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Historically, the Zakynthian people have had a very close relationship with the theatre exemplified by the contribution of important local playwrights to the history of Greek theatre and the presence of a large number of theatre buildings on the island. However, most remarkable is the production of the outdoor people’s theatre called Homilies that stretch back several centuries until the present day.

In Zakynthos, formal theatrical activity seems to have begun as early as the 16th century with the small scale production of Persians by Aeschylus in 1571 in the Kastro overlooking Zakynthos Town to celebrate the Battle of Lepanto. In 1637, Erofili by the Cretan writer, George Hortatsis was performed in Zakynthos and from around 1647 the religious drama Evyena (Eugena) written by Zakynthian Theodore Montselese. Surprisingly, it showed few influences of the Cretan Renaissance and contained elements of Zakynthian dialect. However, after the conquest of Crete by the Ottoman Empire in 1669, the intellectual centre of the Greeks moved to the Ionian islands; and as a consequence, many of the theatrical elements of the Cretan Renaissance were transferred to islands like Zakynthos.

Gradually, with the influx of Cretan refugees and influenced by the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, Homilies were performed during Carnival in public places by male actors and singers. Almost all of the Homilies were written and spoken in political verse couplets with significant improvisation during the performance. Homilies also acted as a vehicle for the common people to satirise and lampoon the upper classes. Some of the best surviving historical examples include the People of Yannina by Ioannis Kantounis (1731-1817) and the People of the Morea by Savoyas Rousmelis (c. 18th century). Rousmelis also wrote, The Comedy of Quack Doctors in 1745.

Probably the most famous Omilia, O Hasis (The Loser) was written Dimitrios Gouzelis in 1795. Written in rhymed political verse with significant Zakynthian idiomatic expressions it portrays the typical Zakynthian in several comic situations. Gouzelis also wrote for the ‘learned theatre’.

Regarding the more learned theatre for aristocratic and later bourgoise audiences, in 1683 there is evidence of a performance of Zeno in Zakynthos. The first theatre building was constructed in the Kastro in 1728. It had 300 seats and was funded by Venetian officials and Zakynthian nobles. Performances were held until 1790 when many buildings in the Kastro were abandoned for Zakynthos Town below. In 1780, a second theatre was constructed and stood in front of today's National Bank of Greece building. The Nobile Societa Fillodrammatica del Zante was founded in 1813 which later requested the British administration permission for land to build the fourth theatre in Zakynthos, the Teatro dei Filopatrii. It was built near the prewar Nomarchia building. Given this theatre often served the patriotic purposes of the Greek War of Independence it was dissolved immediately after the Greek revolt of 1821. Importantly, this theatre starred a female actress, Aikaterini Viagini.

The sixth Zakynthian theater was constructed by a group called the Company of Nobles and it was called, Theater Ada. It was demolished in 1834 for unknown reasons. In 1836, the Italian Giuseppe Camilieri with the assistance of wealthy locals created the seventh Zakynthian theater called Apollo. The theatre building was situated in front of the present-day Phoenix Hotel and staged many important theatrical and operatic premieres.

In 1859, Antonios Matesis wrote the Vasilikos which became one of the most emblematic pieces of the Heptanesian School of the Literature. Written in demotic Greek rather than the puristic Greek often popular at the time; interestingly, it was probably the first Greek drama to contain social content.

In 1875, the Municipal Theatre was built and was designed by the famous German architect, Ernst Ziller. It was destroyed in the 1953 earthquake.

Marika Kotopouli, Greek actress of 20th century playing Stella Violanti

Gregorios Xenopoulos (1867–1951) came to prominence towards the end of the 19th century. He was one of the most prominent playwrights from Zakynthos and a towering figure in modern Greek literature. He was also a novelist and journalist. As well as being a writer he was lead editor in the now-legendary magazine The Education of Children during the period from 1896 to 1948 and he was also the founder and editor of the Nea Estia magazine, which is still published. He became a member of the Academy of Athens in 1931, and founded the Society of Greek Writers together with Kostis Palamas, Angelos Sikelianos and Nikos Kazantzakis. Although born in Constantinople. His father, Dionysios, hailed from Zakynthos and his mother, Evlalia came from Constantinople. The family moved to Zakynthos soon after, where Gregorios spent his youth until 1883, when he enrolled in the University of Athens.

Xenopoulos's most famous theatrical plays are The Secret of Countess Valerena (1904) and Stella Violanti (1909). The most common subject of his plays was love but often cloaked with a social message. He attempted to balance between the Ionian School and the New Athenian School. Many of his early plays were set in Zakynthos and are regularly revived in theatres across Greece and several have been adapted for the cinema and television. Xenopoulos also wrote many novels and short stories which were also set in Zakynthos. They are covered above.

The unbroken tradition of Homilies continues to the present day; and like they have done for centuries, Zakynthians continue to lampoon local and nationwide figures.

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