“The sun shines east, the sun shines west, I know where the sun shines best.” Do those words ring a bell? Who would have thought that Captain Gary knew anything about “My Mammy,” the 1921 song Al Jolson sang in the musical “Sinbad.” The Captain had his chance to perform in one of the oldest theaters in the world.
We were traveling through Greece in our VW van in 1977 and thought we’d check out the famous amphitheater at Epidaurus on the northeast corner of the Peloponnesus. This all-stone theater was built right into the hillside in the 4th century BC. Originally it was 34 rows high, but in Roman times this was extended by a further 21 rows, to give a seating capacity of about 15,000. You can see where the additional rows were added, because there’s a wider row for walking along where the signposts with letters E and Z are.
I climbed the steps to the top row. The limestone seats were worn smooth from centuries of polishing by rear ends of spectators. While I sat there, a tour bus arrived and its riders filed into the stands near the stage. The tour guide, the lady in the mint green dress, went to the circular stone pad in the center of the stage and demonstrated the excellence of the acoustics. She dropped a penny. Her guests acknowledged that they could hear it, as I could too, in the thin air at the very top of the theater. Then she struck a match. I was amazed that I could hear every fizz and splutter of the sulphur burning on that match head. The limestone seats are meant to muffle any low-frequency audience noise, whispers, and shuffling of feet, while enhancing the high-frequency sounds of the actors’ voices.
The tour guide stepped aside and invited her guests to give it a go at center stage. Who knew that Al Jolson was mingling among those guests and would get down on one knee to profess his love? With one arm reaching up, he sang out, “Mammy! How I love ya, how I love ya–” his one line in a major dramatic role, in one of the oldest theaters in the world.
So like many a Greek actor of 2300 years ago, Captain Gary stood in the center of the stage at Epidaurus’ amphitheater and made his claim to fame. You can do it too, next time you’re in Greece.