2. Voila! Silenus Spoila?

He had the legs of a goat, the tail of a horse and a magnificent and outstanding phallus. Silenus the satyr, like Pan, has a very long association with the theatre, particularly comedy. He raised Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre and is best remembered for his love of indulgence and mischief.  Comedy is said to have arisen out of the hijinks of satyr-figures like him in villages and at harvest festivals(1). It’s not hard to imagine men dressed as satyrs running through crowds and processions with their horseplay. When St John Chrysostom (349-407 C.E.) wrote his homily on  I Corinthians (2) he was aghast at the goings-on at pagan weddings. He disparaged the night-time parade of bride and groom through the city streets with its requisite singing of licentious songs, dancing, music, carousing and laughter. Were his ministrations provoked by a myriad of merry-making Silenus’ bobbing through the streets? Did their glorious masculinity, ribaldly heralding the consummation of the marriage compact, offend him? It was a pagan world.

Satyr, Thasos Archaeological Museum

Satyr, Thasos Archaeological Museum

Silenus and his satyrs were institutionalized very early in theatre history.The first theatres were built on hillsides, where goats grazed freely and Dionysus was worshiped in adjacent sanctuaries. The earliest chorus leaders were said to have worn goat’s heads. Looking like goat-men, their ceremonial origins weren’t lost. Was it during a religious ceremony, revering the goat that both fed and clothed him, that Thespis broke away from the singing supplicants and addressed them? Becoming the first actor, he created the first audience.

When the dramatic festival, the Dionysia, was given in Athens, the competing playwrights had to give three tragedies and a satyr play as entry into three days of dramatic competition. A day of procession preceded. The only surviving, complete, satyr play, The Cyclops, was written by Euripides. It’s a satire poking fun at the mythology that was treated so seriously in the tragic plays. Its chorus is made up of satyrs and its chorus leader is Silenus. Menander’s comedy, O Dyskolos, also features a satyr, Pan. When you consider costuming in ancient comedies – the masks, the micro-mini tunics, the elevated footwear, and the ostentatious phalluses, the link to Silenus with his cloven feet, forthright phallus and sensuousness is obvious.

Archaeological Travel guides to Thasos

Archaeological Travel guides to Thasos. The Silenus Gate, featuring a 2.4m high relief statue of Silenus is featured on the left

On Thasos there was a stong cult of Silenus. Up on the hillside there remains ruins of a temple to Pan. In the oldest part of the archaeological site Silenus enters the city through large stone walls, the Silenus Gate. This is the best preserved section of the ancient city. Here successions of inhabitants built over and extended residences of previous ages. Their progress can be traced in the masonry. The brickwork became smaller and more refined as time progressed. The Ecole Francais D’Athens’, Directory of Thasos, pictured above, describes how single story dwellings became double, roads were added and the neighbourhood spread. Missing from the monumental gate is its overhead lintel stone. If it had survived we would walk beneath a massive stone. Would it have carried carvings? In Argos, a citadel of comparable masonry sports a pair of lions over its gateway.

The Lion Gate with its monumental lintel, from the Citadel at Argos, Greece.

The Lion Gate with its monumental lintel, from the Citadel at Argos, Greece.

Would the Selanus Gate have been adorned with goats?

Co-incidentally, in another part of the Island about 2 km inland from the Agora, a small Christian chapel can be found amidst tired, olive groves. It too, is built of stone bricks.

St Marina's Chapel, just a few kms north of te Ancient Agora of Thasos.

St Marina’s Chapel, just a few kms north of the Ancient Agora of Thasos.

It too, features a rather small creature with cloven hooves, horns and a tail. A  goat-man. He, too, has been associated with wanton desires and incontinence. He is not a pagan god, however. He is a Christian devil. He is bestial desire and wantonness. He is temptation. He is what St John Chrysostom preached against. Was he once a satyr? Selanus? Was this once his place? How old is it, St Marina’s Chapel? Is it old enough to be pagan? Was it his, before it was hers?

Icon stand, St Marina's chapel. The needlework cloth depicts St Marina holding a hammer that she used to pummel to death a devil who tormented her when she was in prison.

Icon stand, St Marina’s chapel. The needlework cloth depicts St Marina holding a hammer that she used to pummel to death a devil who tormented her when she was in prison. The devil has worn away in the icon in the chapel.

The fixtures inside the chapel are definitely not ancient, but then they aren’t as permanent as the building itself. St Marina’s lintel is a riddle. It looks ancient and out-of-place with the rest of the brickwork. Does being ancient preclude being Christian? Could those goats really be sheep, and so symbolic of Jesus flock? Early Christian archaeological features found on Thasos have included this capital:

Early Christian Capital found on Thasos

Early Christian Capital found on Thasos, Thasos Archaeological Museum

Could the chapel have been demolished and rebuilt? Was the lintel part of the original structure? It’s hard to tell for a layperson. Could the lintel be spoila from the archaeological site? If so, it isn’t the only Christian Church that’s taken pagan, architectural features and recycled them.

St Marina's Lintel. Notice the difference in the brickwork and the lintel. The goats too, seems to have been exposed to the elements more than the shelter of this chapel allows.

