20 August 2017

The Greeks have a word for it:
(18) theatre and drama

The Odeon or Theatre of Herodes Atticus on the southern slopes of the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

As I climbed the Acropolis in the summer sun on Saturday afternoon [19 August 2017], I stopped a number of times to admire the other sites that illustrate how this place was essential to the life and culture of ancient Athens.

They include, for example, the Theatre of Dionysus and the Herodium or Theatre of Herodes Atticus.

While I was in Crete in June and July, I blogged regularly about Greek words that we have adapted and integrated into the English language. But climbing up the Acropolis on Saturday, I was reminded too that words such as theatre, drama and tragedy are derived from Greek and the cultural life of classical Athens.

The word theatre comes from the Ancient Greek θέατρον (théatron), ‘a place for viewing’, itself from θεάομαι (theáomai), to see, to watch, or to observe.

Modern Western theatre comes owes its ideas, concepts and inspiration to ancient Greek drama, and borrows technical terminology, classification into genres, and many of its themes, stock characters, and plot elements.

Our concept of theatre originated in the city-state of Athens, where theatre was part of a broader culture of theatricality that included festivals, religious rituals, politics, law, athletics, the gymnasium, music, poetry, weddings, funerals, and symposia.

Taking part in the City Dionysia was mandatory for citizens of Athens,, either as member sof the audience or as participants, and was an important part of citizenship. Civic participation also involved the evaluation of the rhetoric of orators in the law courts and political assembly, both of which were analogous to the theatre and came to absorb its dramatic vocabulary.

The Theatre of Dionysus … the site of the great drama competitions in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

The Theatre of Dionysus was the site of the great drama competitions, where tragedies and comedies by the great playwrights were performed before audiences of 15,000 people, with the engraved marble seats in the front rows reserved for the priests of Dionysus.

The Greeks also developed the concepts of dramatic criticism and theatre architecture. Actors were either amateur or semi-professional.

The theatre of ancient Greece consisted of three types of drama: tragedy, comedy, and the satyr play.

Aristotle was the first theoretician of theatre, and his Poetics (ca 335 BC) is the earliest work of dramatic theory. Aristotle considered drama as a genre of poetry in general, and he contrasted the dramatic mode with the epic and the lyrical modes.

He traced the origins of the theatre in ancient Greece to the festivals that honoured Dionysus. The performances took place in semi-circular auditoria cut into hillsides and seating 10,000 to 20,000 people in the audience. The stage consisted of a dancing floor (orchestra), dressing room and the scene-building area (skene).

Since the words were the most important part of the play, good acoustics and clear delivery mattered. The actors, who were always men, wore masks appropriate to the characters they represented, and each actor might play several parts.

Athenian tragedy – the oldest surviving form of tragedy – is a type of dance-drama that formed an important part of the theatrical culture of Athens. It emerged in the 6th century BC, flowered in the 5th century BC, and continued to be popular until the beginning of the Hellenistic period.

The word τραγῳδία (tragoidia), which gives us the word ‘tragedy,’ is a compound of two Greek words: τράγος (tragos) or ‘goat’ and ᾠδή (ode) meaning ‘song,’ from ἀείδειν (aeidein), ‘to sing.’ This etymology indicates a link with the practices of the ancient Dionysian cults.

We have no surviving tragedies from the 6th century BC, and only 32 of more than 1,000 that were performed in the 5th century BC have survived, with complete texts for plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

The origins of tragedy remain obscure, though by the 5th century BC it was institutionalised in competitions (agon) held as part of the festivities celebrating Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility.

The Dionysian competition was the most prestigious of the festivals to stage drama. Playwrights were required to present plays that usually consisted of three tragedies and one satyr play. The performance of tragedies at the City Dionysia may have begun as early as 534 BC, when Pisistratus, the ruler of Athens, formalised the Dionysian festivals into full drama competitions that took place each year.

The first competition was won by Thespis, who is remembered for his innovation of the solo narrative. He gives his name to the word thespian, and the role he created is now known as the protagonist.

Most Athenian tragedies dramatise events from Greek mythology, although the notable exception is The Persians, which tells of the Persian response to the news of their military defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. When Aeschylus won first prize for it at the City Dionysia in 472 BC, he had been writing tragedies for more than 25 years. However, this tragic treatment of recent history is the earliest example of drama to survive. His Oriestea tells of the house of Atreus, the most dysfunctional family in ancient Greece.

Aeschylus, who is regarded as the ‘Father of Tragedy,’ introduced the second innovation with the antagonist. Sophocles, who defeated Aeschylus in 468 BC, introduced a third innovation – a third character. Only seven plays by Sophocles have survived, and his reputation rests on the three plays in the Theban tragedies: Oedipus Rex, which is still considered the greatest masterpiece of tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.

