Thoughts on the Proscenium Theatre

Ah, the proscenium.

Much-maligned in the latter half of the 20th century in favour of re-inventions of Shakespeare’s thrust stage, or theatre-in-the-round staging borrowed from the world of circus, the proscenium arch has nonetheless remained the design motif of choice for most new theatres built in the Western world.

Its origins lie in the proto skene, or proskenion of the ancient Greek Ampitheatres, usually found towards the rear of the playing area, behind the altar, where the doors to the backstage were located, as was the roof from which the Gods would often descend. It wasn’t until later on that the need for hiding the mechanics of the staging brought about the modern proscenium as a clear dividing line between the world of the stage and the world of the audience.

And what an advantage it was to be able to hide the mechanics of the staging! In the Greek and Roman periods all the most spectacular effects (like Medea descending on her dragon-drawn chariot and re-enactments of famous naval battles in the Coliseum) had to be done in full view of the audience, under punishing sunshine that left little to the imagination. Even in the Medieaval period, liturgical dramas and cycle plays, though they often employed spectacular special effects, had no means of making them seem “real” to the audience. Thus, Noah’s Ark was a wagon on wheels, and even though the Angels had wings you could clearly see the stout cord slung over a pulley by which they were being raised up to Heaven.

Starting in the Italian Renaissance, however, the proscenium began to play a greater role, and suddenly there was a place to hide the effects. Large pieces of painted scenery could be framed up (the first flats) and pushed on from the wings, or mounted on a long pole and lowered from high above the stage down to the floor, where they would be visible to the audience (the first drops). Old Greco-Roman staging devices like periaktoi could suddenly be used to created three completely different scenes, and a curtain could be pulled across the entire stage to hide the transitions. Thus, “stage magic” was born.

The proscenium continued to flourish throughout the Renaissance (even alongside the Elizabethan playhouses and the Court Masques), and in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the demand for ever-greater spectacle increased, the proscenium became even more critical, especially in the larger theatres, where several sets the size of the entire stage would be arranged to go on in sequence, requiring massive amounts of time, materials and crew.

But with the rise of realism and a growing distaste for the cheap thrills of the spectacles the proscenium arch didn’t die out. In fact, it became more important than ever, as playwrights like Ibsen and Strindberg wrote plays that demanded a world all their own, and directors like Stanislavski and the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen forced actors to check themselves at the door and tackle these plays as characters searching for meaning, rather than stars searching for the limelight.

Today the proscenium arch is the stage of choice for community halls, school gymnatoriums and most of the world’s theatres, large and small. While most theatre people are quick to point out the benefits of thrust, arena and black-box staging methods, it’s true that for many the proscenium theatre remains a comfortable, dependable means of putting on plays.

Given the proscenium’s enduring qualities, it’s likely that this will continue to be the case for many years to come.