John Barton in Conversation with Michael Kustow and Everyone Present
King's College London, 18 May 2001
MK (Michael Kustow): Well, how to even begin, John, to pull together all of the things we've heard today? How to match up to nearly twenty years of your thinking about the Greeks and this story and working on it? I've been on it a mere five years with you, and this is a pretty emotional moment, I think, for everybody: tomorrow is the end of what started twenty years ago. Tomorrow is the last ever performance of this production of John's play, and I suspect the last performance, dear John, in your lifetime of this text. So this is a very key moment. (And I'm really grateful to you, Judith, for allowing us to have this moment.)
I want to talk theatre facts as much as I can. John, the title of this session is: 'What is Tantalus about?' I'll tell you what I think it's about, and then you can disagree. I think it's about your attempt to mix myth and history. Myth versus history, as the great Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides almost always talked about. But also where myth and history are both the truth. I think that's partly what it's about.
Secondly, I think it's about your wish to do a performance that lasted two entire days. <laughter> You laugh, but this is utterly serious. John believes that this is a huge story. He knows that as in the Mahabharata and over the Asian-Indian theatre there are performances that go on for a year, effectively. He wasn't going to be so immodest - he had already done an entire one-day marathon when he did The Greeks. But this, I think, was his second aim.
The third thing is what I personally think it's about. We once had a conversation with Peter Hall in Grand Central Station in which you perversely said 'I think we should change the title, and it shouldn't be written by John Barton, it should be adapted by John Barton from the sources.' And we said 'No. Every playwright has sources.' You're a playwright and you've written an actual play. And I would hope to get you to say what you think your voice - we've been talking about people not having voices or having voices - what is John Barton's voice in this?
I will venture a small thing about it: you have a wonderful speech that hits me every time I hear it, about the gods looking down on the humans. And you say in Iphigenia - Play 3:
AGAMEMNON Even if it's true
That the Fates begin and end us
What we make of our lives
Is our own and no god-game
IPHIGENIA Yes, beginnings and endings
Are tedious to the gods
Because they already know them.
What they love best
Is the middle of a story;
It is open and it is ours
If I quote you exactly. I've always thought that that's why your thing is fundamentally, for me, a humanist thing. In the middle of all these given circumstances, the world, our lives, the possibility, is still open to us and there are always choices to be made. That's what I think it's about. What do you think it's about?
JB (John Barton): I think all of that is well said. But when I'm asked 'what is it all about?' the question freezes my marrow, because I feel at this point that I've probably forgotten most of the answers! <laughter> A lot of complex issues and questions have been raised today, all of which made me start thinking again, so I'll try to answer your questions as simply as I can.
After I did The Greeks long ago, I was obsessed with the thought that nobody knows the whole story. Yet the sources still exist and they're not that inaccessible. As I began to re-explore them, I thought that the whole long saga is potentially organic and wonderfully sustaining. Only bits of it have survived in play-form, but other surviving summaries bear on our experience of the plays we know. Palamedes' share in the whole plot works through all of it. So the urge grew in me to try to bring all the bits of the saga together.
I set out with the idea of shaping it in the form of a serial, perhaps for television. To me the word 'serial' is important. It can embrace high work or a soap opera, whether applied to Shakespeare's History Plays or Dickens or whatever. I personally find it more useful today than 'epic' or 'tragedy.' If you want to describe Tantalus as an ancient soap opera, I would be quite pleased. It has the same quality of being about a family, or in this case three families whose stories overlap and go on and on, veering from happiness to despair, from death and destruction to rebirth and rebuilding. There is nothing unusual in that, and the very length of the original narrative is one of the things which most attracted me.
But I thought 'Of course I can't handle all of this, so what are the most important bits?' I tried many and I chucked many out if I thought they were not essential. I resolved to reduce my material down to about ten units, after starting with about twenty. As I gradually reduced my monster to about twelve plays, my task became increasingly difficult. For a while it wasn't always clear to me which were the essential elements. I knew in the end that I would have to be ruthlessly selective. I decided to leave out Homer, just as the original Greek dramatists did; and I shared their view that it would be presumptuous to include the Oresteia. I did start work on the death of Palamedes, but it had to go. And I did, with great regret, decide that I must lose the ambiguous love scene between Polyxena and Achilles which led to his death. I did a version of Iphigenia in Tauris but decided it was superfluous and cut it out about a year before we started rehearsing.
