Saturday, 8 December 2012

Production Team and Cast

The Production Team

Director- Rebecca Speller
Producers- Natalie Denton, Philippa Douglas & Rahel Morten

The Cast

Hecuba: Laura Burnett
Talthybius: Jasper Bartlett
Cassandra: Bethan Lloyd
Andromache: Lucy Chappell
Menelaus: Luke Seabright
Helen: Hannah Baker
Poseidon: Thomas Smith
Athena: Hannah Harris
Chorus: Eleanor Collerton
             Faidra Faitaki 
             Wiebke Green
             Soryah Haggarty
             Aislinn O'Reilly
             Fiona Padfield
             Lucille Steward
            Amanda Tavares 
Soldiers: Joao Francisco Fisher
               Howard Horner
               Luke McEvoy
               William Van Mossevelde
               Freddie Wilson

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The UCL Classical Play 2013 is Euripides' Trojan Women, in a translation by Alan Shapiro.

The war is over. Troy has fallen. Abandoned by their gods and bereft of their men, the city's women wait inside a prison camp to be shipped off to a life of slavery, and discover that their suffering is far from over. Euripides' tragedy offers a deeply moving evocation of the horrors of war, but also an enduring picture of human fortitude in the midst of despair. This production, set in World War II, showcases the continuing relevance of one of the most powerful anti-war plays ever written.

Produced in Athens in the spring of 415 BC, Euripides' Trojan Women dramatises the aftermath of war by focusing on the unique perspective of the captive women of Troy. Led by their former queen Hecuba, the women bemoan their fallen city and the prospect of a new life in a foreign land as slaves of the savage conquering Greeks. A timeless tale of defeat and destruction, the play gives voice to the grief and experience of women in war.

Euripides (c. 480-c. 406 BC) was the youngest and most provocative of the three great Athenian tragedians. Though he wrote about ninety plays, only nineteen survive. Trojan Women was produced when Euripides was sixty-nine years old as the final part of a trilogy consisting of two lost plays, Alexandra and Palamedes along with a satyr play, Sisyphus. It was awarded second prize at the Great Dionysia festival in Ancient Athens.

Ancient Plays for Modern Minds: A Public Engagement Programme

To complement the production of Trojan Women, we shall be offering a series of talks and workshops which aim to illuminate the play and its context and to bring Euripides to life for a modern generation. This exciting programme includes talks by academic experts on ancient drama and its reception, as well as interactive workshops by contemporary theatre practitioners. There are events on every day of the play’s performance, and each talk or workshop deals with an important angle of interpreting or performing the play. All of our speakers have experience in working with schools, and the events will be suitable for students of Classics, Classical Studies, and Drama, as well as accessible to those without prior experience of Greek drama.

Schedule for 2013

All events are free of charge and open to all. However, the participatory nature of the workshops means that space is limited, and pre-booking is therefore essential. We would also recommend pre-booking for the lectures, in order to avoid potential disappointment on the day: please reserve places for your group by emailing Rosa Andújar. The workshops will last approximately 2 hours; the talks will last approximately 45 minutes, with time for questions at the end. Please note that workshop participants should be aged 16 and above.

Tuesday 5th February 3.15-5.15pm - Participatory Workshop: David Stuttard: 'What's Hecuba to Him?' 
6.00-7.00pm - Public Talk by Professor Simon Goldhill (Cambridge). Venue: Roberts Building G08, Sir David Davies Lecture Theatre.

Wednesday 6th February 3.15-5.15pm - Participatory Workshop: Russell Bender: 'Physical Approaches to the Greek Chorus'.
6.00-7.00pm - Public Talk by Professor Chris Carey (UCL). Venue: Roberts Building G06, Sir Ambrose Fleming Lecture Theatre.

