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The classical performances in Siracusa

On an unspecified day in 475 BC, the great Athenian dramatist Aeschylus climbed up the steps of the theatre in Syracuse. His play "Women of Etna", written to celebrate the re-founding of the city of Catania, was due to be performed that very day. A great event in a great theatre, a place that could claim to have set several records already in ancient times - for example, it was the oldest Greek theatre entirely in stone. The first theatre of this kind, all dug out of rock, was built in Syracuse in the 5th century BC. Up to that time, theatre consisted of wooden stalls. Moreover, besides being the oldest of Sicilian theatres, the one in Syracuse is also the largest, far exceeding in size small and medium ones like Solunto and Segesta and even bigger ones like Tindari and Taormina. However, what makes the theatre in Syracuse really special and unique, besides these important features, is its history. Syracuse was famous in ancient times not only for its prestigious performances but also for its contribution,from very early on, to the history of theatre.

Greek mask

In the 5th century BC, none of the Greek cities on the Italian peninsula could compete with Syracuse. A wealthy, powerful city, Syracuse became an important cultural centre in which the court of Hieron I attracted many intellectuals - not only Aeschilus, but also Simonides, Bacchylides and Pindar. major theatre competitions on the Athenian model, with five judges, were held in the Syracuse theatre. Playwrights such as Aeschylus (as well as Epicarmus and probably Frinicus, both from Syracuse) took part in these competitions. Though Epicarmus is not as famous today as the great Athenian dramatist, he played a fundamental role in the history of ancient theatre.
Syracuse was the centre of wonderfully innovative and intense theatrical activity. The Syracusan audiences of the time went to see performances of works by Aeschylus - not only "Women of Etna" but "The Persians" too. The latter is one of the works billed for May in this year's theatre season organized by the National Institute of Ancient Drama, founded in 1914, which has always provided the city with excellent classical performances (featuring great actors such as Vittorio Gassman, Valeria Moriconi, Gabriele Lavia, Arnoldo Foà, Monica Guerritore, etc.

In other words, very few theatres can claim a history like that of Syracuse - a history that evokes strong feelings as we climb up the stone steps, still bathed in sunlight as the show begins. It is hard not to think of the millions of people whose footsteps we are treading in. Not all present-day spectators know that going to the theatre by daylight means repeating an ancient rite - in Greece performances were always held by day. Crowds of people of all types and social classes flock today, as they did then, to occupy the sun-drenched seats. In ancient Greece the theatre was not an élite form of entertainment and the audience did not consist only of intellectuals and cultured people. Instead, it was a festive occasion for the people, and celebrations began in the early morning with a procession, followed by the ceremonies of purification of the place and the people, then by administrative procedures, which involved selecting the judges to decide which play among those taking part in the competition, should be awarded a prize.
Obviously these procedures and ceremonies no longer exist, but the idea of a popular festival still lives on. The theatre is part of Syracusan life. The inhabitants of Syracuse know all about the plays and about the authors, characters and actors. They remember and comment on productions and performances, deciding whether to applaud or protest. The Greek theatre is to them what the corrida is to the Spanish - part ot their history and traditions. When a sudden downpour takes place during a performance, the spectators cover their heads with scarves, hats and caps, waiting undeterred for the rain to pass, without missing a single line, thus unknowingly repeating the gestures ot their ancestor. This was exactly what happened in Greek theatres, which offered no protection against sun, wind and rain. In the same way, today there is no remedy against unexpected events due to our modern way of life, such as an aeroplane passing overhead or a car horn hooting in a nearby street. Maybe this is as it should be - theatre is part of life, and life today includes this.

by E. Cantarella