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By the Hellenistic period, monumental stone theaters were being built throughout the Greek world in such great number that Pausanias later suggested that a polis without a theater (and from his context it is likely that he means a stone-built theater rather than a place in or near a sanctuary where wooden seats could be erected) was hardly worthy. Western Greek cities took part in this urban development, in some cases as early as the fourth century. Archaeological remains of eighteen stone theaters have been identified in Sicily and South Italy and at least ten others are suggested by literary sources (Map 6.1).
The comic playwright Epicharmus produced original dramas acclaimed and influential for many centuries thereafter. His dramas can be better understood in the framework of contemporary Sicilian poetry and performance genres and also with the help of the exiguous records about the context of performance in early Syracuse.
The plays of Epicharmus are often described as mythological burlesques without political relevance. The accidents of preservation and the scholarly assumption that Athens was unique in its encouragement of real social dialogue through theater have contributed to a widely held view that Syracusan playwrights were entertainers without serious social concerns or roles.
Studies of ancient theater have traditionally taken Athens as their creative center. In this book, however, the lens is widened to examine the origins and development of ancient drama, and particularly comedy, within a Sicilian and southern Italian context. Each chapter explores a different category of theatrical evidence, from the literary (fragments of Epicharmus and cult traditions) to the artistic (phylax vases) and the archaeological (theater buildings). Kathryn G. Bosher argues that, unlike in classical Athens, the golden days of theatrical production on Sicily coincided with the rule of tyrants, rather than with democratic interludes. Moreover, this was not accidental, but plays and the theater were an integral part of the tyrants' propaganda system. The volume will appeal widely to classicists and to theater historians.
Although the first 100 years of the history of theater in Sicily can be roughly sketched by following scattered references in texts and piecemeal archaeological clues, as I have tried to do in the first four chapters of this book, the most important and well-known pieces of evidence for Sicilian theater, and perhaps for much of early Greek theater in general, come from the fourth century. It was at this juncture of the classical and Hellenistic periods that both theaters and theatrical vases began to be produced in great number.
In recent years, scholars have argued for a profound connection between the cult of Demeter and the early development of theater in Greek Sicily. On close examination, however, the connection appears not to be organic, but an accident of local politics.
Aeschylus and Aristophanes wrote for a crowd. Like Shakespeare, they did not only cater to the sophisticated and educated, but also drew “music from the dullest heart” and offered speeches for the “dumb and unaccomplished.” It is perhaps for this reason that, in the absence of direct written evidence from most citizens of ancient Athens, plays have sometimes been tapped for the views of the audience, and, by extension, for a good segment of the population.
Gelon and especially Hieron I supported and encouraged an active literary circle, including the playwrights Epicharmus, Deinolochus, Phormis, and, more briefly, Aeschylus. Literary and historical evidence suggests that their plays were performed on a grand scale. When the Deinomenids fell, a democratic government came to power and there is little evidence of large-scale public theatrical events for more than half a century. This period of turbulent democracy was brought to an end by Dionysius I (405–367), who not only ruled Syracuse, but extended his control over most of Sicily and up the mainland as far as the gulf of Taras and beyond.
This chapter uses the figure of Arion, the lyric poet from Methymna whose story is told early in Herodotus’s Histories, to explore the adoption of Herodotus, in the long nineteenth century, as the ‘Romantic poet-sage of History’. This is the title bestowed upon him by the Anglican priest and hymn-writer John Ernest Bode, who in 1853 (following in the fashion set by Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome) adapted tales from Herodotus into old English and Scottish ballad forms. Herodotus was seen as the prose avatar of poets – of medieval balladeers, lyric singers, epic bards and even authors of verse drama. These configurations of Herodotus are cast into sharp relief by comparing them with his previous incarnation, in the Early Modern and earlier eighteenth century, as a writer who most strongly resembled a novelist. Isaac Littlebury, Herodotus’s 1709 translator, was attracted to the historian for the simple reason that in 1700 he had enjoyed success with a previous translation. But the earlier work was certainly not a translation of an ancient historian. Littlebury had translated Fénelon’s Télémaque, a work of fantasy fiction derived ultimately from the Posthomerica, perhaps better described as a novel combining a rites-of-passage theme with an exciting travelogue.