I stood alone before two Corinthian columns facing the Roman theatre, the Théâtre Antique d’Arles, lost in thought. The late afternoon sun cast long shadows over the remains of what must have been a spectacular and glorious outdoor theatre. It was also one of the first built of stone in the Roman empire. The two columns – known as the Widows – are the remainders of a hundred that had once decorated the theatre. Some broken sections of columns are on the grounds, but most had been carried off in the past for other construction needs, especially during the Middle Ages when the theatre was used as a quarry.
The history of Arles Roman Theatre
The stage before me has been rebuilt, framed by overhead and side lights, making it a viable place for concerts and other events, continuing a tradition going back to 40/30 B.C.E. when it was constructed, during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Some sections have survived the ages. The stage, the orchestra, the stage curtain pit, a wall surrounding part of the back of le Théâtre, the cavea where important spectators were welcomed, and the nearly destroyed seating area. At one time it contained 33 rows of stone seats. The theatre was able to accommodate some 8000 or more spectators. Today, only a few hundred can be seated.
I easily visualized, through my theatre background, how it all must have appeared two millennia ago with the wealthy and powerful seated close to the stage, and others from different social classes behind them, rising to the highest rows. Performances were typically free and open to the public, and included mainly comedies, farces and some tragedies, although the Romans were not noted for their dramas or tragedies.
One unique quality of the theatre is that it was built on top of a small hill, rather than rising up the hillside, as found in most classical Greek and Roman theatres. A mysterious tower rises to the side, offstage, seemingly observing all that happened, its purpose still unknown.
A theatre with an atmosphere
What struck me most was the fact that I was standing in a place where actors laughed and cried, performed sometimes lewd plays, farces, romances and comic pantomimes, sang and danced, all before cheering, applauding and raucous audiences. It’s easy to envisage being with the thousands of spectators, seated in hot summer sun, losing ourselves in the imaginary world around us.
I also knew that there was another side to the theatre affecting most of the people who had lived, then, in Arles. It often served as a break or relief in their often-meagre existences.
I stepped closer to the Widows, prepared to step down onto the reinforced stage, then hesitated. It was a strange sensation, but I felt that if I passed through the two columns, I would enter a world that I had only studied. I would become an actor or producer, director or playwright, or spectator awaiting something unique and exciting. I had felt such a response to my surroundings once before, when I visited the Louvre in Paris when I entered the medieval exhibits room of King Philip Augustus. For several minutes then, I felt transported back to that time.
I stepped through the Widows and onto the stage. I looked at the curved seats ahead of me, inhaled deeply, then turned to Stage Left, then Stage Right, then back to the seats, and opened my mouth to speak…but I could say nothing! I had forgotten my lines! For a few brief moments, I felt how an actor on a stage in a Roman comedy written and being performed two thousand years ago may have felt!
I sat on the edge of the stage looking out at the discarded stone blocks and damaged or missing seats. I imagined the curtain that would have protected the stage and reserved seats from the sun, set against the Provençal-blue sky. It is a magical place.
New finds at the Roman theatre of Arles
Excavations done over the past three centuries have revealed unique parts of the complex. Two sets of stairs leading from the orchestra to the stage, which is nearly ten feet deep; and significant pieces of statuary. The most famous statues are the massive one of Emperor Augustus now in the Departmental Museum of Ancient Arles. And the so-called Venus of Arles, on display in the Louvre. It’s a cause of conflict as to whether she should be returned to Arles. Iron security fences surround sections that are being excavated or places where the walls have crumbled. As the excavations continue, more remarkable features are expected to be discovered. The renovation efforts and historic significance, led, in 1981, to la Théâtre Antique being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of the Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments Group. It really is a most special, enchanting place…
By John Pekich: producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA
More Roman sites in France
Vaison-de-la-Romaine where you’ll discover one of the largest Roman villa remains in France