St Marina’s Lintel. Notice the difference in the brickwork and the lintel. The goats too, seem to have been exposed to the elements, more than the shelter of this chapel allows.

Another possibility is that the site was pagan. That the shepherd who guarded this flock revered Pan, the goat-man That the chapel was built to subsume the site into the Christian faith. That by dedicating it to St Marina, the satyr would now be re-imagined as a devil. The presence of the icon of St Marina killing the satyr, is a strong symbol of the tenacity of Christianity over the pagan worship of Olympian Gods. Were the early Christians trying to make a point? Did it always belong?  Or is it just spoila from the Temple of Pan? Or a vestige of what the chapel was earlier in its history, Christian or pagan?

One thing it definitely isn’t, is the lintel to the Silenus Gate.

 Traditional Icon of St Marina, from St Andrew’s, Constanta, Romania
the bubu / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

References / Further Reading

(1) Hartnoll, Phyllis, The Theatre: A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, 1985, The Greek and Roman Theatre.

(2) Clark, Elizabeth A., Women in the Early Church, Michael Glazier Inc., 1983, Volume 13:Message of the Father’s of the Church, p.71

Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, “McGilchrist’s Greek Islands”, Genius Locii Publications, London, Volume11: Thasos.

Ecole Francaise D’Athens, “Odigos tis Thasou”, Galliki Scholi Athinon, 2012, Vol 3: Sites et Monuments. There is no English translation of this book. The original is in French. I have referred to the Modern Greek translation.

1. Voila! Silenus Spoila?

When you have only read about ancient civilizations, you can only understand so much. Photos and footage will help you, tricking you into believing you have a good idea. Being there, walking through a town that was once inhabited is an experience of its own. Walking in and out of shops with their residences no longer on the floor above, or down a road defined today by its storm-water gutters, just like ours are, brings their daily lives into our sphere of understanding. What separates us from them? Is it merely technology? The realities of their lives are the realities of ours. But they’re dead. They’re anonymous. Their concerns have been silenced.

As you wander through the vestiges of their lives, their silence is palpable, oppressive, contained. It’s a directive, an order. Stop. Perceive. Smearing wheels over dirt roads are muffled and consumed. The mythic monster, Yesteryear, is a jealous, posturing tyrant. Engage only with it. Engage with the bustling noise of a city trying to penetrate through ether masquerading as air. Did you hear its hum? It’s in the breeze. Turn around fast enough and you may see them. Did you catch them? Did the sky steal them away? The sky belonged then as it does now. Time and the sky. Cronus and his father, Ouranos, fraternize, conspiring to keep us and their ancient supplicants in separate cells. Cells woven with silence, contained in the compression of tymbals. Any warp is perpetually mended with the laboured ticking of the cicadas. It’s a love song heard then and now.

The Kouros statue from the Sanctuary of Pythian Apollo, now in the Archaeological Museum of Thasos

On Thasos, the ancients daily interaction with their gods resounds through the archaeological site.  Nigel Mc Gilchrist, author of a series of books for travellers to the Greek Islands, describes Thasos thus:

“most valuable of all, is the vivid picture it gives of how the Ancients sensed that a network of divine presences with different areas of influence participated in, and watched over the daily life of their community. Dionysus caroused with the artists, performers and drinkers in the thick of the town; Apollo watched from the lofty height of his temple, way above the city; and Pan sometimes kept company with the lonely guardsmen on the highest look-out posts of the acropolis, when the autumn mists descended. This is the unusual gift of Thasos – that it presents not just a multitude of ruins, but the living texture of an ancient city and its whole imaginative world.” (1)


The ancient drain, to the right of which was the two story building.

The ancient drain, to the right of which was the two-storey building.

The ancient town of Thasos now at Limenas was walled. It stretched from the present day archaeological museum and up the hillside to the cliffs. It had two ports, a series of lighthouses leading to them, boat drying sheds, two theatres, jewellery workshops, a farmstead, potters workshop, an agora, shops, double storey residences, shrines and temples. Within the length of the walls are several gates, dedicated to various ancient deities. One of these is dedicated to Silenus.

Head of Silenus, in the Archaeological Museum of Thasos

Silenus, in the Archaeological Museum at Thasos



(1) Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, Mc Gilchrist’s Greek Islands, Volume 11. Thasos, Genius Loci Publications, London, pp 10-11.

 Photo Credit

The Kouros statue from the Sanctuary of Pythian Apollo, now in the Archaeological Museum of Thasos – Panegyrics of Granovetter / Foter / CC BY-SA

Shakespeare’s Marina, St Marina?

My gentle babe, Marina (whom, For she was born at sea, I have named so) here…”

Act III Scene III, lines 12-13

In my recent posts chronicling my attempt to find physical connections between the island of Thasos and Shakespeare’s Tharse, from Pericles, I withheld my misadventure of the mind. You see, I postulated my hypothesis and then had the wonderful opportunity to visit the island before completing the necessary background reading.( In no way does my lapse impact on my argument that Thasos was intended for Tharsus.) When I returned I was so excited about my time on the island that I couldn’t wait to start writing. So I did. That was wrong. You see, I had read about the source for the play, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, but hadn’t read it until after I had started posting. I had assumed that because Shakespeare gave Marina her name that he had actually added the character to the story. This is incorrect. Marina is part of Gower’s plot but her name is given variously as Taisa, Thaisa and Thaise, after her mother.

