This block we are studying history through theater, the most important cultural activity of ancient Athens.
Theater blossomed in the Golden Age of Athens and was such a central part of the cultural and political life that, like the Olympic Games, an annual competitive festival was devoted to theatrical performances. Playwrights were huge celebrities.
By this time, Athens had become a big and powerful democracy. Part of our study of Athens focuses on the way a democratic society can provide the fertile soil necessary for the arts to flourish. Not surprisingly, the stage was oftentimes a platform for playwrights to be social critics, and so we began our study with an overview of the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, and focused in very specifically on the invasion by Athens of the island of Melos.
Our readings have included Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue, in which the Athenians tell the Melians that they will either peacefully be absorbed into the Athenian Empire or will be conquered by force. This event, which was shocking to the Athenian public, took place in 416 bce, and a year later, Euripides wrote his award winning tragedy, The Trojan Women, which is a not subtle criticism of the brutality of Athens in Melos.
Euripides had an especial talent for and interest in considering the perspective of otherwise ignored groups and individuals. In The Trojan Women, he poignantly portrays the women of Troy after their city has been destroyed, as they are waiting to be taken as slaves by the Greeks.
This is a fantastic opportunity for students to spend time learning and thinking about the women of the ancient world. As a class, we have been reading The Trojan Women and analyzing and discussing it using all of the background knowledge we have gained in Blocks 1 and 2. The students have also been working in groups, memorizing excerpts from the play.
And, because parts of Greek tragedy were sung, the students are even setting selections of the play to contemporary tunes. The students are also studying the structure of the play and the design of the theater, costumes, and especially masks, which were very important. After reading the play in entirety and memorizing many excerpts, the students will stage a shortened version of the play. This will involve each student making a mask, designing a costume, and, of course, taking on various roles.
This block is a study of how history is many things. It is politics and wars, but it is also culture. Our study of democracy was very heavily weighted towards reading; we engaged in close readings of excerpts from at least six ancient writers. We also spent considerable time analyzing and interpreting both in discussion and essay writing. This block we are taking the opportunity to study history by "putting ourselves in our predecessors' shoes" through the most important cultural activity of ancient Athens. Staging a play that is nearly 2500 years old allows the students to experience the ongoing thread of history in a highly tangible manner.
-- Ilyse Gordis