UVM’s Production of Euripides’ Helen

(March 22–25, 2018)

John C. Franklin

with contributions as noted by Aaron Robinson, Glynnis Fawkes, Rachel Cosgrove, and Alexis Kamitses


For some years I had wanted to stage a Greek play as a χαριστήριον for Emeritus Professor Z. Philip Ambrose, whose time, strength, cash, and patience has supported classics in the Green Mountains since 1962. This seemed the right gesture given his long immersion in ancient drama, his formidable command of διδασκαλικά, and his devotion to musical performance.

Figure 1

The 'Ambrose Classical Play' (Figure 1) was also to be an outreach effort both within and beyond campus at a time when harsh austerity measures were being shouldered by UVM’s humanities. The bean-counters have justified a 50% reduction of the classics faculty over the last three years by pointing to (comparatively) low enrollments in Greek and Latin, despite an array of larger classical-civilization service courses that have traditionally ‘paid for’ our language seminars and graduate program. Since we were ‘Fighting for the Future of Classics’,we hoped to demonstrate that there was still strong public interest in the subject, and so every reason to maintain a healthy program as part of UVM’s Land Grant mission—which for decades has also included a commitment to students from Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island, who can study Greek and Latin at UVM at a reduced rate via the New England Board of Higher Education ‘Tuition Break’ program. Yet we also recognized the need to increase student retention into upper-level Greek and Latin (UVM has a one-year language requirement). I therefore hoped that the production would enhance the department’s reputation among the student body as a fun and stimulating place to pass four years.

A final, more personal motivation was my desire to compose and perform more ‘new ancient music’, following earlier and less well-informed experiments with Aeschylus' Choephori at King’s College London (1999), and Aristophanes’ Clouds at the Edinburgh Fringe (2000) and American Academy in Rome (2001).

To magnify the production’s overall public appeal, I wished to make it the centerpiece of a miniature City Dionysia, involving local wineries in pre-show social events that included contextual lectures to enhance audience appreciation of Greek drama and Euripides’ play.

This paper will describe the various aesthetic and practical aspects of the adventure, both to document this specific production and to provide useful examples and cautions for others. I shall first discuss the several creative elements (translation, direction, costumes, scenery, and choreography) and logistical aspects of the production (venue, funding, casting, advertising and promotion, rehearsals and other preparation, wine-tasting and lectures). I shall then explain my approach to composing the ‘new ancient music’; since this requires some arcane detail, it is best consigned to a separate section. A concluding note will reflect on the event’s aftermath and the lessons learned.


Choice of Play

I chose the Helen in part to exploit its Egyptian setting for music, choreography, and visual design. But its strong female protagonist and comedic potential were equal draws. I am among those convinced that the play, for all its adherence to the formal conventions of tragedy, was in 412 BCE a cutting-edge experiment in tone—perhaps what Cratinus described as Euripidaristophanization, but in any case the kind of thing that inspired New Comedy. And even if one insists on the play’s ‘basic seriousness’,2 there would still be a strong practical motivation for seeking as many laughs as possible. Most people, faced with the prospect of a Greek tragedy, anticipate an evening of weeping and wailing. Many will opt to do something else—anything—on their evening out. To counteract this aversion and draw people to the show, I billed our Helen as a Tragicomic Musical of Mistaken Identity and Marital Fidelity. The terminology may be anachronistic, but in the end our production persuaded me, more than ever, that Euripides wished his lighter elements to stand in constant tension with the more traditional ingredients of tragic pathos. He thereby conjured a colorful world that—as our director Aaron Robinson put it—is “funny, poignant, and sends a powerful message about what women can accomplish if only men would get out of their way.” That the Helen featured a resourceful woman prevailing against male authority, coercion, and the force of tradition certainly made this play a timely and effective choice both for the student participants (largely female, Figure 2) and an audience still stunned by recent social and political setbacks. Many spectators made this connection:

Figure 2

I was fascinated to see that the main themes of the play do not change. Jealousy, love and friendship still exist and women are often put in dangerous situations through no fault of their own.3

Great to know that such a play, about a strong woman, was actually written in patriarchal ancient Greece. Helen is not some demon of a fevered misogynist imagination, like say Medea—she’s the superbly competent protagonist who extricates herself from her dilemma. Euripides must have been awesome. I’m grateful to your production for giving us that experience.

Feminism is emphasized in the text and was well presented on stage. The characterization of the dim-witted Egyptian king (Figure 19) could be interpreted as a parody of the current US leadership, but this aspect of the play came across as a way of supporting the feminist theme, rather than as a political comment.

Language and Translation

Staging ancient drama in the original language is an admirable old university and college tradition—instructive for student participants, a rare occasion for the few spectators with knowledge of Greek, and at least evocative for the rest. But this was not the right choice for us. First, my own involvement with the Choephori at King’s College London revealed that even senior academics really could not follow along very well without a text (or even detect some actors’ resort to Greek-sounding gibberish). After all, we train far more with our eyes than our ears. The provision of supertitles, therefore, is an essential courtesy, as is now done for instance at Columbia. Yet these are a constant distraction from immersion in the play’s world. Since I wished to promote the classics as widely as possible, an English-language production was essential.

We performed our command of Greek rather by producing a new translation. This bolstered our production’s claim to originality, and let us avoid the ruinous tedium of old, public-domain translations. This work was undertaken, starting twelve months in advance, by eighteen former and current students and colleagues of Phil Ambrose (and a few others who fell in along the way).4 This collaborative approach had two great practical advantages.

