Ancient Greek theater traces its roots back to religious rituals such as the celebration of Dionysus and choral odes to the gods known as dithyrambs. Early playwrights such as Thespis -- who won the first Greek tragedy contest in 534 B.C. -- Sophocles and Aeschylus helped bring ancient stories to the stage. As theater during this time was a young and evolving experience, the scenery was at first simple but settled in to an expanded role as the theater grew more complex.

Embracing Minimalism

When the Greeks performed their early plays -- such as the tragedies written by Aeschylus, who lived from 525 to 456 B.C. -- there was likely no scenery to speak of. During the earliest Greek productions, the audience relied on their imaginations to create scenery, which was sometimes described by performers on stage. Sometimes, however, the open-air settings of Greek theaters reflected the location of the play. For instance, audience members watching a play that took place in Athens may have actually viewed the play in an Athens theater, enjoying the backdrop of the city just behind the actors.

Setting the Skene

Around the middle of the fifth century B.C., the skene began to appear in the Greek theater. This hut, or “scene house,” was located just behind the playing area and stored props, served as a changing room and allowed actors to enter or exit through multiple entrances. Although its beginnings were utilitarian, the skene eventually gave way to the first scenic elements in ancient Greek theater.

Evolving Elements

While the exact date of its occurrence is unknown, the first traditional scenery appeared in ancient Greece around the time of Sophocles, a playwright who lived from 496 to 406 B.C. At first, images were painted on the exterior walls of the skene. This led to painted scenic panels called pinakes, which were much like modern scenic flats, and eventually to the creation of the periatoki, a three-sided pivoting triangle with a different scene painted on each side.

Getting Technical

The periatoki was only one of the scenic gadgets used in ancient Greek theater. The deus ex machina, or “god out of the machine,” was a crane used to lower an actor into the scene. The actor typically played a god who would descend into the action to solve a problem, hence the modern usage of the term as a contrived way to work out a narrative issue. Additionally, later productions introduced the eccyclema, wheeled platforms that carted furniture or even “dead” bodies onto the stage.