by Jane Montgomery and Dr Jennifer Wallace
Dr Jennifer Wallace
According to Virginia Woolf, Sophocles' Electra "stands before us like a figure so tightly bound that she can only move an inch this way, an inch that". She might seem, from Woolf's initial account, essentially non-dramatic, a statuesque figure held fast by the marble solidity of centuries of veneration, when Greek tragedy was to be read and admired in the closet rather than witnessed on the stage. But Woolf goes on: "Each movement must tell to the uttermost .... Her words in crisis are, as a matter of fact, bare; mere cries of despair ... But these cries give angle and outline to the play."
In Jane Montgomery's production of the Electra in the Cambridge Arts Theatre, October 2001, Electra was "tightly bound" in a giant Petrie dish, never stepping outside it for the whole length of the play. She was offered up to the scrutiny of the gods and the judging gaze of the audience. And yet under this experimental glare, Electra revealed the performative qualities of the part, in which minute gestures and cries did indeed give "angle and outline to the play". Never did the extreme limits and exciting possibilities for performance become more apparent. "On visiting this year's Greek Play at Cambridge, my first experience of the genre for more than twenty-five years, I find it affords one revelation after another", wrote Alastair Macaulay in the Times Literary Supplement.
Montgomery's Electra was the most recent example of the triannual Cambridge Greek Play, a theatrical tradition of performing Greek drama in the original language which dates back to 1882. When the first plays in Greek were staged in Oxford (Agamemnon 1880) and Cambridge (Ajax 1882), the productions marked a significant development in the modern reception of Greek tragedy. Rather than thinking of drama in ancient Greek solely as material for scholarly study and linguistic training, classicists now were clearly also considering its potential as a piece of theatre which could be brought to life on stage. Yet that life always risked petrification, since the earliest productions drew their inspiration not from contemporary theatre but from classical sculpture and archaeology. The plays were unearthed and staged as curiosities; the actors, dressed in tunics and sandals, adopted poses which echoed those seen on Athenian vases.
119 years and 39 plays on, with the productions far from archaeological curiosities but now drawing upon the best acting talents in Cambridge, it seemed the right moment for us to ponder again the possibilities and challenges of performing Greek tragedy. We organised a two-day symposium, which examined Sophocles' Electra as theatre as well as text, and which drew in well-known theatre practitioners who had been involved in productions of Electra, in addition to academics who have studied and eloquently analysed the play. The production in the Arts Theatre was designed to appeal to a wider audience than simply classicists able to understand ancient Greek, by including English surtitles for the first time. So in the symposium too, we were keen to initiate dialogues about the play between enthusiasts from different backgrounds: Classics, English literature, theatre studies, psychoanalysis, modern Greek.
A selection of the papers and discussion from the Symposium has been collected for this issue of Didaskalia. Since the speakers came from such richly different fields, the style of presentation varied considerably and those variations have been retained here. There were three conventional conference sessions in which invited speakers gave formal 20-30 minute papers, followed by questions and debate from the floor. And there were two more open-ended sessions, when a panel of theatre practitioners led a general discussion about the performance of Electra. In the evening of the first day, the symposium speakers and participants watched the final performance of Jane Montgomery's Electra. At the party afterwards, we were entertained by Stephen Evans's performance on his ancient Greek lyre and Jennifer Wallace's jazz band's apt rendition of Horace Silver's "Song for My Father", but neither is reproducible here!
In the world of Shakespearean theatre, the fruitful dialogue between the academic Jan Kott and the director Peter Brook has become legendary. Could something similar happen for Greek tragedy, where developments in the academic study of plays influence particular productions and where theatre performances in turn impact upon the analysis of the drama within academia? Over the past few years, there have been some successful classicist-artist collaborations (e.g. Oliver Taplin-Katie Mitchell) and an increased academic research interest in the practice of ancient drama (e.g. David Wiles; Toph Marshall; Rush Rehm). It seemed that, particularly during the open-ended panel discussion sessions transcribed here, these conversations had reached a stage of confident maturity. There was no panic on the part of the classicists that they were being 'dispossessed' and none on the part of the 'practitioners' that they were being asked to justify themselves or their works in scholarly terms arguably inimical to their vision. While Montgomery's Electra was hauntingly caught in a loop of her own abjection, staring at a decaying corpse both at the beginning and the end of the play, we hope that the symposium revealed that there is great potential for breaking out of the rigid divisions between academia and theatre and much life in the old tragedy yet.
Jane Montgomery, Victoria, Australia
Jennifer Wallace, Cambridge