On Thasos, having passed the ancient submerged marina that would have sheltered Pericles; walked through the ancient Agora and around Roman floor mosaics, fit for a governor’s residence;  and spotted violets in the archaeological site, I was exhuberant. These are all inherent in the text. I went looking for a reason he renamed Gower’s character, a church, chapel or site that may have been the inspiration behind the name, Marina. I ignored the text. There had to be more to it, right?

Icon of St Marina, from St Andrew’s, Constanta, Romania
the bubu / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

When I read Pericles, it struck me how saintly Marina was. The girl could be placed in a brothel and turn the patrons away from their libidinous purpose. The portrayal brought to mind the early christian saint from Antioch(1), St Marina. St Marina was born at the end of the 3rd Century C.E., about the time of the earliest surviving renditions of the Pericles story. (2) Similarities between Shakespeare’s Marina and St Marina include that they were both “only” children; both came from nobility; both were raised by a nurse after the death of their mothers; both were said to be beautiful women; and both rebuked the advances of prevailing Governors. Whereas St Marina’s father disowned her completely, Pericles abandoned his daughter for many years. These are their similarities. In the icon above, the Silenus-like creature is a devil who St Marina pounded to death when she was in prison. You can read more about the life of St Marina on the wonderful Mystagogy website. By sheer coincidence, I found myself on Thasos on St Marina’s Day, July 17. This was fortuitous as there are no churches dedicated to St Marina marked or written about in Thasos’ tourist literature – ie maps or books – but St Marina was within shallow access of people’s minds.  After a quick enquiry at the Archaeological Museum, my companions and  I were given rough instructions on how to find St Marina’s Chapel. It is about two kilometers inland from the Ancient Agora.

St Marina's Chapel, just a few kms north of the Ancient Agora of Thasos.

St Marina’s Chapel, just a few kms north of the Ancient Agora of Thasos.

The small chapel, easily forgotten on such a small island with so many important archaeological and religious drawcards is built in a clearing amongst olive groves. The simple chapel is neat and small. Its stone and brickwork tell nothing of its age. That it was St Marina’s day meant that the Chapel would be host to a liturgy and festivities. The yard was decorated with flags.We arrived late for the festivites but were able to ask the odd faithful straggling in how old the church was. “Old” was the repeated answer. But how old? Could it have stood in the 16th Century? Above the door the lintel stone shows the carved figure of sheep/goats. It looks like spoila from the archaeological site. It is not the only christian edifice on Thasos to have benefited from the once abundant ancient masonry. Could the chapel be so old as the early Christian era? The icons within aren’t that old. Their pigments haven’t decayed in that murky brown vacuum that nulls out all detail. Traced silverwork encasing brown, voided faces in frames, are nowhere in the chapel. Its icons are all painted on panels and have retained their colours. In style they appear much younger than 400 years old. The fittings are fairly recent too, but the building?

Very old olive grove by St Marina's Chapel

Very old olive grove by St Marina’s Chapel

Just over the fence of the chapel’s enclosure are olive groves. Their trees are very old. Their broad and gnarled trunks belie their age. If only they could talk. Olive trees can survive thousands of years. One of my companions, an olive grower from Chalkidiki, assured me that the orchards were easily 400 years old. An orchard, not 100 m along was even older.

Me in a tree - almost. The older olive grove down the road from St Marina's Chapel

Me in a tree – almost. The older olive grove down the road from St Marina’s Chapel

My feeling from having read the text and visited the island is that Shakespeare, his collaborator, or source, may have visited the island but not spent too much time there. The chapel isn’t too far from the ancient marina to walk too, if you intend on looking for it. It is not something that you would stumble upon casually. Why did he rename Taisa/Thaise/Taisa, Marina? It seemed to me that he would have seen the parallel between Gower’s character and the Catholic/Orthodox saint: but how? There were two saints named St Marina and there exists some confusion between the two of them as regards to the afterlife of their relics. There are a couple of stories which you can read here and here. Essential to both stories is that her relics were transferred by the Crusaders from Constantinople to Italy early in the 13th Century. Having the power to cure illnesses, these relics have been venerated in Venice, among other Christian cities, for centuries. Many Englishmen travelled to Venice in Shakespeare’s day who would have seen the relics and heard of their miraculous healing power and the life of St Marina. It is not a great leap that Shakespeare may have made the connection. Am I reading too much into this? Early literature is full of two dimensional portrayals of women. They are either sinners or saints. Shakespeare’s women aren’t fully free of this blight. And then history is full of coincidences. Remembering his text:

My gentle babe, Marina (whom, For she was born at sea, I have named so) here…”

Act III Scene III, lines 12-13

it seems so.


  (1) Antioch is where the play of Pericles opens (2)That is the earliest renditions of the Apollonius story

Shen Yun: Theatre Review

Shen Yun! Imagine lively dance, flurrying colours, choreographed acrobatics, swirling handkerchiefs, and streaming sleeves gushing through the air. Now add an astounding staging of mythological proportions delivered through a synchronicity between the physical performer and a computer animated one onscreen. This is a mixed media production that talks of magic as it creates it before you. Shen Yun is also a coming together of Chinese music and dance traditions with traditional Western ones in a concert or revue format. It is Chinese culture with a dash of millenarian dogma and splashes of old Hollywood packaged for a Western audience. It promises a spectacle of, “the wonders of authentic Chinese culture.” On the whole, what it delivers is a good night out.

Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Capitol Theatre, Sydney

The review focuses on dance with a couple of arias delivered by talented sopranos, Haolan Geng and Tianling Song, and a duet of piano and erhu, a traditional two stringed instrument made of horsehair and snake-skin. The piano together with the erhu is lovely but in a night promising Chinese culture, the erhu, played by Xiaochun Qi, needed no accompaniment.

Chinese Classical Dance as presented by Shen Yun holds much in common with European balletic tradition: they both have developed over centuries; they both have developed a style of presentation that allows the central figure to dance out a story in graceful, lyrical movements; and they both share an interplay between a chorus of dancers and their leads.  But they both have nuances that mark them as different traditions. Gu Yun, a dance teacher with Shen Yun Performing Arts (1) points to an emphasis on circular movement in Classical Chinese dance as opposed to an emphasis on line in western Classical Ballet. But there is much more than this. What struck me immediately was the importance of costuming in determining the form of the dance movement. Costumes carry contrasting colours from the legs to the arms. While arms move expressing emotion and gestures, legs carry away the performer in a way that highlights the motion of the arms. Colours displace each other in circular movements of arms and legs that add to the sense of wonder in the routine. Chinese classical dance also has gesture, acrobatics and the influence of martial arts.

The dances, whether ethnic, folk, or more of a dance-drama routine are all interpreted through the studied performance of Chinese classical dance. It is enough like ballet to make it an easy vehicle for Westerners to understand. Each ethnic routine is infused with the flavour of its originating region e.g., Tibet or the Hmong. I can’t help wondering how much nuance from the original is lost by its presentation by a classically trained troupe and on an end stage.

The routines are all engaging and dramatic. They bring to mind the dance choruses of old Hollywood musicals. Having grown up learning folk dances of my own cultural background, I was struck by Shen Yun’s differences with Western ethnic/folk dance traditions. Through the Balkans, there is a strong motif of the connected group as a whole, as a single entity, a single animal, if you like, as it dances. Whether the dance is circular or in lines, the community presents a unified, connected entity. This kind of dancing does not translate well onto an end stage. To engage the audience, the audience must see the performers face and the movement must be presented to them. To achieve this on an end stage, the basic steps of the dance have to be reconfigured. Something of the original feel is lost. Did the choreographer of Shen Yun have to make such concessions in presenting the ethnic dances?

Concessions are also made in the presentation of the music. Theirs is a Western orchestra engaging with a skeletal selection of traditional Chinese instruments. The music is beautiful, but more of a fusion of East meets West than traditional Chinese. Strings and horns dominate the percussion. The nuanced relationship between the percussion instruments and the defining gestures of the dance is to some degree, watered down.

Shen Yun is presented by the Falun Dafa. It is a socio-religious group who have been outlawed and persecuted in China since 1999. If this concert could not be presented in China it is because it portrays their unjust treatment at the hands of the Chinese government. Two routines chronicle their treatment. Their hopes of a future time in the world of the ancient Chinese gods and in the presence of a golden Buddha figure are also danced out. It is not their only message. In a clever use of subtitles, to what we are told is a traditional Chinese song, the lyric,

“Yet some people are only interested in profit

And don’t bother to find out the oppressor’s lies

They dare not imagine that the gods are fulfilling their oath” (2)

confronts its occidental audience. In a performance that is so geared to a Western audience, this is the message the Falun Dafa has for us. The extension of that question must be, are we only looking to benefit from China in terms of the profits that can be made using her labour? Is not her labour her people? The people, whose wonderful performing arts we have just enjoyed, are suffering.

If the role of theatre is to inform, to confront and to motivate as well as to entertain, all of these goals can be seen in Shen Yun. Is it agit-prop theatre? It has its way. It is a little subtler, less repetitive, and presented to a well-fed, western audience. China needn’t worry.


(1) Shen Yun, promo DVD, 2015.

(2) Shen Yun Performing Arts, programme, Gold Coast/Brisbane/Sydney/Canberra/Adeliade/Melbourne, 31 January – 28 February 2015

Shen Yun: Chinese Opera or Agit-prop Theatre – P2

The countdown is on. There is less than a week before I see Shen Yun. I have been looking forward to this for a very long time. When I think of theatrical spectacles, arena productions like Aida, pageant’s like the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and the Circe du Soliel, come to mind. In terms of categorising them, there are labels and adjectives available that encapsulate their essence: opera, parade, acrobatics. There is an understanding of what to expect in these words. All due to the western tradition that they have evolved from. But what of Shen Yun?

Shen Yun’s advertising shows dancers and an orchestra and the slogan, 5000 Years of Civilization. Live on Stage! Elements of the production are further conveyed in their blurb:

“HEAVENLY REALMS and timeless legends spring to life through classical Chinese dance. Dazzling costumes, thunderous battle drums, and powerful flips fill the stage with color and energy. Exquisite melodies and animated backdrops uplift your spirit and transport you to another world.”

