I Finally Saw the Greek Theatres: Impressions on Teaching Undergraduate Theatre History
For thirty years, first on clunky, overheated metal slide projectors and then on unimaginatively designed PowerPoints on interminably slow laptops, I have been showing pictures of the theatres of Dionysus and Epidaurus in my unit on the Greeks in my undergraduate theatre history course. But I had never personally visited these landmarks. Even though I repeated anecdotes that I had only heard secondhand about the perfect acoustics and the tour guides dropping pennies, I had never actually been there myself and actually heard those tour guides and pennies. If only I could walk through these ancient orchestras and theatrons, wouldn’t the first theatre history course in our sequence (variously titled over the years Theatre History I, Theatre of Communion, and First Theatres) benefit from my firsthand experience?
During the summer of 2014, thanks to the research funding generously provided by the James A. B. Stone College Professor Endowed Chair at Kalamazoo College, I finally got the chance to see six ancient Greek theatres: Dionysus, Delphi, Thorikos, Thera, Corinth, and Epidaurus. Although the research funds did not cover the expenses of my wife, Tina, thankfully she accompanied me anyway. Since I am the world’s worst photographer, Tina snapped all of the photos and did a tremendous job. (It was also wonderful having her as a companion on this endeavor—it was a delightful way to celebrate our thirty-fifth anniversary!)
After being situated in our hotel in Athens and meeting with our guide, a thirty-year dream finally became a reality: I saw the theatre of Dionysus! It seemed much smaller than the impressions I had stored up all these years of looking at the slides. Walking all around the theatre and sitting in several different places in the theatron, I eventually settled in the very top row—about eighty meters away from the stage—and tried to imagine the very first performance of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in around 430 bce with presumably an Athenian citizen sitting in this very spot (or something like this same spot; the theatre, of course, has been completely reconstructed a number of times since the fifth century bce, first by the Greeks and then the Romans). Despite my initial impression of intimacy, looking down, the stage seemed tiny, and the angle of the seats very steep. I tried to imagine actors in the orchestra in front of the skene: they would have been about an inch high in my perspective (fig. 1). Raised stage or not, there would have been no issues in viewing both the chorus and actors. Clearly, all performers would be visible from this height and distance. It was also an exceedingly hot day and all seemed dry and dusty, perhaps not unlike the conditions at the City Dionysia. Could the sounds and movement from the location down below on such a hot day, in a crowded theatre with 17,000 other Greek citizens, have really made such an impression that everyone knew immediately that they were watching an instant classic and destined to be the first Greek play collected in every anthology afterwards? Or did it not matter what happened on that “opening night” almost 2,500 years ago? Do we really have Aristotle’s Poetics to thank for Oedipus Rex’s staying power?
I thought the same thing a few days later when we headed to Delphi through the mountains of Parnassus and passed the legendary spot where “three roads meet,” supposedly where Oedipus killed Laius (fig. 2). Again, I had the sensation of long-awaited completion, of finally seeing the actual thing, mythical as it might be, of something I had mentioned in class hundreds of times. It is easy to see why the theatre at Delphi is also visited by so many tourists today. As the home of Apollo’s temple, Delphi was considered the religious and spiritual center of the ancient Greek world, and it also housed the famous oracle. Delphi is also, without question, one of the most stunning settings for an ancient theatre. Set in the foothills of Mount Parnassus, the temple of Apollo and the theatre at Delphi offer spectacular views of the mountains and valleys, seemingly at every vantage point. Even just walking down the main street of the present-day village perched at the top of a cliff was truly breathtaking.
In his 1971 article “The Symmetry of Delphi,” Ryder Hector Currie argues that the plan of Apollo’s temple manifests “the ideal of symmetry and its architectural realization . . . the coming to order of the Greek world about the Delphic center” (98). One experiences this symmetry and being at the “center of the world” in the theatre as well. At the center of the orchestra are some polished flagstones to which, according to David Wiles, tourists naturally and “irresistibly” gravitate to stand— the center of the orchestra in the “center of the world,” if you will (2000, 120). Sure enough, Tina and I posed for a photo at this very spot, and not because we remembered it from Wiles (fig. 3). In the same book, Wiles analyzes the very first revival of a Greek tragedy in an ancient theatre: Eva Palmer-Sikelianos’s production of Prometheus Bound in 1927 at the theatre at Delphi, which according to him “reclaimed Greek theatres as the natural place in which to perform Greek plays, inspiring the festivals that take place today in Delphi, Epidaurus, Syracuse, and elsewhere” (186). So, in addition to all of the above, the theatre at Delphi is in some ways also the center of modern practice of Greek theatre.