Thursday 7th February 3.15-5.15pm - Participatory Workshop: Deborah Pugh: 'Pushing The Space In Choral Work'
6.00-7.00pm - Public Talk by Dr Rosa Andújar (UCL). Venue: Wilkins Building, Second Floor, Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

some thoughts

A month after we were introduced to the blog, and almost a week after the final performance, I (Charlie/Hippolytus) have decided to stick some thoughts down in nostalgia. Just want to say I had a tip top time first of all. things I will remember fondly are getting bloodied up in the wings twice a day for three days, musical buzzy bees, pretending to be a sexy deer with Christian in our first rehearsal, playing in general for long periods during rehearsals, doing pilates in the wings, the threat of being slapped with a fish before going on stage. many things I guess. and performing to over 500 people man! crazy people, crazy fun.

Review in The Times

Tragicomic Performance Hippolytus was anything but cheerful. Blood all over the place. But what a performance! I’ve hardly read Euripides and never seen his work staged, but Ann Carson’s translation was thrillingly vernacular and the UCL Classical Drama Society’s production explosive. Like so much classical stuff it’s all about sex and violence: Aphrodite’s revenge on the young man who wants purity more than her body. The wicked goddess fills his stepmother with desire for him, driving her to suicide and inflaming his father with rage. And boy, is the son’s ending violent, dragged across the rocks by his own horses. Among powerful performances by Eleanor Wright (The Nurse) and Rohan Pai (the messenger), both wonderfully natural, Charlie Satow really stood out as Hippolytus. It’s curious to watch a player teetering on the cusp (as Laurence Olivier sometimes did) between sheer brilliance and ham. With Satow you were at one moment gripped by his passionate innocence, sincerity and lovely poetic diction… and the next stifling a giggle at one convulsion too many in his death throes, whispering “don’t overact” and feeling sneaking sympathy for Aphrodite’s impatience with his whinnying self righteousness. But a great performance by Satow, a great play and, in a rather different way from the White Swan, a great night. - Matthew Parris, The Times, p26, 16/02/12.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Artemis, Hippolytus, and sexuality

Before the play’s first performance yesterday, we had a fantastic lecture by Professor Judith Mossman from Nottingham University, who spoke eloquently about the role of the gods in Hippolytus. One of the things that Judith stressed in her lecture was the importance of distinguishing between what Hippolytus thinks Artemis represents, and what the audience would have understood about Artemis from their own religious experience. I thought this was a very important insight, and it got me thinking about how this relates to the research I’ve done in the past on the play, particularly with regard to gender and sexuality.

It can be tempting to see Artemis and Aphrodite as polar opposites, and as representing opposing forces in human life: Artemis as purity and chastity, Aphrodite as unbridled sexuality. In the play, this perspective is compounded by the attitudes of the goddesses’ human agents: Hippolytus, the servant of Artemis, rejects all forms of sexuality, while Phaedra, who acts as Aphrodite’s unwitting agent, is consumed by uncontrollable desire. Yet within the play we find several clues that this extreme position represents only a partial account of the goddesses’ true nature, and the role that they played in religion and society.

While Artemis is a virgin goddess, and the patron of unmarried girls, in Greek life, virginity was always a temporary state which looked forward to a change: the main purpose of a Greek girl’s life was to marry and produce children. Although poetry which deals with young girls’ transitions often expresses reluctance and fear regarding these life changes, it does so in a context which celebrates the transition as a positive and important event. In religion, this is reflected by Artemis’ status as the patron of childbirth as well as virginity: her role was to guide girls in their journey from maidens to mothers, and to protect them during this final and most dangerous transition. Yet Hippolytus perceives Artemis as representing eternal virginity, and any form of sexuality posing a threat to her worship. This is encapsulated in his first scene, when he offers her a garland from an ‘untouched meadow’, which has never known agriculture or pasture, and which only those who are sophron (chaste or self-controlled) can enter. The meadow in Greek thought represents a potential location for seduction; a lush and attractive wilderness in which young girls in myth are frequently seduced, or even abducted, yet Hippolytus here attempts to sanitise the meadow, and present it as a controlled and sealed environment. This is reinforced by the prayer at the end of his speech to ‘end life’s race as I began it’; yet trying to resist change and adulthood is a futile effort, and one which disregards the important religious role that Artemis held in this sphere.

