Greek Theatre as an Embodiment of Cultural Meaning

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)

Abstract / Description of output

The paper springs from a conviction that significant architecture has always been the expression of its physical and cultural context, providing a setting for human activities, and a durable embodiment for cultural meaning. The architecture of the medieval civic square or cathedral, for example, has provided existential orientation to the town’s inhabitants, helping them, to paraphrase Karsten Harries, to understand their own situation in the world and to feel at home in it. Analogical thinking plays a key role in this. To explore this communicative function of architecture within its culture, the paper focuses on Greek theatre. Seeing it as one of the most vivid illustrations of architecture as an expression of religious, philosophical and political thought, it interprets the form of the theatre in the context of the festivals of the god Dionysos and of Greek cosmology. It begins with a discussion of the evolution of theatre from the archaic circular dance performed ritually on the sacred threshing floor, a place of hierophany, which had associations with the grain-mother goddess and cyclical renewal. It explores the cult of Dionysos, with its connotations of fertility, regeneration and religious ecstasy. It sees the gathering of all strata of the polis in the theatre during the religious festivals as a primary vehicle not just of ethical orientation, but also of social cohesion and identity formation. Focusing on the theatre at Epidaurus, the paper further interprets the building’s geometrical form (the circle of the orchestra, bounded by the ring of the sunken channel, and so forth) as a microcosmic representation of the Greek world, with the earth circumscribed by the great cosmic river okeanos, with the omphalos at its centre, and underworld below. The paper ends with a brief reflection on the significance of theatre as cultural expression, and on the pervasive image of the theatrum mundi. By showing the Greek theatre as a central part of the life of the polis, the paper demonstrates architecture’s original ‘ethical’ meaning.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cultural Role of Architecture
Subtitle of host publicationContemporary and Historical Perspectives
EditorsPaul Emmons, John Hendrix, Jane Lomholt
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)978-0-415-78340-8, 978-0-415-78341-5
Publication statusPublished - 2012
EventCultural Role of Architecture International Conference - Lincoln, United Kingdom
Duration: 25 Jun 2010 → …


ConferenceCultural Role of Architecture International Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Period25/06/10 → …

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Cultural role of architecture
  • Greek theatre
  • Ritual
  • Cosmos
  • symbol
  • polis


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