I also had difficulties with the verbal style. I am not a poet, and I am not, I still maintain, essentially a writer but a director/adapter. I used the verse form that I had used in assembling The Greeks because it came to me naturally as a tool for translation, as blank verse has done when I've been working on Shakespeare. I found one day that I'd absent-mindedly written an entire page in blank verse. <laughter> My use of the three-stress verse-form was primarily to make me compress, select and be as simple in expression as I could. I thought that poetic heightening was needed at key moments, but not that often. Of course, if one's director decides under pressure to compress what has always been for me a two-day work into one, the 'poetically heightened' bits are bound to be the first ones that are axed.
I think my limited poetical abilities were based on something I've picked up from the years spent on Shakespeare: I believe that his most poetic, emotive and most human lines are usually monosyllabic. He continually sets up a high image and ends it with a line of utter simplicity. ("The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.") There are hundreds such. For me, theatre poetry often lies in these monosyllables, not in high metaphors or rhetoric. I could give you many examples. So I thought that packed monosyllabic lines could work well in a terse verse form, particularly in the give-and-take of argument. I'm not saying I achieved it, but I believe there was more emotive potential in the simple lines in Tantalus than has perhaps been realised.
But to answer your main point: when you ask 'What's it all about?' I answer that though the production's focus was on the Trojan War that actually wasn't why I wrote it. I chose the Trojan War as a central focus within the cycle which brought about catastrophe and changed the lives of the families, characters and the world. For me, the Tantalus myth is one of the great metaphors of world history. This myth was well known to the Greeks and Elizabethans, though it hasn't come through much in our present culture, apart from some pictures in the National Gallery, but it's not something that rings bells for most people these days. I thought that Tantalus provided an apt metaphor for a play opening at the end of a millennium: a rock over the whole world which has never fallen yet everyone knows that one day it will. Doesn't that tap into many of our secret dreads of the new century? The idea of somebody both longing to drink water and fearing that it will drown him, or clutching vainly and forever to reach the golden apples of a fruit tree. Tantalus seems to me a true myth because it is as resonant today as when it was invented by God-knows-whom long before it was written down. I also wanted to achieve a sort of time-warp, making the cycle at once as ancient as possible, and yet palpably about today. But I didn't want to do it with the devices which directors normally seize on eagerly: if in doubt, update your material and reassure an audience that it is all contemporary. That may be so or not so.
MK: Let me just draw you out on that. I remember when you first showed me several drafts of the first play, it was set in a timeless place. You didn't even call it a place; you called it an 'ambience'. There was a group of women who had been shipwrecked or thrown up on a beach. And when I asked you about it, you said it could have happened soon after the Trojan War, or it could be about the global warming of the earth and floods taking over today, like a last remaining Mount Ararat that is above the surface of the water, so that timelessness is very, very strong today.
What it's been replaced by, (and I think that it's important you talk about what has been superimposed in Peter's production under all of the pressures of the way it came into being, as well as personal choices) what's been superimposed on the production is basically what you've just said you didn't want to do, which is: 'Here we are in a modern setting, beach, girls in bikinis, etc, etc. Now we'll go on a time-trip back into time, and we'll come back to the beach at the end.' That's basically the framing device that we now have. It's very well done, it catches the audience and gets them in on a certain level. So could you please talk for a moment about what nobody has yet seen on stage, which is the framing device, or the storytelling method, that carries out what you've just said, which is a play about myth and history.
JB: Well, my framing device or basic concept or gut feeling (call it what you will), which I've explored for over twenty years, was simply to start Tantalus with an OLD WOMAN cooking by the fire and a group of about twelve women who started to tell stories. And then I brought in, late on into the process, a drunken POET. He was primarily a dramaturgical device, a plot engine, to kick-start an opening about the birth of drama. But my real starting-point (as it was with The Greeks) was a group of women telling stories. That felt to me right mythically, though it seemed unviable dramaturgically. I needed to begin and end with those women, a bit like needful book-ends, because I wanted to follow up the idea of making the whole myth unfold as a play-within-a-play shared like stories at a drinking. The OLD WOMAN began to tell the story of the little-known oracle of Trophonios, where one could drink of two magic streams, one of Memory and one of Lethe (which doesn't mean 'death' but 'forgetting' or 'losing'). This deeply appealed to me both mythically and dramatically as a means of the women, and later the men, becoming and living as the characters in the cycle.
