Transcending the Barriers - The Cambridge Greek Play

Dictynna Hood
Pembroke College
Cambridge CB2 1RF
Tel. (0223) 355617

Since 1882 the Cambridge Greek Play Committee has staged triennial productions of Greek tragedies and comedies, performed in the original language in a major public theatre. Live music and a full chorus have always formed an integral part of the production. 'The Greek Play' combines professional expertise from the director, composer, and technical crew with the potent energies of a student cast, backed up by the intellectual and academic insight available in Cambridge as a centre of the Classics.

In recent years there has been a renaissance in the production of ancient Greek drama in general, perhaps because, as Oliver Taplin puts it, the plays are so 'emotionally strong and direct in an age of self-consciousness and embarrassment' and 'they offer some leads for resilience and survival and for finding sense in chaos.' Euripides and Aristophanes, in particular, were writing during a period of uncertainty, for an audience that, shaken by a long war, was questioning and reassessing past values. The vigorous, questing nature of Greek theatre strikes a chord with the modern audience, and the 1980s saw many notable productions in translation in Britain and abroad.

No production in translation, however, can access the direct emotional power of the original theatrical experience. Greek plays are written in verse, and, moreover, are centred around their ritual origin in the chorus. The choric passages in a Greek play are no banal interlude to the drama, but its essential dynamic, as the group celebrates, bemoans, and comments on the individual protagonists' actions, driving the story forward through their singing and dancing. The felt power of the group versus the individual, the Dionysiac joy and terror conveyed by rhythm and sound, is denied to the audience in translation: it is as if one was hearing a vast orchestral piece played on an untuned piano. The remit of the Cambridge Greek Play is, then, to unlock the poetry coiled up in the original text, 'the twisting music of that language that is itself a work of art' (Kenneth Rexroth). For both audience and actors the result is a pure and direct encounter with the sensuous and emotional aspects of the drama--its true theatrical nature.

Greek plays in the original tongue were in fact quite often performed in academic circles in the days of Shakespeare, but were banned by the Puritans. Early in the 1880s there was a remarkable revival, with Frank Benson's Agamemnon at Oxford in 1880, Oedipus Tyrannos at Harvard in 1881, and Alcestis at Bradfield College early in 1882. Pat Easterling (herself a former producer of several Cambridge Greek Plays, now returned to Cambridge as Regius Professor of Greek) links this vivifying trend to major developments in classical archaeology. 'The study of sites and objects had clearly begun to do a great deal for the imagination of the more progressive scholars and students.' And indeed it was an archaeologist who first suggested putting on a Greek play in Cambridge.

Charles Waldstein, an American, had arrived in Cambridge in 1880 to be the first lecturer in classical archaeology. Inspired by the examples of Oxford and Bradfield, he followed up with his own production, Ajax, in 1882. It was such a success that special trains ran to and from King's Cross to accommodate theatregoers. In the following year Waldstein produced Aristophanes' Birds. From there, one might say, the tradition took off. In 1903 press coverage transcended national boundaries and the play (Birds again) was reviewed by Le Figaro. In 1936 demand was so great that The Frogs was taken to London and put on in the vast Chiswick Empire. In 1980, Electra toured to Delphi and Ithaca.

The roll call of those who have participated in the productions contains many names of distinction. Composers such as Stanford Parry, Charles Wood, and Vaughan Williams have written music for the plays. Designers have included artists such as Duncan Grant of the Bloomsbury group and Gwen Raverat. Future diplomats and other public figures have acted in The Greek Play as students, among them Lord Runciman, Sir Ronald Storrs, Lord Trevelyan, Sir Andrew Cohen, Baroness Brigstocke (who in 1950 was the first woman to act in the Greek Play since Janet Case in 1883). War poet Rupert Brooke made his debut in The Oresteia; the Times called him 'exceedingly beautiful.' Producer Frank Birch and director John Barton both passed this way. And film star James Mason, interviewed on 'Desert Island Discs', recalled that his first stage appearance was in the chorus of the 1930 production of The Bacchae.

The Play embraces a very diverse audience. A heavy matinee schedule caters to school parties, who come from as far away as Perth and Aberystwyth. In the evening there are regular theatregoers, students, and the simply curious. For many, it is their first encounter with the Greek language, and perhaps with Greek theatre. Ever since its inception The Greek Play has been a crusader for the Classics; now more than ever before, its quasi-ambassadorial status is a serious responsibility.

The Cambridge Greek Play Committee has responded to the challenge with an increasing commitment to theatrical professionalism, and since the 1980s outside directors have been invited to take a bold new approach to the tradition. In 1989 The Bacchae played to packed houses and highly favourable notices. 1992 saw an elegant interpretation of Hippolytus, directed by Philip Howard (previously of the Royal Court) and lit by David Hersey (of Miss Saigon and Les Miserables).

The play chosen for 1995 is Aristophanes' The Birds, a breathtaking fantasy of air and light in which a man learns to fly like the birds and birds behave as foolishly as men. The play will be staged at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, a vast and atmospheric venue. Music from different levels in the space, magical lighting and in-the-round staging will be used to take the audience aloft into the world of the birds. There are plans afoot to tour the production; Greece, Japan, and the USA are all possibilities.

It is just over a hundred years since Charles Waldstein staged The Birds in Cambridge, making the claim that it was the first Greek comedy to be produced in its entirety since ancient times. Powered above all by the symbolism of transcendence, The Birds is a most suitable play for the latest Greek Play at Cambridge: the newest link in the chain binding ancient and modern through living theatre.

I have drawn in this article on contributions by LP Wilkinson and PE Easterling in the 1982 centenary programme for the Cambridge Greek Play.

Aristophanes' Birds, The Cambridge Greek Play 1995, will be staged at the Cambridge Corn Exchange February 22-25 1995. Performances at 2:30 PM and 8 PM daily. Tickets priced 12 and 9; 6 anyone in full-time education and unwaged. School parties, one free seat in ten. For bookings call (0223) 357851 or fax (0223) 321026. Postal bookings to Cambridge Corn Exchange Box Office, Wheeler Street, Cambridge CB2 3QB.

Dictynna Hood

Dictynna Hood studied Classics at Cambridge, and has recently returned to the theatre after writing her first major screenplay, 'Helen of Burma', which is based on a true-life war story.