Similarly, Hippolytus’ view of Aphrodite as representing uncontrolled lust is also out of kilter with her real worship. We are reminded of this by the Nurse, who tells Phaedra that Aphrodite is unbearable in full force, but gentle to those who yield to her. While Phaedra’s adulterous lust for Hippolytus would have been considered deeply distasteful, a Greek audience would also have understood that Aphrodite as goddess of love and desire, has an important place in society: specifically within the bounds of marriage. We are reminded of the possibility of sexuality as a positive force in human life in the chorus’ second stasimon, where they imagine flying away as birds to the ends of the earth, and imaging coming to the garden of the Hesperides, where Zeus and Hera consummated their marriage. Here we find an alternative garden to Hippolytus’ airtight meadow; one which allows human love and fertility to be celebrated, while the marriage of Zeus and Hera stands as a prototype for all human marriages. Our directors have taken the decision to stage this ode as a dance between the male and female choruses; this further enhances the marital imagery in the song, and offers the possibility of a harmonious relationship between the sexes, which the characters in the play are tragically unable to attain.

In conclusion, then, we should not be tricked into accepting Hippolytus’ polarising view of the two goddesses, a view which is rooted in his own profound inability to accept sexuality as a natural part of the human experience. Rather, the play reminds us that Artemis and Aphrodite can represent a continuum of human life, even if this aspect is something that the characters in the play are unable themselves to experience.  (Laura Swift)

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Opening Night - These Being The Nocturnal Ramblings Of Nakul Pande

So...we got through the first night. Actually, that is one hell of an understatement: tonight was a resounding success, and I feel I should give you my take on exactly why that was the case. It's been approximately four hours since the first performance ended, and though the adrenaline still hasn't quite worn off I'll do my best to give you a coherent picture of what the big night is like for those of us lucky enough to get to tread the Bloomsbury boards. This is my third consecutive year in the UCL Greek Play, and in my experience the first night is a generally a very nervy affair - not so much performing as attempting to overcome a series of minor (and occasionally major) crises in front of 300-500 people who may or may not want to be there. As a result the product that is presented to the audience tends to leave a bit to be desired in terms of intensity. Tonight was different. Maybe it was the first unveiling of the full costumes. Maybe it was the 7pm psyche-up session in the green room. Maybe it was just the coffee. But from the first spellbinding frame of the projection of Aphrodite to Theseus' final despairing lament, every single actor was fully locked in to what they were meant to be doing and why. In particular the choruses - of which I am proud to call myself a member - seemed to take to heart the directors' instructions to outdo each other emotionally speaking, which created a virtuous circle - the strong and at times vocal reactions of the chorus drew in even the most easily distracted members of the audience, thus providing the principal characters (especially Hippolytus, Phaedra and Theseus) with the perfect atmosphere in which to really commit to Anne Carson's powerful translation, which in turn gave the chorus the confidence to react vigorously to the crescendo of horror taking place in front of them. Being in the chorus gives you the unique opportunity to both be involved in and watch the action simultaneously - indeed, within the context of the play we are the first audience, with the people in the seats a step further removed - and this rare synergy of leads, chorus and spectators was especially notable during the closing scene where Theseus and his mortally wounded son are poignantly re-united after the revelations of Artemis - there were real tears cried tonight. For someone of my very limited acting range, being able to work off people who can be so emotionally in the moment is a gift. Vaguely-expressed thespian gubbins aside, the energy levels of everyone even vaguely involved tonight were incredible, which made the whole night a seriously enjoyable experience. Well done, every last one of you. Let's have more of the same tomorrow please (well, today now if we're being pedantic). Nakul Pande, male chorus

Sunday, 5 February 2012

only a few days to go...

