Lit Major Abroad

Just Like a Greek Drama


The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!

-Lord Byron, ‘The Isles of Greece’

Now that I’m back home and going through the depressing delightful process of sorting through the pictures from my trip, I have a feeling the last leg of my journey through Europe will take more than a few weeks to find its way onto the internet. Today I’d like to share just a few little bits and pieces from the country that gave the Western world so much in terms of culture: Greece.

Greek mythology is full of juicy stories and amusing anecdotes. Greek drama became the basis upon which Western civilisation crafted their own plays for hundreds of years. And then, of course, there’s the philosophers, statesmen, and poets that the ancient city of Athens produced. By all accounts, if you had to pick somewhere in the pre-Christian world, ancient Attica was the place to be. So a visit to modern-day Athens is necessarily steeped in centuries of history, not to mention the expectations of the thousands of tourists that flock there yearly.

We weren’t sure whether Athens would leave us disappointed or not. It’s one of those places that is so familiar from photographs, television, and books that you almost feel like you’ve been there already. I won’t bore you with an account of all the theatres, agoras, and temples we saw on our trip there (although they were fabulous). Instead I’d like to focus on just one of the arts that Ancient Greece bequeathed to the modern world. I’m talking, of course, about the theatre. So here is a quick whip-round two of the most well-known theatres in the world, both situated in the shadow of Athens’ most famous landmark, the Acropolis.

IMG_0890.2The Theatre of Dionysus

Since plays were performed in Athens during a yearly festival in honour of the Greek god Dionysus (god of wine, whose main role in the pantheon of Greek gods was hanging out, drinking lots, and generally having a good time, a philosophy most people can get behind), the theatre beneath the Acropolis is naturally named after him. Here the Greeks would have performed their plays for the male populace. Dressed head to toe in long robes, heavy masks, and stilts (because all great drama has to have at least an element of the ridiculous), the actors would recite their lines. According to modern tests the theatre was built in such a way that you could hear what the actors were saying no matter where you were sitting. Considering the theatre could seat about 17,000 people, that’s a pretty impressive feat of engineering.

Dressed to kill… a statue of an actor dressed as Silenus, sporting the traditional ‘woolly costume’ of the role. In the Altes Museum, Berlin.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus

Built during the Roman period, this smaller theatre has been renovated so that performances can still be staged here. Sting, Elton John, and Pavarotti have all performed in this open-air theatre; it makes for a pretty impressive line-up. The theatre still contains the regal arches and columns of an earlier time, and I can only imagine how incredible it must look when it is lit up at night for a big show.

The Odeon from the inside.

Masks To Die For

In a theatre that can seat 17,000 people, those unlucky ones in the back probably couldn’t see all that much, even if they were picking up the dialogue as if the actors were standing right next to them. So masks were worn, with exaggerated facial expressions and using typical features to help distinguish a character’s gender, age, and function in the drama. Naturally, we don’t have any remaining examples of masks, but we do have a few stone carvings, including the ones we saw in the National Archaeological Museum. Now tell me that isn’t a face only a mother could love.

Depiction of a theatre mask in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

And, as a little unrelated literary bonus, here’s a homage to one of Greece’s most famous fans; the dashing Lord Byron, who fought for Greek independence (which was very dashing) and, in 1824, died of a septic wound* (which was less dashing, but probably not his own fault).

Hotel Byron in Athens. Rampaging Romantic poets available upon request.


*Most probably. Although since contemporary and modern accounts suggest that he could have had, among other things, a fever, infection, gonorrhoea and/or syphilis, he was more or less destined to die in one unpleasant way or another.


2 replies on “Just Like a Greek Drama”

A fascinating post, with a mixture of history and popular culture snippets…I didn’t know about Byron’s penchant for things Greek or his septic wound (though I understood he was very dashing!) :)

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