Formerly of Department of Classics
University of Otago
These days we are accustomed to seeing plays performed by individual actors in a relatively realistic manner, and the presence of a chorus, with its communal identity, can seem anomalous.
One way around this problem is to take account of the fact that early Greek drama was performed largely to music, and so rather akin to opera or musical comedy.
This paper shows how the Otago University Classics Department tackled the problem, working with Greek specialist Elizabeth Duke, musicologist Andrew Barker and New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie. Some of the lyrics of Aristophanes' The Frogs are considered, and a video clip of part of the performance is shown.
Lyrics for Aristophanes
As a Classicist with an interest in theatre I have conducted various experiments over the years, trying to imagine what the effect of a Greek chorus may have been in its original context, and also wondering how to convey at least some of this to a modern audience. This is not entirely possible, of course. As has often been pointed out, we can probably no longer reconstruct exactly "the experience of hearing a performance by Homer or Stesichorus, or seeing a play of Aeschylus as the fifth-century Athenian saw it." In this day and age, we are likely to view the performance of such works "with very different eyes and different cultural, aesthetic and perceptual assumptions." This doesn't stop some of us from wanting to try though!
One problem that seems to arise is that we are accustomed to seeing plays performed by individual actors in a relatively realistic manner. The presence of a chorus, with its communal identity, can these days seem anomalous. A way around this, I have found, is to make a virtue of necessity and, in the Brechtian manner, abandon naturalism and actively encourage the suspension of disbelief. As Brecht and others have shown, music can help with this kind of distancing. I suspect the ancient Greeks already knew this. As the term "chorus" suggests, I like to remember that early Greek drama probably evolved out of the komos or ritual revel and was originally performed largely to music. In modern terms, this places most ancient Greek drama more in the category of opera, operetta or musical comedy than in the "spoken traditions" of Shakespeare and the well-made play.
This is particularly true of Greek comedy, which is not strong on logic or plot and can be delightfully anarchic. It can tackle serious issues, but in a palatable form. This paper discusses briefly how we approached such problems in a production of Aristophanes' comedy The Frogs, here at Otago in 1993. It so happened that we had on the staff a unique combination of highly skilled and able people - Greek specialist Elizabeth Duke, musicologist Andrew Barker, and New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie. This allowed us to conduct a fairly ambitious experiment in musicology - and some beautiful music was the result.
The Frogs by Aristophanes
The Frogs was performed in Athens at the Lenaia, the Dionysian midwinter festival, in 405 BC, late in the playwright's career. By this time, Greek Old Comedy was already well established as a genre. The Frogs was very well received, and after gaining first prize that year was granted the rare honour of a second showing later on. The play is notable for its audacious satire and brilliant burlesque, a wonderful mixture of farce, literary parody and political propaganda. It seems to have struck a chord (as it were). Athens was coming to the end of the long Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 BC), and the city suffered its final defeat only six or seven months later. The satire in the play shows the people's weariness of war and their resistance to the new-fangled democratic reforms, which they thought had let them down. As is often the case in comedy, both ancient and modern, prominence is given to the plight of the common man and his ability to overcome difficulties with good, ordinary common sense. The central figure of the play is the god Dionysus, who with his slave Xanthias, descends to the Underworld in search of a playwright to bring back to life; the politicians have failed, perhaps a poet can inspire the Athenian state in its hour of need.
I directed the play for the Department of Classics here at the University of Otago on 21-25 July 1993. The lead role of Dionysus was played by Phil Grieve, graduate of the Theatre Studies programme and also an ex-student of the Classics Department. At the time he was working professionally as an actor at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin. Another Theatre Studies graduate, Phil McMurtrie, played Xanthias. Both "Phils" did a superb double act all the way through, and were interested to find just how old some of the standard comic gags in the repertoire are. All professionals kindly took on their roles free of charge as a form of civic duty as it were. The rest of the 28-member cast was made up from the then staff and students of the Classics Department, all very keen, talented, and extremely hard-working, essentially amateurs in the best sense of the word. In order to give the play some contemporary relevance, we added one or two new characters, including a pedantic lecturer who could be called upon to provide the footnotes, as it were. This character was developed by Jon Hall, who wrote his own dialogue.
As the Otago Daily Times said at the time, I myself "was gaining a reputation as an innovative director with a flexible approach, always keen to develop [my] work in close collaboration with cast and crew" (Otago Daily Times, 18 July 1993). And indeed as a group we worked very hard on the text. For the spoken passages, we consulted various translations, but came up with our own, "communal" version of the play. We followed the sense and the story line implicitly. I gave direction as to how I saw the play as whole and we considered the structure of each scene in depth, with me roughly paraphrasing from the original Greek. The actors were then encouraged to adapt the language themselves during the rehearsal process, in accordance with their understanding of their characters. We sought to retain the broad humour and elements of fantasy found in the original Greek, but expressed in New Zealand idiom and colloquialisms (which as a non-Antipodean I find particularly graphic). Given that the play was to be performed on campus, we were also thinking in terms of a rough and ready student capping review.