It is 10:00 am on a Sunday morning, the time when any normal student is still in bed, perhaps with a hangover, and settling down for a Sunday morning of iPlayer, black coffee and mild panic over next weeks work. There is no such luxury for anyone involved in Hippolytus this year. Having struggled through the overnight snow, which has delayed the tube and buses and frozen the feet of those walking in, the cast are in University for their final run through of the play. The next time they meet it will be the dress rehearsal that happens just before opening night.

As the chorus run through their dance, I had a quick word with Louise, who plays the Goddess Aphrodite, and asked her about her play experiences:

How are you feeling now there are only a few days to go?
It’s a little bit surreal. Particularly for me as I have not been in as many rehearsals as the chorus, who have been rehearsing since Christmas. I think when we get into the theatre it will start to feel more real.

Have you enjoyed the rehearsal experience?
Yes. It’s been really good.  It was much more one on one for me, as my character has no interaction with the main cast. The filming (for the projected video) was really good. It was horrendously cold though!

How have you gone about embodying the Goddess of Love and Desire?
(says something I cannot put into print!) No, don’t put that in! I’ve gone about analysing the emotions in the script - what she wants and why. And also understanding that confidence – she can do whatever she wants – she IS sex and beauty – she is all of those things. It’s trying to get that complete and all encompassing confidence, and conveying that. It would have been easy to say, “I’m so sexy” and be obvious, like when girls put on loads of make up, and act a certain way. But it’s more than that, it’s the complete and unfaltering belief that she is the most beautiful, that she IS desire. Desire can be terrible and dark, and she is embodying that side of things and is abusing it simply because she can.

Has there been anything unique about acting in a Greek Tragedy, as opposed to any other form of theatre?
I think that didn’t affect me as much as the chorus. The lines, because it’s a translation, are a bit stylised. But because I don’t have to interact as much, it didn’t affect me. But I think it will be accessible.

What have the Producers been up to?

This last week has been very stressful for all involved. We have been signing contracts and organising the crew, whilst trying to attend the rehearsals to see how the play is progressing.
One of the major pieces of work was finalising the programme available for purchase at the performance. Abi and I, as producers, put it together and, considering we have no experience in graphic design, we are really proud of the result. The cover image is the same as the poster, which features the picture taken for us by one of our directors, Illy. But the inside is just as important, and we are so thankful to the academic staff of the Greek and Latin department UCL, who have contributed articles to help explain the history, symbolism, and significance of Hippolytus. We hope this programme will provide a valuable academic resource for the school groups who have booked seats. You can also find the original drawings of the costumes, cast biographies, and information about organisations and events to do with Classics around London.

One of the issues with student theatre is that a careful balance must be struck between our focus on putting on an amazing play and academic work. Combining rehearsals and class timetables and essays can mean that not everyone can attend all rehearsals, and this can mean that we do not run through the complete play until the dress rehearsal. This does not make for a relaxing experience, as there is always the fear that someone has been overlooked, or one scene is not run through enough, but the lines are learned and the dances choreographed and it looks amazing.  Everyone involved has been working hard to complete their coursework before Playweek, and now we are at liberty to devote ourselves to the play for the next few days.  Abi and I are here for the final run-through, and we are blocking the performance in order to give our backstage crew the most detailed notes possible at the Tech rehearsal tomorrow. We have makeup artists, prop managers, and stage crew awaiting instruction and the wonderful Jo Golding at the Bloomsbury has designed our lighting.

So with the programmes made, the rights signed off on, and the crew raring to go, we are ready for playweek to begin!


Saturday, 4 February 2012

A Study in Make-Up

As part of the process of creating our "world of Hippolytus" we explored many ideas to complete and complement the themes and costumes of the production.

Abi (Producer) and Millie (Director) a.k.a exactly one half of the production and directorial team spend an incredible hour or so in a professional stage make up shop and took great care to source the right products to make the characters come to life on stage.

After a long day of rehearsing with the cast we came home and couldn't resist "testing" the bruise palette and fake blood...which led to a good few hours of transforming Abi into every character in the play - even the boys!