China has a centuries old tradition of storytelling. Many of its stories and myths have been preserved in the plots of the Chinese Opera. When I read the slogan, 5000 Years of Civilization. Live on Stage, I immediately jumped to the conclusion, the Chinese Opera (or one of them) was touring Down Under. The pamphlet confused me. In addition to the elements described therein, the Chinese Opera has speaking roles and exquisite singing. These are not mentioned, nor depicted.

To alleviate my fog I began asking my Chinese friends and acquaintances whether they had seen the show and, if indeed, it is Chinese Opera. Their responses were unexpected. My pronunciation was off. No one got, first off, what I was asking about. In an effort to clarify my meaning I started saying the promoter’s name, the Falun Dafa Association of Australia. That got a response.

That’s political. Chinese people don’t get involved with politics. That’s from here, it’s not Chinese. More people practice it outside of China than in China. It’s propaganda against the Chinese government. The show will be third rate, in a sorry theatre space with amateurs. How can they produce a newspaper and give it away? Propaganda in print and in the theatre. That’s why they are giving away the tickets. If it was really Chinese Opera it would be playing at the Sydney Opera House. Big money is backing them, blackening the Chinese government. Big money from the West.

None had actually been to see the show. Just the association with the Falun Dafa instigated a tirade against the show. The Falun Dafa is the practice of a form of Buddhism/meditation that, controversially, took China by storm in the 1990s. It is also called Falun Gong (Law of Energy). To quote its website, it is a discipline in which assimilation to the highest qualities of the universe—Zhen, Shan, Ren (Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance)—is the foundation of practice.(1) It is an organised group of practitioners under its founder, Mr Li Hongzhi, who teaches a way to enlightenment. It is a cultivation of ones thoughts and body. It is also considered a sect, allbeit a populous one.(2)

Sect. What a word? Sect and theatre. What a combination? What was I getting myself into? Memories flooded my head. . . Kenja, Bolsheviks, Living Newspaper, Oh! What a Lovely War!, Karagiozi inciting Greek patriots to arms and a didactic staging of all 900 plus pages (word for word, it seemed) of Ogburn’s, The Mysterious William Shakespeare. The performers of the Shen Yun are all said to practice Falun Gong. Is it more than just a warm up tool as they prepare to get into character. Will it be presented on stage?

As images revolved around my mind I wondered about the stage as a tool for progaganda. I thought of the Russian living newspaper, connecting with common people on the street through short, informative tableaus. Simple language with a strong, direct delivery. No reading between the lines. No subtext. No way of interpreting it other than the playwrights voice, reverberating in a chasm through which no other thought is allowed to traverse. I thought about Oh! What a Lovely War! and again popular theatre techniques came to mind. Headlines and news bulletins: all slogans brandishing the playwrights message like a sledgehammer. My mind then rested on a Kenja production I had seen: clowning, short tableau-scenes, opinionated, informative and long winded, repetitive and condescending.

Kenja has been considered more than a sect, a cult. It offers a cultivated way of seeing the world, as the Falun dafa do. But it is a different kind of organisation, it’s Western, miniscule by comparison, and unlike the Falun Dafa, it does not have the sympathy of the Australian press. Will Shen Yen be a political offering? Will it be anything like a Kenja production?

The most pervasive tool Kenja employed in their production was leaving the auditorium lights on. Why? As a norm in a Western theatre, we sit in a darkened room, the fourth wall is the stage. There may be 1500 people there but the darkness envelopes the audience with intimacy. In our own privacy we are allowed to interact cerebrally with the story and the subtext happening in the fourth wall. We are our own animal in the cave, watching the world in the sun without physically participating. What happens when the lights are on? The intimacy is broken. The performers see us, watch them, interpret them, judge them. Suddenly we have to be polite. Being polite means giving the performance the benefit of the doubt. It means appearing to agree with the actors, director and/or playwright for that space of time. Our socialization of politeness won’t allow us to feel freely and honestly respond to the performance.  In an almost bare auditorium, the light robs us and makes it very hard to walk out.

I don’t think I’ll have to this coming weekend. Shen Yun has more testimonials of its artistry than any other theatrical production that I have attended. Contrary to the tirade against it, it is now playing at one of the biggest commercial theatres in Sydney, with ticket prices starting at $80AUD. I am looking forward to seeing this show more than ever.

Shen Yun tickets are still available. Let me know what you think.



(1) http://en.falundafa.org/ Feb 11, 2015

(2) By 1999, as many as 100 million people in China were practising Falun Gong.

Minghui International brochure, Health Benefits, p 9.

Shen Yen: Chinese Opera or Agitprop Theatre?-1

Shen Yun is back in Sydney! I’m so excited, I’ve actually got tickets this time around. I’ve been wanting to go for a few years now but I have somehow missed out. Visuals of it are lavish: the colour, the pageantry, the orchestra, the dancers, the singers and its huge cast. Can it be Chinese Opera? I’ve studied Asian Theatre but have never attended a live performance of the Chinese Opera.  Most provinces in China have their own state funded Opera but it would be a rare occasion for one of these companies to perform outside of China. Shen Yun, as represented in its marketing pamphlets, CD and website, shares attributes with Chinese Opera.

