by Tom Donegan
Trinity College, Dublin
Western civilisation (or whatever other allegorical creature we cook up to embody our self-esteem) is not something to be cherished. Western civilisation is us and making it, as well as remaking it, is our job' (O'Donnell, 91)
Studies of significant cultural progressions throughout history show us that in exploring the possibilities of a new creative medium there will always be a tendency to look to models already in existence. In terms of modern technological development such practice has been characterised as a process of “remediation” (J.D. Bolter and R. Grusin), whereby the styles and formats generated by established media are appropriated by the new medium as it seeks to define its own particular characteristics and conventions. In this paper Charles Mee's (Re)making Project and the Lysistrata Project co-ordinated by Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower are two web-based writing/performance projects where theatrical texts from Athens in the fifth century BCE have been combined with the interactive and communicative powers of the Internet. In bringing together one of the most widely studied cultural phenomena in history with an interactive technology we are only just beginning to explore as an artistic medium, both projects serve to create unstable connections between past, present and possible futures. In this paper I want to explore how these dynamic new interfaces serve to complicate the conventional separation of cultural practice from the cultural ‘product’, the artist from the audience, and the creative from the critical; provoking those who participate to recognise their own agency as individuals living and working within the seismic cultural shifts of the present 'historical moment' (O'Donnell, 9).
Remediating the Performance Space
Although the Internet features as a central aspect of both the (Re)making and Lysistrata Projects, fundamental differences separate their approach to the technology. Highlighting some of the individual qualities of each is therefore crucial to explaining the particular creative relationships they seek to engender.
On visiting the (Re)making Project, http://charlesmee.com, one quickly becomes aware that it is still 'work in progress'. To the left of the screen, a series of options includes a page explaining the project, another in which Mee describes the motivations behind his work, an archive of his play texts with options to download samples or whole texts and a list of productions of his work staged around the world. Also present is a ‘hyperlinked’ resource featuring articles and essays related to issues of 'Copyright and the Invention of A~thorship', which serve to back up his unconventional attitude to writing and the authority of the cultural product.
With the interactive possibilities offered by the website it is then down to the individual user to navigate and select what information they choose. In 'About the Project', Mee introduces the user to the process of 'remaking' in which he hopes his readers, too, will participate:
Please feel free to take the plays from this web site and use them as a resource for you own work: cut them up, rearrange the, rewrite them, throw things out, do whatever you like with them - don't just make a few cuts or rewrite a few passages, but pillage the plays and build your own entirely new piece out of the ruins. (Charles Mee, http://charlesmee.com/html/about.html, viewed 26/7/04).
Further explanation of the ideology that underpins this unconventional attitude to cultural practice is offered throughout the site. For Mee, 'there is no such thing as an original play'; the texts of the past are 'evidence of who and how we are and what we do' (Charles Mee, http://charlesmee.com/html/about.html, viewed 26/7/04). In response to the modern experience of lives 'more rich and complex than can be reduced to a single source of human motivation' (Charles Mee http://charlesmee.com/html/charlesMee.html, viewed 26/7/04), he sees cultural property as the property of all and therefore ours to re-make; to 'take into ourselves' and 'transform'. Such thinking, though reflecting post-modern theory surrounding 'the death of the author', also intersects with the predictions of many techno-enthusiast literary critics who foresee a future of multi-authored 'cyber-texts': creative entities constantly evolving and transmogrifying in a way almost inconceivable to minds raised on the printed word (such a future is imagined in more detail by both Aarseth and Murray). In this context, the (Re)making Project can be seen as an initial attempt, using a simple website format, to put such theory into practice.
Whilst the (Re)making website continues to function as an active resource for the (potentially infinite) project of 're-making', that of the Lysistrata Project (www.pecosdesign.com/lys/) now exists only as a record of the unique 'worldwide theatrical act of dissent' (Blume and Bower, http://www.pecosdesign.com/lys/about.html, viewed 26/7/04) that it co-ordinated in opposition to the second Bush administration's war on Iraq. Post-project, this 'communication hub' now fulfils an archival role, providing useful information for anyone interested in the 'life' of the project. It explains in detail how creators Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower began organising readings of Aristophanes' play because its theme of unconventional protest appealed to their desire to find an original and striking way to make their Anti-War arguments heard. Once the idea was formalised, the website they set up provided a powerful and flexible platform from which to establish contact with members of the public across the world, encourage the financial contributions they needed and generate media interest required for the wider dissemination of their message.
