Friday, July 27, 2012

Ancient Theatre, Tyrants and Olympic Games

     In Sicily’s largest and oldest Greek theatre, Teatro Greco in Syracuse, and the island’s second largest, the Greco-Roman Theatre in Taormina, the words of playwrights from Euripides, Sophicles and Aristophanes to Epicharmus, the “Father of Greek Comedy,” and Aeschylus, the “Father of Tragedy,” have been heard for more than two milleniums.
     Syracuse, founded in 733 BC, became the region’s capital and was considered the third most important city in the Mediterranean. On the north side, in the archeological park, the Teatro Greco lives on Temenite Hill in the ancient district of Neapolis.  Designed by the architect, Damocopos, the theatre was hewn from rock with hammer and chisel, during the reign of Hieron I, in the 5th century. The first performances were tragedies performed in groups of three (trilogies) united by a common theme. Each play was followed and ridiculed by a satyr drama, a low comedy with a mythological hero and a chorus of satyrs.  The chorus, a group of actors, recited in concert and commented on the play’s action.  Dance movements were sometimes performed to the accompaniment of musical instruments.
     The city of Syracuse, under Hieron’s rule, was widely honored for its arts and letters; odes celebrated Hieron’s victories; one a tribute to his triumph at the horse races in the Olympic Games held in 476 BC.  Hieron’s court invited and played host to two rivals, Pinder, the Greek lyric poet, and Aeschylus, the first of the great Greek dramatists, who preceded Sophicles and Euripides.
     Aeschylus added a second actor to interact with the first creating dialogue and involved the chorus in the action of the play.  Twelve years after fighting the Persians at Marathon in 472 BC, he wrote “The Persians,” a war story told from the perspective of the defeated. At the invitation of King Hieron, in 471 and again in 469, Aeschylus, traveled to Syracuse where he produced and stage-managed his highly acclaimed play. He is believed to have written ninety plays, seven have survived including “The Persians,” “Prometheus Bound,” and the “Orestie” trilogy.  In 476 BC, he wrote “The Women of Etna,” to celebrate the founding of Etna by Hieron I. Legend tells us death claimed Aeschylus, on his final visit to Sicily, when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on his pate. A monument was erected in his honor; the memorial mentions the battle at Marathon but not his plays.
     The dramas were presented as part of religious celebrations held in the spring and fall that lasted from sunrise to sunset. The entire population attended, socialized, gossiped and exchanged the latest news before the performances. 
     Restored and enlarged by Hieron II in the 3rd century BC, the theater could seat 16,000. Nine sections with names of rulers and Gods etched into stone enabled the audience to find their seats. Today, sneakered feet trod the stage where sandal-clad actors dedicated their performances to Greek Gods and performed for an audience that included tyrants, winners of the olympics and philosophers.

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