From the ancient times until today, the theatre has been a large part of Greek culture. And, many of the ancient theatres are still used during the summer months for dramas or music events. There’s nothing quite as thrilling as watching an ancient drama unfold in the exact venue where it was first performed back in the 5th century BC.
Every year the Athens Festival offers an opportunity for locals and tourists to attend performances in various theatres around the country. I’ve been to many concerts, from Greek traditional music to modern jazz, classical music and ballets. In addition, I’ve attended performances of Greek dramatists as well as Shakespeare, at the magnificent Odeon of Herod Atticus on the south slope of the Acropolis. This steep-sloped Roman period amphitheatre, which seats 5000, was built in 161 AD by the Athenian magistrate, Herod Atticus, in memory of his wife. It is still used as a venue for music concerts and theatre productions and will host several outstanding performances this summer.
Because I love the theatre and have read many of the Greek tragedies as well as the works of the English bard, William Shakespeare, I always make it a point to attend at least one event at an ancient theatre while I’m visiting Greece. One especially memorable thrill was seeing a production of “Hamlet” by a British company, at the Herod Atticus. As daylight faded there was a sound of distant thunder that increased as darkness fell. And then, high above on the parados behind the stage, appeared a figure representing the ghost. It was one of the most dramatic theatrical moments in my memory. Another distinctive memory was seeing Peter Ustinov read from “Prometheus”; and a concert of Theodorakis’ music during which the maestro made an appearance on stage.
I’ve also attended several Greek dramas at the Theatre of Epidaurus. There’s nothing more exciting than sitting high up on the tiers and watching the works of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus unfold before your eyes. The theatre of Epidaurus is noted especially for its amazing acoustics and it’s worth going there even if just on a day tour. This was one of the most important sanctuaries of the ancient world, dedicated to the healing god, Asclepius, and the theatre was part of the therapy offered at the sanctuary. Today, plays are performed there during the Athens Festival from June until August.
The 14,000 seat theatre is set in a lush landscape of woods and rolling hills. If you get there early you can browse around the site which includes the Asclepiad sanctuary. The plays are performed in Greek so it’s a good idea to read a translation first. English translations are available at the site. You can get to the theatre by special buses from Athens.
Greek drama thrived in Greece between the 6th and 2nd century BC in Athens, originating from the Orphic Mysteries, the religious practices of the ancient Greeks. Tragedy, comedy and satyr were performed during the festival of Dionysus, the famous god of wine, festivity and ecstasy.
In addition to the theatres where performances are still held, there are several other ancient sites worth a visit. In Athens, the little Theatre of Dionysus is one of the earliest preserved theaters used for festivals in honor of the god Dionysus. The theatre is nestled at the south flank of the Acropolis and it was here that the masterpieces of Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were first performed. It could hold up to 17,000 spectators though only 20 of its 64 tiers of seats survive. Theatre performances back then were early morning affairs. A classical scholar friend explained that when Aeschylus’ tragedy, “The Persians”, was first performed here, it was timed so that the first lines were spoken at exactly the moment the rising sun appeared. The play, which celebrates the final defeat of the armies of the Persian Xerxes, was written to boost the pride and exultation of the Greek audience. It won a drama competition at the Dionysian Festival in 472 BC.
Delphi, the ancient theatre built in the 4th century BC, was used for the Pythian Festival. The theatre seated 5000 and was also associated with the wine-loving god Dionysus and inspired the annual Delphic Festival held during July.
If you’re in northern Greece, the theatre of Dodona in Epirus is part of the shrine of Dodona regarded as the oldest Hellenic oracle. It’s situated in a forested mountain area and was used for festivals in honor for the god Dionysus. There are still musical and theatrical performances at Dodona during summer weekends. Check locally for schedules.
In addition to theatre festivals there are several other music and cultural events held in other parts of Greece as well as at other venues around Athens.
Written by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com