It was early morning, late August when, with my friend Frank, I visited the town of Orange in Provence. It has the feel of somewhere very permanent, intimate almost, with a history that goes back hundreds of years. As we drove through the town, we passed elderly residents, dressed in dark, traditional clothes. There were cafés, boulangeries, patisseries, boutiques and other shops. Children in colorful shorts and T-shirts played on porches or rode their bikes along the road, waving and laughing at us. The feeling was warm, friendly and inviting, a sense of being a part of the town.
Ahead, we saw rising before us, even from several blocks away, the outline of the famous Roman Theatre. Arriving in front of it, we were met with a sight that gave me goosebumps. This world famous monument, an integral part of my professional world, was something I had only imagined through photographs, words in books, video clips, and descriptions from those who had actually been there!
A Theatre with a vast wall
We gazed ahead at the wonder rising before us. Yet, it was only an outside wall, a majestic façade with various niches, doorways and openings in its massive structure. According to Frank’s guidebook, the wall is nearly 340 feet long and 120 feet high, an endearing and solid force in Orange. We walked past the three main doors, on the first level, which opened directly to the stage inside. I paused and lightly touched the surface of the wall, making the tactile connection which sent me back to the time, two millennia ago when the theatre was built.
My stomach began to feel jittery, as when I was a child of four, one Christmas morning, waiting for the special gift that I had constantly hinted for, asked about, and wanted…my mother home from the hospital after a serious illness. She appeared with my father through the kitchen door, along with my two brothers. That dream was answered. My reverie came to an end. Frank and I faced the opening into the theatre.
Attended by thousands
We went through the opening and there it was, this incredible building, in all its power and spectacle, history and theatrical traditions. Standing against the rich, blue sky it was more than I expected. I looked in awe, momentarily stunned by what I saw. The statistics for the theatre only described, without emotion, the details, it was not what I felt inside.
Built in the latter part of the first century AD, the theatre occupied more than 23 acres of land, under the rule of Caesar Augustus. Perhaps 8000 people could be seated in the three sections of curved tiers before us. The stage, running 200 feet in width, is elevated about three feet above ground level. The impressive wall I saw from outside, is the back of the stage; it provides excellent acoustics for projection to the thousands in attendance. The inside of the wall was the only decorated space in the theatre, once displaying colored marble mosaics, friezes, columns and statues in the niches. A dramatic statue of Caesar Augustus was set high above the large central door used by major actors entering upstage. Originally, it was a statue of Apollo, the god of – among many things – music, poetry and the arts.
The three tiers of 20, 9 and 5 rows of seats runs from the base to the top of the complex. I had a strong sense of place and space, appreciating the theatre because of its design, structure and function.
A curious history
Curiously, the theatre has gone through a varied life, beginning as a source of free entertainment for the masses, including mime, poetry and farces as the staples. Special effects to fly characters across the stage with unique machinery hidden offstage was common. Entertainment distracted the audience from their meagre existence. In the fourth century, the Roman Catholic Church closed the theatre because of its pagan, anti-Christian productions. Invading tribes probably pillaged it for its massive stones over the next century. Serving as a military defensive post in the early Middle Ages, it was later used by the Roman Church as a place for the performance of religious or morality plays.
In the nineteenth century, major renovations began on the theatre. At this time the Roman Festival glorifying Rome was created. That Festival also included productions of plays from major classical French theatre. The name of the Festival was later changed to les Chorégies d’Orange, which has become an international, multimedia, summer timetable of events producing only operas. Plays, musicals and other forms of entertainment have been moved to nearby Avignon, less than 15 miles away. The theatre has become a major tourist attraction. In 1981, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historical and cultural significance.
After reading the technical aspects of the theatre, I sat imagining a production of a grand opera in the days of Rome. The warm summer sun slowly settles over an audience of 8,000, waiting in anticipation for the opening overture. For three hours they are thrilled and enriched. Today’s audience experiences those same emotions in this almost 2000 year old arena, a place that lifts the soul. At the end the audience rises in awe – merveilleux, magnifique, extraordinaire, formidable! Long live the Roman theatre of Orange.
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA
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