Notes for a Gamelan Birds
C. W. Marshall,
Department of Classics,
Every reproduction of a Greek play faces the same limitations when it comes to determining a script. The lines to be delivered are typically only a translated approximation of an OCT text (ideally, the closest one can get to the playwright's original words), and the translation inevitably, no matter how good, will place some limitations on the meaning of the original. The problem is compounded because the same creative mind that wrote the words also choreographed the chorus, set and conducted the music, directed the actors, and (it must be presumed) had some input into costume and masks. Even if the stories surrounding certain collaborative efforts in the last quarter of the fifth-century are based in truth, there is nevertheless so much that would come under the modern rubric of 'the text' associated with the original production of these plays that is irrevocably lost.
Noticing this aporia is surely a commonplace, but needs to be emphasized because the solutions to the problems that have been proposed tend to deny a problem exists. Productions tend to two extremes. Either they attempt to recapture the elusive Greek features by reproducing Greek surfaces (for example, the premise that 'nothing happens on stage in Greek plays', often means actors are told by directors not to move), or they are completely normalized into contemporary production conventions. This is not in any way to condemn attempts to reproduce a Greek feel, or to make the plays accessible: both are surely necessary to every production, and there have of course been several notable successes, especially in recent years, of well-produced and well- received Greek plays.
The question of 'otherness' persists. Either there is a reaching for an ultimately unattainable Greek ideal which will not be fully understood by a modern audience, or a familiarity to what is seen on stage which denies the play's foreign origin and history. Both solutions rest with the modern director and designer themselves filling the gaps in the text (used in the broadest sense), yielding a bridge supported at either end (time of original performance, time of modern production) but without intervening supports. Such supports need not be diachronic, but could be cross-cultural. Certain living world theatres have a repository of dance movements, a repertory of music, and shelves of masks that can provide an authentic cross-cultural base for a production of an ancient Greek drama. A modern directorial decision to use such a base is not going to yield the same show the Athenians saw, certainly. It will, however, give the modern audience an opportunity to see the words of a play acted within a culturally- consistent yet distinctly 'other' set of performance conventions.
The theatres of South and East Asia are obvious sources on which to draw. Significant cross-cultural scholarship has compared style, content, and form of Japanese Noh theatre with fifth-century tragedy (Aeschylus in particular) and scripts have been produced which emphasize such similarities (e.g. Carol Sorgenfrei's Medea: A Noh Cycle Based on the Greek Myth). Even though other theatres do not have the same structural similarities, they nevertheless can be used to supplement a Greek text.
I wish now briefly to consider possible ways to map Balinese theatre onto the cultural matrix left largely empty in Greek drama by the manuscript tradition. Balinese theatre has a long history of a number of types of dramas: the Topeng, which enacts stories from the times of the old Balinese kingdoms and establishes a link with the ancestor world; the Barong, which involves giant puppets and animals that serve as protective spirits enabling a village to ward off evil; the Wayang Wong, which performs the Ramayana, a great Hindu epic dramatizing the triumph of virtue over vice; and the Calonarang, which challenges local witches by appealing for the support and protection of Durga, the Queen of Witches and Goddess of Death. [Slattum 12]
It is the common features of these dramas that make them particularly adaptable for the Greek stage. There is a strong mask tradition, with a wide variety of masks that could be appropriated or serve as models for new masks. There are over thirty varieties of Baris, a ceremonial dance with striking postures. Its origins are in ancient military drills, and some are performed by large groups of armed men while others are danced solo. It has clear analogues with Greek choral movements, both in form and in origin. Finally, there is the distinctive sound of the gamelan, the orchestra of gongs, flutes, drums and metallophones, which resonates through every Balinese dramatic performance.
Adapting a Western text to Balinese performance conventions is not a new idea - a few years ago at in Vancouver, I saw a Gamelan Tempest - but a Greek play could, I believe, more closely preserve particular features of the Balinese style. Aristophanes' Birds in particular lends itself to such an adaptation. Obviously, the plot aggressively suggests an absence from Greek environs. The world in which Pisthetairos and Euelpides find themselves is filled with music, dance, and unusual creatures. Mythological stories in Balinese theatre do present animal and bird masks, and there is even a story about Jatayu, the King of the Birds [Slattum 70-71]. A mask such as this would be ideal for the Hoopoe Tereus, and similar masks could be used for the chorus. Each chorus member would have a distinct appearance, but be unified visually by the bird-features of their masks as well as through the closely choreographed Baris. The fact that Jatayu is a mask from the Wayang Wong would also be true to the paratragic nature of Tereus in the Birds. Granted, this is not likely to resonate too deeply with an average Western audience, but it is perhaps fair to say that the target audience for a show of this type is as likely to be familiar with the Wayang Wong as it is with Sophocles' Tereus.
The large puppet-masks of the Barong also find correlates in Aristophanes' Birds. Iris, Prometheus, Poseidon, Triballos, and Herakles could all be given this larger-than-life appearance. The effect of their interaction with the other characters would be slightly ungainly, and not altogether inappropriate. The gods in the play would then be two-and-a-half to three metres tall, with the puppet torsos perched on the puppeteer's shoulders. Central to the Barong is a procession, accompanied by gamelan instruments, which could be emulated as the embassy from the gods comes to Pisthetairos in the exodos of the play.
The masks used in the Topeng are by and large stock characters. The Patih Manis (Prime Minister), Topeng Tua (Elder Statesman), and a large number of bondres (clown masks, often typified by physical defects such as buck teeth or harelips) could easily be adapted to the large number of visitors to Cloudcuckooland after the parabasis [Slattum 28-31, 38-45]. This would provide visual continuity for the priest, poet, Meton, inspector, and legislator.
Pisthetairos and Euelpides require a decision of a different sort for a reinterpretation of this kind. As Athenians who abandon the familiar for the unknown 'other', there is a case to be made for keeping them separate from the tradition of the Balinese theatre, masking them in (what is conceived today as) a more traditionally Greek style. An interpretation of this kind is perhaps favoured by the Aristophanic text.
There are however two especially popular masks used in the Topeng that are particularly appropriate for these two central figures: Penasar Cenikan and Penasar Kelihan [Slattum 36-37]. These brothers are physically similar to Laurel and Hardy. The proud, pompous, and bulky Penasar Kelihan often narrates the story (and would make a good Pisthetairos), while his younger, wittier brother is more the comic underdog (which is Euelpides, surely). Interestingly enough, Penasar Cenikan 'is the only character in mask drama with exposed arms, which he flaps about like plucked bird wings' [Slattum 36].
A production of this type could be effective and mystical. Balinese theatre has the resources to accept a text like the Birds, in two ways. The storyline accepts the cultural transposition, in a way that the Frogs does not, even though there are frog masks used in Balinese theatre to represent a trickster-figure. Also, the characters in Aristophanes' play find close analogues on Bali. It is these resources, rich, full, and well-documented in a way that can never be matched for ancient Greek theatre, that would give flesh to the bones of the script. Aristophanes can be mapped onto this cross- cultural base to provide non-Greek, but nevertheless authentic and consistent, character types, and dance movements, as well as the haunting music of the gamelan.
Daniel, Ana. Bali: Behind the Mask. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1981
Lentz, Donald A. The Gamelan Music of Java and Bali
University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1965
Slattum, Judy. Masks of Bali: Spirits of an Ancient Drama Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 1992
C.W. Marshall is an Assistant Professor of Classics at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.