First, the labor was distributed so that the script could be completed more quickly. I sent each participant a rough-and-ready base translation by Ambrose himself from the last time he had taught the play, along with the relevant sections of W. S. Allan’s Cambridge text and commentary. They could use what they liked of Ambrose’s original, but were otherwise given free rein. I did encourage the translators to bring out, wherever possible, Euripides’ subtle and variegated humor. As the parts came in, I integrated them in a rather labyrinthine cut-and-paste operation—comparing every phrase to that of Ambrose, which I sometimes preferred when more harmonious with the emerging whole. Not infrequently I developed my own solutions for greater textual coherence (some had been lured onto the Rocks of Perseus). I maintained a master file documenting all individual contributions, down to the word, through color highlighting.5

Figure 3

A second virtue was that, since each translator was assigned a separate character or choral passage, every role and song enjoys a unique voice and color. Menelaos and the Doorkeeper, for instance, translated by Page Hudson and Angeline Chiu respectively, were looser and more flippant than other characters, with whom they present a startling contrast. This famous exchange is representative (451–64, see Full Video from 29:00):

No! I shall go in and you will obey me.

You’re being a real pain! Soon you’ll be forced to leave.

Ah, where is the army that won me great fame?

So it seems you’re a big shot somewhere . . . but not here.

O destiny, you have brought me low, all undeserved.

Are you crying? You think someone should feel sorry for you?

I recall happiness from the dead past.

So beat it and go cry to your friends!

Whose estate is this? Who rules the great house?

This is the house of Proteus; the land is Egypt.

Egypt!? What cursed fortune sailed me here?

Why complain? What’s the Nile’s gleaming beauty ever done to you?

It’s not the Nile’s fault . . . just a sad soliloquy.

Plenty of people have problems. You’re not the only one.

Since Helen’s part was split between translators, her voice undergoes a noticeable shift as the action develops from dire abandonment through domestic recognition comedy and into climactic escape romance. Similar remarks could be made about all the characters: the effect is best observed from the Full Video available on Youtube.

The choral passages presented a particular challenge, since I wished to maintain precisely Euripides’ original rhythms to serve as the basis for ‘new ancient music’ (see below). I originally intended to do all these myself; but by August 2017 a busy fall semester was looming and I had completed only the Parodos, Epiparodos, and Reunion Duet. I therefore turned the remaining songs over to others. Each of these translations was good in its own right, and was intended to match the ancient meter; but many interventions were needed to align it with my own understanding of the rhythm. Anyone minded to try the same approach is advised first to develop his or her own clear rhythmic understanding—including definite practical solutions for any corrupt or metrically ambiguous passages—and then record a careful recitation to which the translator may refer. This will save a lot of trouble. I recommend including a click track at the resolution of a single short, the ancient πρῶτος χρόνος (example here).

Our resulting translation is, I believe, more finely-textured than any previously available, with interesting tonal contrasts, and characters that leap to life. We will gladly make it available for productions elsewhere. Some representative audience comments:

I loved the translation of the play, which took it out of former stilted classical speak. It was almost like the playfulness of the original was rediscovered by 21st-century explorers.

I found it both interesting and a little jarring that the styles of translation were different—where one character felt very traditional in his/her dialogue but another would occasionally have casual contemporary turns of phrase. I wonder if there is more to explore in those contrasts.


UVM’s Royall Tyler theater could not be secured for our production. The Theater Department has its own busy production schedule and was not enticed by our offer of collaboration (they did pay us the compliment of poaching our original director for one of their own shows). This confirmed my impression that ancient drama is generally regarded, even—or especially—by professionals, as a dry, dull affair unworthy of modern attention, and strengthened my resolve to prove the opposite. Coming down from gown to town was also symbolically important for a public-outreach event that besides relied primarily on community artists for direction and design. Fortunately, Burlington has a great and affordable arts center near the waterfront that is subsidized by the Main Street Landing Corporation (as part of its charter from the city). Facilities include a 39’ by 54’ Black Box Theater, with raked seating for 134 in a block perpendicular to the stage. Other attractive features included a full-size screen for projected scenery and images (see Visual Design), a suite of dressing rooms one floor below, a box office, and an adjacent foyer for the pre-show lecture and wine-tasting events that were planned.


I began fund-raising twelve months in advance with letters of support from Pauline LeVen (Yale) and Pavlos Sfyroeras (Middlebury). I was anxiously aware that any shortfall would have to be made up from my own pocket (I could hardly raid meager departmental reserves after a flop). Fortunately, the dimension of public outreach, along with the large number of people that would be involved—forty-five, not counting ushers, wine servers, etc.6 —appealed to the Vermont Arts Council and Vermont Humanities Council. Together with grants from UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Humanities Center, I scraped together $9,500, enough to book the venue and offer modest honoraria for direction, choreography, costumes, other visual design, and musicians.

Deciding on the right price for tickets was tricky. I had been to a number of strong yet undersold productions in this space by the University Players, UVM’s student drama club. Fearing a still lower turnout since we were a completely new ‘company’, I opted to lowball tickets at $10.00 for adults, $5.00 for students, and free to ages twelve and under. A student discount was also required by the terms of our Coor Programming grant from UVM’s Humanities Center. Tickets were available both at the door and in advance through a website set up for this and other promotional purposes under the direction of Angeline Chiu, who also ran the box office (the website was discontinued afterwards). The four sold-out shows yielded $3,654.98 (an average of $6.82 per person) to supplement the grant money, along with $540.00 from sponsors who purchased space in the playbill. When all was said and done, we ended up with $1,087.03 towards a future production (Aristophanes Clouds, March 27–29, 2020).


