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A Chorus of Disapproval: Conserving Classical Theatres

By Carr, John | History Today, January 1996 | Go to article overview

A Chorus of Disapproval: Conserving Classical Theatres

Carr, John, History Today

* Scylla and Charybdis clash still in the artistic and political arenas of the ancient Mediterranean theatre. But the battle lines are drawn not between the artists and politicos of Scylla; rather the artists' opponents are the Charybdis of conservation of those ancient places of performance built to the triumph of Greece and Rome - the theatres, stadia, odea, amphitheatres and arenas where classical civilisations declaimed and disported themselves.

These echoing ancient sites have become the scene of a deep political, philosophical and practical contest between impresarios, artistic directors, actors, designers and orators on the one hand, and archaeologists and conservators on the other. Lurking on the sidelines are the scavengers of tourism.

There are those who passionately feel that the monuments are there to be marvelled at, studied as they stand, handed on to future generations unaltered save for what improvements may be achievable without their integrity in any way being compromised. These are the self-appointed guardians of the temple.

Their forces, spread thinly over the skirmish ground, are fighting valiantly. But they have responsibility without power - the role of the eunuch down the ages. Their antitheses - the theatrical giants - revel almost openly in an apparent position of strength, having as Kipling (and subsequently Stanley Baldwin) memorably uttered, power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot down the ages.

And yet by their own lights some of the harlots are true to their trade. For them the theatres at Epidaurus or Verona or the stadia of Merida or Syracuse are places of awe whose past echoes deserve amplification in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They argue that the integrity of Greek theatre can best be safeguarded by its continued presentation in the places built for drama. Greek tragedy best excites the intellect and understanding of today's audiences if presented upon its original stage.

But that is to beg the question of how such dramas were originally produced, and whether the spectacular remnants are sufficiently intact to provide the means of verisimilitude today.

Archaeologists rightly point out that none of these places of performance are intact. Time, weather, neglect and robbery of materials have gradually effaced or removed physical elements. They are not as they were. Retaining walls have collapsed; the symmetrical banks of stone or marble seats have eroded or slipped. The stage and orchestra structures have in many instances disappeared. Their integrity as authentic theatres is marred.

Thus, the conservators aver, the theatricals' arguments about purity of venue and true sense of place are flawed. In addition, they point out, if authenticity is the aim, then all productions should be staged in conditions faithful to the original: in daylight and with the audience conducting business, eating, greeting and meeting outlying friends. The theatre was as much a centre of social, political and commercial exchange as it was a stage for uplifting displays of classical tragedy.

But - the actors counter, shifting their ground - with the reconstruction of lost elements (such as at Verona) and the provision of demountable lighting, sound systems and staging these places can become authentic, albeit temporarily. Darkness, they argue, adds drama; searing heat and glaring sun were, surely, not the conditions preferred by the directors of antiquity? Let us massage authenticity into contemporary reality. And, having done that, what is the harm in us practising the display techniques of modern theatre: scenery flats, false columns, computerised lighting, amplifiers, canned music? The audience today, having been brought up on the most advanced filmic and televisual techniques, demand such things if the Aristotelian principle of a willing suspension of disbelief is to be achieved.

Such are the views of men like Spyros Mercouris, an impresario who organises theatrical productions in ancient remains, and Jose Monleon, the Madrid-based director of the International Theatrical Institute of the Mediterranean.

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