Roman Theatre from yesterday to today
The prosperity of the Greek colony of Massalia (current-day Marseille) attracted the greed of the Romans. When a conflict broke out between the Massilia and the Celtic tribes of the area, the city turned to the Romans for help. The Romans then settled in the region, extending their territory along the Mediterranean coast of Gaul. This province, extending from the Alps to the Pyrenees, was known as Gallia Narbonensis.
Pompey the Great was responsible for having the first stone theatre built in Rome. Prior to this, the Romans had been happy to make do with theatres made of wood, easily disassembled, where only the spectators in the first row had the luxury of seats. The construction of permanent theatre structures was forbidden: the Senate sought to prevent all forms of entertainment that might distract the people from their religious and civic duties.
Orange (Arausio in Latin) was founded by the veterans of the 2nd Gallic Legion of Caesar. This legion had arrived in the region following the conquest of Gaul led by Julius Caesar, which ended with the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC.
A few decades later, during the reign of Augustus, the Théâtre d’Orange, set into the hill of Saint Eutrope, was built. Along with the theatre in Arles, this was one of the first large public buildings built in Gallia Narbonensis at the beginning of the Empire.
Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official State religion in 391. Cults and pagan pleasures were quickly banned. Temples were demolished or converted into churches. Amphitheatres, games and theatres were closed and left to ruin, and in many cases were looted and used as a source of stone for construction. The city of Orange experienced a similar fate. It was designated a diocese and one of its temples was destroyed and replaced by a church. While it remained standing, the theatre was now closed.
Throughout the 5th century, Barbarians continued to attack the Empire. The Visigoths took the town of Orange, and looted and vandalized its monuments. The Roman theatre was no exception to this wave of destruction. Its stone steps were used to make sarcophagi, the decorative elements of the stage wall were torn down, the statue of the Emperor destroyed and the theatre of the roof set on fire. Invasions of this nature, coupled with the political chaos of the Empire accelerated the fall of the Roman world and marked the end of the power of the Roman civilization and its rituals.
Guillaume [William of Gellone], the Count of Toulouse and a relative of Charlemagne’s, was granted the county of Orange after he won back the city from the Saracens. His coat of arms, decorated with a black horn, was the origin for the emblem of the city which depicts a horn above three oranges. His successors made Orange a principality and the theatre once again began to host performances organized by the Church and travelling theatre companies.
In the 16th century, Orange, ruled by Protestant princes, became involved in the religious wars of the period. The city was pillaged and the inhabitants fled to escape persecution. Sometime later, the princes of Orange succeeded in restoring peace to the city. This period of calm, which lasted for more than 100 years, allowed the city to develop and the population expanded rapidly. Due to a lack of space, locals began to construct homes within the confines of the theatre. Against the backdrop of the stage wall and the stands, a veritable residential quarter sprung up, traversed by a street.
In the 18th century, makeshift prisons were set up in the thick walls of the theatre and in the basilicae (the towers flanking the stage). These were primarily used to house large numbers of prisoners during the Revolution.
Prosper Mérimée, then inspector with the French heritage body known as Monuments Historiques, implemented an extensive restoration campaign. This consisted of clearing away the constructions built in and around the stage area and the lower tiers. The Roman theatre was finally restored to its former glory much to the delight of the public.
Partially restored, in 1869 the theatre hosted for the first time the ‘Fêtes Romaines’, later renamed the ‘Chorégies’. Three well-known public figures, Anthony Réal, Félix Ripert and Alphonse Bernard were the key members of the organizing committee. They managed to attract more than 10,000 spectators for the performance of Méhul’s Joseph and a cantata in praise of the Romans, called Les Triomphateurs. The magical ambiance, coupled with the unique acoustics of the site, ensured the event was an immediate success.
The ‘Fêtes Romaines’, renamed the ‘Chorégies’, coming from the Greek word khoregos (meaning the leader of the chorus) now became an annual event. Plays, operas, ballets, and symphony concerts would all be performed within this remarkable setting. A whole host of celebrities performed here: in 1903 for example, the great Sarah Bernhardt interpreted one of her more memorable roles in Racine’s Phèdre.
Up until the Second World War, Orange was the preferred location for performances by both the Opéra de Paris and the Comédie française outside of the capital.
Excavations uncovered the remains of a temple and its altar, built on a large stone floor, in the centre of a hemicycle. At one time surrounded by a semi-circular portico of 52 columns, some archaeologists believed these ruins to be the remains of a circus or a stadium. It is today believed that the theatre and the semi-circular building constitute an Augusteum, dedicated to the cult of the emperor.
When it was first built, the wall of the theatre was lavishly decorated with multi-coloured marble slabs, with statues in niches, friezes and columns. The only architectural decoration of the theatre, it did not change during performances, therefore certain mobile elements and accessories were installed to create the illusion of movement, space and perspective. Excavations carried out by Jules Formigé have cleared the columns that may currently be seen at the site, but which had disappeared over the years.
The French Ministry of Culture designated Avignon the centre of theatre, and Orange the centre of the lyric arts and symphony concerts. This was the beginning of the new ‘Chorégies’, inaugurated by Carlo Maria Giulini and Montserrat Caballé. The presence of internationally-renowned artists and groups reinforced the theatre’s growing international reputation.
As part of a large European tour organized by Miles Copeland, the ‘Startruckin Tour’, some of the biggest names in rock music performed on the stage of the Théâtre Antique d’Orange over the course of three days. Many of the artists included British rock stars. The French magazine, Paris Match, compared Orange 75 to Woodstock: ‘Things have changed. Rock music has entered the walls of these edifices built by our ancestors ... the Romans. Indeed, we have not created better stadiums since their time.’
Certainly one of the finest legacies of Imperial Rome, Europe’s best preserved theatre has been included on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites since 1981. It is renowned for its magnificent stage wall, amazingly preserved and unique in the Western world.
103 metres long, 1.8 metres thick and 37 metres high, King Louis XIV once described the imposing facade as ‘the most beautiful wall in my kingdom’.
The Municipal Council of the City of Orange entrusted Culturespaces with the management, running and promotion of the Théâtre Antique d’Orange and the Musée d’Orange in 2002. Every year, Culturespaces organizes, in collaboration with the city, a rich programme of cultural events, including concerts, re-enactments of the Roman Legions, etc.
The plans for creating this huge 1000-m² glass canopy were finalised in 2004 and the roof was completed in 2006. The Romans built a wooden structure that supported a roof but it was destroyed by a huge fire that ravaged the theatre in the 4th century. Rather than attempt to roughly reconstruct the original wooden structure, Didier Repellin, head architect of Monuments Historiques, decide to move more towards modern architecture. As a result, this contemporary cover of glass and steel effectively protects the stage wall, highlights it and also integrates scenery for shows.