As we look forward to next week’s elections, let us look back – way back – to the foundations of democracy. Back to early Greece before there even was democracy. To the theater.
Yes, theater. In case you look carefully in the chain of events, you will find the creation of theater, particularly early Athens’ annual theater festival, gave birth to democracy.
Democracy started as theater started, and Athenian democracy finished when its great theater finished.
For most of the sixth century BCE, Athens was a city state split among four warring tribes. Family disagreements resulted in some strongmen coming to power. The word “tyrant” dates from this era.
In 560 BCE a general named Pisistratus increased to power. Toward the conclusion of his 33-year dictatorship he started to believe in the worth of creative culture. He supervised the initial written versions of Homer’s odes and created the initial Athenian library.
While there were theatrical occasions at that time, they didn’t bear much similarity to theater as we all know it. They were free choral shows, played throughout the city individually for different tribes.
In 534 BCE, Pisistratus, tired of the sections among his fellow citizens, devised the annual theater festival.
With this particular stroke of brilliance, all theater action came together at one location and time. All four tribes came right into a standard space and shared a common experience.
The effect was nothing short of groundbreaking. Athenian consciousness transformed. In just a generation, in 508 BCE, democracy started.
Instead, Cleisthenes created a brand new system that “redistricted” the city state and instituted a legislature where the members were selected by lottery, instead of by family or heredity.
Democracy prospered, and thus did the theater – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides all wrote their plays in those times, and competed with each other at the yearly festival.
The truly amazing age of theater was over
Do I truly believe there was a cause and effect linking theater and democracy, particularly the arrival of the democratic system? I do. In my opinion that the thriving common culture brings out the common facets of men and women. When we discuss experiences, we discover we’re all so much alike – we laugh and weep in identical instants.
Such common encounters reduce our feelings of solitude and isolation; they make us feel in community.
From the same token, when democracy isn’t possible, much like an authoritarian political system, artists will not be free to express themselves, and also the culture of common experiences evaporates or plunges underground.
Taking this to heart, I believe we have to focus much greater attention on our creative culture, notably those facets of imagination that supply us with communal encounters.
Our theater, films, music and performing arts safeguard and improve our democracy – and the better they are, the better our democracy is likely to be.