Needless to say it was a good way to spend a snowy evening! Abi's final words were "My face is sore!" However, we recognised that we needed to adjust important aspects of the make-up, such as enlongating the brow in the Nurse and Female Chorus characters to accentuate the bird like aspects, to define bone structure and complement the exaggerated flick of the eyeliner. 

We also experimented with the layering of the colours to create authentic bruises and bloody injuries for Hippolytus' death scene. 

Here is the photographic evidence:

Abi as a man...It took a while to get used to the stippling sponge and we now know that only a little product is needed to creat a natural effect.
 Practising using the bruise wheel and fake blood:

 Using the grey base and purple shadow to create Phaedra's corpse make-up:
 Practising the accentuated, feathered flick for the Nurse's eyeliner:
 Provisional fully made-up Nurse:

 Natural and dewy look for the Goddesses:
 The Bird of Paradise make-up for the female chorus:
 Above is without accentuated eyebrows, the rest is the final provisional look:

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Hippolytus the name

Hippolytus was not a popular name in Athens, for obvious reasons: the Athenians generally avoided the names of mythological characters who came to a sticky end, or who were particularly unpleasant (homicidal, adulterous, etc). But in Lycia (at Kadyanda) we do find a man called Hippolytus. Is this because a) the Lycians were so barbarous that they took mythological names without knowing what they implied? -- or b) because Hippolytus had a curiously similar experience to the Lycian hero Bellerophon with an amorous and (when rejected) vengeful step-mother. A curious coincidence.  (Stephen Colvin)

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The lost plays of the Athenians

The blog 'Classic Plays' says that we need not worry that the accident of survival has left us with a body of plays which the Athenians would have regarded as mediocre.  But should we worry that some masterpieces have been lost?  Tom Stoppard suggested in his play 'Arcadia' in 1993 how we should think about that.  In a scene set in 1809 a young girl, Thomasina Coverly, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge, discuss the consequences of the mass destruction of papyri in the burning of the library at Alexandria, allegedly by Julius Caesar in 48 BC.  There is the following dialogue:

THOMASINA:           I hate Cleopatra.  Everything is turned to love with her.  I never knew a heroine that makes such noodles of our sex. It only needs a Roman general to drop anchor outside the window and away goes the empire like a christening mug into a pawn shop.  She embraced the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue.  Oh, Septimus! - can you bear it?  All the lost plays of the Athenians!  Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides - thousands of poems - Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors!  How can we sleep for grief?

SEPTIMUS:                By counting our stock.  Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady!  You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or your lesson book which will be lost when you are old.  We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.  The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.  Ancient cures for diseases will revel themselves once more.  Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.  You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

Just reading that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  And ten years after Stoppard wrote those lines came this: - not a complete long-lost play of Aeschylus but who knows what may turn up one day.

About Hipploytus

About Hipploytus.  One difference that seventeenth and eighteenth century writers recognised between ancient and modern tragedy was the greater willingness of modern writers to make use of love as a factor influencing characters’ behaviour and the course of the play.  As Gildon argued in 1694, using the theme of love made tragedy ‘a more perfect image of human life, in taking in that which has so great a share in it’ and did not detract from tragedy’s majesty and gravity.  It was easy to see Phaedra as a character who was driven by the power of love, but what about Hippolytus who expressly rejects it?
(As a side thought – is Hippolytus gay?  Just look at the Chorus of young boys with whom he surrounds himself.  The ancient Greeks wouldn’t have batted an eye at that.  Is it an interpretation our modern audience will favour?)
John Dennis translated part of Euripides’ play in 1696 but gave up the idea of making an adaptation of it because he couldn’t work out what to do with Hippolytus.  He argued that, when poets used familiar characters, they should give them the qualities they were widely known to have had, which would mean sticking with Euripides’ portrayal of Hippolytus as immune from the passion of love.  But that would not be suitable for the English stage which would never tolerate a principal character who was ‘averse from love’.
Racine had found a solution but only by abandoning Euripides’ characterisation of Hippolytus.  Racine introduces a young woman named Aricie whom Hippolytus loves.  This contributes to the tragedy in two ways.  First, Aricie is the sister and daughter of former enemies of Theseus, and Hippolytus’ love for her is forbidden.  Racine saw Hippolytus’ persistence in his love for Aricie as a weakness in his character.  The traditional portrayal of Hippolytus made him too perfect a character whose death would arouse indignation rather than pity in the audience and Racine hoped to remedy that with this change.  Second, Phèdre is consumed by jealousy when she realises that Hippolytus, who has rejected her, loves Aricie instead.  She decides against confessing to Theseus that her Nurse’s story that Hippolytus tried to rape her is false and abandons Hippolytus to the consequences of his father’s curse.
Racine’s version was given an added dimension in productions of Ted Hughes’ adaptation of it.  In 1998 Diana Rigg played Phèdre opposite Toby Stephens’ Hippolytus in the Almeida Theatre’s production at the Albery; and at the National Theatre in 2009 those parts were played by Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper.  In both cases Phèdre was represented as much older than Hippolytus, making a poignant last bid for love.

