How the ancient Greeks invented Friends and Frasier

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Classicist Dr Michael Scott will tonight present a new television series telling the story of theatre in ancient Greece.

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In Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth, Dr Scott explores Athens from the 6th century BC to the 2nd century AD through the prism of one of its most culturally crucial spaces – the theatre.

In his three-part BBC Four series, Dr Scott tells how theatre was part of the bloodstream of Athenian democracy. It not only mirrored their reality, but played a vital role in society.

Dr Scott spoke to historyextra.com about the new series, which debuts tonight at 9pm.

Q: You have specialised in this period for many years. But what about ancient Greek theatre interests you specifically?

A: Greek theatre was how I got into studying ancient Greece. The plays were the first experience I had.

I watched Euripides’s Medea, a play in which a man cheats on his wife – a woman who has given him everything. How does she get revenge? She decides the best way is to kill her own children, and deny him sons. When you watch that play, you can’t not react to it.

That’s one of the things that always amazes me about ancient Greek drama. Unlike theatre today, where you go in the evening to watch a play and relax, in ancient Greece it was about throwing out a really difficult, nutty problem and asking, ‘how would you react, what would you do?’

It forced you to take a view and get involved.

Q: So how does ancient Greek theatre differ from what we see today?

A: Today, theatre is more of an evening of entertainment, and you go and sit in a dark room. You could not get a more different context in ancient Greece.

Performances took place in daylight: people could see one another. It was not just a performance on stage, it was a performance of the audience. You were on view as much as those on stage.

For the festival of drama, a five-day event that took place every year, everything else stopped. Prisoners were even allowed out to watch.

Around 10 to 15 per cent of Athens’s GDP went on one festival – that’s the rough equivalent of London hosting the Olympics, but every year.

Theatre was considered a central part of what you did. The people who were in the audience were the same people who were then going to the democratic arena, to make decisions that affected history and the course of events.

The link between people was debated, and people thought about how to move forward. People were asked to think about nutty questions, real civic problems – ‘what should a city do?’ and ‘what should people do when they see injustice?’ Theatre was part of the bloodstream of Athenian democracy.

People were really asked to pay attention in a way you just wouldn’t today. It was a very different experience, and it played a role in society that we can only guess at today.

Q: So can we draw any parallels between modern day theatre and ancient Greek theatre?

A: Yes, there are links. Every dramatist in history has in some way thought about the dramas of ancient Greece.

Lots of modern plays also emulate ancient drama in seeking to have a bearing and make a political point, and there are many re-performances of Greek plays.

In ancient Greece, [politicians] were lampooned [on stage], and they would be sitting right there in the audience. This is still a tradition in British politics, although now the arenas in which they stand up and have to take it are different – you have Mock the Week, Have I Got News For You, and so on.

And the caricature, ‘kitchen sink drama’ seen in Menander in the 4th century BC – this had a huge influence on writers like Shakespeare as well as modern shows like Friends and Frasier. You can directly trace roots back to Menander.

Q: Do you feel sad to think modern theatre is so different from that seen in ancient Greece?

A: Not sad, no. We do the stuff that theatre did for the Greeks in different ways, through school and education. If there’s one thing that is sad, however, it’s that we have the problem of much higher voter apathy and sense of disenfranchisement today.

The festival of theatre in ancient Greece demanded people got involved, and this is something we should still be taking encouragement from.

Q: Can you tell us about the filming of Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth?

A: We spent just under one month filming. One thing I’m really proud of is that it was made in conjunction with the Open University, so it will be part of their courses.

It’s hard to get across on television that there are a lot of different views [about this period]. I was really pleased that more than 12 academics were interviewed in this series and as a result we have managed to get a number of different voices into the programme.

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We hope to help people understand not just the ancient world but what it is like to study the ancient world. It was a great experience, an odyssey of adventure.

We visited Epidaurus in high tourist season, and it was phenomenal to see the reaction of people when they came in and out of the place. Whatever nationality, whatever character, people were drawn to the central keystone of the stage.

You really got a sense of what it must have been like to be there. At the time you would hear how people were reacting – you would hear if they were riveted in silence, or in agreement.

Q: You say the programme aims to help people understand what it’s like to study the ancient world. Do you hope it will inspire the next generation to study this period?

A: Absolutely. As an academic I feel it is fundamental to speak to people and explain why this period is important.

We tried not to assume previous knowledge, but we did not want to ‘dumb down’ either. We hope the series gives people a way in to discovering something new, and finding what they are interested in.

I didn’t realise I wanted to study classics until quite late. I didn’t particularly like Latin at school, but loved Greek enough to decide to study classics as an undergraduate degree.

It wasn’t until I did my master’s degree though, when I was based in Athens for two months, that I thought ‘This is what I want to do for my career’.

While doing my PhD it became clear to me that I wanted to understand, and help other people understand, why we should be interested in the ancient world.

I think it’s a really important statement from the BBC that they have commissioned three hours on ancient Greek theatre. It says that people are not only interested in the ancient world, but they want depth.

After doing Who Were the Greeks? people were coming back to me saying they loved the programme, but that I only had time to do five minutes on theatre, or five minutes on culture. They wanted to know more.

From audience figures it seems that, not only the broadcasters, but people, want to know more. That makes this a really exciting moment.

The first episode of Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth will be on BBC Four on Tuesday 27 August at 9pm.

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Dr Scott will be live tweeting during each episode from @drmichaelcscott – you can use the hashtag #greektheatre2013 to send in your questions and comments.