A large cast performs in front of a backdrop of intricate detail and grandiose proportions.

Chinese Opera Burns! /Foter/ CC BY-NC-SA

Music is an important part of the storytelling. Shen Yun has a mixed orchestra delivering a fusion of traditional Chinese sounds and Occidental instruments.

Musical accompaniment
Stanley Zimny (Thank You for 10 Million views) / Foter / CC BY-NC

Detailed costumes, nuanced props and iconic make-up make up Chinese Opera’s ostentatious delivery. So too, in Shen Yun.

Chinese Opera performer
alcuin lai / Foter / CC BY-SA

But will there be a bit of this?

The Traitor – stock character, Chinese Opera ( photo credit see end of post)

Just a little? This much? A little bit of mythology? A little bit of acting? A parley of speech and movement not delivered in song? A parley for the sake parley!

Actors from the Chinese Opera
alcuin lai / Foter / CC BY-SA

Errrrrhhhh …can’t exactly say.

Well, I asked the ticket seller whether it was Chinese Opera.

“No, it’s from New York.”

That wasn’t the answer that I was expecting. I wanted to know if it was of the traditional form of Chinese Opera. The one with big acting, acrobatics and magico-real storylines. If each province of China has its own company, then it would follow that ex-pat Chinese who operate in a ex-pat Chinese community are capable of producing a Chinese Opera outside of China. So I asked another lame question.

“Does it tell a story?”

Hmm. There was a pause. Of course it tells a story. Of course it tells a story! So does Swan Lake, the ballet. There are no monkey-warriors with supernatural powers or comic servant figures delivered in big, stylized performances in Swan Lake. There is no subtext to ponder over as you leave the theatre after the ballet.

So I started telling my Chinese friends, acquaintances and neighbours that I was going to see Shen Yun. I wanted to know if they had been and if it is Chinese Opera. I was taken aback by the balance of responses I received to what was genuinely, an innocent question. I had no idea that I was asking a political question, a question that led to more on the nature and use of propaganda, human organ harvesting and the use of theatre as a tool of social revolution and social mollification.

What the ….! What the next Crafty Theatre post will be about!

Shen Yun opens at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney on Feb 6, having already played the Gold Coast it will continue its Australian tour. For tour tickets click here.

Have you seen Crafty Theatre’s Chinese Opera board on Pinterest?

The Traitor

Photo credit: jackyczj / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The “thing” I do in Greece

When I visit Greece I have this, “thing,” that I do. I can’t help myself, I have to do “it.” If circumstances prevent me from doing “it”, I sulk silently, within. It’s just a little peccadillo. I feel somehow robbed if I can’t. So, as often as possible I do, “it.” I find myself an ancient amphitheatre and I photograph it.

I’ve photographed one in Larissa, and one on Delos.

Amphitheatre on Delos

Amphitheatre on Delos

In Delphi …

Amphitheatre at the ancient oracle, Delphi

Amphitheatre at the ancient oracle, Delphi

In the Peloponnese . . .



And in Athens, the Theatre of Dionysus . . .

The Theatre of Dionysus, South Slope, Acropolis, Athens

The Theatre of Dionysus, South Slope, Acropolis, Athens

Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes did not see their plays produced in this amphitheatre. Their time preceeded the stone stage. Their plays were produced on a wooden stage, perhaps at this very spot, but without the elaborate skene indicated by the row of decorative sculptures at the far end of this structure. Their protagonists would have shared the semi-circular performance space, the orchestra, with the chorus. This theatre is from a slightly later period when the actors treaded upon the front section of the skene (scene), the proscenio.

Theatre of Dioysus, the actor's view into the audience

Theatre of Dionysus, the actor’s view into the audience, featuring the “orchestra” ie the performance space

This theatre is situated on the southern slope of the Acropolis in Athens. It served the city of Athens, it’s said, for 1000 years. Below it, is the Temple of Dionysus, above it can be seen the fortifications that surround the Parthenon and Erechtheion. The much later (Roman), and still in use, Odeon of Herodotus Atticus, is a short way away on the walk to the summit. From the Orchestra, we see the koilon, the seating for the audience. It’s the seating of this theatre that bring the Ancient Greeks a little closer to us.

Proedria, reserved seating for officials and priests

Proedria, reserved seating for officials and priests

The best seats in the “house,” the proedria, were reserved for dignitaries. Some of their names can be still seen carved into the marble. They remind me of the patrons/sponsors plaques on the chairs of my former, high school auditorium.They are the ancient equivalent of the member’s stand or the royal box. These were, of course, the front row.

Farther up and along the path to the summit you will encounter a statue of Menander. He, the greatest writer of New Comedy, had his plays produced here. If you have the time, climbing the Acropolis from the Southern Slope, you will get a better sense of the value of drama and music to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, from the number of buildings dedicated to their appreciation there.

