roofed auditorium (184).The work concludes with appendices on the following topics:
I read this book not as an archaeologist, classicist, or theater historian, but as a scenic and lighting designer, with a curiosity about the ancient theater world. I find Professor Izenour's thoughts on this subject compelling, insightful, logical, provocative and at times maddening. His writing always has this effect on me. I feel that this is a very careful, through, and comprehensive treatment. Theater performance changed in a profound way when it was moved indoors, and if these were the buildings that it moved into, Roofed Theaters of Classical Antiquity will give you new insights into the probable construction and possible use and importance of these handsome buildings. He will also challenge you to look at any subject from his particular perspective.Whether you agree with it or not, it is always fascinating reading.
(Gary Decker is a scenic and lighting designer and teaches theater design and production at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and is the resident designer for 'The Classic Theater Institute' at the Athens Centre.)