After the age of great tragedy, Aristophanes, the greatest comic playwright, brought a breath of fresh air to Athenian drama. His raunchy, hilarious Lysistrata is one of the great anti-war protests of all time. The play tells of how the women of warring Sparta and Athens refused to sleep with their husbands until they stopped fighting.

Athenian comedy is usually divided into three periods, ‘Old Comedy,’ ‘Middle Comedy’ and ‘New Comedy.’ Old Comedy survives today largely in the 11 surviving plays of Aristophanes, while Middle Comedy is largely lost. New Comedy is known primarily from the substantial papyrus fragments of Menander, whose statue stands in front of the Theatre of Dionysus.

The statue of Menander in front of the Theatre of Dionysus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Aristotle defined comedy as a representation of laughable people that involves some kind of blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster.

Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance. Considered as a genre of poetry in general, the dramatic mode has been contrasted with the epic and the lyrical modes ever since Aristotle.

The word drama comes from the Greek word δρᾶμα (drama), meaning action, and which is derived from the verb δράω (drao), to do or to act. In Ancient Greece, however, the word drama encompassed all theatrical plays, tragic, comic, or anything in between.

Classical masks from the theatre in Athens on display in the Acropolis Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The two masks associated with drama represent the traditional generic division between comedy and tragedy, and are symbols of the ancient Greek Muses, Thalia, and Melpomene. Thalia was the Muse of comedy (the laughing face), while Melpomene was the Muse of tragedy (the weeping face).

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a late addition to the Acropolis. It was built on the south slopes of the Acropolis in the year 161 AD by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy Roman, in memory of his wife Regilla. For almost 2,000 years, this amphitheatre was the premiere showcase for the performing arts in Athens.

The theatre was excavated in 1857-1858, and was restored between 1950 and 1961. In summer months, it is now a venue for summer festivals, concerts and plays.

Actors promoting a theatrical performance of classical drama in the square at Monastiraki (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The home of a Cork-born
general is one of the oldest
houses standing in Athens

The Ottoman tower house that was home to Sir Richard Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Strolling through the Plaka on Saturday [19 August 2017], I wanted to see the old mansion that had been home to Sir Richard Church, the Irish-born Philhellene, while he lived in Athens.

During this search, I came across the oldest house in Athens, which dates back to the 17th century.

The Mansion of Benizelou, the oldest surviving house in Athens, is located at 96 Adrianou Street, in Plaka. This house once belonged to the aristocratic family of the Athenian leader, Angelos Benizelou, his wife Sirigi Palaiologina, and their daughter Regoula. Their names indicate they were from old Venetian and Byzantine families.

Regoula Benizelou was widowed at a very young age and decided to dedicate her life to charity by becoming a nun as Sister Philothei. She founded a monastery and her charitable work among both Christians and Muslims attracted the attention of the Ottoman powers and led to her martyrdom. She is now revered as Saint Philothei.

This is one of the few Athenian noble mansions. The house dates back to the 16th century, although most of what we see today dates from the late 17th and early 18th century. It had many characteristics of Ottoman architecture of its day, with a loggia, a patio and a well.

This house has been restored in recent years by the Ministry of Culture and the Archdiocese of Athens and opened as a museum earlier this year [February 2017].

The Mansion of Benizelou, the oldest surviving house in Athens at 96 Adrianou Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The remains of what might have been the second oldest house in Athens also stand in the Plaka. The Mansion of Logotheti stood at what is now 14B Areos Street. All that has survived are the gate, the fountain and a small section of the yard. These once belonged to a magnificent mansion built in the 17th century.

This villa was once the home of the British consul in Athens, Spiridon Logothetis, and his family. They hosted Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, when he visited Athens.

I was on my way to join a guided visit to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum, so it was interesting to hear that it was at this house the Parthenon Sculptures spent their last nights in Athens before they were shipped to London.

Because the gardens but not the Logothetis mansion have survived, the second oldest surviving house in Athens is the Tower of Church, on the corner of School Street and Epicharmou Street in the Plaka.

This three-storey tower was fortified, and this distinguishes it from all other buildings in the Plaka. It is one of the few Ottoman buildings in Athens that to have survived to this day.

This house was built in the 18th century, and was used by the Ottomans as a fortified post, before being sold in 1835 to the Scottish historian and Philhellene George Finlay (1799-1875). Finlay gave the house to his friend and comrade, Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), the Cork-born general, and so it is known as the Tower of Church.

In the 1920s, it was also known as House Dialisma, and was feted in a painting by the Greek artist Yannis Tsarouchis (1910-1989). But, despite recent renovation work, the house is closed up today, is covered in graffiti, and there are signs or plaques to indicate the important role it played in the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century.

Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), who lived in this house, has been described as the ‘liege lord of all true Philhellenes.’ Church was born in Cork into a Quaker merchant family. In his youth, he ran away to join the army. His Quaker parents were disowned or excommunicated for buying him a commission and so they became Anglicans. He arrived in Greece in 1800 as a 16-year-old ensign serving under Sir Hudson Lowe from Galway. Lowe, who is remembered as Napoleon’s jailer, was the second-in-command in the expedition to the Ionian Islands.

Church took part in the capture of Kephalonia, Ithaki, Lefkhada, Zakynthos and Kythera. He wrote home: ‘The Greeks, who are slaves to the Turks and are Christians, are ... a brave, honest, open generous people.’

Church soon began providing military training for Greek revolutionaries, including Theodoros Kolokotronis, who became the pre-eminent general in the Greek War of Independence. Church recruited the Greeks troops who captured Paxos and the town of Parga on the mainland, and assisted in the negotiations for the surrender of Corfu. By then, he had become ‘more Greek than the Greeks.’

At the Congress of Vienna, he argued for an independent Greece. But he was ordered to disband his Greek regiments, the Ionian Islands became a British colony, and, in an act of treachery, Parga was sold to Ali Pasha (1740-1822). A disappointed Church left Greece for a military career in Austria and Italy. But when the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Kolokotronis and Edward Blaquière, a Dublin seaman of Huguenot descent, campaigned to bring Church back to lead the armed forces.

Two weeks after Church married Elizabeth Augusta Wilmot, who was sister-in-law of the Earl of Kenmare and related by marriage to Byron, the Greek government invited Church to take command of the army. After an absence of 12 years, he returned to Greece in 1827 to a hero’s welcome. He played a decisive role in uniting the Greek factions and in the election of Ioannis Kapodistrias as President, and Church was sworn into office on Easter Day, 15 April 1827.

One of his first actions was a disastrous attempt to drive off a Turkish force besieging the tiny Greek garrison in the Acropolis in Athens. But he soon rallied his forces and stirred a fresh rebellion across the northern Peloponnese. A major turning point in the War of Independence came at the Battle of Navarino, the last sea battle of the age of sail.

Thanks largely to the actions of Church and Gawin Rowan Hamilton, an Irish officer in the British navy, a large Turkish naval force was defeated in a four-hour battle in October 1827. Turkey’s naval power was broken and Church rejoiced at what he called ‘this signal interposition of divine Providence.’

Church found it increasingly difficult to work with Kapodistrias, resigned and left Greece. But he soon relented, returned to Greece permanently, and became a Greek citizen. In 1834, he and his wife moved into a house in the heart of the Plaka, beneath the Acropolis in Athens.

King Otho (r. 1832-1862) restored Church to the rank of general and appointed him Inspector-General of the army. But Otho was a despot, and in 1843 Church played a key role in a coup d’état, presenting the king with an ultimatum that demanded reforms or his abdication. Otho later took his revenge on Church, dismissing him from his post as Inspector-General. But Church remained a life senator and during the Crimean War (1853-1856) he was recalled as a general. A popular revolt in 1862 finally forced Otho to abdicate.

When Church died in his ninetieth year on 27 March 1873, he received a public funeral and was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens, close to Kolokotronis and the heroes of the War of Independence. In his oration, the Greek Ambassador to London, Ioannis Gennadios, described Church as ‘the truest Hellene, the most steadfast and most affectionate of the sons of Greece.’

Church often travelled with nothing more than his Bible and his sword. He believed the Greek struggle was a holy war. This connection between his faith and action is seen in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, Athens, where two sets of windows to his memory use Old Testament imagery to represent the Greeks as the chosen people and Greece as the Promised Land. Church is represented as Caleb who helps them capture the land from the Gentiles, and as David who, despite his stature, defeats the Philistines. The inference is that the Turks were Amalekites or the Philistines who deprived the Chosen People of the Promised Land.

Church’s grave is marked by a tall slender column with his carved profile, and topped with a Greek cross and a laurel wreath. The simple inscription reads: ‘Richard Church General who having given himself and all that he had to rescue a Christian race from oppression and to make Greece a nation lived for her service and died amongst her people rests here in peace and faith.’

Later in the afternoon, I walked along Tzortz Street (Οδός Τζορτζ), in a depressed corner of Athens off Kanigos Square and Akadimias Street. When he was writing in Greek, Church spelled his name Τζορτζ. It is such a pity that the English transliteration of the street name is not properly rendered as Church Street.

Tzortz Street (Οδός Τζορτζ) near Kanigos Square and Akadimias Street, was named in honour of Sir Richard Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)