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: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3269965.stm - 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.