Wednesday, November 7, 2012

67. Ricketts in the Front Row

The last few weeks we were in Greece to visit my brother and his family, and while we toured the Attic sunny landscape, finding our way to the Artemis Brauron sanctuary and museum, or to the amphitheatre near Lavrion, ending our tour on Cape Sounion for the temple of Poseidon, we remembered that Ricketts and Shannon visited Greece only once, just over a century earlier.

Our stay at an apartment in Athens, where we fell in love with the cat of the mansion, was mainly dedicated to old stones, although we spend some time in exhibitions about twenty-century Greek culture (see next week's blog). 

Ricketts wrote about his stay in Athens and a photograph of him, sitting next to the seat of the high priest in the Theatre of Dionysos, is reproduced by Paul Delaney in his edition of Ricketts's Pages from a diary in Greece (1978), as well as in his biography (1990).

Charles Ricketts in the Theatre of Dionysos, Athens, front row, next to the seat of the High Priest (1911) [detail]
In February 1911, when there were 'parches of snow in the hollows of the scattered stones', while now, in October, there were only dry blades of grass, Ricketts described the south slope of the Acropolis:

We approach the lesser shrines on the flanks of the Acropolis. We can hear the cries of children at play near the Theatre of Dionysos.

Nowadays, these children should have paid for entering the gates surrounding these 'lesser' shrines, but still, one can hear children's voices, coming from a school building in a street nearby.

Ricketts continued:

we now stand on the marble floor of the orchestra between the proscenium (the gift of Nero) and the tiers of stone seats which were here when the plays of Sophocles and Euripides were new. The place is almost sacred to the imaginative memory. How small it seems to us with our vast modern opera houses and stages; yet this was deemed sufficient in times of genius; a lesser stage than this one was the pedestal for the tragedies of Aeschylus; in this circle were chanted the sorrows of "Oedipus at Colonus" and the agony of Phaedra; it is here that the triumphant laughter of Aristophanes rang out!

Delaney, in a footnote, remarked that the 'masterpieces of fifth century drama were performed in fact before tiers of seats constructed with earth and wood; the theatre of Dionysos was rebuilt in stone c. 330 B.C. The present stage and proscenium probably date from the reign of Nero (54-68 A.D.). The auditorium was altered under Hadrian, Emperor, 117-38 A.D.'

The seat of the high priest (with the wing-like arm-rests) and to the left of that the marble chair that Ricketts occupied for his portrait picture

There is a little snow on the proscenium; I brush away a handful of half-frozen water from the seat of the High Priest; for years the winter was bitten into this throne, which is a miracle of art. On this, the panel of Persians and gryphons may recall some actual Asian work, captured from Xerxes, formerly placed on this spot as a trophy when the theatre and its seats were of wood and not of marble as to-day.
The vestiges of the auditorium end abruptly; the grass has spread among the last seats and pedestals, placed here in the time of Hadrian, and on the naked rock our feet constantly touch splinters of marble and flakes of black pottery drifted here through centuries of ruin wrought by man and time.

We did not find any pieces of pottery; they have all found there way to museum collections, and we could not walk onto the proscenium of the theatre, which is fenced off from the public and constantly guarded by a group of attendants. Ricketts could approach the marble seats in the front row and sit down in the one next to that of the high priest. That is no longer possible.

Your blogger, in the Theatre of Dionysos, Athens, somewhere in the umpteenth row behind the seat of the high priest
The front row with the seat of the high priest, Theatre of Dionysos, Athens, 30 October 2012