The Theater Of Dionysus
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Some ten or twelve years ago, a very extensive and splendidly successful excavation was made when a party of German archeologists laid bare the Theater of Dionysus-the great theater in which Aechylus, Sophocles, and Euripides brought out their immortal plays before an immortal audience. There is nothing more delightful than to descend from the Acropolis, and rest awhile in the comfortable marble arm-chairs with which the front row of the circuit is occupied. They are of the pattern usual in the sitting portrait statues of the Greeks—very deep, and with a curved back, which exceeds both in comfort and in grace any chairs made by modern workmen.* Each chair has the name of a priest inscribed on it, showing how the theater among the Greeks corresponded to our cathedral, and this front row to the stalls of canons and prebendaries.
But unfortunately all this sacerdotal prominence is probably the work of the later restorers of the theater. For after having been first beautified and adorned with statues by Lycurgus (in Demosthenes' time), it was again restored and embellished by Herodes Atticus, or about his time, so that the theater, as we now have it, can only be called the building of the second or third century after Christ. The front wall of the stage, which is raised some feet above the level of the empty pit, is adorned with a row of very elegant sculptures, among which one--a shaggy old man, in a stooping posture, represented as coming out from within, and holding up the stone above him—is particularly striking. Some Greek is said to have knocked off, by way of amusement, the heads of most of these figures since they were discovered, but this I do not know upon any better authority than ordinary report. The pit or center of the theater is empty, and was never in Greek days occupied by seats, but a wooden structure was set up adjoining the stage, and on this the chorus performed their dances, and sang their odes. But now there is a circuit of upright slabs of stone close to the front seat, which can hardly have been an arrangement of the old Greek theater. They are generally supposed to have been added when the building was used for contests of gladiators or of wild beasts; but the partition, being not more than three feet high, would be no protection whatever from an evil-disposed wild beast.
All these later additions and details are, I fear, calculated to detract from the reader's interest in this theater, which I should indeed regret—for nothing can be more certain than that this is the veritable stone theater which was built when the wooden one broke down, at the great competition of Aeschylus and Pratinas; and tho front seats may have been added, and slight modifications introduced, the general structure can never have required alteration.
It is indeed very large, tho I think exaggerated statements have been made about its size. I have heard it said that the enormous number of 30,000 people could fit into it—a statement I think incredible; for it did not to me seem larger than, or as large as, other theaters I have seen, at Syracuse, at Megalopolis, or even at Argos. But, no doubt, all such open-air enclosures and sittings look far smaller than covered rooms of the same size. This is certain, that any one speaking on the stage, as it now is, can be easily and distinctly heard by people sitting on the highest row of seats now visible, which can not, I fancy, have been far from the original top of the house. And we may doubt that any such thing were possible when 30,000 people, or a crowd approaching that number, were seated. We hear, however, that the old actors had recourse to various artificial means of increasing the range of their voices. Yet there is hardly a place in Athens which forces back the mind so strongly to the old days, when all the crowd came jostling in, and settled down in their seats, to hear the great novelties of the year from Sophocles or Euripides. No doubt there were cliques and cabals and claqueurs, noisy admirers and cold critics, the supporters of the old, and the lovers of the new, devotees and sceptics, wondering foreigners and self-complacent citizens. They little thought how we- should come, not only to sit in the seats they occupied, but to reverse the judgments which they pronounced, and correct with sober temper the errors of prejudice, of passion, and of pride.