I always realised it would be hard to bring this off in production. It didn't (or did it?) quite solve the question of how to begin the cycle. Where and when should it all happen? I tried many ways. Above all I wanted to tell the whole story and to give a sense of one complete Age of Man, like an age between two Ice Ages or the age of a country or a civilisation. I was thus always torn about whether it should start happily or with some cosmic disaster that the women were trying to cope with. I never resolved that in the study, but offered two or three alternatives, saying "just try them out in rehearsal". I believed that the solution probably lay not in a normal tidy exposition, but in long exploration and experiment on the rehearsal floor. So maybe my thinking was good, but my solution wasn't. I feel this problem was never solved, but evaded by side-lining the OLD WOMAN and replacing her with a STORY-TELLER (not in the original cast list) in a modern and modish ambience. When my book-ends were removed (Plays 1 and 10) the edifice tottered and was drastically rebuilt in another form.
MK: Can I just turn that back to you, by asking you to talk about the seeds that you sow in the original Play One. You've alluded to, but not really talked about, how they pay off in the last play. Because what you <the audience> didn't see at all was John's ending. Could you just talk about how what you set up in your play is resolved there?
JB: Well, I'm a bit loath to talk about it today: I'd prefer people to read it. But as it hasn't been performed and few have read it, I don't want to give you a potted version of a possibly dotty play. But I see that I should say what is missing. After the horrors of the fall of Troy, I wanted to offer something more comedic at the end of the cycle, and to provide an Epilogue that should be equivalent to a Satyr play (except that it had to be written for female characters rather than male). I also felt I must round off the whole plot. Many major plots, whether in a novel or a play, commonly end with a marriage. And the myth, as Graham Ley said, ends with the marriage of Orestes and Erigone and by the birth of a child called Penthilus, which means 'assuager of grief' - a lovely name to end a story with. This marriage is the true end and resolution of the cycle the Greeks themselves put together.
MK: <To Mia Tagano, member of chorus> Do you want to say something about the whole experience?
Judith Herrin: <To Mia> If this, as John says, is a play about women and storytelling, how does that relate to your experience of the Chorus? Because I think that's a really interesting problem. Did it mean anything to you to be the storyteller, in a way, the commentator?
Mia Tagano: I didn't feel that I was the storyteller, but just a part of the Chorus. It's hard to speak in terms of what the whole Chorus was feeling since I'm just one woman. But I agree with John, I miss the voices of the women. I miss that the plays began with women and ended with women. So I felt I was listening to a story and that I became part of it in a way, but never the subject of it.
JB: I think that's fair. The story line that I worked out was to get the POET to stimulate and gradually involve the Chorus, though they're the ones who actually resist entering the story. It wasn't until the end of the fourth play that he got them to go and drink in the cave, so that they actually became Trojan women and could change the plot and perhaps save the city. Then I thought, when they escaped at the end of the Hermione play, that the victors became the unhappy ones, and the unhappy Trojans were allowed to go off and live happily ever after. That is apt to happen sometimes after a war. But I think that the most important and helpful question to ask about any Chorus, and ask it rigorously, is 'Are Choruses actually characters, or more essentially a function?' Don't look for a character that simply isn't there - that invariably digs an acting trap. If that distinction is blurred, any group of actors is going to get confused.
Question: Yes, I wanted to ask you, was it your original intention to have the principals as part of the Chorus, and then were they to go off and become part of the main play? And if this were your intention, would it have been necessary to have the masks?
JB: No, it wasn't to do with that at all. I wanted to have as small a group of actors as possible, and to have the four principal women as the launch pad. I thought that at the very beginning the audience shouldn't be aware of the distinction between the Chorus and main characters, though they knew that the OLD WOMAN was somehow central and special. They don't distinguish the Second, Third and Fourth women from the Chorus until they are cast and the action begins. I kept asking myself, 'What's the minimal number of people the cycle needs to tell this story?' That led me to cutting out one or two key characters (like Palamedes) because I was over-deploying my limited forces and resources.
