Built by the Romans, the ancient Theatre of Orange, France, still amazes visitors with its wonderful acoustics.

When, in August 1976, the great European “Startrucking Tour” organised by Miles Copeland made a stopover for three days in the tiny town of Orange, in Provence, France, it was creating history of a sort. The Orange 75 festival was amazingly well attended, tens of thousands came to celebrate the festival and listen to the era’s biggest rock stars. But this was not the only history-creating aspect of the festival. The biggest attraction, almost overshadowing the stars on stage, was the venue.

The wooden stage with its high thick stone wall that formed the backdrop, the 34 rows of stone steps resting against a gentle hill that the audience sat on, and the natural acoustics that amplified the sound for perfect listening, were not a creation of the 20th century. They dated back to just after 36 BC which is when the Romans founded the city of Arausio, now called Orange.

By day, the theatre is a must-see on the tourists’ list. The sense of history it holds, the amazing life the theatre has led through the centuries, and the fact that despite wars and the centuries it has seen pass by, it is still in such great condition, makes it a fascinating place to wander around in.

History walks by the side of the visitor, showing one how much the Roman theatre holds as clues to what is understood as theatre today.

The very terminology of the Roman theatre is a window to terms in use today. Pulpitum, Orchestra, Proscenium, Histrioni are terms invented for theatre performances and spaces by the Romans still in use in modified form today. Besides which, the classic structure of the performance area and audience seating are something that are still in vogue in most parts of the world.

The Theatre of Orange catered to the Romans’ love for drama. Comedies and tragedies, mime and slapstick performances strutted on the wooden stage that today is a perfect replica of the original.

Inspired by the very Greeks the Romans wished to conquer and rule over, the theatres of the Romans were built around the orchestra, which in those days meant the semicircular space at the foot of the tiered seats for the audience. A stone wall separated the orchestra from the stage, and was richly decorated. And the stage had curtains too that, instead of being lifted as we do now, were pushed down from above and sank into a trench in the space between.  

Imagine the scene then: a stage 61 metres long and 13 metres wide, a stage wall running to an enclosure that held the steps that reached 37 metres height, and was 103 metres in diameter. Imagine then this place filled with a thousand spectators, seated according to strictly marked hierarchy. The nobles and other persons of importance nearest the stage and the foreigners, artists, and poor at the very top, where, more likely than not, they would only get standing room. Shows would go on for days at a stretch, and those who attended would come not just to watch but to chat, and mingle. Men, women, children, slaves, lords were all part of the audience, and there was no entry fee. The audience participation was huge; cheering, booing and applause were part of the feedback actors received.

The theatre’s chequered history included performances that took place inside its limestone confines. From serious tragedies and thought-provoking satirical tragedies, the shows moved to the more popular slapstick and bloody action themes. The story goes that to appease the growing need for excitement, one performance had a man actually being killed on stage... on Nero’s command, he was burnt at the stake to depict the anger of Hercules.

Walking through the theatre today, the most amazing aspect is not the wonderful backdrop wall, with niches for statues, none of which survive, or the sheer geometry of the structure, but its wonderful acoustics. Using the theory that the sound should and could travel evenly upwards to reach the highest seats, the theatre wall and the seats were of the same height. A series of acoustic jars placed on the stage helped amplify sound. Even today, standing on the stage one can speak and be heard clearly by those on the highest seats.

History played cruel tricks on the Theatre of Orange. The advent of Christianity in the 4th century AD resulted in a Bishop of Orange locking the doors. The invasions that followed in the 5th century destroyed parts of the theatre as barbarians ravaged the city. The steps, the wall decorations and the ornately carved imperial statue that held pride of place on the wall were torn down. Through the Middle Ages, the theatre was used as a resource; stones and mosaics would be pillages for reuse in building houses or watchtowers.

Time and again, the theatre found new uses. It was a sanctuary for inhabitants seeking shelter from massacres. It was a residential neighbourhood, with streets dividing the sections, to accommodate a growing populace; and in the 18th century served as a prison.

Yet the structure survived it all, to find a saviour in 1834, in an inspector of historical monuments who undertook the unenviable task of restoring it to some of its lost glory. It would take more than three-fourths of a century for the work to get completed.

Today what remains of the Roman original are the last three tiers of seats and the back wall. The corridors within and behind the walls are still there, but blocked to public.

However, the Theatre of Orange is the best preserved of the three that exist still, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Little wonder then, that tourists believe it is a must-do site on their trips through the area.

And artistes like Dire Straits, Tina Turner, Frank Zappa, The Police and Bryan Adams have held tens of thousands enraptured with the quality of their performance and the sheer magnitude and history of the space they have performed in, while in the Roman Theatre of Orange.

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