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Classical Greek Theater Tools: Skene, Ekkyklema & Mechane

Instructor: Brittney Clere

Brittney, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught social studies at the middle school level for 15 years.

Ancient Greek theater has helped shape the art form as we know it today, both in structure and methodology. In this lesson, we will take a look at three Greek theater tools and the influences they had on modern theater.

Greek Theater

Movie theaters, community theaters, and Broadway theaters are very common in our culture. But did you know people have been enjoying plays and productions in theaters as early as the 6th Century BCE?

The ancient Greeks performed in theaters built on a slope, with stages surrounded by a semi-circle of tiered seating. Because there are few theater ruins left today, much of what is known comes from the dramas that still exist. These comedies and tragedies have helped historians understand more about theater as both a physical structure and an art form. Let's examine three aspects of Ancient Greek theater: the skene, the ekkyklema, and the mechane.

Skene

In ancient times, dramas were performed with only three actors on stage, all of which were male. This meant actors usually played more than one part, making the need for quick costume changes necessary. Having a backstage area, called the skene, served that purpose. Players would exit to the skene where they would change costumes or stay while not on stage.

The word skene means tent, and it is possible that they used an actual tent in the earliest performances. However, it is believed that a permanent structure was being used as a skene at the Theater of Dionysus during the 5th century BCE.

This is because an opening scene of Aeschylus' Agamemnon in 485 BCE required an actor to stand atop the skene. To hold the weight of an actor, the skene would have had to be sturdier than a simple tent. Other plays would later require the skene's roof to hold multiple actors who were often playing the part of ghosts or gods.

From a tent to a small wooden structure, the skene eventually became a two story building with columns, three doors, and wings on each side. By the end of the 5th century BCE, the skene was even being built with stone.

The skene continued to evolve into 4th Century BCE. By then, it was being used to create the play's scenery. The Greek's use of skenographia, or using the skene as a painted backdrop, marks the beginning of set design.

The skene behind an ancient theater stage.
Skene

Theater ruins of a skene with columns.
Theater

Ekkyklema

Speaking of set design, have you ever been to a play and caught sight of the stage hands spinning or moving around wood panels to change the scenery? These revolving mechanisms derived from the Greek ekkyklema, which means roll out and are considered one of the earliest forms of special effects.

The ekkyklema, (sometimes spelled eccyclema) were large platforms wheeled out from the main door of the skene to indicate a change or addition to the setting. For instance, a table and cupboard may be rolled out to indicate a kitchen area. They were sometimes appropriately referred to as scene shifters.

The ekkyklema was also used to roll out characters who died in the play. This was always the case if the death was caused by a violent act because violence was never portrayed on the stage. Instead, it was alluded to in the dialogue and actions of other characters. Then, the dead were carted out using the ekkyklema.

Mechane

As mentioned earlier, the skene had to be built sturdy enough to hold actors on the rooftop who played the part of gods or ghosts. Eventually, these same characters started flying onto the stage. How? With the mechane, another special effect used in Greek theater.

Basically, the mechane was a crane that hoisted the actors up over the skene. There they delivered their lines while dangling in the air by a cable until it was time for them to fly out again. The mechanism was also used to place actors who were portraying deities atop the skene to deliver their lines to the actors below. This gave the audience a more realistic image of gods speaking from the heavens.

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