Pat Easterling: I'd like to posit a small question about Palamedes. I was very interested in the references you made to him in Tantalus and I thought you were very interested in him. I wonder if your discarded text of Palamedes will ever see the light?
JB: I don't know: I would like it to. I always reckoned he was an absolutely key ingredient in the whole cycle. Palamedes was the friend of Agamemnon and tried to make peace with Troy. He was one of the reasons why Odysseus was first prevented from building the Wooden Horse, but a forged letter by Odysseus betrayed him, and he was executed. That is why his father, Nauplius, came to Agamemnon and Cassandra at the end of the seventh play and said 'You are going to be punished for destroying my son.' One of the key versions of why Clytemnestra killed her husband is that Nauplius went off and told all the wives of the Trojan commanders that they'd been unfaithful in Troy, whereupon all the wives vowed revenge and lit bonfires on the rocks in order to destroy the fleet. And so Agamemnon was washed up on shore as a beggar. That is very different from the golden chariot of Aeschylus, and closer to Homer's account in the Odyssey.
There are many such different variant versions throughout the cycle, though they all end with the same catastrophes, whether death and disaster or happiness and marriages. So when I came upon two contradictory versions, I had to decide which one to use, and decided on the avenging of Palamedes to avoid having to deal with the Oresteia. But the actual character had to be cut, as I'd have needed to deploy one more actor.
Pat Easterling: But is there ever going to be a publication of the Palamedes?
JB: I'd like to make one and add two or three other plays, but it's probably unrealistic as the whole cycle is so long already, and it certainly won't be done again in my lifetime. But there's one part of my original plan which I would like to pursue. I put it together in self-sufficient units of two plays: two, two, two, two and two. I would like now to release the rights so that a small company could decide 'We would like to look at how the war began' or 'We want to look at the fall of Troy' or whatever. It would then be possible (if one lived long enough) to add to the story some of the big bits of the myth that I wasn't able to include.
Paul Cartledge: The bit that I regret, John, perhaps most of all of what was lost from the performed version, is your sense of the POET as the maker of the drama. So through that device - in the written text it's still there - you've got this constant sense of danger, that is to say 'just what will be made?' On the one hand there are characters, but who's making them? It's the poet within the drama who's making them. And so there's a sort of three-fold framing: there is us reading; there is John Barton who's written this, and then there's the character, the POET. But what happens in the performance is a total dumbing down. Instead of the POET we have the 'STORY-TELLER,' who's a joke. And of course it gets you into the performance on the beach, as John was saying, and David Ryall is a terrifically good actor. And he then plays other parts (Peleus and goodness knows what else) very, very well. So that within the performance you can contextualise the STORY-TELLER - it's not quite as awful as it would be if the storyteller was one actor and that was the only part he played, and then he came back at the end and said 'Oh, here we are, we're still on the beach and all this has happened' as if in a sort of mythic time.
But the written version is in my view incredibly subtle, and there's constant metatheatrical reference to what it is to make a play. Now this is the other side, John. I don't know, is it possible to stage that? I mean, is that just one part of your work that does work very much better as a literary confection which you can read and reread again, rather than be hit by it? I am talking of your last play, which was never performed, as well as the opening. How would you react if you knew that this was going on every time a metatheatrical reference comes and we're jolted out of the immediate story? This isn't just a soap opera - it has actually been rather cleverly made.
JB: I don't know the answer to that, because the metatheatrical elements (which I have called the book-ends) were never tested in performance, and the last play was not even rehearsed. You may well be right, but I of course deeply regret its loss, as the POET does return towards the very end. It is also the play which reveals the central importance of the FIRST WOMAN. For me she is the main character, controlling the beginning and end of the whole cycle. From the start I always thought of her as Hestia, the Goddess of the Hearth, who is the source of all stories, though I never named her till the end.
I got rid of the POET after the first plays because I felt that by then he'd fulfilled his function until the EPILOGUE. You may well be right to raise the question of separating the main plot as performed from the question of how drama may be born and so grow into a play. In the original text the FIRST WOMAN and POET make it together and she is the senior. I thought that to bring in a deus ex machina at the very end of the story was obligatory, but I didn't want him or her to be melodramatic or conventional. The idea of bringing in the one goddess that nobody has heard of seemed to me a good one, especially since by Classical times Hestia had become less important in the Olympian Pantheon. Today few people have heard of her.