The theatre at Thorikos has taken on great significance for theatre historians during the last few decades. Not only is it the oldest extant Greek theatre—constructed in the late sixth century bce—but it also features a “proscenium arrangement” of the theatron in which the audience appeared to be seated on one side of the action. Such a spatial arrangement directly defies the lazy scholarship that all Greek theatres are three-fourths thrust stages, which I was taught as an undergraduate (due to a careless reading of Oscar Brockett’s iconic History of the Theatre textbook),(1) a myth I also perpetuated in the early years of my own courses. During the late twentieth century, the rediscovery of the theatre at Thorikos led to a “fad” among theatre historians favoring the rectangular shape of the orchestra as the norm of early ancient Greek theatres. Some of the current scholarship characterizes the rectangular orchestras for such early theatres as Thorikos as more multipurpose performances spaces, before the circular orchestras became more common for the performances of plays.(2)
Regardless of the origin and function of the orchestra, for me, the prevailing feeling of walking around the theatre at Thorikos was one of overlooked historical ruins (fig. 4). This is decidedly not a tourist spot. There are no entrance fees, brochures, or shops; in fact, I recall only one small sign with an arrow pointing in the theatre’s direction from the main road. As we walked around the remains of the orchestra and theatron, I felt like a true archeological explorer on the cutting edge of reclaiming the ancient past and making a great new discovery and contribution to the scholarship of theatre history. That is, until we ran into another theatre history professor from the States, from the Midwest even, with his wife, who greeted us warmly and even advised us to seek out a lesser known, smaller theatre when we eventually made our way to Epidaurus, the mecca of ancient Greek theatres for theatre history professors. In the ride back to Athens I mused that if we were at Thorikos for less than an hour and met another theatre history couple on a similar quest, how many other theatre history professors visit Thorikos daily?
We did not meet any academics on the island of Santorini, where we saw the theatre in the city of Thera. Since I have been traveling on an academic salary, over the years we have not stayed in many four-star hotels or resorts. But our time in Santorini more than made up for all of the Motel 6s in our past. The view from our hotel was like the proverbial postcard—I have never seen water so blue. The exquisitely beautiful surroundings were marred only by my having to drive a rental car with standard transmission around the hilly island. Thera is located at the top of Mesa Vouno mountain on the southeastern side of the island. The theatre, built in the second century bce and seating about 1,500 individuals, also has a rectangular orchestra. In his cardinal study of Greek theatres, Classical Greek Theatre: New Views of an Old Subject, Clifford Ashby notes that it is a “circular theatre . . . fitted into a rectangular plot of land (a not uncommon practice for Hellenistic city planners)” (35). Although rope barriers prevented us from actually walking in the orchestra or theatron—unlike at every other theatre we visited on this trip—because the theatron is built into the cliff that overlooks the Aegean sea (fig. 5), it might be the best example of recent scholarship trends that consider strongly the entire natural topography and environment when analyzing the experience of Greek theatre performance for audiences of that time.(3) If, as Peter Meineck notes, a performance in the theatre of Dionysus in the heart of Athens created “a sacred space surrounded by monuments and cult sites of great significance to Athenian cultural identity” (161), then what might seeing a play in Thera at an elevation of 400 meters with a background of the Aegean Sea mean? Surely, to be a spectator at a play in such a setting must take into account more than simply sitting in the audience and hearing the text. How could it not create an extra-sensory experience that includes a spectacular vista of sea, sky, and land? As I contemplated this, staring at the sky from the top of the theatron, a jet drifted into view below us, on its way to the Santorini airport—below us.
Nevertheless, somehow I felt less like a tourist (and more like an historian?) when exploring the theatres that were off the beaten path. Like the theatre at Thorikos, the one at Corinth is definitely another in that category. The tourist attraction on the isthmus that joins mainland Greece with the Peloponnese—about halfway between Athens and Sparta—is not the theatre, built around 350 bce, but the ancient city itself located on the top of the hill, also home of the museum and archeological site. In fact, the theatre is mostly in ruins, with brush overtaking both the theatron and orchestra. And while the theatre is listed in the official Corinth tourist brochure, because it is located south of the city and below the hill it receives far fewer visitors. Still, the theatre merits some discussion in Ashby, mostly because of the presence of a large altar (sometimes called the thymele), which he claims was added after the theatre’s original excavation in 1929 (55). As I examined the altar and considered its possible late addition (fig. 6), I wondered about exactly how it might have been used. Although the ritual theory of the origin of theatre has been discredited by most scholars as “cultural Darwinism,” we know that the sacrifice of animals and pouring of libations was part of the dithyrambic contests that often preceded the plays. Most of all, once again, I tried to imagine what the experience of audiences and performers might have been like in this very space.
