The American writer Henry Miller visited Greece 73 summers ago on the eve of the Second World War. He fell in love with the northern Peloponnese and in particular with Epidaurus. At the great theatre, built among beautiful hills in the 4th century BC, he had an epiphany described in his book The Colossus of Maroussi
“The road to Epidaurus,” he wrote, “is like the road to creation. One stops searching. One grows silent, stilled by the hush of mysterious beginnings…. I never knew the meaning of peace until I arrived at Epidaurus.”
This most individualistic, least political of writers, came to a momentous conclusion: “If all the surgeons, all the analysts, could be withdrawn from their activity and gathered together in the great bowl of Epidaurus, if they could discuss in peace and quiet the immediate, drastic need of humanity at large, the answer would be forthcoming speedily, and it would be unanimous: REVOLUTION. A world-wide revolution from top to bottom, in every country, in every class, in every realm of consciousness…”
I doubt he would think otherwise today.
THE MIRACLE OF GREECE
When I first read Miller’s verdict on Greece I thought that perhaps, influenced by long nights drinking and talking with his great friend, the poet and pubisher Giorgos Katsimbalis, he was exaggerating. I no longer do. Here’s what he wrote:
“The image of Greece, faded though it be, endures as an archetype of the miracle wrought by the human spirit. A whole people, as the relics of their achievements testify, lifted themselves to a point never before and never since attained. It was miraculous. It still is…. At Epidaurus you are confronted with and permeated by the intangible residue of the miraculous surge of the human spirit.”
THEATRE AND HEALING
Our experience of Epidaurus was not quite so peaceful as Miller’s. We arrived in 45-degree heat along with several busloads of tourists. The historic stage was already set up for performances which unfortunately we’ll miss.
Still, the 40,000-seat amphitheatre was a breathtaking sight, a geometrically brilliant creation in its striking rural setting. It’s the most acoustically perfect of all ancient theatres. Stand on the spot marked in the middle of the round stage, and a whisper travels out and back from the auditorium. I tried it out with a couple of bars, sotto voce, from the ‘Kyrie’ of Karl Jenkins’ Armed Man that our Chillingham Voices choir so loves singing, and it works.
I hadn’t known that even before the theatre was built Epidaurus was famous for healing, something Miller perhaps intuited. From the 5th century BC it was the site of the famous temple where Aesclepius, god of healing, was worshipped. The Asclepion was the Lourdes of ancient Greece. The site has now been excavated, and a small museum tells the story.
The relationship between theatre and health was something the ancients recognised. Pericles, who rebuilt Athens following the Persian invasion of 480 BC, promoted theatre as a great way to educate and uplift the people, particularly the poor, through both the catharsis of tragedy and the relief of comedy.
If only cost-cutting governments around the world had the same understanding today!
Epidaurus is still used to stage a theatre festival during the summer months. Last year Kevin Spacey brought his production of Richard III here from London for three sold-out performances. This year the organisers decided to focus on classics in Greek. The next play they will be staging is Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds. Local audiences certainly need some light relief.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Athens has introduced us to a couple of dishes we hadn’t encountered in the southern Peloponnese. My current favourite is fava, a split-pea purée garnished with red onions that’s delicious with fresh sardines or anchovies, or fried cheese. I ordered it because it’s mentioned in a Greek novel I’ve been reading, Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees by Ersi Sotiropoulos. A dark comedy about four alienated Athenian characters, first published in 2000, it won the Greek State Prize for literature and the Book Critics’ Award. Its English edition is that rare thing, a truly brilliant translation. It’s the work of Peter Green, a distinguished British-born classicist, professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who collaborated closely with the author. Translator of Ovid and Catullus, author of books on Alexander the Great, with this publication Greens demonstrated his eye for excellence in contemporary writing.