Yesterday it was mythology in a book, today myths strut on the stage.
Medea, by Euripides (Legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece)
Oedipus and Antigone, two playsby Sophocles, (Legends from the Royal Family of Thebes)
In a graduate school seminar, I became fixated on traveling to Greece. The professor showed a series of slides of Greek theaters, each setting more spectacular than the last.
Finally, he came to Delphi. I can still see that picture in my mind, and to me, Delphi is the 2nd most important “must see” for the Greek tourist, right after the Parthenon.
On my first trip to Greece, a Smithsonian-sponsored bus tour, I mentioned to our guide that I had recently played the nurse in a production of Medea. She said, “We are going to Epidaurus tomorrow. Would you like to speak your lines?” Would I? Even more than breakfasting on yogurt with honey and walnuts!
Epidaurus, the sanctuary of Asclepios, founder of medicine, sits in a quiet grove of pines, a landscape that quickly cures whatever is ailing you. The theater, unearthed from under those trees on a hillside and reassembled, has perfect acoustics. To test the way that sound carries, my new friends on the tour scattered themselves around the top rows of limestone seats which help carry the sound as clear as a bell. The enormous theater once seated 15,000 people.
I could not distinguish who was who when I entered the sacred center space. In olden days only trained actors and priests would tread on that ground. Today only tour guides are permitted. (draw your own comparisons.) I walked into the historic place and spoke what I could remember of the Nurse’s lines, predicting Medea’s downfall, and a smattering of applause came from far above. I did not need applause. Not only was I in Greece, I was in one of those beautiful theaters. Not only was I IN the theater, but I was performing there. What a moment!
Even making allowance for my love of theater, I believe that your journey to Greece will be enhanced by some knowledge of classical Greek drama. Certainly the stories in these three plays are central to classical myth. Euripedes seems quite modern in his approach to character development, and Antigone will break your heart. Sophocles presents archetypes rather than the more approachable characters of Euripedes. Although you know who Oedipus is, if you have never seen the play performed on stage, you have a great treat awaiting you. Medea can stand in for the modern woman who wants to have it all but makes unthinkable choices and winds up paying a terrible terrible price.
Beyond that, theater was central to Greek life. Not just the way movieplexes and streaming video are today. Plays were presented at religious festivals. Theaters were built as offerings. Playwrights, actors and choruses won coveted awards. Statues were built to them and to the wealthy patrons who won points with the gods by financing performances. You can see one such statue that still stands in the Plaka near the Roman Forum, and many others in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
If you go to Greece in July and August, you can see performances–Greek and English, ancient and modern, or musical– at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the ancient Roman theater, and at Epidaurus. You can ask around, but I doubt anyone will remember my performance there.
Note: See a list of other posts in A Traveler’s Library about Greece.
Photograph by “Greekgeek” through Flickr, under Creative Commons license.
Have you ever been inspired to travel by a play that you have seen?