Phaedra's modesty

When I’m not trying to remember my lines as the Servant, I’m researching what writers in seventeenth and eighteenth century England thought about ancient Greek tragedy.  Some of them recorded their reactions to Euripides’ Hippolytus.  John Dryden in 1679 recalled that Euripides was censured by the critics of his time for making his chief characters too wicked, giving the example of Phaedra who, although she loved her son-in-law reluctantly and was acting under Aphrodite’s curse by, ‘was thought too ill a pattern for the stage’.  That seems a harsh judgment today.
Jeremy Collier in 1698 was more indulgent to Phaedra.  Collier attacked what he saw as the immorality and profaneness of English Restoration comedy and one of his tactics was to claim that the ancient Greek stage was much more moral and decent notwithstanding its paganism.  He argued that Euripides was careful to show women as modest in their manners and that he therefore represented Phaedra doing all she could to conceal her passion for Hippolytus, being ‘as regular and reserved in her language as the most virtuous matron’, and keeping her modesty even after she had lost her wits.  One of Collier’s critics was not convinced that Euripides kept things so chaste after all, pointing to what he regarded as the immodest and smutty language of the Nurse when she eggs Phaedra on.  But Collier’s point was that characters of high social standing, such as Phaedra, should be written so as to set an example of modesty and decorum for the audience.  He did not expect such high standards in the portrayal of lesser characters, excusing Plautus’ use of lewd language because it occurred ‘only in prostituted and vulgar people’ such as slaves and therefore was not likely to be imitated by the audience.  Collier’s view of Phaedra’s modest restraint was echoed in 1718 by Charles Gildon and in 1729 by George Adams (who produced the first complete English translation of Sophocles) who saw Phaedra’s sense of honour overcoming her passion and preventing her uttering the least immodest expression.
The character of Hippolytus was a little more problematical for seventeenth and eighteenth century critics.  But that’s enough for now.

What we see and what we don't

When watching the play all the way through after my appearance as the Servant, I was struck not only by the confrontations that Euripides sets up but by those he avoids showing us directly.  We don’t see Phaedra with either Hippolytus or her husband Theseus (not while she’s alive, anyway).  It’s the Nurse who tells Hippolytus that Phaedra desires him.  Some of that conversation takes place offstage, a dramatic device that enables Euripides to avoid showing Hippolytus and Phaedra together while yet allowing Hippolytus to communicate indirectly with Phaedra, since she overhears angry words that he addresses at the Nurse and that makes her decide to kill herself.  We last see Phaedra at the exact mid-point of the play.  By the time Theseus enters she is dead and he is met by her corpse, but again there is indirect communication between them because Theseus finds a note clenched in her hand in which she accuses Hippolytus of raping her.  Clever stuff.  The rest of the play is dominated by scenes involving Theseus and Hippolytus.  All that made it clear to me why Euripides called his play Hippolytus, not Phaedra.  I wonder if the audience at our production will see it the same way that I did at rehearsal.
By contrast, in 1677 the French playwright Jean Racine named his version of the story Phèdre.  Racine puts his title character more at the centre of the play than Euripides did.  He called her the play’s tragic heroine on Aristotleian lines, neither completely guilty nor completely innocent.  He shows Phèdre admitting her feelings to Hippolytus and his rejection of her.  Also, Racine keeps her alive until ten lines from the end of the play when she dies from having taken poison out of remorse at her responsibility for Hippolytus’ death, while putting most of the blame on her Nurse.  Racine’s version, which Ted Hughes adapted in 1998, shows how the richness of Greek myth can be exploited and enjoyed across the millennia.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Classic plays