Although we advertised our casting call (Figure 3) on every local and regional list, only one community actor auditioned; a second was later secured through word of mouth. Fortunately, Chiu had been vigorously herding our own classics students to the auditions. Many were reluctant, lacking any previous stage experience—acting, singing, or dance—and being already overloaded with coursework. I suppose most figured they would go to the audition, not get cast, and thus discharge their obligation. We needed them every one. Luckily our step-in director, Aaron Robinson, was then also our department’s Administrative Assistant, and so already on friendly and trusting terms with all.

To help mobilize student participation and support for the production, we also offered two relevant courses. In Fall 2017 I ran a workshop on Ancient Greek Music that developed into a rehearsal group and the nucleus of the chorus.7 Julia Irons, a first-year graduate student who went on to play Helen (Figure 4-5)—and is now helping produce Clouds—quickly stood out for a first-rate voice and memory; together at the University of Chicago we previewed the Reunion Duet and—with local students and professors after a single rehearsal—the Parodos.8

Figure 4

Figure 5

In the spring we offered a course called Ancient Drama. The topic had often been taught by Chiu, though always restricted to the Honors College or the first-year program. Her idea here was that anyone who wanted to be in the play had to take the class, which would require some form of participation on- or offstage. The first half of the semester would focus on the Helen itself, and then, once the production was complete, progress to a broader examination of genre. As it turned out, most would-be participants already had full course loads, and we had to grant many exceptions. Nevertheless, the curricular formula is attractive in principle.

Advertising and Promotion

Online promotion consisted primarily of the aforementioned website, which featured several photo updates of rehearsals, and two short video interviews (one with Glynnis Fawkes and Rachel Cosgrove on costumes, another on the music). Glynnis designed a poster (Figure 1) which students spread around campus and town, and provided artwork for the website. Kevin Coburn, who manages communications for UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences, published a short online piece called ‘Classics Department Presents a “New Ancient” Helen: Performance and score in honor of Z. Philip Ambrose’). Perhaps our single biggest boost, worth many hundreds of dollars in advertising space, was a generous two-page feature called ‘Classics Rock: UVM Stages Euripides Classic with New Music’, by Dan Bolles, music-writer for Seven Days, Burlington’s most-read newspaper for cultural events. I also sent out several mass e-mails to as many of the UVM faculty as I could. This list had to be cobbled together manually: administrative policy prevented official e-mailing from on high.

Figure 6

Figure 7


Aaron Robinson was an alumnus of UVM’s theater program who had been working in school and community theater, as actor and director, for over a decade since graduation. He was luckily on hand to pick up our production after we lost our scheduled director. Aaron also ended up taking on the parts of Menelaos’ attendant and Pollux when actors fell short (Figure 6–7). He had had a particular interest in Greek drama when studying theater history at UVM. On reading through our new translation he readily recognized what many scholars feel are jokes, and began envisioning a simple but effective stage set for the space available. This was made even smaller by our desire to project backdrop scenery painted by Glynnis (Figure 8) and images illustrating the choral odes (see further below). Since projection was from the front, there was considerable risk of actors casting shadows on the screen. Aaron’s efficient solution was to mark off the danger zone with a short fence, decorated with a thicket of Egyptian-style papyrus and lotus blossoms representing the banks of the Nile. The only other set was a solid wooden bench that could serve as altar or tomb and be a focus for blocking and choreography. Both were built by Jacques Bailly (also known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee pronouncer) and painted by Glynnis (with help from Helen, our daughter). The stage was thus spare yet luminously colorful against the all-embracing black (Figure 9).

Figure 8

Figure 9

Figure 10

Figure 11

Aaron asked for a free interpretive hand, and I did my best not to interfere. I did give him a copy of Toph Marshall’s Structure and Performance of Euripides’ Helen (Cambridge, 2014), a valuable resource for many aspects of production. But Aaron’s ideas grew mainly from direct engagement with Euripides himself; his choices, developed largely in agendo, are best seen from the video recording of the show itself. He offered the following note for the playbill:

I played around with the concept of “What is Truth?” prior to casting the show, but in those early rehearsals . . . I realized I had it all wrong. Truth doesn’t matter in this world. The Trojan War was built on a lie; even the beauty contest that favored Aphrodite which spawned the war was built on a lie. What does matter? The women. Helen is a smart, savvy heroine who uses every tool at her disposal to survive for seventeen years, and then with the help of the seer Theonoe (Figure 18)—the only person in the Egyptian palace she deems wise enough to help her—she plots a grand escape with her long-lost husband. The actors (female and male) help bring that to life . . . to show that women are indeed the mistresses of their own fortunes.

Figure 12

Figure 13

Figure 14

Figure 15

Visual Design

From the beginning, Glynnis Fawkes and I had envisioned, for costume and scenery, a colorful and cartoonish fusion of Egyptian Art Deco with actual elements of ancient Egyptian, Mycenaean, and Minoan artwork and dress. Glynnis is herself a cartoonist, but also has over twenty years’ experience as an archaeological illustrator and artist at excavations in Syria, Turkey, Israel, Cyprus and Greece. Her initial costume sketches (Figures 10–12) were refined and brought to life by Rachel Cosgrove and her student production team,9 who spent long evenings and weekends over hot irons and sewing machines at Generator, Burlington’s community maker space (Figure 13). Altogether the ensemble presented a most colorful spectacle (Figure 2). As Glynnis and Rachel wrote for the program:

The challenge was to realize a vision of the ancient world with what materials were available—and within a small budget. The chitons (belted dresses) for the chorus (Figure 14) and orchestra (Figure 15) are inspired by Athenian vase painting. Such Greek clothes would have been made of wool; while ours are cotton for practical purposes, cotton was known and used in Egypt. Our colors were chosen to evoke available ancient dyes, including madder red, yellow/gold, blue, brown, black, and (for the wealthy) murex/Tyrian purple. Many vases show that male and female clothing alike could be elaborately decorated with woven or embroidered patterns. Glynnis therefore hand-cut and stenciled designs onto trims for the necklines and hems (Figure 16). Helen’s dresses (Figures 5, 17) are inspired by Minoan art, especially the wall paintings from Santorini, preserved by the famous seventeenth-century BC volcanic eruption. We were not troubled by this chronological discrepancy, which in fact suits the Helen itself—a fifth-century BC telling of a story set in earlier mythical times. The far-off Egyptian setting will also have seemed practically mythical to much of the original audience. Teukros (Figure 5) is dressed as one of the ‘Sea Peoples’ who swept the Eastern Mediterranean in the early twelfth century BC, and who are represented on the mortuary Temple of Ramses III. The costumes of Theonoe (Figure 18), Theoklymenos (Figure 19), and their Servants (Figure 20) are directly inspired by Egyptian wall paintings.

Figure 16

Figure 17

Figure 18

Figure 19

We also wished, for the choral odes, to project a series of dignified and colorful drawings to complement and illuminate the complex imagery of the text (Figure 21–23). Choral lyrics are elaborate and allusive; they go by quickly and are gone. Even in English we knew that much would escape an audience generally unfamiliar with mythological details and Greek choral poetics. The projections would therefore serve as a visual commentary, helping supply some of the mental imagery and cultural knowledge of an Athenian audience—a modern analog for the ancient convention known as ‘choral projection’.10 A natural synchronization of image, music, and dance emerged from the poet’s tendency to organize his thought in the odes’ individual cola. The combination of music, dance, lowered lights, and looming images transported the audience through vivid choral dreamlands, and created a powerful aesthetic contrast with the acted scenes; these they clearly demarcated, while equally renewing audience attention.

Figure 20

Figure 21

Figure 22

Figure 23

VIDEO: Third Stasimon


Our choreographer was Alexis Kamitses, a dance instructor at Bellows Free Academy and an active freelance choreographer with knowledge of both Greek folk steps and Egyptian-style belly dance (among other idioms). I loaned her G. Prudhommeau’s La Danse Grecque Antique (Paris, 1965) and a work on ancient Egyptian dance (both with abundant illustrations) as possible sourcebooks, along with Marshall’s book. Choreographic design and training a chorus with little or no previous dance experience were a laborious affair. Ancient rhythms are complex and often non-recurring, with each ode a unique confection of long and short rhythms. This required phrase-by-phrase composition, with equally intensive rehearsals. Alexis later reflected:

My creative process has always been driven by a combination of elements, but music almost always plays a central role in shaping the movement. I have spent a lot of time studying dance forms such as West African and Bellydance, in which the musicians and dancers work in direct relationship with each other. Working with these ancient rhythms proved a bit more of a challenge; with constantly shifting time signatures, the dance movements were focused on highlighted accents, and finding the stillnesses, and occasional grooves, within the compositions. The repeating, almost geometrical structure of the dances was derived directly from the structure of the music itself, a collaboration that worked especially well for beginner dancers. When working with musicals, since you are layering in live music, choreography, and singing all together— those components don’t always have a lot of time to marinate together. It is important to root the dance movements within the lyrical content so the dancers can find the movement phrasing within their vocal phrasing. It makes it more manageable since this is not your typical “and” type of music. The movement vocabulary itself was shaped by the lyrical content of the songs, Greek traditional dance, ancient Greek tableau images, and various Middle Eastern dance influences. For example, dancing with veils is common in some styles of Bellydance, and they found their way into the choreography as “laundry,” done with a flourish by Helen’s ladies in waiting (Figures 24a–b).

VIDEO: Rehearsal

VIDEO: Parodos performance

VIDEO: Third Stasimon performance

Figure 24a

Figure 24b


We had an unusually short time to pull the play together. Auditions took place the second week of January, just after winter break (Figure 3). The late-March production dates that we had chosen to coincide with the City Dionysia fell immediately after UVM’s Spring Break. This meant that we would go into production week after a ten-day hiatus in rehearsal—a nerve-wracking situation, though at least students would be well-rested. Aaron accordingly developed a dense production schedule to have us more or less ready before vacation. There were rehearsals almost every day, though of course not everyone was needed every time (aside from the director); these had to be in the evening, not to interfere with classes. The chorus had its own parallel schedule, alternating between music and dance. Rehearsals were conducted in several on-campus spaces, including an old auditorium with proscenium stage but hideous ambient noise, along with various generic classrooms (Figure 25). Aaron had to cobble these together using UVM’s Byzantine room-scheduling system. The student actors were generally noble about not letting me see how much stress they were under. Inevitably, their academic performance was affected, and this put some strain on collegial relations. For future reference I strongly recommend that all participants treat their involvement as the equivalent of a full-time class; ideally everyone should be enrolled in a three-credit course for just that reason.

Figure 25

While rehearsals were under way, students from Chiu’s Ancient Drama undertook, among other jobs, a campaign of local sponsorship and advertising. One particularly energetic student, Samantha Lavertue, was eventually credited as Associate Producer along with Chiu, and also played the part of Theonoe (Figure 18). She secured the participation of several local wineries and a meadery, and the donation of production supplies.11

The Event

Some years back Tanner Lake had suggested putting on a City Dionysia in Burlington. Following this up, I scheduled our performances (March 22–25, 2018) to coincide more or less with Athens’ main festival for dramatic performances. Since one could not expect theater-goers to recognize this connection automatically, I envisioned the play as the centerpiece of a mini-festival involving wine-tastings by local producers; these in turn would be a prelude to pre-show contextual lectures to help modern audiences appreciate the unfamiliar conventions of ancient drama and the themes of Euripides’ Helen. Jamie Levis and Jeff Davis, part of the Greco-Egyptian Band (Figure 15), played some of their Syrian and Turkish repertoire during these tastings. Besides helping draw people to the show, the libations created an appropriately receptive mood to enhance people’s sense of a shared civic experience.