With extraordinary speed, their plan to have as many productions of Aristophanes' comedy performed on the same day as possible became a reality. On 03/03/03 the Lysistrata Project climaxed with 1,029 performances in fifty-nine countries with an estimated audience of more than 300,000 people. Performances varied from a “massed Greek Chorus of Disapproval” (Blume and Bower, http://www.pecosdesign.com/lys/press.html, viewed 26/7/04) in London’s Parliament Square, which counted amongst its number theatrical celebrities such as Caryl Churchill, Alan Rickman and Vanessa Redgrave, to amateur dramatics readings and small-scale street performances. Reports were posted of a joint performance in Greece between Students of the University of Patras and Kurdish refugees which incorporated live discussions “on the war and the present life situation of refugees in Patras and the world' (Panos Kouros, http://www.pecosdesign.com/lys/readings.html, viewed 26/7/04). Other performances of note include one by a community theatre group working in Mindanao in the Philippines, whose country was being torn apart by a war of its own, and a secret reading in northern Iraq, by journalists who 'had to keep quiet or risk loosing their jobs' (Blume and Bower, http://www.pecosdesign.com/lys/about.html, viewed 26/7/04).
Although not designed to stretch the possibilities of the Internet itself as a tool of artistic creation, what the Lysistrata Project highlights is the potential of the World-wide Web for communicating and organising cultural activity across an unprecedented large and geographically dispersed number of participants. Where Charles Mee's uses his website to propose some new possibilities for developing creative exchange, the Lysistrata Project demonstrates what can be achieved when strong political purpose is amplified through the Internet's global communication network. In their respective ways we can understand both these approaches to remediate previous efforts at democratic and participatory cultural practice, reflecting the experiments of artists and practitioners in the past to find the appropriate medium through which to best communicate the ideas, feelings and experiences of their time. Such a desire is made still more apparent in both projects' remediation of Classical dramatic texts.
Remediating the Text
Although in their different ways the technology and techniques employed by the (Re)making and Lysistrata Projects are very modern, perhaps the most striking element of each is how this progressive approach is constructed around texts which are almost 2500 years old. Whilst not all of the plays presented in the (Re)making Project are based directly on ancient dramatic texts, several, such as Agamemnon 2.0 , Bacchae 2.1 and The Trojan Women: A Love Story are immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with the work of the 5th-century tragedians. Behind their titles, however, these texts are less 'new versions' than complete re-workings. Although they incorporate certain narrative and formal aspects of the tragedies, such aspects form part of a larger theatrical collage featuring stylistic and thematic influences as wide and varied as the Epic poets, religious texts, surrealist writers, the songs of Billie Holliday, ‘insane texts’ and the recollections of Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors.
Here we encounter our 'cultural heritage' at its most vulnerable; unleashed from the closed fixity of the Canon, these texts are subjected to a process that does not shy from the possibility that certain elements may require re-imagining to impart relevant meanings for our times. In Agamemnon 2.0, Aeschylus' Elders of Agos are replaced by a Chorus of ancient Greek poets. Herodotus, Hesiod, Thucydides and Homer, each suffering some obvious disability, begin the play with a long debate over 'mankind's desire to remember exactly/ how the world has been at one moment or another' (Charles Mee, http://charlesmee.com/html/agamemnon.html, viewed 26/7/04). The relationship between the present and the past is therefore established as a central theme within the piece, reflecting an interest central to Mee's artistic perspective. As the piece continues there are further such 'culture clashes': at one point the poets wax lyrical about worldly delights as diverse as 'Bucharest salami', 'an almanac for the year 1700' and 'a red umbrella” (Charles Mee, http://charlesmee.com/html/agamemnon.html, viewed 26/7/04). In his interpretation of Euripides' Bacchae, Dionysus, 'a transvestite in a white pleated linen skirt, combat boots, an orange silk blouse, […] a gold cigarette holder [and] five days' growth of beard' dances with a Bacchic circus of “'3rd World’ women” (Charles Mee, http://charlesmee.com/html/bacchae2.1.html, viewed 26/7/04), whilst at the same time the activities of Pentheus' court are played-out in 18th-Century splendour. The same play features long periods of spoken text which reflect the tragic form, but the dialogue they feature is filled with contemporary slang and is further confused by a superabundance of theatrical effects designed to communicate the force of Dionysos' fury.
Such an approach, of course, is not new. Mee happily reminds us of the fact that 'none of the classical Greek plays were original' (Charles Mee, http://charlesmee.com/html/about.html, viewed 26/7/04), rightly drawing attention to the ways in which Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides selected and manipulated the mythical and religious materials which were the back-bone of their culture to give their work contemporary socio-political relevance. Mee compares this method of writing to 'the way Max Ernst made his Fatagaga pieces at the end of World War I: incorporating shards of our contemporary world, to live, as a bed of ruins, within the Classical world' (Charles Mee, http://charlesmee.com/html/trojan.html, viewed 26/7/04). Old characters are given new life, old narratives new immediacy and old themes new relevance through a 'cross-fertilisation' of cultural practice from different countries and periods in time, a process that also serves to highlight wider issues of social and political importance. What Mee offers through his own plays is the first step in a process which, through giving us the opportunity to 're-make' cultural products for ourselves, remediates an approach to cultural practice not dissimilar to that which allowed the Athenian tragedians to develop their art-form throughout the fifth century. The (Re)making Project therefore stands as an attempt to revive the social agency it is believed was inspired by such practice, consciously cutting through 'the notion that authoritative discourse comes from a single monologic voice' (O'Donnell, 40/41) conditioned by the culture of the printed word to a more dynamic and democratic form, better suited to representing the 'multiple conflicting frameworks' which typify contemporary experience (Murray, 283).
