It has hosted concerts and commencements, demonstrations and divas, mass meetings and memorials. The home fires of university spirit have burned bright on its sandy floor, and many of the great names and performing groups of the past century have trod its stage.
It is one of the most distinguished and indelible features of Berkeley’s cultural and physical landscape.
Berkeley’s oldest and grandest public performing arts space—the Hearst Greek Theatre—turns one hundred this month.
The centerpiece of the celebration of this centennial takes place this weekend, when the venerable institution hosts another venerable institution—the National Theater of Greece, dedicated to the authentic revival of ancient Greek drama—performing Euripides’ Medea.
This Saturday and Sunday evenings, Berkeley’s Greek guests will perform using ancient staging techniques; the performance will be as classical Athenian audiences once saw it, down on the circular orchestra, rather than on the stage, with the participation of a full chorus, a tradition rarely seen in American productions of ancient drama.
The performance will be in modern Greek, with supertitles projected on the stage (there are also numerous English translations of Medea in print and online, if you’re inclined to study up before the performance.)
Medea tells a classic tale of betrayal and revenge, revolving around the soured relationship of Jason, the hero-captain of the Argo, and Medea, the Colchian princess he brought back from his adventures seeking (and stealing) the Golden Fleece.
Although they have had two sons together, Jason abandons Medea to take up with the daughter of the King of Corinth in what he rationalizes as an attempt to secure the family fortunes. Exiled from Corinth, Medea exacts a horrific revenge on both the Corinthian royalty and her cheating husband.
The story is as old as, well, ancient Greece, and as modern as yesterday’s news headlines detailing some shocking story of family violence in which one angry member of an estranged couple draws the children into a cycle of vengeance against the other.
The appearance of the National Theatre is literally a unique event, analogous to the Bolshoi Ballet or Royal Shakespeare Company dropping in to Berkeley for a few performances.
When it comes to the United States the National Theater typically only plays East Coast venues, usually in New York or Washington D.C.
This time, they are making a special and brief trip to Berkeley specifically because of our Theatre and its centennial.
The event is sponsored by Cal Performances, which manages the Greek Theatre and was founded there itself nearly a century ago, when a newly minted campus committee on drama and music started staging events in the Greek.
I like what Professor of Classics Mark Griffith recently told a campus journalist about this event. “People will kick themselves if they miss this.”
It’s a rare chance to experience history—a notable centennial—and see a distinguished performance at the same time.
The appeal of seeing a classical staging of Medea is particularly interesting at the present time, since less than a year ago the Abbey Theatre performed Medea in Zellerbach Hall, with Fiona Shaw in the title role, and not too long ago the homegrown Shotgun Players also staged their own unique interpretation in the (temporarily) defunct UC Theatre downtown.
If you saw either or both of those stagings, it is well worth seeing this Medea as well, in comparison.
Although Cal Performances and the Greek Theatre are part of the university, they are also Berkeley jewels in a broader sense. Much of the audience for Cal Performances events is drawn from the surrounding community.
The Greek Theatre helped put Berkeley on the map culturally, at the beginning of the 20th century. It was an embodiment in concrete of the aspirations of both town and university to become “Athens of the West.”
Real estate developers, travel writers, and local intellectuals all pointed to the Greek as a tangible symbol of Berkeley’s culture and character, and townspeople regularly trooped to the Theatre to see civic events, performances, and even Cal student spirit rallies.
Most Berkeleyans probably have a favorite memory of an experience in the Greek Theatre, from Grateful Dead Concerts to the once-annual performances by the San Francisco Opera, to Bread and Roses Festivals, or notable speakers such as Bishop Tutu, the Dalai Lama, or innumerable statesmen and women over the years.
Tickets are still available for both performances of Medea this weekend.
Call the Cal Performances Ticket Office at 642-9988, or go to their website at www.calperfs.berkeley.edu. Tickets are also available at the door.
UC faculty and staff get a significant discount on tickets for this event, so if you are one—or have a friend or neighbor who works for the University—take advantage of that opportunity.
(Steven Finacom is a long-time Berkeley resident and local historian and works at the University of California.)
Two Pictures Attached: Suggested Captions:
“Cal students prepare for a Fall, 1921, bonfire rally in the Greek Theatre. Student events and spirit rallies have been a tradition at the historic outdoor amphitheater since it was constructed”
“The first official dramatic performance in Cal’s Greek Theatre was The Birds by Aristophanes, on September 24, 1903.”