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Sunday, 21 April 2013

Illumination in Syracuse

Thursday, April 21st., Hotel des Etrangers, Syracuse.

Lovely morning. We drove down to Taormina station and caught the 10.18 for Syracuse which was ten minutes late. I saw a fourmaster as we entered the town. I said to Kahn: "She's here". But we couldn't be quite sure: I might have seen a four masted trading schooner. The guide awaiting us at the station said that no yacht had come in. We drove to the port and there was the yacht all right - a magnificent object. Thrilling. We went on board and were greeted by Captain Davies (a Chester man), very young for the post, I thought. We looked over the state rooms and saloons. Highly satisfactory. Beautiful. The artists were thrilled by the yacht. So was I, only more so.
See also, 'An invitation to sail' - March 11th. <http://earnoldbennett.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/an-invitation-to-sail.html>

Syracuse is now perhaps less than a thirtieth of its size in Classical times. It was diminished, like so many other cities, by bad politics, foolish alliances, and mistaken notions concerning the glory and effectiveness of war. But it is still enchantingly beautiful and of surpassing interest.

We went to the Hotel des Etrangers (Casa Polliti) which overlooks the port, and Kahn engaged rooms there. I insisted on some of them having a cup of tea before we rushed off in a terrific haste and pother of dust to the Greek theatre.

This is said to be one of the finest Greek theatres remaining anywhere, built of marble by Dionysius, described and praised by Diodorus and by Cicero, with seating in its tremendous amphitheatre for 11,000 theatre-goers. The classical Greek dramas were originally presented there. It has now been restored to the status of a theatre by the Syracusan Institute of Drama. I went thither to witness The Clouds of Aristophanes performed, as correctly as modern limitations permit, as it was performed two thousand years ago, in regard to diction, dancing, and scenery - but in the Italian language.

I knew nothing of The Clouds except its title and the outline of its plot. My mind was a clean slate. The first impression was not good, for I certainly could not admire the scenic background. But as soon as the piece actually began, within two minutes of the opening, I had the exciting joy of new perceptions about classical drama. Obviously the thing was being very well done. I could hear every word plainly across a space of some seventy five yards - and in the open! (Oh, West End of London, where I must strain my ears at a distance of ten yards and withal be resigned to miss much!) The austere simplicity of the construction of the play, the rise and fall of its emotion, its disdain of what we call realism, and its respect for that truth which the West End of London will not tolerate save under compulsion - these matters were rendered movingly plain to me.

I had slept soundly during Greek plays in London. In this corner of Sicily, under a hot sun, after hours of travelling and sight-seeing, and deprived of my customary siesta, I was as wakeful as a boy at a pantomime.

And when the women personages appeared, and the groups of women dancers and posturers, the tension grew. The women were beautiful; their gestures attitudes and dancing had been very intelligently taken from Greek vases. The function of the choreographic intervals in the comedy became plain. The acting was admirable - large, very robust, and always in taste. Socrates himself dangled in a basket with taste. The elementary comicality of the clowning had taste. I doubt whether a great deal of Aristophanes' alleged wit and humour came through or got across. I don't think it did. But for me the fact richly sufficed that an extraordinary and original beauty was achieved in the rendering of what must I suppose be called a light comedy.

The meaning of the word 'classical' was marvellously illuminated for me. In a couple of hours I comprehended as never before what Greek drama in fact was. I wanted to write a play myself in the Greek spirit with the Greek technique. I would like to see an audience of the world's popular living dramatists humble themselves to the mood of learning at a performance such as I saw, and in such incomparable surroundings. Then I shivered. The shadows were lengthening. I had to choose between my body and my soul.

Additionally we saw the quarry De Pasadora, and heard its echo, and saw the surroundings, all very impressive. Then to the Duomo - Greek, Moorish, and Christian - still more impressive. Then back to the hotel.

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