The contextual lectures were well-attended and often singled out, in our post-show survey, as a vital contribution to the overall success of the event.12 These talks were filmed by student volunteers and are available on the department’s YouTube channel. The topics were as follows:

Thursday, March 22: From Rags to Riches, Rescue, and Reconciliation, Z. Philip Ambrose, Emeritus Professor, UVM. As Ambrose was the honorand of the overall production, this was the kick-off lecture, introduced by Robert Rodgers and Barbara Saylor Rodgers and attended by many friends and former colleagues. Ambrose discussed the thematic and chronological relationship between Helen and other Euripidean rescue romances.

Friday, March 23: Dionysos, Wine, and Ancient Greek Drama, Kenneth Rothwell, Professor, University of Massachusetts, Boston. This topic was at our request, to inform audiences about the original performance context and the connection with Dionysus cult. This tied the wine-tastings into the larger event.

Saturday, March 24: Ancient Greek Views of Egypt, Dr. Brian Walsh, Senior Lecturer, UVM. This talk surveyed the early history of the Greek presence in Egypt, as well as the representation of Egypt in the broader Greek imagination. It let the audience appreciate the limits and opportunities Euripides faced in the play’s setting, and acknowledged in advance some of the ancient orientalism involved.

Sunday, March 25: Helen: The Face that Launched a Thousand Stories, Angeline Chiu, Associate Professor, UVM. This talk illuminated Euripides’ white-washed Helen for spectators unfamiliar with the Stesichorean variant. It helped them understand the degree of novelty, or at least unorthodoxy, faced by the original audience.

There was a thirty-minute (sometimes smaller) interval between lecture and curtains. The audience could stay in the wine-tasting space and keep chatting, or find their seats and study the playbill.

II. 'New Ancient Music'

Many modern productions are dragged down by choruses declaiming in monotonous unison. This dreary effect, though readily spoofable (Mighty Aphrodite), does nothing to lighten tragedy’s gloomy reputation. Yet it is entirely at odds with the original Greek choruses, which danced and sang their way through intricate odes in magnificent costumes for a striking kinetic and synesthetic spectacle. I wished to ‘translate’ this element as far as possible. Choreography and costume have already been described. The music itself would marry accurate interpretation of meter with original melodies based upon the ancient principle of ‘accent composition’ and harmonic material drawn from ancient theoretical sources and the few surviving scores. The result would be both philological curation and original composition. The goal was to produce something that would be musically recognizable to the Greeks themselves (all the songs can be readily performed in the original language). I now personally avoid the term ‘reconstruction’, which seems to claim more than it really delivers, and can mislead an audience to one’s own advantage. ‘Musical impression’ or ‘recomposition’ is an acceptable substitute, or simply ‘new ancient music’.

Meter and Rhythm

Fortunately, the original rhythms are preserved quite faithfully by the poetic text itself (the playwright was also responsible for the music). Greek meter was based upon a quite strict relationship between long and short syllables, with one long equivalent to two shorts; these are conventionally represented as quarter and eighth notes. Each ode was a unique rhythmic composition—often very complex—built up from a mixture of traditional and novel metrical elements. Ancient sources do speak of some protraction of long syllables, and melismatic flourishes were evidently an occasional feature of the so-called New Music of late fifth-century Athens, of which Euripides himself was a somewhat moderate exponent. But these were exceptions to the general rule, as is shown by (among other things) the relative scarcity, in the surviving musical documents, of the special signs that mark such departures (the so-called triseme, tetraseme, etc.).

While Greek metrical principles are generally well understood, some interpretive ambiguities nevertheless remain. Creative determinations are often necessary. An omnipresent issue is the length of pauses between musical phrases. These I handled by ‘patching in’ rhythms that occurred elsewhere in the composition. For example, I noticed that the first phrase of the Epiparodos could be interpreted as a series of three cretics (— u —) if the first syllable were treated as a pick-up; I therefore provided the singers with an introductory vamp of cretics so that the melody could roll out smoothly once the chorus reached their stage position (see from 31:16 in the full video). Similarly, the first colon ends with an ionic (u u — —); this suggested a connecting phrase of four further ionics before the next colon (see Figure 26). Such choices are of course arbitrary. But some choice must be made. This approach at least makes use of cognate material, and was presumably how the ancient composers proceeded themselves (generally speaking).

Figure 26

Another problem recurred especially in the Second and Third Stasima. What should we do when a long-short sequence in the strophe responds to a long-long in the antistrophe, or vice versa? I regarded many of these as examples of what the fourth century music-theorist Aristoxenus called ἄλογοι χρόνοι. These, we are told, are intermediate between long and short syllables; they are ‘irrational’ in that they cannot be measured by the smallest metrical unit (the πρῶτος χρόνος or ‘first time’, equivalent to a short syllable). Treating them as dotted eighth notes is theoretically justified and introduces a lively additional layer of syncopation on top of the shifting patterns of long and short. Lines 1315–1317b and 1333–1336 of the Second Stasimon, for example, all end with a choriamb (— u u —); this suggests a rhythmic refrain throughout the larger phrase. The first halves of these lines consist largely of long syllables, but with two anomalous responsions of short and long in the first and fourth lines. If one renders the first four positions of all as dotted eighth notes, a coherent and very interesting rhythm emerges (Figure 27–28). This made me suspect that other sequences of long syllables might conceal such gestures; I adopted the same interpretation sparingly when it seemed to improve rhythmic interest (see score for the Third Stasimon for further examples).

