WITHIN REACH: A High School Experience With Classical Drama

Josh J. Cragun
Cornell College, Iowa, U.S.A.
E-mail: jcragun AT csc.cornell-iowa.edu

I was first introduced to Greek tragedy in the eighth grade, when our class performed Aeschylus' Agamemnon for Junior High Drama Day, an event which ensured that the seventh and eighth graders, at a school which encompasses the seventh through twelfth grades, would be included in the school Drama program. To this day, I can recite the lines I learned over six years ago. From that point on, I continued to be involved in other Classical plays until my graduation. Perhaps my high school theater experience was unique, but I do not in any way regret being a part of plays written by some of the greatest theatrical writers, who lived over two thousand years ago.

To this day I love the chorus, the excitement, the emotion, the drama, the pure beauty of the language. I love to quote Euripides, to read Aristophanes. I cry, I laugh, and I wonder why so many high school students are having Neil Simon and Thornton Wilder crammed down their throats, along with an assortment of shallow works that have little or no merit, except that high school directors think that it is all their students are capable of.

That is a mistake. Whenever students from other area high schools saw one of our Greek or Roman plays, I was always confronted with comments such as, 'Why can't our school do that?' These students not only could handle such works, they wanted to handle them. And yet, there seemed not just a reluctance, but rather, a refusal on the part of other directors to produce such plays. Although I am sure that this is not a universal trend, the fact that it exists at all troubles me. If all we let our high school students read, act, and experience are the Mac Flecknoes and Thomas Shadwells, the bad poets, authors, and playwrights of the world, or even the Salieris, the mediocre ones, then that is what our students will appreciate and value, if they value these arts at all after being fed on such watered down milk. When we feed our students, even high school students, with the cream of the arts, such as Classical Drama, they grow to love it as I and many others from my school have.

This school, The Marshall School, a private college preparatory school in Duluth, Minnesota, U.S.A., does not have the finest drama program in any respect. It is as flawed, diversified, and interesting as any other. We had bad performances as well as good ones, but our experience demonstrates not only that high school students can handle Classical drama, but also how they handle classical drama. The plays were all translations done by my English teacher and director, Dr. Timothy Blackburn. Within the comedies of Aristophanes, the political jokes were aimed at United States politicians (Reagan was always popular), school figures, and local political figures (our mayor, our senators, etc.). ProBush and AntiBush were used as character names in The Wasps, and for a production of The Frogs, we had a chorus of frogs that, at one point, began to rap. The vulgarity was always kept, to the point where a production of Lysistrata made some people in the community very angry. It is, however, still required reading at Marshall.

We took these plays very seriously in all aspects of production. Our set for Wasps had to fit into a very small space, about 10' by 5' by 5'. In order to fit the set, which needed to include an entire house, into that area, our house folded up for a roof, a chimney was attached, and we stored sandbags, our donkey, and other miscellaneous material inside, including dog costumes. The sets were generally minimal and stylized, with most of the construction effort put into such special features as the giant, flying dung beetles we constructed for Aristophanes' Peace. Costumes were usually constructed in a modernized style of classical dress, suggesting Greece without being restricted to a specific time period.

The audience, like the students involved, was not a crowd of Ph.D.'s and Classical Studies experts. Generally, we had a fairly good mix of students, family, and members of the community. It was amazing how many people would show up to see a play by Aristophanes or Euripides when we hung posters in local supermarkets. This audience was almost always enthusiastic and always able to understand the production.

My Senior year, I returned the favor done me by Dr. Blackburn by directing a production of Euripides' Medea for Junior High Drama Day. The seventh-graders who took part in the production loved the play and the performance, and many of them now are much more enthusiastic about Classical Drama, and even drama in general. Before we read the play and discussed it, I took pains to describe why I had chosen it and that I did not feel that all contemporary drama is bad, but simply, that the power of this piece was so great that it could not be ignored.

And these young actors did not ignore it. They took time to understand the material. I was initially worried that the chorus might be a foreign concept to them, but the teacher, Mrs. Durant, explained that they had already learned about choruses and how they worked within Classical Drama. They understood Medea's revenge, and even understood how the chorus works up sympathy towards Medea to make the end more climactic. Although many of the subtleties of the text were lost on these young students, such as the importance of Medea's feminist statements, I was impressed and surprised by their understanding of and feel for the text.

Greek tragedy and comedy, then, are clearly within reach not only of high school students, but of junior high school students as well.
Josh Cragun

Josh Cragun is a freshman majoring in English at Cornell College.