Further Reading

Greek Amphitheatres


Southern Slope of the Acropolis, Athens


Pompeii’s controversial amphitheatre

crafty theatre:

When I picture an amphitheatre, it is a semi-circular , stone construction, nuzzled into a hillside. It is for art’s sake. It’s a destination at the end of a pagan, religious procession through an ancient city state and back to nature. Back to the gods . It is where ancient dramatic offerings were the apotheosis of festivities. It never occurred to me that an amphitheatre was other than this. So U learnt something new last year researching Asia Minor, when I read that orations were given in the amphitheatre in Ephesus and today, I’ve learnt that Roman amphitheatre’s were not necessarily open semi-circles, outside of the city state. They were not purely for religious edification or art even. Thanks to Robert Horvat’s post, I have learnt …

Originally posted on If It Happened Yesterday, It's History:


In an article I wrote towards the end of last year on the lost cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, I made a passing comment about how impressive many of Pompeii’s public buildings and structures were and how amazing it was that they survived beneath a mountain of rock and volcanic ash. Excavation over the last few hundred years revealed many of these wonderful buildings including Pompeii’s amphitheatre.

Sports and games in the form of gladiatorial combat was almost a prerequisite to any self-respecting city including a provisional city such as Pompeii. So began an obsession to build one of the first stone amphitheatres during the reign of Sulla. It is believed that the impressive  structure was initially built for Sulla’s 5,000 veterans and their families. An inscription on the amphitheatre dates its completion around about 70 BC that even predates the Colosseum in Rome by a little over a hundred…

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2.To Thasos with Shakespeare to guide us!

Could Shakespeare have understood John Gower’s, “Tharse” to mean Thasos when he wrote, “Tharsus” into Pericles? In my previous posts, beginning with, Shakespeare’s Tharsus: Thasos or Tarsusthrough to my last post, I have reasoned why I think that Shakespeare had a particular time period (the Graeco-Roman world), Empire (the Seleucid) and settings in mind when he retold this much loved Medieval-Byzantine tale. Gower, in his translation of an earlier re-telling, perhaps French, uses different suffixes in his place settings than Shakespeare does e.g., ‘Pentapolis,’ in Shakespeare, is “Pentapolim,” in Gower. Shakespeare chose the Greek suffix over the Latin. Was he deliberately hellenising “Tharse?” With Shakespeare’s renowned biblical knowledge, he would have recognised the difference between biblical, “Tarsus” and Gower’s, “Tharse”.

If he meant, “Thasos,” how well did he know the island? Well enough to have gone there? Following Richard Roe’s lead, I looked for the details specific to the island that would answer this question. Richard Roe also provided a logical explanation for the presence of any Englishman in the North Aegean from the late 16th Century – there was an English Embassy and merchant – trading company in Constatinople from this time.(1)

Having previously compared Cleon’s description of the island, its wealth, the ancient marina and his imagined residence, with the present archaeological site on Thasos, I will now focus on Marina. After Dionyza has Marina’s maid killed, Marina goes to her grave with flowers.

“No. I will rob Tellus(2) of her weed.

To strew thy green with flowers: the yellows, blues,

The purple violets, and marigolds,

Shall as a carpet hang upon thy grave,

While Summer-days do last.”

Act IV Scene I, lines 13-17

Thasos - violets growing wildly in the archaeological site.

Thasos – violets growing wildly in the archaeological site.

Photographing violets in the archaeological site was easy, they were growing wildly in abundance. Being so small, I thought I’d include larger, wildly-growing violets from the neighbouring mainland, Macedonia, in Northern Greece. The island shares its geographical features.(3) Marigolds are a common feature in Aegean gardens.

Wild Violets of Macedonia

Violets growing wildly in Macedonia, Northern Greece

Although I didn't see any marigolds growing wildy on Thasos, they are a very popular flower in Greek gardens. These are Maro's marigolds, grown not too far away from Mytilene.

Marigolds growing in the garden of another North Aegean Island, Lesvos. Today, marigolds are a common feature in many Greek gardens.

 After Dionyza has ordered the death of Marina, she taunts her husband, Cleon, for his disapproval of her actions thus:

“…Be one of those, that think

The pretty wrens of Tharsus will fly hence,

And open this to Pericles. I do shame

To think of what a noble strain you are,

And of how coward a spirit.”

Act IV Scene IV, lines 21-25

From Wikipedia, we may guess that the type of wren that is being referred to is the eurasian wren. This rings true as the eurasian wren nests in coniferous forests and Thasos was named for just forests (4).Wrens are also mentioned by ancient writers such as Plutarch and Aesop. Shakespeare may be referring to Suetonius here in using the wren to forewarn Pericles of his daughter’s supposed death. Suetonius used a wren to forewarn Julius Caesar of his own. Shakespeare thus knits his work closer to the Graeco-Roman world.

Troglodyte mignon Troglodytes troglodytes - Eurasian Wren

Eurasian Wren

Although the specific details relating to Tharsus are few, they have a resonance with the island of Thasos. Noteably, they don’t exclude Thasos from being, “Tharsus.” There are probably wrens in Tarsus, and yes, there is an archaeolgical site there, and it is hard to imagine Thasos, or any ancient Graeco-Roman site, to have had towers, but the geography of Pericles’ voyage better fits Thasos. Shakespeare was accurate in his foreign details, just as Richard Roe said he was. Did he go there? The historical record has many gaps. Pericles is regarded by many as a collaborative text. Did his collaborator visit the island or the North Aegean? By looking closely at Shakespeare’s texts and regarding them from the point of view that the author(s) had travelled abroad, we may get a clearer picture as to whose hand(s) held his quill.