For us Athenian tragedy consists of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.  Each was a giant in his own day. And collectively they towered over the theatre of the fifth century.  We can see this from a simple fact.  In 405 BCE Aristophanes produced a play, Frogs, with a plot based on competition between prominent tragic playwrights.  The authors he uses as his two competitors are Aeschylus and Euripides. A third writer is mentioned, Sophocles; he is given far less space than these two, but the play sees him as possessing the same artistic stature as the chosen two. But there are only the three. There is never any question of any fourth tragedian coming into consideration. 

So we need not worry that the accident of survival has left us with a body of plays which the Athenians would have regarded as mediocre. But each of the big three competed against, and occasionally lost to, other tragic poets who are now just names but were respected craftsmen in their day.  In 415 BCE Euripides’ Alexandros, Palamedes and Trojan Women (with the satyr play Sisyphos) lost to a poet named Xenocles.  When Euripides (with his Medea) and Sophocles competed with Aeschylus’ son Euphorion in 431, Euphorion beat both Euripides and Sophocles. These ‘others’ are just names because of a process of generating classics which had begun by the end of the fifth century.  Aeschylus died in the 450s; 30 years after his death his status was such that it was formally allowed to produce an old play of Aeschylus at the dramatic festivals instead of a new play written for the occasion.  And by the early fourth century it was possible to revive old tragedies by authors other than Aeschylus at the festivals.

Hand in hand with this nostalgia for the theatre of the past went a marked preference for the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.  Their works were sufficiently popular not only with festival producers but also troupes of actors who by this time toured the Greek world for the Athenians to become worried about the risk to the texts of the plays. The risk came from the desire of actors to make the most of promising or popular character roles or scenes by adding lines, purple passages or speeches. So the politician Lycurgus arranged for reliable texts to be archived at Athens to protect them against further corruption. Only the trio of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were singled out for protection in this way, a fair indication that by this stage they were unanimously acknowledged in Athens as ‘classics’, as they had been for Aristophanes three quarters of  century earlier.

This taste for the big three was given the final seal of authority at Alexandria in the age after Alexander the great. In the third century BCE a library was founded at Alexandria in Egypt. This library, the most ambitious in the world in its day, became the repository of the great texts of the past. The librarians made strenuous efforts to collect as many texts as they could. In addition, scholars attached to the library worked on the texts, seeking both to reduce the errors which had crept into them through the process of copying by hand and to comment on literary and other matters in the text for the benefit of an intelligent reading public. Their selection of texts for serious study created semi-formal lists of works which (in their view) deserved to be read. The term often given by modern writers to a list of this sort is ‘canon’, though there was no single ancient term.  These lists were never intended to limit the opportunities for reading; this was not an attempt at censorship. But the fact that there was a group of texts surrounded by an apparatus of support for the reader will have focused particular attention on the texts which were privileged in this way. The Alexandrian list of tragic poets consisted of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the triad of classics recognized already in Athens.
There was another consequence of ‘canonization’. To see this we need scroll forward several centuries; and we need to note two facts. The first is that between the second and the fourth centuries AD there was a major technology transfer. Early books took the form of a continuous papyrus roll, that is a continuous piece of papyrus a metre or more long, on which the text was written in successive columns. As a method of presenting the text this was serviceable enough, as we can see from the fact that it was used for centuries; but it had drawbacks. One drawback was that the roll has to be rewound after reading for the next reader. Another was that (since there were no ‘pages’) reference to specific places in a text was difficult. From the second century, probably under the influence of bible production, this type of book was replaced by the ‘codex’, the name given in antiquity to the book in the form that we know it. This format is more efficient, in that it allows large texts to be compiled (where a roll which has to be rolled and unrolled becomes very clumsy) and it allows easy reference to specific passages in the text. The second fact is that readers in late antiquity were reading a smaller range of authors and texts. Works which come with scholarly support for the reader stood a better chance of making the transfer from roll to codex and therefore continuing to be copied and read. And both of these were vital for survival. The availability of scholarly aids also made certain texts more useful in the schoolroom. Once Christianity replaced paganism as the dominant religion, pagan literature needed to have a visible educational value if it was to be studied, and therefore copied. The content of the text was clearly vital here; but again the cumulative effect of prior privileging would be to give an advantage to those texts for which scholarly support was available.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A servant's regrets

