On Sicily’s north coast stands the 3,000 year old hill town of Taormina. It has a mongrel heritage, occupied by Phoenicians, Normans, Muslims, Romans, and Greeks. Today it is mostly occupied by sharp elbowed Chinese, and German tourists who jam into the Prada and Cartier shops on main street. The scene looks like nothing so much as a Latin Rodeo Drive. Congested as the streets are today, the town’s halcyon days go back to the Greco-Roman era. Hundreds of theater goers would climb the amphitheater steps and gaze down on the great stone columns on stage. They could also gaze on the incomparable view of the winding Sicilian Coast.
The Greeks were in charge around 300 B.C, and the shows were big name productions of the day. Today we have Andrew Lloyd Webber or Lin Manuel Miranda. Back in the day it was Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. Playwrights dealt with the same human emotions, ideas and hanky-panky. It was representational drama, interpreted by directors and actors. But the Greek productions were nothing like the Romans. They preferred gladiators, wild beasts or any kind of mano-a-mano battles for survival. Romans weren’t looking for sophistication, mental challenge or interpretation of life. Struggle to the death was what filled seats. Were the Romans crude ? Yes. Authentic? That too. Was it a show for the thinking man? Never.
These two approaches to theatrical drama continue today with our football and ballet. I’m trying to imagine long ago when the transition team arrived from Italy to evict the Greeks and replace it with their own style. The old Greek regime must have been appalled when they saw what the new guys had in mind!
The year is late 227 B.C. Sicily. The island of Sicily has just fallen to the Romans. The new guys have arrived to run the theater at Taormina after it has been managed for centuries by Hellenic Arts Management Company. Romans are installing their own management, cleaning out all the old ticket collectors, directors, actors.
I am imagining an elderly Greek Manager, Mrs. Dolphus there chewing pistachio nuts. She’s not happy.
“We’ve been operating this theater for centuries. Two hundred years of rave reviews and sold out performances. Now you’re are going to dump our prima Donna? Please tell me you will not abandon the greatest playwrights the world has ever known, and performances by the flower of Mediterranean thespians. On this sacred stage, you plan to feature wild beasts eating murderers and clowns on stage? I’m going to puke. What kind of philistine dogs are you? Is that what passes for class in your Imperial Roman culture? Where is the art on a stage slathered with blood, body parts and corpses?
Emilio the new director from Naples was fed up with Greek drama queens. He made it simple:
“Athens is a little city state, lady. Rome is a global empire. We won the war. You lost. Tough shit. Take a hike!”
Delphos had a long career working with loud mouth actors and prima Donas. She was actually an expert at dealing with grandiosity and oversized egos. She persisted:
We built this amphitheater to the glorification of the gods, the blessing of the Oracle of Delphi and the perpetuation of Hellenistic culture. Our forebears were writing definitive books of philosophy while your ancestors were monkeys swinging in the trees. You savages have no right to desecrate my temple of culture and dramatic art with your gumbo of blood! Get the hell out of here. You deserve no place on this hallowed ground. Go back into your trees and swing. Who gives you the right to set foot here?”
“Twenty thousand Roman legions who occupy the civilized world say we have the right” replied Emilio. “As for our culture, come to our opening night. There’s an unbelievable lion who can hold his own against an entire congregation of screaming Christians. It will be one of our seasons highest rated shows. You’ll love it. Unless of course, you’re a Christian”
And so it has been ever since then. Who wants Shakespearean poetry when you can have blood? …..