The warm evenings of the Greek summer are ideal for attending the open air theatres where the works of the great ancient Greek playwrights such as Aeschylus, Euripedes, Sophocles and Aristophanes come alive. The Epidaurus Festival, which has been organized as an annual event since 1955, is the cultural highlight of the summer season. It is a unique experience that should not be missed.
The ancient Greek theatre of Epidaurus (Greek: Επίδαυρος), which is on the UNESCO Heritage List, is found on the Argolid Peninsula in the Saronic Gulf. The theatre was constructed by Polykleitos the Younger (Greek: Πολυκλείτος ο Νεότερος) an ancient Greek sculptor of athletes. It was built in 330-320 BC. Pausanias (Greek: Παυσανίας), a traveller and geographer of the second century A.D, praises the theatre for its symmetry and beauty.
The theatre (Greek: Θέατρο) consists of an orchestra or stage (Greek: ορχήστρα) where the play takes place; the ‘skene’ (Greek: σκηνή, σκηνικό = scene, backdrop), is the part behind the stage where actors could change and where the death of a character was carried out as it was considered inappropriate to show such an action in front of the audience; the auditorium (Greek: αμφιθέατρο) is where the audience sat. The auditorium of the Epidaurus theatre has 55 rows of seats that rest on a natural slope and face the stage with a capacity of 13,000 – 14,000 spectators. The front seats, known as prohedria (presidency), were reserved for priests and other officials. This tradition is still practiced today.
The word Epidaurus means Δρα επί της Αύρας, meaning that it acts upon the breeze or aura. This is easy to understand as the theatre is unique for its acoustics. Through scientific research, it has been found that the seating arrangements are such that it helps the sound travel from the front row seats to those at the top, which are about 60 metres away. Even whispers can be heard. The tiered seating acts as an acoustic filter that deadens the background sounds such as murmurs in the audience, while amplifying the sounds on the stage. Mathematics played an important role in the construction of not only the theatre of Epidaurus, but of all ancient Greek theatres as the acoustics had to be perfect.
The ancient Greeks not only invented the theatre, but they also created multiple genres such as tragedy, comedy, and satyr. Tragedy was created around 532 BC. The word tragedy (Greek: τραγωδία) comes from the compound word tragos (Greek: τράγος = goat) and ode (Greek: ωδή = song). Aeschylus is considered to be the father of the Greek tragedy. He wrote such plays as The Persians and The Orestia. Another tragedian is Sophocles who wrote Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus and Oedipus Rex. Euripides wrote The Trojan Trilogy, consisting of Alexandros, Palamedes and The Trojan Women (Greek: Τρωάδες), which is the better known of the three. A satyr deals with the subject matter of a tragedy, but in a purely comedic way. Aristophanes wrote comedy, but specialised in political satire. His plays, Lysitrata, The Archarnians and The Clouds are very well known. Although they commented on the political and social life of that particular period, their ideas are just as relevant today.
Besides the costumes that they wore, the actors would also wear masks that would depict the character. The Greek word for mask is prosopo, which means face. The masks enabled the actors to change their roles quickly as well as enabling them to act more freely without being recognised. Also, as all actors were males, they were able to play the part of a female with the change of a mask. The masks had exaggerated facial features and expressions. They were made of light weight, organic material such as stiffened linen, leather, wood or cork with the wig consisting of human or animal hair. The members of the chorus also wore masks, giving them a sense of unity and uniformity that allowed them to speak as one.
The first systematic excavation of Epidauros Theatre was in 1881 by the Greek archaeologist Panagiotis Kavvadias.Restoration work continued on different levels from 1907 to 2016. The first play to be performed in modern times was Sophocle’s Electra (Greek: Ελέκτρα) in 1938. It was directed by Dimitris Rontiris, starring the well-known actresses Katina Paxinou and Eleni Papadaki. Performances were stopped during WWII and began again in 1954. From 1955, the Epidaurus Festival, which has been organized as an annual event, is the cultural highlight of the summer season. It is a unique experience that should not be missed.