Figure 27

Figure 28

Metrical Translations

In fitting a translation to these ancient rhythms, accented syllables will normally fall on a long position in the Greek; but not all longs can have such English stresses (too few to go around). Ancient vocables (e.g. φεῦ φεῦ), proper names, and proper adjectives (e.g. Φοίνσσα Σιδωνιάς) should remain in their original positions wherever possible, with the rest of the translation built around them. Similarly, ancient phrases should be kept within the original colometry even at the expense of convoluted English syntax. These measures ensure that some of the original sound design is preserved, and that any mimetic correspondence between diction and colometry is maintained (compare Figure 29a and 29b). Translation under such restrictions is often challenging, but one finds interesting opportunities that would not otherwise occur. The whole process leads to a much better understanding of the original rhythm that supervenes over the disconnected elements that make up a modern metrical analysis.

Figure 29a

Figure 29b


Euripides’ own tunes are lost, with the famous exceptions of the Orestes fragment and a few notes of the Iphigeneia in Aulis. But we know from several dozen other fragments that it was customary for melody to follow the contours of the words’ pitch accents—Greek was a tonal language—according to a few simple and observable rules (see e.g. M. L. West, Ancient Greek Music [Oxford, 1990], p199). Although none of the documents that exhibit such ‘accent melody’ predates the Hellenistic period, it is probable that the practice was indeed traditional. On the other hand, the surviving bit of Euripides, along with several somewhat later fragments, indicates that accents were often ignored in strophic compositions of later drama, if not before. It may be, however, that this freedom was due to the enhanced desire for musical mimesis that characterized the New Music, and that earlier strophic song, and perhaps even other Euripidean compositions, did indeed adhere to the principles of accent melody. (Anna Conser is currently investigating this problem, using statistical methods, in a Columbia dissertation.) In any case, accent melody is one of the few definite parameters we can recover for ancient Greek music, and I followed the principles very carefully.

Figure 30

Figure 31

For the strophic songs (Parodos and three Stasima), it was necessary to devise melodies that would not conflict with the prosody of either strophe or antistrophe. I began by printing out Allan’s metrical schemes (enlarged by 200% onto 11 x 17 paper), and then combined the accents of strophe and antistrophe by writing the latter over the former wherever they differed (Figure 29b, detail from the Third Stasimon). In doing so I observed many places where the two accent patterns did indeed seem quite compatible (I had noticed the same with Choephori). The procedure yielded a master accent contour to follow when composing. I did sometimes allow strophe and antistrophe to diverge for the sake of effective variation, as in the opening lines of the Parodos.

For specific pitches I used various ancient scales and scale-segments that are documented in surviving theoretical writings and musical fragments. I also pursued the modulation between harmonic structures that probably characterized Euripides’ own style. One of my main inspirations here was the Paian by Athenaios, a choral composition performed at Delphi in 127 BCE and inscribed on the side of the Athenian treasury there. This invaluable document begins in an archaizing style characterized by the so-called trichordal enharmonic that was typical of traditional double-pipe (αὐλός) libation music, as documented by a fragment of Aristoxenus (83). It goes on to a section of dense chromaticism typical of Hellenistic art music, but originating in the later fifth century. This second section, especially, lets us observe the principles of modulatory tetrachordal composition, whereby different scale degrees become temporary foci for the construction of the surrounding pitch ‘systems’ which ancient theorists categorized as enharmonic, chromatic, and diatonic (see analysis of the Third Stasimon).

The non-strophic songs—the Lyric Dialogue between Helen and Chorus (Figure 30), the Epiparodos, and the Reunion Duet (Figure 31)—were handled in the same way. Phil Ambrose composed an initial melody for the Lyric Dialogue, which I somewhat modified for better lyre accompaniment. The varied application of ancient principle again provided welcome constraints. Of course, one must still sort through endless possibilities in hopes of making good musical choices. And I sometimes smuggled in more familiar elements according to my own tastes. This was especially true of my lyre parts. The ancient use of heterophony is now generally recognized, although its exact nature is still up for dispute. I included occasional triads, seventh and ninth chords along with clusters and other συστήματα consistent with ancient theory. In my view this is a useful form of translation: it helps deliver a satisfying and recognizably musical effect to the audience—an οἰκεία ἡδονή—while still honoring what positive evidence we do possess. I documented these accompaniments by a system of finger numbering (‘chord changes’) in the scores (Figure 29a).

Figure 32

The ‘Greco-Egyptian Band’

While ancient drama was normally accompanied by the double pipe, I did not then have an αὐλός or player available (we are working to remedy this for Clouds). The Department did, however, possess a replica of an ancient κιθάρα, designed by the aforementioned Tanner Lake and constructed by luthier John Butterfield. Making a virtue of necessity, I decided to use a trio of lyre, framedrum and flute/lute, a combination that nicely evokes ensembles current in Late Bronze Age Egypt and Canaan (Figure 32). I composed most of the music to the κιθάρα, learning in the process to play it after my own fashion, or on a small, two octave lap harp (when I had to be on Cyprus for part of the summer). Working out the ἁρμονίαι that would best fit these melodies was probably the most eye-opening aspect of this experimental archeology.

Figure 33

Figure 34

Figure 35

Figure 36

I soon realized, however, that our κιθάρα would not serve for the actual production. It was too quiet: its gut strings too labile; and I would need to change tunings between songs, which could not be done without the serious distraction of leaving stage. I therefore commissioned a local guitar maker, Creston Lea, to make an electric kinnaru (Figure 33–35). This was a kind of lyre current in Late Bronze Age (and later) Syria, Canaan, and Egypt. My instrument closely reproduces the lines of a fourteenth-century ivory plaque from Megiddo (Figure 36). With this I could be as loud as needed, but retune easily between songs (the strings can be plucked almost silently without amplification, while still feeding an electronic tuner). The instrument itself debuted along with the choral costumes at a preview performance at the Center for Hellenic Studies as part of Glynnis’s show there called Landscapes of Myth and Memory in February 2018. (To make this happen, the chorus pulled a hair-raising drive to Washington DC and back in 48 hours.)

