BBC4 Programme on the History of Theatre and Ancient Greece.

Taormina in Sicily

Taormi­na’s spec­tac­u­lar the­atre  in Sicily

Michael Scott’s lat­est pro­gramme on Ancient Greece is a fas­ci­nat­ing explo­ration of the twinned birth of democ­ra­cy and the the­atre in late 6th and ear­ly 5th cen­tu­ry B.C. Greece. Don’t be put off by its title though. The Great­est Show on Earth is, hap­pi­ly, sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter than that would suggest.

In the first of the three episodes, he explains how the birth of the­atre came about for exact­ly the same rea­sons that the Athe­ni­ans tri­umphed so unex­pect­ed­ly at the bat­tle of Marathon in 490. Because the demo­c­ra­t­ic reforms in the Athen­ian con­sti­tu­tion in the pre­vi­ous decades gave each of its cit­i­zens a sense of pride, of own­er­ship and even­tu­al­ly entitlement.

Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.

Aeschy­lus, Euripi­des and Sophocles.

Cru­cial­ly though the the­atres that they now began build­ing – hav­ing invent­ed archi­tec­ture as well – ful­filled two func­tions. It was where the con­flict between the ethics of pow­er and per­son­al moral­i­ty could be explored by tragedy’s  great tri­umvi­rate, Aeschy­lus, Sopho­cles and Euripi­des. But it was also, lit­er­al­ly, the are­na in which democ­ra­cy phys­i­cal­ly took place. It was in these the­atres that their polit­i­cal debates were staged.

The sec­ond episode then looked at the 4th cen­tu­ry, after Athens had fall­en, laid low by its dis­as­trous expe­di­tion to Sici­ly. It explored the way in which the­atre then came to be export­ed by Alexan­der with the spread of Hel­lenism, as Greek cul­ture came to con­quer the world. And how para­dox­i­cal­ly, at least as far as its rela­tion­ship to Athens was con­cerned, its the­atre became ever so slight­ly impov­er­ished. In that it ceased to address the con­cerns of Athens, and became instead a uni­ver­sal medium.

This is anoth­er of Scott’s superb pro­grammes on Greece, after this summer’s Who Were The Greeks. And he man­aged to assem­ble a par­tic­u­lar­ly impres­sive group of aca­d­e­mics to help explore the top­ics raised. Notably Paul Car­tledge, who is one of the movers behind the excel­lent series of webi­na­rs under the Read­ing Odyssey umbrel­la, here. And Robin Osborne, whose Greece in the Mak­ing 1200–479 is, quite right­ly, the first book that any Clas­sics’ stu­dent is point­ed in the direc­tion of.

Michael Scott.

Michael Scott.

Try not be put off by that incred­i­bly irri­tat­ing title though. The Great­est Show on Earth isn’t quite as annoy­ing as the one he gave a pre­vi­ous pro­gramme on Alexan­der, the exe­crable Ancients Behav­ing Bad­ly. Hope­ful­ly he’ll reign in his ten­den­cy to sad­dle his pro­grammes with twee attempts at rid­ing the pop­u­lar Zeit­geist. Because titles aside, he’s fast estab­lish­ing him­self as the BBC’s most engag­ing and infor­ma­tive voice on Ancient Greece.

Episode 3 is on Tues­day next. And you can vis­it his web­site here.

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