Theatre was born in classical Athens as a social cure for the citizens during a century of war, when the democratic city-state celebrated the great victories over the Persian conquerors, and the success of the Athenian empire, but also witnessed the rise of political bandits, and the strategic errors that brought about the devastating defeat to oligarchic Sparta. During the early years of the Peloponnesian war, in 428 BCE, at the time the great plague claimed the lives of the charismatic Athenian democratic leader Pericles and a third of the Athenian population, at the end of Euripides’ Hippolytus, the chorus concludes: “common is this grief that fell on all the citizens unexpectedly” (“κοινὸν τόδ᾽ ἄχος πᾶσι πολίταις ἦλθεν ἀέλπτως” 1462). The tragic life of Hippolytus, son of the legendary Athenian king Theseus, affected the whole citizen body, and only together could the Athenians overcome this grief by commemorating with stories those who have fallen. Theater, then, validates the social contract of a democratic state that respects the individual, and also provides the means to challenge narratives that are no longer beneficial to society. The isolation we all experience during the COVID19 pandemic brings renewed awareness to the value of community support, and a strong incentive to explore new means for the spectator-participant to tell their own story in a new theater for the 21st century.
Katerina Zacharia, Professor of Classics, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.