The trio was completed by Jamie Levis and Jeff Davis (Figure 15), who had both been part of the local Turkish band Lokum; Davis had additionally played for years with the Syrian ensemble Grup Anwar. For our show, Levis played a variety of framedrums; Davis was on ney (Egyptian flute) and saz (Turkish lute). They took immediately to the music and greatly strengthened its impact.

Choral Training

It was remarkable how readily the chorus was able to learn what are, after all, very complex rhythms. Had I written the scores out with modern time signatures, which would have been continually shifting, I think it would have been much harder. As it was, the singers simply followed the strings of quarter and eighth notes (= longs and shorts), so that each phrase was learned as an organic unit—as indeed it must have been in antiquity. To facilitate this, I recorded a demo of each song with me singing, and posted them to YouTube. The singers’ success in learning the music so easily presents a remarkable contrast to teaching meter in the classroom, where the obscure terminology and conventions invariably confound even the best students. Our chorus showed that complex ancient choral rhythms are not only perfectly learnable, they make great musical sense.

Ὦ θήραμα βαρβάρου πλάτας, Ἑλλανίδες κόραι—εἴσομαι ἤματα πάντα χάριν!


With all the effort that went into this production, we were as much delighted as astonished that all four shows sold out. Professor Bill Mierse (Art History) described the production as the biggest humanities outreach event in his thirty years. Unfortunately, it was seen by no administrator from the College of Arts and Sciences (one Associate Dean did come down to the final performance, only to be turned away). UVM’s then-provost did catch our final show, responding to a somewhat provocative invitation, and tweeted his congratulations afterwards; a month later the CAS faculty passed a no-confidence resolution in the controversial chief academic officer, who eventually stepped down (vel sim.).

By the terms of our grant from the Vermont Arts Council we were required to administer an exit survey to assess how well we had achieved our goals. This was included in the playbill and was available through the website. We received fifty-two responses, roughly 10%. The feedback has proven a great blessing for developing the next production, both as a guide for what will please and as support for new funding applications.13 Apart from a lonely vindex, audience reaction was uniformly positive and enthusiastic about a future production. One spectator astutely noted that regular stagings would fill a gap in local theater programming.14 The pre-show lectures were generally appreciated as useful enhancements (see above). Our emphasis on the comic and other light-hearted elements was rewarded with much laughter in places, and this tone—which I regard as faithful to Euripides—evidently took many viewers by surprise.15 The sensory combination of music, costume, choreography, and images also proved as effective as I had hoped.16 That the chorus always enjoyed as much applause as Helen herself was a sign that we succeeded in restoring this element to the central place it enjoyed in the Greeks’ own view (as is seen from the term χορηγία). The great majority expressed preference for a setting that evoked the ancient world, rather than a modernizing transposition.17 In my view, such stagings are obsolete and counter-productive now that the classics have become so generally unfamiliar. The ancient world presents all the alterity one could desire, while themes of universal human interest guarantee plenty of catharsis.18 Let the ancient playwrights speak for themselves.19 And classicists, with their specialized knowledge, can make up here for what they lack in professional theatrical training. A particularly gratifying and encouraging comment came from a former theater student:

I think everyone did a great job with the production. I had never heard or come across this play (and I was a theater major). It’s almost like a wish-fulfillment of Helen and Menalaus, so it’s kind of tragic just in its existence because we ‘know’ the ‘real’ story. I really hope to see more productions from the Classics Department because I am always interested in how the plays would have been originally.

In terms of community outreach, therefore, the production was a distinct success. It also led to invitations to lecture and perform (with varying numbers of chorus members) at Dartmouth, Columbia, the University of Washington, the Boston and Virginia Museums of Fine Art, the Università degli Studi di Perugia, and several institutional receptions at the infamous 2018 Society for Classical Studies meeting in Boston, including University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign / Washington University and Boston University. These were exciting and horizon-expanding opportunities for our undergraduates, and great professional networking for our graduate students.

The production’s intramural impact is somewhat more difficult to gauge, although overall I would say that we achieved most of our on-campus goals as well. On the one hand, the administration was not persuaded to reverse its policy of not replacing retirements (we have had two recently). Indeed, the very next year the beloved and hardworking Brian Walsh, who had contributed one of the lectures, was subjected to an opportunistic contract termination. Walsh represented 25% of our remaining teaching capacity, and caused the Classics Department to become the poster child for union protest and a student campaign to “save the liberal arts at UVM”.

Figure 37

Figure 38

On the other hand, many of our colleagues seem to have recognized the achievement. Jenn Karson, supervisor of the ‘Fab Lab’ in the Engineering College, become an ally, enlisting her students to help with some experimental mask making that did not make it into the show.20 Jenn also mounted an exhibition about the production for UVM’s Fleming Museum, called Behind the Schemes: When Helen of Troy came to UVM (Figure 37). This included a public lecture (Figure 38) in which Glynnis, Creston, and I talked about our various contributions. We have also received two internal funding awards towards our next production, along with a substantial grant from the Loeb Classical Library Foundation (kindly supported by Helene Foley, Columbia, and Pavlos Sfyroeras, Middlebury). Bill Mierse (UVM) and Tim Moore (Washington University) are backing other applications to the Vermont Humanities and Arts Councils. Our Youtube videos of the show, and our wearing of costumes to visiting-student days, has helped recruit a few new classics majors. A number of current juniors and seniors, who saw the production in their first or second year, are now keen to participate in our upcoming Clouds. “I will put my heart and soul into it”, said senior Catie Michael. Sophomore Rachel Fickes, who saw the show as a high-school senior, is now learning the αὐλός —an instrument made by Robin Howell—and will be in the band one way or another. It is this student enthusiasm, mainly, that has persuaded me to undertake a follow-up production.


