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Center Stage at Epidaurus: A Student's Thoughts on Travels in Greece
“Hmm, old and broken. Must be Greek.” Hearing these words from a friend as we stood center stage at the Theatre of Epidaurus, I could not help feeling a little indignant. A history major, I have always been somewhat defensive with regards to the “old and broken,” and I feel that anyone who comes to Epidaurus or any other Greek ruin and sees only “old and broken” is really missing something. While, in purely literal terms, the Theatre at Epidaurus is merely a very old and very cleverly organized pile of rocks, that is the definition of nearly any manmade edifice—until we invest it with meaning. Thus one could come to Epidaurus and see a number of stone steps arranged in an incline over a larger stone slab, or one could see, as I did, an ancient and powerful educational tool and force of social change, the revered progenitor of the modern theatre.
Perhaps most telling of Epidaurus’ role as an agent of social change is its incredible acoustics. Modern visitors to the theatre will notice a circle in the center of the stage, and any person standing in this circle may, speaking at a normal volume, be heard from any of the theatre’s 15,000 seats, a powerful affirmation of the human voice. This circle is the spot from which actors would deliver their monologues. A fount of social criticism from which flowed both the biting and irreverent satire of comedians like Aristophanes and the poignant lamentations of tragedians like Euripides, Epidaurus’ center stage circle, though humble in appearance, was the most powerful testament to the “consciousness and self-critique” of Greek society that I have yet to witness (Hanson and Heath 27).
In my few brief moments as Medea in Epidaurus, I came to a truer understanding of the power of the Ancient Greek theatre as an instrument of that “consciousness and self-critique.” My voice clearly heard throughout the theatre, I understood more fully the rapt attention that the very structure of the theatre must have demanded from an Ancient Greek audience, and thus the kind of power that an actor’s—or rather a playwright’s—words must have had to provoke and indeed demand thought from spectators. I felt that the German tourists at Epidaurus that day were forced to watch me as I accosted my estranged husband Jason and as I relished in the revenge I had achieved against him by killing our children. Such a murder is enough to shock modern audiences; there is no telling what it must have meant to a culture in which men were the absolute rulers of their households and, as Pericles said, “the greatest glory of a woman [was] to be least talked about by men, whether in praise or blame” (Samons 171).
Euripides, The Medea. London: The University of Chicago Press, 1955.
Socrates, I now realize, may have been wrong to state that “if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who… am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God” (Plato 16) as a means of societal critique. The playwrights were Socrates’ “successors.” Aristophanes, for example, provided, in his The Clouds, a satirical critique of Sophism even before the death of Socrates (Plato 5), while Euripides called to public attention, in his Medea, the pitiably powerless situation of Greek women, “the most unfortunate of creatures” (Euripides 231), required to take a husband as a master and lacking any real recourse should he wrong her.
While the Theatre at Epidaurus, as a physical structure, may indeed be “old and broken,” a basic familiarity with Ancient Greek dramatic literature endows it with a special significance. In Epidaurus, I saw the roots of Western theatre, then as now a powerful engine of social change, and experienced, through performance, something of that power.
Hanson Victor D., and John Heath. Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1998.
Plato. Apology. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1986.
Samons, Lauren J. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Pericles. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.