One has the luxury of imagining much less at the theatre at Epidaurus, because this is the best preserved of all Greek theatres and one in which performances are still given. And many a theatre history professor has used this old chestnut in the classroom: the tour guide drops a penny on the stage and it is heard perfectly by individuals in the back row (I’ve used it for thirty years myself). The theatre at Epidaurus is the origin of this legend.
We almost didn’t make it to Epidaurus before it closed for the day. Because of my friend’s advice back in Thorikos, we spent a lot of time with our tour guide and driver looking for the smaller, less well-known though apparently wonderfully preserved little theatre at Epidaurus. After many stops and queries, which somehow ended with Tina and I walking down a dusty, deserted road waiting for the driver to double-back, did we find it. It is indeed much smaller and in excellent condition (fig. 7). It was also full of modern sound equipment for a rock concert to be held later that evening. (We already had tickets for a performance of Euripides’ rarely performed Helen at the larger theatre in Epidaurus—a case of pop culture competing directly with the classics.) Built in the fourth century bce though not rediscovered until the 1970s, the little theatre at Epidaurus originally seated approximately 2,000, but after restoration only 800.
Because the little theatre was, naturally, located directly on the other side of town from its more famous larger counterpart, and since it was now late afternoon and we were worried that the time for public tours was quickly diminishing, we sped across the city to the theatre of Epidaurus. Sure enough, all tours had stopped and there were only twenty minutes left until both the museum and the theatre closed completely in order to prepare for the performance later that evening. At first I was furious; after all, this is the one theatre we were scheduled to see that was so well preserved and still operating! I had wanted to simply wander and investigate this iconic space at my leisure. After some fast-talking by our guide, however—I think she felt guilty because we had spent so much time looking for the other one—we were allowed to enter (after paying our entrance fee, of course). We entered the orchestra to witness the last part of a rehearsal of Helen. Directed by Dimitri Karantzas, the production had been presented in Athens earlier in the year, then was invited to the Epidaurus Festival; this evening was its opening performance (and for all I know, this may also have been its only rehearsal in the space). After the rehearsal ended we wandered around the huge theatron, climb- ing up to the very last rows at the top. The view was as spectacular as the angle was precariously steep (fig. 8). Much of the current scholarship on ancient Greek theatres now identifies Epidaurus as an atypical space due to its size and symmetry. Ironically, because it is so well preserved and still functioning, it has come to “influence most people’s conception of what the Athenian theatre was like” (Wiles 2000, 100). Nonetheless, of all of the ancient Greek theatres, it is the iconic Epidaurus that reminds us most of contemporary sports stadia. For years, I have shown pictures of the theatre
in class in order to trigger my (overused) analogies between ancient performance and modern spectator sports events: the large crowds, the vibe of communal energy, the geographical rivalries, the specialness of the occasion, and so on.
That evening, these analogies became reality. Watching the performance of Helen with approximately 9,000 others is an experience I will never forget. Of course, I have seen outdoor theatre before, but never on this scale (and never Euripides). Although the text was spoken in Greek, with English subtitles posted on screens at the extreme left and right sides of the lower theatron blocked off for such use, I had a vivid sensation of a massive group listening to every word. And despite the lack of any microphones, I heard every word (which more than made up for having missed the tour guide dropping pennies). The production was hardly conventional—the director and company members were quite young, all in their early thirties or younger—and the roles of Helen, Menelaus, and the other major characters rotated among multiple actors, definitely lending an experimental feel to the piece (fig. 9). Still, the overwhelming impression was what the ancients referred to as hearing a play, as opposed to seeing a play. And it restored my faith in the power of the spoken word of the theatre to be part of an audience hungering for every word of the play that Euripides wrote almost 2,500 years ago. As we exited the theatre I thought that viewing this performance was the closest I ever came to imagining a viable answer to my perpetual question: What was the experience of the audience in these ancient theatre spaces? (Also on the way out, I noticed dozens of tour buses lined up and wondered what the cultural equivalent of this would be in the States, having hordes descend on a site to hear ancient poetry read aloud: Shakespeare in Central Park? Outdoor musical theatre? The Super Bowl?)