Question: I was so happy to have had the possibility to see the plays in one day. Growing up in Greece all the years of my childhood and later life, and watching these plays every summer at the Herodes Atticus Theatre or Epidaurus and at school and University, Clytemnestra always loved her daughter and never wanted her sacrificed. Agamemnon was the baddie who wanted her sacrificed for the greater good, or the war, (if there can be any good in any war). In your play, it was fascinating to see this reversed, and I wanted to know whether this comes from sources or whether this was your instinctive attitude towards it. How did this come about? For a Greek it's a fundamental change.
JB: That's a very good question, and I think there is a reasonably simple answer. I built my version almost entirely from clues in my sources. We know of Agamemnon in Iphigenia at Aulis, the Oresteia, the Ajax, indeed in the Iliad, where he is presented as often obstinate or volatile or stupid, and certainly not as a good man. (I wonder whether there are some Greek plays that we haven't found yet where his character is changed around, as Odysseus is changed by Sophocles in Philoctetes and Ajax. And Euripides was the first to have Medea kill her own children.) As has been brought out earlier by Paul, the event may not change in the different versions, but a Greek dramatist assumed the right to change his characters at will, and Odysseus is the most obvious example.
I thought that if Agamemnon was presented throughout as we normally see him, it will be boring. He and Menelaus are central to the whole plot. I found my way into re-thinking his character by something I found in more than one of my sources: that Iphigenia wasn't actually Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's daughter, but Helen's. I thought, 'Can I make that work by starting my version the other way round? All the catastrophes have still got to happen; Iphigenia's got to be sacrificed. So what happens if I make Agamemnon absolutely refuse do it, yet the story's still got to work out the same way?' In other words, stick to the plot, but change how the characters react to the situation. This touches on something we've already discussed: which is the starting point, the character or the plot? I believe that a character can be volatile and inconsistent, but a plot should be relatively stable.
Question: I wanted to ask you about the moment in the end of the eighth play when Agamemnon and Cassandra remove their masks and make love. It seemed to me that, because of the removal of the masks, this became almost the moral centre of the whole play. And I didn't know whether, in the original, masks were removed, and whether you had envisaged this as in some way a 'moral centre'.
JB: In the original the masks weren't removed because they weren't there. They were something that emerged and were developed in rehearsal. That doesn't necessarily invalidate that particular moment. But I don't want to say much about the masks today, either in general or in this key instance, as the question would probably need a conference to itself. I think it would be unfair and confusing to reply in favour of the original in front of an actress who is still playing this key moment in the production. Would Alyssa as Cassandra like to say something about that? Because in the end what matters most is the experience of the actor in performance.
Alyssa Bresnahan: Well, I would say that it is certainly my moral centre of the play, because I get my face. Which is something that, as an actor, you're starving to do. I think maybe the reason why that scene does hit on a nerve with the audience is because it is a centre of some kind in the production. One of the big differences in the production of this play is not only the text changes, but that we are wearing masks because at the end of that play we do remove our masks. It is a kind of meeting place of the text and the production that I don't think exists anywhere else in this rendition of John's play. In a sense, because we do take off our masks I interpret that as the beginning of what John's vision was before it was taken over.
I think there are many different levels of this 'centre'. It is a nerve-centre for the actors, because we are able to take off our masks. It's like you can walk, you have a found limb in a way, you are able to speak the text in a way that one is not able to in any other time in the show. And that the actors are able to interact with each other and with the audience in a way that we are not able to do at any other point in the show.
Questioner: It seemed to me that perhaps at that point these characters had reached a sense of greater vision than all the others by removing the masks, and what they were saying was supposed to have 'truth' (whatever that might mean in the play) or 'clarity'.
MK: (to JB) What is the truth of it?
JB: I don't know. Is this a lawful variant or a virus? I can only report on what I originally wrote. AGAMEMNON and CASSANDRA were never masked in the first place, except that her face was 'masked' by paint because she was Apollo's priestess.