1I borrow my title from Jenn Karson’s installation at the Fleming Museum: see Conclusions below.

2Podlecki, A. J., "The Basic Seriousness of Euripides’ Helen", TAPA 101 (1970), 401–418.

3These and the following quotations of audience members come from exit surveys: see further below.

4The translators were: Helen, first half: Joanna Oh/Carl Mehrman • Helen, second half: Becky Sahlin • Teukros: Alden Smith (with Hannah Rogers, Jamie Wheeler and Cindy Liu) • Chorus Leader: Erik Kenyon • Menelaos: Page Hudson • Old Woman Doorkeeper: Angeline Chiu • Servant of Menelaos: Tyler Mayo • Theonoe: Barbara Saylor-Rodgers • Theoklymenos: Brian Walsh • Egyptian Messenger: Andrew Siebengartner • Kastor/Dioskouroi: Jacques Bailly • Parodos, Epiparodos, Reunion Duet: Franklin • Lyric dialogue (330–385): Ambrose • First Stasimon: James Aglio/Franklin • Second Stasimon: Mark Usher/Franklin • Third Stasimon: Ken Rothwell/Franklin • pumice omnia aequata: Franklin.

5Alden Smith enlisted several of his own students at Baylor; these individual elements could not be so distinguished.

6For the full cast and other contributors, please see playbill.

7This original group was Francie Merrill, Alice Ochterski, Tessie Sakai, Holly Micklas, Katie Livingston, Julia Irons, and Tenny Gregorian; Katie went on to play the Chorus Leader; Tenny the messenger.

8This was part of the conference Music in Performance: Perspectives on Ancient Greek Tragedy and Performance (October 27, 2017). I thank Jordan Johansen for her invitation.

9Zoe Anszperger, Claire Wilcox, and Eileen Parks.

10Henrichs, A., ‘Why Should I Dance? Choral Self-Referentiality in Greek Tragedy’, Arion 3/1 (1994–1995), 56–111; ‘Dancing in Athens, Dancing on Delos: Some Patterns of Choral Projection in Euripides’, Philol. 140 (1996), 48–62; etc.

11For credits, please see playbill.

12E.g.: The pre-performance lectures were most informative and needed to fully appreciate the play • Pre-performance lectures are a good way to make them more accessible to modern audiences. • The pre-play lecture (Saturday night) helped add insight about the themes and setting. • Having an introductory lecture is very helpful.

13Pro tip: Be sure to ask how people learned about the production, to guide advertisement and promotion the next time!

14They would be an excellent counterpoint to Vermont Shakespeare productions and the contemporary shows of Vermont Theater and Lyric organizations.

15E.g. It was funnier than I expected. • I enjoyed the comedic elements and thought they were important in making the play accessible. • Loved the light-hearted interpretation so the audience could laugh itself to enlightenment • Interpretation is always to some extent subjective, but this production of the Helen drew sensibly on the comic and serious aspects of this play. • Most of all the play for me was an affirmation of wit in the face of Fate’s badly dealt hand.

16E.g.: The Greek chorus should be commended on mastering the most dialogue, music, and movements. That was incredible. • I thoroughly enjoyed the setting for this production. It masterfully evoked the ancient time. The music, set and costumes were magnificent. • I really liked what was done with the projector screen and the artwork during the times that the chorus sung. • The chorus was much more involved than I expected. Singing and acting were great. Music and costumes excellent. • Helen was extremely well done! Costumes, music, acting - all spot on! Bravo!! • I enjoy the music and the instrumentation, the use of material in the dances and the costuming, as well as the simplicity of the props and set. • The costumes were really cool • A stunning performance, through and through. • I thought the approach to the chorus was brilliant, the integration of the traditional chorus role with tasteful choreography was so pleasing and innovative. • Hearing the music and experiencing the more traditional is an educational experience few have had. • I found the attempt at original staging to be really fascinating and interesting.

17E.g.: I much prefer evocation of original settings. Part of the interest is in learning what cultures were like in the past. • In general, I prefer the staging that evokes the original. The artistic backdrops used in Helen were most effective in that they provided visual appeal without the blatant imposition of modernity. • Many movies and books have already adapted these plays into a modern setting. Seeing the more historically accurate portrayal is much more interesting. • Don’t try to modernize it; that goes for Shakespeare too. Reworking ancient drama with modern settings and costumes just looks weird and distracts from the story. • E.g.: In my experience, most modernized versions of ancient or old dramas feel clumsy and awkward unless there are major alterations to the script. • It needs no "dressing up" to make it engaging to a modern audience. • Prefer original setting as modernization can lay a diffusing light on the original. • Also, it’s nice to have an experience not watered-down by huge, fancy, over-the-top production. • I think it’s up to the audience to place itself in ancient Greece; it’s not the business of the theatrical production to show how it’s relevant to the modern world.

18E.g.: Humanity doesn’t change, and thus the themes stay applicable to modern day problems. • I was fascinated to see that the main themes of the play do not change.

19You did a splendid job, without ‘talking down’ to the audience or being either overly timid or overly pushy with interpretive interventions.

20I would like to thank Amy Cohen here for all her patient and generous advice, and Holly Micklas for taking on the project.