from ancient Athens to Sydney today
We start in 334 BC… The crowds are flocking to the Theatre of Dionysus, under the Acropolis. For one week, the whole city of Athens is coming to a complete stop.
Everyone’s going to the drama festival, the Great Dionysia, in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine, theatre, and fertility.
For the audience, it’s all FREE. The city gives 5% of its enormous annual defence budget to the arts, and wealthy individuals – choregoi (pl.) choregos (sing.) – spend massively on choruses, directors, and actors. The city even pays the poor to attend.
Some of the great playwrights – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – have competed for the roars – and the tears – of the crowd. For the winner is effectively chosen not by an expert panel or an artistic director, but by the audience itself. After all, this is where democracy was invented.
The playwright gets the acclaim, and the choregos, the lavish sponsor, gets the prestige and the prize, a ceremonial tripod.
This year it is the rich Athenian Lysicrates, and to celebrate his win he builds a graceful little monument in marble. It still stands in Athens today.
Athens! Where the great ideas of western civilisation first appeared – democracy, the rule of law, the contest of ideas, the love of beauty and harmony, philosophy, science and poetry, the exploration of the complexities of human behaviour, and the belief that everyone could understand, and have a legitimate opinion on, politics and art.
2500 years later, those ideas still move and govern us. And they are all expressed right there in that lovely Lysicrates Monument.
For uncounted centuries the Lysicrates Monument lay hidden in a Capuchin monastery. In 1810, the poet Lord Byron lodged at the Monastery, and wrote some of his most powerful poetry sitting inside the neglected and decaying monument.
Poet Lord Byron
In just the same way as the monument slumbered neglected for hundreds of years, those noble ideas lay dormant in the West.
But both monument and ideas were to re-emerge, almost at the same time, in a burst of enlightenment and fresh thinking.
It was the dawn of the modern world. And for us it started in the 18th century.
In 1752, two young Englishmen, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, travelled to Athens to sketch antiquities. There, they found Lysicrates’ beautiful little monument. Hidden and ignored, it was the most enchanting discovery of their tour. Their detailed sketches of it appeared in a magnificent book.
Cut to the new southern land, nearly a century later. The new governor of New South Wales, Sir John Young, has brought that magnificent book to Sydney. He gives it to a classical enthusiast called James Martin.
Few people today know who the centre of Sydney, Martin Place, is named after. But the story of James Martin is an amazing and inspiring one.
Engravings of the Lysicrates monument
made by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett
Sir James Martin during his time
as Chief Justice of NSW
Born in Ireland: in 1820, County Cork
Arrived in Australia: in 1821 with his family and lived in the servants’ quarters of Parramatta Government House
Achievements: Published author by age 18, journalist, solicitor, QC, Attorney-General, three times Premier, and Chief Justice of NSW
James was born in 1820, in County Cork in Ireland, the son of John Martin, a castle steward, and his aspiring wife, Mary. In search of a better life for his little son in the new southern land, John came to New South Wales in 1821 to work as a lowly horse groom to Governor Thomas Brisbane.
The family was lodged in the servants’ quarters of Parramatta Government House, and young James grew up shovelling horse manure in the loose boxes.
But he read. And read. And soaked up his lessons in the little Parramatta primary school with its one, ex-convict, teacher. By the time he was 12, everyone, especially his mother, could see that this boy was something special. What a waste if he just stopped learning and spent his whole life working in stables. He had to go to high school.
But there wasn’t one in Parramatta. The best one was in Sydney, 21km away. To make it possible, father John tried to get a job in Sydney, but he failed. So the boy just said, “I’ll walk”.
For two years, this determined, talented kid walked, hitched rides, stayed overnight in Sydney, did everything he could, to go on with his education.
Martin’s life motto was: ‘Either I’ll find the way, or I’ll make it’
He went to Sydney Grammar, and there he was a star. He learned about those noble ideas of democracy, the rule of law, philosophy, science, and harmony and beauty. He loved the classics.
At eighteen, he went into journalism, and by his early twenties he was a feared editor. It was not enough. He went into the law, and by his late thirties he had become a highly successful jurist. It was still not enough. He went into politics, and became Attorney-General, and Premier of New South Wales. He ended his career, and his life, as Chief Justice, the only person to have accomplished all that in the history of the state.