Whereas the remediation of past into present achieved in Charles Mee's plays is justified within the progressive cultural scheme of the (Re)making Project, Blume and Bower's decision to remediate The Lysistrata appears to be founded on that which underpins more conventional theatrical 'revivals'. Validating the entire project was a confidence in the ability of Aristophanes' fantasy anti-war female sex-strike to 'graft' onto the political turmoil in early 2003, communicating issues of contemporary relevance to performers and audiences all over the world.
One potential problem with the Blume and Bower's textual remediation arises from the very aspects that makes the Lysistrata Project so impressive - the speed and size and of its response. It appears to me that in the rush to emphasise the modern appeal of Aristophanes' play and the importance of the arguments it raised, little recognition was given to any issues arising from its status as a historically and culturally-defined artefact. Although recognising that the tactics employed by the Athenian women in the play are not necessarily the most appropriate for preventing the Iraq War in 2003, the 2500 year old Comedy is still characterised as a 'mirror' in which 'we see ourselves reflected' and a universal 'education aid' in which 'the emerging human truths remind us how like one another we all are' (Blume and Bower, ‘Lysistrata Project Beginnings’, www.pecosdesign.com/lys/, 4/5/04 - now unavailable). The main purpose of such statements was obviously to emphasise the positive and exciting aspects of performing Aristophanes' text and thereby to encourage participation on the widest scale possible. My only fear is that promoting the text in such a manner may have served to mask some serious historiographical problems resulting from applying the Lysistrata's particular 'dream of renewal' (Redfield 329) uncritically to our own time, thereby circumscribing the efficacy of its protest.
Where the Lysistrata Project perhaps manages to override such problems is in its focus on activating its participants to become more politically 'empowered' themselves. Whatever their personal attitudes to the play and to theatre in general, it is evident that Blume and Bower intended the Lysistrata as 'a humorous entrée into a healthy community dialogue' (Blume and Bower, http://www.pecosdesign.com/lys/play.html, viewed 26/7/04), rather than a source of definitive answers. The success or failure of this venture, however, undoubtedly rested in the hands of those contributing to such 'dialogues' - whether they considered the act of reading or performing the play protest enough or whether they accepted the invitation to 'mine' further into the issues raised by the play. In the latter option I believe existed an opportunity for truly constructive remediations of the ancient text to take place, with progressive discussion exploding the 'closure' represented by Aristophanes' 'happy ending' (as determined by his social context) to imagine new solutions to the ongoing problems of our own time. Obviously the nature and success of such experimentation must have varied hugely over 1,029 events, with only those who were present at each one truly able to assess the efficacy of such an approach. What the example of the Lysistrata Project does make clear, however, is that although the Internet creates exciting possibilities for remediating the positive elements of established cultural products, this requires for an even greater appreciation of the potential problems which can inevitably arise when materials from different historical moments are combined uncritically. If such factors are taken into account, such an employment of the World-Wide Web represents an amazingly powerful tool through which to allow our increasingly global society to fulfil the very human need to look back, learn and progress from a shared cultural past.
Remediating the Polis
The (Re)making and Lysistrata Projects offer us a glimpse of the cultural practice of a possible future - a future where the creation of art is not bound with certain notions of cultural property and author/ownership (as it has been at least since the invention of the printing press) but is rather the product of a democratic synthesis of multiple desires, imaginations and talents. Through utilising the Internet's capacity to make large amounts of information freely available to a global audience desiring serious intellectual and political provocations, such work turns the World-Wide Web into a powerful enabler of democratic, creative exchange.
While always aware of the dangers of 'trans-historical' associations, it is tempting to align the cultural 'cyber-spaces' established by the (Re)making and Lysistrata Projects to meet the needs of our own 'techno-culture' with certain aspects of the theatre's role within 'performance culture' (Goldhill, 54) of ancient Athens. At the heart of both these projects' use of the Internet is an attempt to engage a wide populace in an active, creative process, not entirely unlike the role that theatrical practice played in the process of consolidating and maintaining a young Athenian democracy. Theatre festivals such as The City Dionysia, like other institutions within the Athenian democratic system, provided a site within which certain aspects of social and political thought could be questioned and debated. In the case of tragedy in particular, formal and conceptual innovation ensured that theatre remained indispensable to Athens' evolving democracy. The (Re)making and Lysistrata Projects help to illustrate that we are now at another significant point; that the interfaces between theatrical, social and political spheres are now being changed within the global polis of Cyberspace. Through their critical and creative connections between past, present and possible futures, they show us that rather than merely an unavoidable 'march of progress', our culture is a product of our own making - reminding us that what is made can always be remade, better and more fairly.
Tom Donegan graduated with First Class Honours in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Warwick in July 2004, and is currently reading for a M.Phil. in Irish Theatre and Film at Trinity College, Dublin.
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