JB: CASSANDRA asked him to wipe off the god-paint so that she might no longer foresee the future. AGAMEMNON wiped her face gently with a sponge.
Question: I was not privileged to read the book or see the production, but I hope I can catch it tomorrow. So I'm commenting rather on what went on this morning, if possible, with four small points. One is that I found that all speakers have not made a single reference to contemporary Greek productions of the tragedies, and I find that slightly disappointing because there is a unique angle that obviously Greek people have in their own tradition and their own sort of plays. The other thing is the sort of concepts that inform Greek thought and tragedy. In a sense that really conditions us in how we discuss or see or interpret. For instance, the meaning of the word 'political' would have been totally different in Greece than what it is today. Today's meaning of 'political' has become corroded, and in fact I often get the feeling that hardly anything is accepted for discussion unless it has this thing 'political.'
MK: John, how do you respond to that and also to Paul's gentle characterisation earlier on of your plays as possible candidates for modern political tragedy?
JB: Well, I suppose that is part of what Paul raised before the break. I must confess that I had never thought of Tantalus as a tragedy. I thought that overall it was a comedy, maybe in our sense of a black comedy or just possibly in a Dantesque sense. I confess that one reason I found it hard to make Tantalus work is that I wanted to bring every kind of theatrical genre into it. So if you ask me to cite any previous play as my model I would dodge the question of precise category by recalling Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida which mixes and mingles virtually every way in which plays can be defined. It is in turns tragic, comic, romantic, brutal, absurd, satirical, violent and political. It defies labels and I love it.
I wanted all these elements to come up in Tantalus, and each at one point dominate. I remember also that in our early discussions the director and I both felt the key word was 'political'. But I must also confess that one of the key words resonating in Tantalus in my own mind is 'romantic', often at the same time.
Questioner: What I really meant, is that I don't believe that in Greece the word 'political' would refer to somebody with a political viewpoint, because automatically they would have considered anything that has to do with the polis as their concern; they were citizens, therefore everything was political - they didn't have to make the point.
JB: Agreed, and Paul has spoken of that, but our usage of the word is very different. You are quite right to stress the change of meaning since in fifth-century Athens. I am of course speaking in our modern sense, because that is how I used it about Tantalus which is sadly devoid of a polis. I tried, using a Greek myth, to make some points about today as part of any attempt to marry and mix elements in the myths with others in our culture. Some things change, some overlap and some, like ambition and cruelty, never change at all.
Question: Yes, what about violence? You were saying earlier that you wanted the violence to be played out at the back of the stage. It seemed to me that in the production the violence was so completely overwhelming that it swamped everything else. Somehow in the original plays, a lot of the strength comes from not having the violence pushed in your face.
MK: That was in a non-media society. There is so much casual slaughter on any screen now, it poses a new question to the theatre of making it real in a different way.
Question: How would you have wanted it to be?
JB: Yes, I'm against massive violence on the stage, but my view has perhaps been coloured by having had to do all the battles in every single Shakespeare history play for fifty years. The problem is technical as much as aesthetic. 'How do I do a beheading? How do I impale someone? How do I hang somebody?' Done 'em all! <laughter> I think there's maybe something silly about trying to make that kind of thing 'real' these days. Everybody knows that it's organised, that it's a trick, so why bother? Wherever possible, trust the audience's imagination and use your own. With Tantalus I resolved to go for the opposite solution and follow Greek practice: 'Violence should never be enacted on stage' (except for Ajax's suicide in Sopochles' version: there are always exceptions).
Question: On the political point I would like to ask how, in the production at least, the environmental dimension comes to the fore. I was reminded of Seamus Heaney's version of the Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy, which keeps the dramatic text more or less intact, and then suddenly you have this epiphanic moment when he starts talking about hunger strikers and so forth. This got a mixed reaction: some people said that the play gained extraordinary power and velocity and that this justified the production in a way, while other people felt it had been at the cost of the aesthetic fabric of his version. I wanted really to ask you about those moments in the production which seemed to me to come closest to stretching that fabric very thin.
JB: I'm not really here to assess the production, since it is different in kind from my aims. But you are right to raise the environmental question. Not because of, say, the grim deforestation in Greece since Homer's time, but because of the problems on our Mother Earth today. I tried to raise it through Thetis the sea-nymph, mainly to give a rough sense of the time span that is suggested behind this resurrected ancient myth. Thetis hates the land and has lived for millions of years beneath the sea, and she seems to me to express this theme simply and without explanation. And she plays a major part in the sources themselves.