Martin was a passionate advocate for self-reliance for the colony; an architect of Australia’s first public education system; the instigator of many schemes to educate street urchins; and a mentor to Henry Parkes, the father of Federation.
A triumphant, and almost completely forgotten, life.
In 1868, while he was living in “Clarens” in Potts Point, Martin commissioned, and paid for, our glorious sandstone copy of the monument that the wealthy choregos Lysicrates had built to celebrate his win in 334 BC. Just as the ancient marble one had embodied the great classical ideas, so did the sandstone replica express them for the new southern land. And just as the ideas actualised in the monument made Martin, so did Martin make the monument.
Statue of James Martin walking to school as a child
– commissioned by The Lysicrates Foundation in
2017 to commemorate his achievements
The Lysicrates Monument replica where
it stood in Martin’s garden in Potts Point
During World War II ‘Clarens’ was resumed by the Department of the Interior and the garden marked for demolition to make way for the new graving dock at nearby Garden Island. Now the Sydney Morning Herald journalist “Fritz” Burnell began a campaign to save it, and soon the Country (now National) Party NSW Minister for Education David Drummond agreed and gave his support. A change of government saw the advent of a Labour Minister for Education, Clive Evatt, who made the decision to put it in the magnificent position where it is today.
It was re-erected in 1943 by the Labor Premier (Sir) William McKell (the second Premier to establish a link with the monument; the third would be Mike Baird during the inaugural Lysicrates Prize in 2015).
Appropriately it was resettled at Farm Cove, Sydney, a place which – etymologically speaking – shares its name with the god, Dionysus, in whose honour the original monument in Athens was first dedicated.
- The name ‘Sydney’ stems etymologically from the French ‘St Denis’ (i.e ‘St Dionysius’) which in turn derives from the name ‘Dionysus’.
Cut to 2014. John and Patricia Azarias are taking a stroll in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. They notice Martin’s lovely monument. Saddened, they see its delicate sandstone crumbling after decades of wind and rain, the frieze blurred and indistinct. John makes up his mind to raise the funds to restore it to its former glory. And Patricia suggests another restoration – of the drama competition.
And so it came to pass. With public and private funds, the monument has been triumphantly restored. And not one, but two, drama competitions have been created. Both are free. It’s Theatre for All. And in both, the winner is chosen by the audience. Just like in ancient Athens.
But in today’s Australia, it’s the playwright that gets the prize.
The Lysicrates monument replica, located in the
Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney, NSW
The motto of the Lysicrates Foundation is
“To all scribblers, daubers, and assorted eggheads – a society’s real treasures”
The Lysicrates Foundation
The Lysicrates Foundation was founded by John and Patricia Azarias as a not-for-profit organisation promoting the performing arts and the visual arts in Australia.
The Foundation will pursue its purpose by, among other things, staging an annual playwriting competition known as The Lysicrates Prize Competition and funding the maintenance of the Choregic Monument of Lysicrates in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden.
– Theatre for all
The Lysicrates Foundation was originally established with two goals. Firstly to raise funds for the restoration of the monument. The second was to have a theatre competition based on the ancient Athenian model – one which would challenge Australia’s playwrights, showcase the country’s acting and directing talent, be attended by all ages and kinds of people across Sydney’s postcodes, and be judged not by a panel of experts but by the people in the audience themselves.
Like the Greeks, the foundation believes that theatre is for all, not just a tiny elite.
Inspired by James Martin who believed that this is a society where any child, of whatever background, can, with enough determination, make his or her own future; another goal of the foundation is to further that idea today.
The dreams of the foundation seem to be constantly replenished. The Lysicrates Foundations envisions a move to the iconic Opera House, and – because four hundred people in a theatre can never be “theatre for all” – a live streaming of the Lysicrates Play Competition, where a viewers’ prize is awarded after the plays have been on this website for one month.
It has been a thrilling ride, in great company. The foundation’s heartfelt thanks go to all involved.
Katie-Ann Houghton, Glass Trophy Artist
Illustrations kindly created by Jacquelyn Pennay