Wiles considers the great scale of unified setting and response to be the major component of the power of ancient Greek theatre:
The spectator 100 meters away was part of a single crowd, bonded by a space that created no vertical or horizontal boundaries, and concealed no group from the rest. If all 15,000-plus tightly packed people were listening to the same words at the same time, and shared the same broad response, the power of emotion generated would have been quite unlike that created today in a studio theatre. Communication was effected not simply via light and sound waves but via an osmosis passing through the bodies of the spectators. (2000, 112)
For me, this was ultimately the most satisfying (and challenging) aspect of my brief tour of six ancient Greek theatres: walking the very venues where these communal events were given so long ago, and trying to imagine the communal responses.4 In these very spaces something was communicated over 2,000 years ago that surely had some vibrancy and immediacy for the spectators. I think we experienced it fleetingly during this performance of Helen. What did it mean to their lives then? What might it mean to us today? In some sense I believe that every theatre history course being taught today attempts to answer these questions.
My visit to the Greek theatres directly affected the possibilities of what I can now communicate about them in class. From the theatre of Dionysus, I try to communicate the sense of being one of thousands of spectators in the bright sunlight watching actors whose figures would be quite small when viewed from the upper regions of the theatron. From Delphi, I remember the importance of the “centering of space,” as well as the spectacular surrounding topographical environments (particularly exemplified by the theatre at Thera), which create landscapes of performance, land, sea, and sky. The thymele at Corinth reminds me to still consider the ritual elements of Greek theatre performance, while conversely the rectangular orchestra and seating arrangement at Thorikos suggest a proscenium theatre (and also that the spaces of Greek theatres do not follow a blueprint for thrust stages). Finally, my experience at Epidaurus restored my faith in the possibility of a large audience listening as one entity to the texts spoken in these communal spaces. It was only after physically walking through the Greek theatres that I had the courage and insight to try and bring that vibrancy and immediacy of the performance spaces into the actual environment of my classroom (fig. 10).
Ed Menta is the James A. B. Stone College Professor of Theatre Arts at Kalamazoo College in Michi- gan, where he teaches directing, playwriting, and theatre history. His The Magic World Behind the Curtain: Andrei Serban in the American Theatre (1995) was a Choice Outstanding Academic Book, and his articles have been published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Theatre Studies, New England Theatre Journal, and The Baseball Journal.
1. Brockett clearly states that “[a]n increasing number of archeologists believe that early theatrical spaces on the Greek mainland were square or rectangular” (35).
2. For a detailed discussion of this topic, see David Wiles, Tragedy in Athens, 46–50. The argument of rectilinear versus circular orchestra is still very much alive; see also Peter Meineck, Under Athena’s Gaze.
3. See Vayos Liapis, Costas Panayotakis, and George W. M. Harrison, “Introduction: Making Sense of Ancient Performance.”
4. In my own doctoral research, surely, this is what I believed to be the success of Andrei Serban and Liz Swados’s experimental Fragments of a Greek Trilogy at La MaMa in the 1970s (also performed in anniversary productions in 1987 and 1996). Somehow, the production unleashed the power of Greek tragedy on an emotional level. See Menta The Magic World Behind the Curtain: Andrei Serban in the American Theatre.
Ashby, Clifford. Classical Greek Theatre: New Views of an Old Subject. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1998. Print.
Brockett, Oscar. History of the Theatre. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1987. Print.
Currie, Ryder Hector. “The Symmetry of Delphi.” Theatre Survey 12.2 (1971): 97–103. Print.
Liapis, Vayos, Costas Panayotakis, and George W. M. Harrison, “Introduction: Making Sense of Ancient Performance.” Performance in Greek and Roman Theatre. Ed. Harrison and Liapis. Leiden: Brill, 2013. 1–42. Print.
Meineck, Peter. “Under Athena’s Gaze: Aeschylus’ Eumenides and the Topography of Opsis.” Performance in Greek and Roman Theatre. Ed. George W. M. Harrison and Vayos Liapis. Leiden: Brill, 2013. 131–47. Print.
Menta, Ed. The Magic World Behind the Curtain: Andrei Serban in the American Theatre. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Print.
Wiles, David. Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.
———. Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.