In the play I am an old servant who has watched Hppolytus growing up.  I'm worried that he's spending too much time following the goddess Artemis by devoting himself to her great pleasure, hunting.  It's not that I'm against hunting as such, but I think he needs to get more balance into his life.  I advise him to start respecting the goddess Aphrodite by engaging with his emotional, sexual side.  Admittedly I phrase it a little more subtly than that.  But it's not my fault that the first time temptation comes his way it comes via the nurse of his stepmother, Phaedra, who reveals that Phaedra desires him.  And I didn't know that Aphrodite herself had already vowed to destroy Hippolytus for neglecting her and to ruin Phaedra as well.  Obviously I'm not responsible for what happens next.  But I can't help thinking that perhaps I should have spoken to Hippolytus sooner.  If I'd done so, he might not have incurred Aphrodite's anger in the first place.  And he might have been better equipped to react to what the nurse tells him without leaving Phaedra feeling humiliated and determined to kill herself and blame him.  But it's too late now.

Friday, 13 January 2012

ancient and modern performance space

Hippolytus is such a powerful play, and many of its themes so enduring, that it can be hard to believe that it was written more than two thousand years ago. Yet the original context in which the play was performed was very different to the experience that our audience will have when they come to see it at the Bloomsbury.

Image from Wikipedia. The seats in the Bloomsbury are much more comfortable

This is an image of the Theatre of Dionysus: the theatrical space of Athens, where Hippolytus would have been first performed in 428 BC. The theatre wouldn’t actually have looked like this at that date: the stone seats and buildings were put in later, and Euripides’ audience would have been sitting on wooden benches. It’s immediately noticeable how much larger this is than any modern performance space: whereas the Bloomsbury’s maximum capacity is 535 people, ancient theatres could hold thousands. Scholars disagree on how many people the Theatre of Dionysus could have held, but even the most conservative estimates suggest that between 4000 and 7000 people could have attended each performance.

Modern theatre audiences are also used to seeing each play in isolation, and a performance only takes up a small section of the day. But Euripides’ original audience would have seen Hippolytus as part of a full-day spectacle, involving two other tragedies and finishing with a humorous satyr-play, all by Euripides. Moreover, the tragedy performances lasted for three days, with two other poets also allocated a day to stage their four dramas. The reason for such a long line-up of dramatic performances was that Hippolytus, like all Greek tragedies, was originally part of a competition - one more thing we don't have to worry about. The three dramatists who staged their plays at the Great Dionysia were not just putting on art for art’s sake, but were also hoping to be awarded first prize. Hippolytus achieved this for Euripides, providing him with one of his rare victories.

And the tragedy performances were only part of the whole event: the festival of the Great Dionysia also contained performances of comedy and choral poetry (dithyramb), as well as other festive and civic events. It can be hard for us to believe that people were prepared to devote so much time to watching drama and poetry – though in fact it’s not as alien as all that, since audiences at music festivals will happily give up several days to watch live performances of their favourite bands, often in conditions much less comfortable than an ancient theatre.