Photo Credits

Eurasian Wren


1. According to Wikipedia, the first English Ambassador to Turkey was William Harborne (c1542-1617). He served as Ambassador from 1583-1588. He was serving the interests of the Levant Company.

2. Tellus was an Ancient Roman earth-mother goddess.

3.”Something of the greenness and spaciousness of Macedonia is distilled in Thasos. Its effect is more intense for being concentrated within the circumference of an island.”

Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, McGilchrist’s Greek Islands: 11. Thasos,Genius Loci Publications, London, 2010, p.9.

4.Grandjean, Yves and Salviat, Francois, Odigos tis Thasou, Ecole Francaise D’Athenes, 3:Sites et Monuments, Sanidas, Yiorgos and Argyri Artemis (trans.), 2012, p.19.

1.To Thasos with Shakespeare to guide us!

Holidaying in Greece this northern Summer, we were blessed. Our vacation was a time of reconnecting with relatives, many of whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of knowing as adults. Getting to know them now, was like making new friends minus the awkwardness. They were so hospitable, so generous with their time, so indulgent.

Catching up, of course, meant answering the inevitable question of what am I doing with my time. Kids. House. Family. Writing …blogging. About what? Which fixation should I go with? Karagiozis? Menander? Shakespeare?

The modern day township of Limenas, built up over centuries of history. The ancient marina is submerged beneath this modern day one.

The modern-day township of Limenas, built up over centuries of history. The ancient marina is submerged beneath this modern-day one.

Did I know Thasos wasn’t too far away – when you consider the distance already bridged that is – Sydney, Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Thessaloniki? We could go tomorrow. Why not? On the morrow with Pericles in hand and a child being cared for by the extended family, my cousins Michail and Aristea, drove me, my husband and eldest son, through Chalkidiki, north to Kavala and onto the ferry for Thasos.

We were there to answer the question, “How well acquainted with Thasos was Shakespeare?” With so many holes in the historical record, could he have slipped through a trip to Thasos without leaving a trace on the fabric of history? Are the details of Tharsus so precise that they describe Thasos? Unless I looked, all I would be left with was my own conjecture.

The place I wanted to find the most was the Governor’s, Cleon’s, residence. I imagined that he would have lived in a castle or fortress. Being unsuccessful in my attempts at googling archaeological sites on Thasos, in English, we headed for the archaeological museum to make our first enquiries. Just across the road from the museum’s entrance was the entrance into the Roman Agora. I was thrilled. I had placed the action of the play during the time of the Seleucid Empire, which coincided with the Roman occupation of Thasos. The Agora, just metres inland from ancient boat sheds and marina, was a place of interest in forming the possible cityscape of Shakespeare’s Tharsus. It was the heart of the ancient city.

Ancient Agora of Thasos

The Ancient Agora of Thasos

Could this archaeological site be all that is left of:

This Tharsus…
A city, on whom plenty held full hand,
For riches strew’d herself even in the street;
Whose towers bore heads so high, they kissed the clouds,
And strangers ne’er beheld, but wondered at…

Riches? Ancient Thasos was a mineral rich island. There had been a succession of mining activity on the island that began with ochre in pre-history and moved through gold and silver and continues today off-shore, with oil. If statues can be numbered as riches, Thasos honoured gods, civil leaders and a home-grown athlete, Theagenes, with public installations.

The ancient drain, to the right of which was the two story building.

The ancient drain, to the right of which was the two story building.

Walking through the Agora and along a drain that cut across the width of the site, it was hard to imagine a double storey structure by it.* Harder to imagine towers. Walking deeper into the site and under a small bridge that accommodates the present day road, we came to an area only partially excavated by the French archaeological school in the 1930s. Beyond this and only recently excavated is a Roman official’s villa and bath. The mosaic floor has been relocated to the forecourt of the archaeological museum. It is one, complete floor, shown in the next couple of photos.

Roman Official's Villa -  Mosaic Floor

Roman Official’s Villa – Mosaic Floor

Detail of Roman Villa's Mosaic Floor - joins the previous image

Detail of Roman Villa’s Mosaic Floor – joins the previous image

Having found the city and possibly the Governor’s residence, I was euphoric. I wanted to find more. Is this how Richard Roe felt during his searches for the real settings of Shakespeare’s Italian plays? Did he get carried away wanting to find more?

More? What about Marina? That’s a nice Christian name belonging to a saintly maid. Marina, the virtuous, despoiling the clientele of Mytilene’s brothel with her philosophising! Shakespeare’s Marina whitewashed their blackened souls. St Marina, a wealthy young woman of the Eastern Mediterranean world shunned marriage for her loftier religious ideals. Could there be a connection between Shakespeare’s Marina and St Marina? Was Shakespeare thinking of the saint when he named Pericles daughter? Has there ever been a connection between Thasos / Tharsus and St Marina? And what of more specific connections between the text of Pericles and Thasos? I’ll leave these for next time.


I’d like to especially thank Michail Papalexiou and Aristea Londou for their enthusiasm, generosity and patience in making this search possible and the extended Papalexiou family for their caring and capable child minding.

*Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, Mc Gilchrist’s Greek Islands:11. Thasos,Genius Loci Publications, London, p.27.