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  • I Finally Saw the Greek Theatres: Impressions on Teaching Undergraduate Theatre History
  • Ed Menta (bio)

For thirty years, first on clunky, overheated metal slide projectors and then on unimaginatively designed PowerPoints on interminably slow laptops, I have been showing pictures of the theatres of Dionysus and Epidaurus in my unit on the Greeks in my undergraduate theatre history course. But I had never personally visited these landmarks. Even though I repeated anecdotes that I had only heard secondhand about the perfect acoustics and the tour guides dropping pennies, I had never actually been there myself and actually heard those tour guides and pennies. If only I could walk through these ancient orchestras and theatrons, wouldn’t the first theatre history course in our sequence (variously titled over the years Theatre History I, Theatre of Communion, and First Theatres) benefit from my firsthand experience?

During the summer of 2014, thanks to the research funding generously provided by the James A. B. Stone College Professor Endowed Chair at Kalamazoo College, I finally got the chance to see six ancient Greek theatres: Dionysus, Delphi, Thorikos, Thera, Corinth, and Epidaurus. Although the research funds did not cover the expenses of my wife, Tina, thankfully she accompanied me anyway. Since I am the world’s worst photographer, Tina snapped all of the photos and did a tremendous job. (It was also wonderful having her as a companion on this endeavor—it was a delightful way to celebrate our thirty-fifth anniversary!)

After being situated in our hotel in Athens and meeting with our guide, a thirty-year dream finally became a reality: I saw the theatre of Dionysus! It seemed much smaller than the impressions I had stored up all these years of looking at the slides. Walking all around the theatre and sitting in several different places in the theatron, I eventually settled in the very top row—about eighty meters away from the stage—and tried to imagine the very first performance of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in around 430 bce with presumably an Athenian citizen sitting in this very spot (or something like this same spot; the theatre, of course, has been completely reconstructed a number of times since the fifth century bce, first by the Greeks and then the Romans). Despite my initial impression of intimacy, looking down, the stage seemed tiny, and the angle of the seats very steep. I tried to imagine actors in the orchestra in front of the skene: they would have been about an inch high in my perspective (fig. 1). Raised stage or not, there would have been no issues in viewing both the chorus and actors. Clearly, all performers would be visible from this height and distance. It was also an exceedingly hot day and all seemed dry and dusty, perhaps not unlike the conditions at the City Dionysia. Could the sounds and movement from the location down below on such a hot day, in a crowded theatre with 17,000 other Greek citizens, have really made such an impression that everyone knew immediately that they were watching an instant classic and destined to be the first Greek play collected in every anthology afterwards? Or did it not matter what happened on that “opening night” almost 2,500 years ago? Do we really have Aristotle’s Poetics to thank for Oedipus Rex’s staying power?

I thought the same thing a few days later when we headed to Delphi through the mountains of Parnassus and passed the legendary spot where “three roads meet,” supposedly where Oedipus killed Laius (fig. 2). Again, I had the sensation of long-awaited completion, of finally seeing the actual [End Page E-11]

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Fig. 1.

The theatre of Dionysus, viewed from near the top of the theatron. The scaffolding at the upper left of the photo is presumably for lighting for construction or a recent event. (Photo: Tina Menta.)

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Fig. 2.

“Where three roads meet,” the legendary location where Oedipus killed Laius, in the mountains of Parnassos. (Photo: Tina Menta.)

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Fig. 3.

At the “center...


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