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E - 40 : The Deeper Meaning of Theatres (1)

Updated: Jun 5, 2021

My blog on Epidavros the other day made me think of the many other Greek theatres we are going to visit this summer. We start with Syracuse which has the biggest of all in ancient Greece. Followed by Taormina from where we have a perfect view on Etna and the Straits of Messina. No theatres survived in Calabria and Puglia except a few remnants in Lecce. But once across the Adriatic, we will be richly awarded by the beautiful theatre of Delphi towering high above the Gulf of Corinth - and Epidavros of course.

Syracuse - there are still regular summer performances in the beautiful Greek theatre

Theatres mark an interesting step in the development of western society. No other society built similar structures. The question is: why? Indian and Chinese civilization are as rich in ancient tales as Greece. So are Persia and Egypt. Or the cultures of the new world – the Aztec, Maya, and Inca. In all these civilizations we find stages for performances but usually inside temples or palaces but not accessible to the wider public.

After a year of Covid which many bridged with Netflix binging, we got so used to movies that we often take them for reality. Except that they are not. Don’t know how many of you have seen “Blackhawk Down”, a film pretty close to reality. But “close” is the word. As an officer I instantly spot fictious movie scenes. Explosions on camera always look more spectacular than the real thing. Since I have not been in Mogadishu, I cannot say which other parts of the movie deviate from the real story. But I am sure there are plenty. Movies are enacted stories. Stories are a product of our creative mind. As human beings, we edit reality, spice it up and put things in a time-laps. Reality is much slower and more boring.

The origination stories around the world are excellent examples of above. None of them are factual - they are all made up. But they made sense at the time and were told for centuries. The Genesis in our bible illustrates my case. These stories were handed down from one generation to the next, mostly in verses and many probably sung.

The Greek theatre in Taormina, Sicily, which the Romans expanded after taking over

By the 8th century BC, the ancient Greek stories were written down by Homer or several Homers. Now the stories were preserved, could be copied and distributed. Copying a book or a scroll was and is a time-consuming job and requires focus, but it was done by many people. The famous library of Alexandria consisted only of hand copied scrolls.

In a society where only 1 – 2 % of people were literate these stories are still not accessible. Even upper-class people like nobles, warriors or wealthy merchants could not read or write. For that they had scribes – literate clerks. Stories thus needed to be told – the same way we read bedside stories to our children. People gathered around an open fire and listened to a story read aloud - as we listen to podcasts today.

Delphi has one of the most beautiful theatres in the world - it is simply spectacular

Stories become livelier when they are enacted though. For this however, the story’s indirect speech needs to be translated into direct speech, dialogues, and instructions to set the scene. In short, the story needs to be translated into as a script. It is still the same today when a book is translated into a movie script. Scripting started to happen sometimes around the 7th century BC in Greece – the date is not reliable. Nobody knows precisely. Based on a script a story can be enacted and played. One only needs actors, decoration, and a stage to separate actors from audience - and writers of course who entertain us with new stories and new plays.

The few remains in Lecce - the perfectly crafted theatre served as quarry for the town

Stages were found in many civilizations. Theatres only in one. In ancient Greece it was not only the tiny elite, the nobles, who watched plays and performances, but everybody. Thus, theatres were built. Ordinary people participated in the common culture of their town. For the same reason good acoustics were important. They were not just an accident. They were a necessity. Because people were equal. Everybody had a vote (except women and slaves). As the ancient Greeks ruled their city states with democratic institutions (demos = people; kratos = rule), they shared their culture. It does not surprise then that theatres had a dual purpose: they also served as democratic assembly places.

Who would have thought that we are looking at the beginning of democracy when visiting ancient Greek theatres? I did not. But now I appreciate these visits even more. There will be another blog on Greek Comedy & Tragedy shortly

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