The (other) gift of Dionysus

Main photo: Statue of Dionysus/Bacchus inside the Vatican (© hiveminer)

Icarius was an Athenian who spent his days in Icaria, a beautiful settlement at the foot of Mount Penteli. He lived at a time when the kings of Athens were descended from the gods and had often spent time in their presence. But Icarius was a simple man, and was therefore much surprised when he received a visit from Dionysus, the god of the grape-harvest, who had only just arrived in Attica. He was an amazing host and the god expressed his gratitude by teaching him the cultivation of the vine. Icarius rode his chariot to town and distributed bags filled with wine to his fellow countrymen. Alas, some of them got really drunk on this novel substance, and thought that Icarius had poisoned them. They slew him and buried his body under a tree. When his daughter discovered her father’s fate, she hung herself from the same tree, while his dog leaped into a well.

Icarius transporting wine in a 3rd-century mosaic from Paphos, Cyprus (© Wikimedia Commons)

The sad demise of Icarius and his family was only the beginning of something much greater and consequential. The people of Athens instituted a festival in honor of the dead girl, and sacrificed a goat, since it was this animal that had nibbled at the vine given to Icarius by Dionysus. There was dancing on a leather bag filled with air and smeared with oil, as well as singing of dithyrambs i.e. songs inspired by mythological stories with choric refrains. These songs gave birth to tragedy and comedy when Thespis, a native of Icaria who performed on the road with a traveling theater, emerged from the group of singers to become the first actor. The process was as simple as putting on a mask, but his decision to do so had monumental consequences. It unleashed the creative forces of some of the greatest minds of ancient Athens and endowed future generations with literary masterpieces and an array of beautiful theaters that adorn the cities and sanctuaries of Greece.

The stone seats of the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus (© Mentor in Greece)

The Origins of the Theater: Ancient Greek Drama is a celebration of the birth of the dramatic arts in ancient Greece. During this 14-day program, we will explore the ancient theater as a comprehensive cultural, religious, political, artistic, and healing process. The acclaimed plays of the great dramatists formed the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based. They entertained and disseminated among the audience the values of democracy, justice, belief in the gods, and respect for the state’s time-honored institutions.

The program includes guided tours of magnificent archaeological sites and museums, as well as tailor-made seminars and workshops under the guidance of Martha Frintzila, a theater director, actress, and singer from Eleusis with an innovative approach to ancient Greek drama. Ms Frintzila has considerable experience on theatre and music performance direction, chorus coordination and music advising. She is a founding member of Kratiras Arts Space and the founder of Baumstrasse Studio, a multi-purpose space of theatrical and musical research with a specialization in ancient Greek drama. She is also the director of the “Dromos me Dentra” theatre group and an Acting teacher at the National Theatre of Greece. Ms Frintzila has performed in festivals and concerts in Europe, USA, China, the Middle East, and Cuba.

Martha Frintzila (© Baumstrasse)
Tickets for all

There are more than fifty extant theaters in mainland Greece and the islands of the Aegean Sea, a powerful reminder of the importance of drama in the social and religious life of the ancient polis. The theater of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis in Athens is perhaps the most important. It was built in the late 6th century BCE and it was here that the great ancient tragedians and comedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes) taught their masterpieces. The Athenians took this form of entertainment very seriously. The state subsidized tickets for the poor in the belief that theater was an essential civic and religious activity. The all-stone structure we see today was built in the middle of the 4th century BCE and underwent considerable alterations in the Roman period, but there is still an aura of theatrical magic that is hard to encounter anywhere else.

The Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus in Athens (© Mentor in Greece)
The perfect theater

The theater of Epidaurus is famous for the quality of its acoustics; they are nothing short of extraordinary. An actress standing in the middle of the theater is perfectly audible from the outer seats without her voice losing much of its intensity. The theater was an integral part of the celebrated sanctuary of Asclepius and assisted in the healing process of patients. The latest research indicates that this theater was built with optimized shape and dimensions; Polykleitos, the 4th-century architect credited with its construction, seems to have been fully aware of the rules of mathematics and the method of music that carried the human voice from the stage to the spectators’ ears.

The Great Theater of Epidaurus (© Mentor in Greece)
Squaring the circle

Not all theaters had the perfectly circular orchestra we see in Epidaurus. One of the oldest, in Thorikos, has an orchestra that can be described as anything between a rectangle and a trapezoid. This particular theater is a powerful reminder of the significance of ancient drama in the lives of the Greeks. Even settlements far removed from the city center were eager to have a dedicated building for the performance of the dithyramb and (later) tragedy. Plato tells us of a spectator who was so passionate about theater that he would travel all over Attica in pursuit of rural celebrations that included theatrical performances.

The Ancient Theater of Thorikos (© Eternal Greece)
A theater with a view

Theaters were usually built in evocative and spectacular locations, where nature was often called upon to enhance the storyline, supply the special effects required, and entertain the audience. The theater of Delphi is located inside the sanctuary of Apollo and offers unimpeded views towards the sea and the distant mountains. It was restored in 160 BCE by Eumenes II of Pergamon and hosted the musical contests of the Pythian Games. Delphi is closely associated with ancient Greek drama also in its capacity of the site of many tragedies. Ion by Euripides takes place outside the temple of Apollo (perfectly visible from the theater itself) while the story of Oedipus is based on an Oracle provided by Pythia in this very place!

The Ancient Theatre of Delphi (© Mentor in Greece)

Argos is equally immersed in Greek mythology through the stories of Agamemnon and his bloodstained family. Its theater is (perhaps appropriately) one of the largest structures in ancient Greece. It held approximately 20,000 spectators on 83 rows. The seating section provides magnificent vistas towards the bay of Nafplio. The theater also hosted political gatherings (at a time when Argos was a major military power in Greece) and the Nemean Games, during which wealthy men from Greece competed to demonstrate their strength and dexterity. It is a fine testament to the indispensable role of the theater in the life of the ancient Greeks.

The Ancient Theatre of Argos (© Rien Bongers)
An eye for talent

Eleusis was famous as the site where Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, taught humanity the art of growing grain (incidentally this is said to have taken place at about the same time Icarius received his visit from Dionysus). The Eleusinian Mysteries were among the most sacred and popular religious rites throughout antiquity, but Eleusis also had a proper theater that attracted serious playwrights. These may have been revivals of earlier plays first taught at a major festival in Athens. This repeat performance enabled spectators who had been unable to travel to Athens to see plays that had gained widespread admiration. Gnathis and Anaxandrides, two wealthy Eleusinians who provided the funds for the chorus, must have had a very keen eye for plays, since they won victories for comedy (for a work by Aristophanes) and tragedy (for a play by Sophocles).

The purported location of the ancient theater of Eleusis (© J. Travlos, “The Topography of Eleusis”)   

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The Origins of the Theater - Mentor - Study abroad in Greece
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The Origins of the Theater – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

During this module, the students will have the opportunity to become familiar with the works of the great Greek tragedians.

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