Question: I was very interested in what you said about not actually creating Tragedy with a capital 'T', but rather some kind of comi-tragedy. I remember Ismene [Lada-Richards] talking about the actor who said he could fill the theatre with tears. Some of us do go to the theatre to have a good cry, at least if it's the right kind of play. Are there are places in Tantalus which you would like to think would reduceno, not reducewould bring the audience to tears?
JB: Yes, it's like saying much the same thing in Chekhov, isn't it? He called some of his plays 'comedies' and got cross with Stanislavsky and called Moscow Arts Theatre actors 'cry-babies'. But Chekhov always does turn on a hair: the audience weeps at one moment and laughs the next. And it's frequently the same with Shakespeare. I suppose that when one has spent years of one's life with his plays the mixture feels familiar and seems quite natural to me, perhaps most of all in Troilus and Cressida. Some people argue it's tragic, some people say it's basically comic, and others feel it is this or that. So I resist having to be pinned down or having to make a definition at all. I think you can say accurately 'That particular bit doesn't work: it should be much funnier' or 'That isn't funny' or 'That's moving' - you can be specific locally. But I don't like the general label 'Greek Tragedy' simply because it is where our drama began. We have developed down the centuries in many different and contrary ways. My instinct with Tantalus has always been to try to embrace these contradictions.
Question: You mentioned earlier that you'd put the Muses into the tenth play, and I wondered how they fitted in with the Tantalus theme. I'm very interested in the Muses personally. Unfortunately we didn't see them on the stage.
JB: That's because they appeared in the missing last play. I wanted to bring them in because they meant a great deal to me as a metaphor for the nine elements of drama: Tragedy, Comedy, History, Story, Music, Dance, Polyhymnia, Erato (erotic poetry) and Astronomy.
MK: Didn't you also find a Muse of beginnings and endings? You dug up more than nine muses, John. And of course there are always variant Muses.
JB: I rejected that version. In the earliest myths there were three Muses: Aoide (song), Arche (beginnings) and Melete. I liked Melete best, which means 'practising.' That's a great Muse! <laughter> I cut that variant out early on, but regretted its loss.
Question: I just want to thank you for something, because I spent the day before at the Pit with the films. The last one I saw was the Cacoyannis' Trojan Women, and I came out feeling completely drained and exhausted with the emotion and so forth, but there was lots of Hollywood in it. I thought your women were very feisty and sparky and full of wit and courage, and I appreciated that. Thank you.
JB: Yes, emotion goes to the heart of things, but it can be exhausting too. I believe that one of the basic points about acting is that you have to make the distinction between expressing emotion, which is easy, and handling it. If the expression of feeling is highly articulated in the text itself, the speaker is often trying to deal with it or make sense of it, rather than to express feelings directly. I suspect that if the emotion is expressed at the expense of the rest, it yields diminishing returns.
Question: I just wanted to put on record that I think it's enormously important that people know John's original version. When I saw the trilogy, I had no idea that the beginning had been changed. I did feel terribly disappointed, and I wasn't convinced. And I felt that it was my inadequacy that everybody was saying that this was wonderful. And it wasn't until we got to Iphigenia at Aulis that the whole thing engaged me. Had I just seen the first two plays, I would have thought: 'What's all the fuss about?' So, I'm fascinated. I would have loved to have seen your original version. I did feel that I was being patronised by the production. I wasn't convinced, and I didn't know why I wasn't. But I was wondering how many other people, without knowing the change, might also have felt that. The whole experience was thrilling and wonderful, but I do feel that your intention was not projected. That probably happens with all playwrights, but I think it would be wonderful if people recognised that your origins were different.
JB: They were. But that's the way the theatre goes.
Didaskalia is deeply indebted to John Barton and Michael Kustow for their considerable work in editing the original symposium transcript for publication. Many thanks also to Prof. Judith Herrin, to the Tantalus Symposium Administrator, the KCL Audio-Visual Department, Elizabeth Tyerman (Assistant to John Barton) and Rebecca Bley (original transcript from CD).