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The Athens and Epidaurus Festival Keeps Ancient Greek Theater Alive

athens epidaurus festival
The Theater at Epidaurus. Credit: Hansueli Krapf/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Each year, actors, directors, and theater lovers from around the world come to Greece to participate in the Athens and Epidaurus Festival.

One of Europe’s oldest continuously running festivals, the event revives one of Greece’s most ancient and revered arts—theater.

The festival involves performances and events that take place in important locations across the capital city of Athens but most prominently in the ancient theater of Epidaurus, which is located in the Peloponnese around two hours outside of Athens.

The ancient theater of Epidaurus was designed by Polykleitos in the 4th century BC. The original 34 rows were extended in Roman times by another 21 rows, and the large theater seats up to 14,000 people.

The theater is admired for its exceptional acoustics, which permit almost perfect intelligibility of unamplified spoken words from the proscenium to all 14,000 spectators regardless of their seating.

Some even claim that audiences are able to hear a pin drop or a match being struck from just about any seat in the house.

Yet, Greek theater was not the only reason that the ancient Greeks visited the site of Epidaurus.

Performances held in honor of Asclepius

Those who were suffering from illness and disease would make pilgrimages to temples of Asclepius. There were over 300 Asclepeia, or temples to the god, across the ancient Greek world. The most famous of all such healing temples is located at the ancient site of Epidaurus, which is also home to the renowned theater that is still in use today.

Asclepius, the son of the god Apollo according to Greek mythology, was an ancient Greek hero who was known as the god of medicine. Linked to snakes, his staff entwined with the reptiles is still commonly used as a symbol of medicine today.

All of the events held at the theater during ancient times, which included musical performances, drama, and games, were dedicated to the worship of Asclepius, as the ancient Greeks believed that being a spectator of such shows could improve health.

It is at this stunning ancient site that many of the plays are put on during the Athens and Epidaurus Festival. In this way, the festival is essential to keeping the spirit of Greek theater alive, as viewers and actors partake in an art form that is several millennia old.

The Origins of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival

The famed theater at Epidaurus was discovered in extremely good condition by archaeologists in 1881. Since that time, the majestic site has hosted countless modern plays and events.

The first ancient drama held at the site since ancient times was Sophocles’ Electra, which was put on at the site in 1938.

The Athens and Epidaurus Festival was founded in 1955 with the purpose of promoting artistic and theatrical creation. The first play put on as part of the Festival was Euripides’ Hippolytus, which tells the story of Hyppolytus, the son of Theseus.

Dinos Giannopoulos, the renowned Greek director, undertook the organization of the first Athens and Epidaurus Festival.

Over the years, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival has been able to host numerous notable groups and artists. These include:

1955: The first year of the Festival, Dimitris Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic played Nikos Skalkottas’ 36 Greek dances.

1959: The New York Philharmonic directed by Leonard Bernstein.

1961: Maria Callas performs Norma by Vincenzo Bellini and Médée by Luigi Cherubini.

1962: The Berlin Philharmonic directed by Herbert von Karajan.

1963: Ballet performance with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.

1982: Aeschylus’ Oresteia, on Epidaurus, under the direction of Peter Hall.

1985: The Royal Opera (Covent Garden).

1989: Manos Hatzidakis with Nana Mouskouri.

1991: Luciano Pavarotti recital at Odeon of Herodes Atticus.

1993: José Carreras recital at Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus.

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