Our approach to the sung passages was much less free. We had the idea that modern settings of the music could be influenced by the rhythms of the original Greek lyrics and so possibly recapture some of the flavour and intentions of the songs in the original context of the play. Matt Neuberg, then at Canterbury University, had been working for some time on questions of translating Greek metres into English. In a paper he gave here, he showed that, contrary to my earlier assumptions, it was possible to retain the sense, mood and also the original metre in translation. Accordingly, we took up the challenge, working closely with Elizabeth Duke, then lecturer in Greek in the Classics Department here. She was new to this kind of work, and new really to working in the theatre, but she turned out to have an instinctive feeling for what would work on stage (and an impish sense of humour). Seemingly effortlessly, she translated the main lyrics of the play into accurate and rhythmical English, giving due attention to the metre of the original text.
When it came to the metres, Andrew Barker, now Professor of Classics at Birmingham and an international authority on ancient music, acted as technical adviser as well. It was very helpful having him here, able to provide authoritative answers to my many questions. I should add that any misconceptions I may still harbour about ancient Greek music are not his fault. From him I learned a great deal about how these plays may have been performed and we can deduce some of this from the metres. Andrew analysed the lyric metres of The Frogs in detail for us and added some thoughts and comments of his own. So, for instance, on the musical interludes from the initiates' scene (lines 324-459), Andrew wrote: "these contain a string of setpieces, specimens of the kind of song these initiates liked to sing . The tempo speeds up - simple song-&-dance (skipping, etc.) . suggests something like a children's singing-and-dancing game."
Trying to put some of these aspects into practice made me realize what a tour de force was involved in the performance of these plays in ancient times. In each case, the chorus sings, dances and processes in elaborate costume, holding the lion's share of the entertainment value. They also carry the emotional content. I've always said the chorus was the real star of the ancient show. Then, as now, who could put together a large cast which can sing, act and dance equally well, without calling on the services of the so-called amateurs, who will perform for love alone? In our production of the Frogs, we thought in terms of musical comedy, with lots of speech, and applied our method to the main lyric metres only.
The music was then composed especially for this production by Anthony Ritchie, son of New Zealand composer John Ritchie and now known nationally as a gifted composer in his own right. In 1993 he was composer-in-residence with the Dunedin Sinfonia and part-time lecturer in the Music Department at Otago. Anthony is a musician who genuinely loves words as well. He was attracted to the theatre, he said at the time, "because of the exciting new possibilities that this medium offers composers"(Dunedin Star Weekender, 18 July1993).
We decided that the music would be performed "live" on stage by three musicians, on flute, guitar and synthesizer. The chorus numbered in the end 18 (12 female and 6 male). We auditioned primarily for people who could sing. Anthony kindly acted as musical director and held the auditions himself, so he knew the singers' level of experience and what kinds of voices to accommodate in his music. In fact, most of our chorus was untrained, and so Anthony compiled music that would be singable within their vocal range. Some reasonably straightforward acting and dancing was expected of the chorus as well.
We worked hard at modifying the text where necessary to get it right for the music. I learnt a lot from this exercise - such as what kind of language is suitable for song. We needed to consider open and closed syllables and the kinds of words that are easier to sing and be heard as music. We then also needed to accommodate Anthony's own harmonies and the musical structures he arrived at. In the end, we were guided by him and the music determined the final script.
According to a review in our local newspaper, the choral passages were the best part of the production:
The strength of Gail Tatham's production is the use of the chorus to the accompaniment of original music by Anthony Ritchie. There was a delightful sequence of dancing and games, while the entrance of the King and Queen of the Underworld was most impressive. [Local dance teacher] Marie la Hood's choreography brought style and visual beauty to the charm of the music.
(Keith Harrison, Otago Daily Times 22 July 1993)
[Keith knew the play well, having himself played Dionysus in an earlier production]
By way of illustration, this paper concludes with a sequence from the "delightful sequence of dancing and games" mentioned above. This was in fact initiates' scene (lines 324 - 459). This is quite a lengthy set piece where Dionysus and Xanthias on their quest come upon the revels of some of the god's initiates near the entrance to the Underworld. It is an idyllic scene providing a romantic and idealised interlude, counterpoise to the predominantly slapstick, knockabout humour of the first part of the play and helping to change the mood before the rather more serious content which makes up the Underworld half of what we called the second act. The imagery in the text probably encapsulates some of the nostalgia in the play for "the good old days," a supposed time of innocence before the war, when life was simpler. It also looks forward to the rewards of unalloyed pleasure promised the faithful after death.
The initiates' scene is potentially a difficult one to stage in full these days, since most of the content would probably seem obscure and irrelevant to modern audiences. It is essentially a religious scene, and the Dionysian mysteries as a religious phenomenon are of course no longer part of our everyday experience. We did use our "pedantic lecturer" character here to do a little explaining to set the scene. In the end we picked up on the references to play in the metre and text, and thought mainly in terms of playgrounds and children's games. The idea of peasant romps on the village green during the performance of mystery plays in medieval times also influenced our choice of costume. As we can see, the different rhythms in the music and the freshness of the young performers made the scene the highlight of the show:
The free QuickTime Plugin necessary to view all of these clips can be downloaded from http://www.apple.com/quicktime/download.
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