Oliver Taplin
Magdalen College

It has been a fundamental premise of my work on Greek drama that serious scholarship is not only compatible with its performability, but can actually have a strong interplay with performance. When I started on this kind of study back in the seventies, it was primarily concerned with what one might call the recovery of "the" historical performance. The most that respectable scholarship attempted was to relate the original performance - or rather what one can recover of that performance from the various sources and above all from the texts themselves - to interpretation. But since then, and in tune with developing methodologies, I have come to have an ever-increasing interest in not just the "original performance" (not such an easy entity as it might have seemed), but in what has happened to the performance of the work since then, in performed reception across the ages. This is partly a matter of realising that all the performances that have happened between the 'original' and the present have intrinsic interest, and have significant things to tell us: these many pasts, and not just the one originating past, are worth recording and thinking about. But I do also strongly believe in the value of looking at contemporary performance for teaching and research purposes. The way that the plays are performed now (or tomorrow) helps in our 'uncovering' or 'discovering' things about the interpretations of the texts.

Until pretty recently the way that most people, myself included, have approached contemporary performances has been little more than a matter of taste. You like the production, or you don't, more or less. But I have come to see that the performances can have hermeneutic and heuristic value for understanding and appreciation, whether you happen to like them or not. In fact the more the production uncovers that I hadn't thought about or seen before, the more valuable - as distinct from "good" - it may be for me. So I increasingly realise the importance of remaining open-minded, and not simply going along to the show and seeing how much it fits with my pre-formed ideas. Of the many productions which might well strike us as 'academically irresponsible', some are just so awful that there is no redeeming them - and, believe me, I've seen more than my fair share of those!: at the same time it is fascinating and surprising how many of them can in their different ways, given an open mind, make us think constructively. And to some extent this is precisely because they have different purposes, and because they come from a different context. And, as I shall explain, I've come round to this attitude even more keenly because of my personal engagement with the production of the Oresteia that was put on in London between October 1999 and April 2000. It was in many ways not at all "my kind of Greek play", and certainly not the sort of way that I would do it if I were doing it myself: yet I learnt a lot from the experience.

There is a further factor which can, and should, encourage the assimilation of recent, and especially contemporary, performances into the mainstream study of ancient Greek (and Roman) drama. This is the ever-increasing quantity of productions in the theatres of the world, combined with the ever-improving technology of recording, above all on video. Our Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama in Oxford is attempting in the long run to document on its database all the relevant productions there have ever been (a modest ambition!). Below I give the number of productions of Greek drama (tragedy and comedy combined) registered at present, divided decade-by-decade for the whole of the twentieth century (1). I cannot say with any confidence what proportion of actual number of productions this represents, but I suspect - and hope! - that it is above 50%. In any case, the point is that the proportion of the total for each decade is likely to be more or less consistent.

1910s 104
1920s 132
1930s 134
1940s 147
1950s 269
1960s 539 (a huge jump here, interestingly)
1970s 442 (so the jump for the 1960s is not only a matter of improved records)
1980s 599
1990s 858 (another jump upwards)

In the world at present there is, then, an average of more than three new productions of Greek drama a fortnight, very likely more than two a week. And there is no sign of this steady increase going into reverse.

I have had the good fortune to have been personally involved in various ways with several significant professional productions of Greek tragedy and comedy (not to mention innumerable more academic stagings). It so happens that they include two major productions of the Oresteia, both, furthermore, put on in the same building - the National Theatre on the South Bank in London - though not in the same auditorium within that building. Yet there is a huge contrast between those two productions, the first in 1981 and the second in 1999, and my contributions to each were very different. So a strange product of this coincidence is that they provide case-studies in the very different contributions that can be made to productions by an involved academic.

And the Oresteia is also especially interesting as a test-case because it has so often been regarded in some way an emblematic work in production history, the hinge of a turning-point in theatrical development. It may have been less often performed than, for example Antigone and Medea - hardly surprisingly in view of its scale - but it has had, I suspect, more "major" productions. Although that epithet is impossible to define, I can list at least fourteen productions from the second half of the twentieth century that have claims to its application (for convenience I give just the Director's name, year of premiere and main or originating venue) (2).

1954 Athens
Barrault 1955 Paris
Gassman 1960 Siracusa
Guthrie 1966 Mineapolis
Ronconi 1972, 1976 Venice, Vienna
Koun 1980 Epidauros
Stein 1980, 1994 Berlin, Moscow
Hall 1981 London
Crivelli 1983-5 Gibellina (Sicily)
Mnouchkine 1990-2 Paris
Rochaix 1991 Geneva
Castellucci 1995 Prato
Purcarete 1998 Craiova
Mitchell 1999 London

I have had the good fortune to have seen six of these in live performance (Koun, Stein, Hall, Mnouchkine, Purcarete and Mitchell); and it is extraordinary to recall how different and how inventive each one has been.

The earlier production with which I was personally involved was directed by Peter Hall, who was at that time in charge of the National Theatre. It was staged in the new Greek-form large space of the Olivier Theatre. It opened in late November 1981, and ran for many performances; it also went in summer 1982 to Epidauros, where it was the first ever non-Greek production of a Greek play to be put on there. It was a masked production, accompanied much of the time by music; played entirely by men (though I am not sure that was of the essence), and acted in a highly stylised and consistently non-naturalistic manner, always directed towards the audience rather than actor-to-actor. This was one of the great examples in modern times of classical theatre made strange rather than domesticated. This was thoroughly in keeping with - and arguably dictated by - the translation by Tony Harrison (3).

In his new Introduction to the Faber edition of Plays 4 (4), Tony Harrison records how he started thinking about the Oresteia in 1973, and how there had been preliminary workshops in 1979. I first made contact with him directly in Spring 1981 (when I was compiling the first issue of the magazine OMNIBUS). To my pleasant surprise he responded warmly, inviting me to come to a rehearsal - this was in September, about half way through the rehearsal period. He said that The Stagecraft of Aeschylus had been the only academic book he had found really helpful - and to my delight I found a battered copy knocking about on the rehearsal-room floor.

What was most impressive - and significant - about these rehearsals was that the whole team was already assembled there, many weeks before opening. This was surely essential for the final integration of the whole. As well as the company of fifteen men, who played the choruses and all the parts between them, and the usual specialists in movement and voice, Jocelyn Herbert, the designer, and her assistants were always in the room, busy developing the masks and props in the light of the discoveries of practical rehearsal (5). Harrison Birtwistle had at least three musicians with him, and seemed to be composing the music as they went along: above all the rhythms were emerging from working with the words rather than being pre-imposed (6). Peter Hall himself intervened interestingly little. He had his "hallmark" obsession with the pulse of delivery, snapping his fingers or setting up a metronome, and he occasionally worked intensively on a grouping or a movement, but, on the whole, he enabled and delegated rather than controlling. He had collected an inspired group of creative collaborators, and he waited for them to work it all out.

Most striking of all was the extent to which he let Tony Harrison participate and shape the production. Not only was he constantly interpreting the wording and phrasing of his translation, but he also contributed enormously towards finding the whole acting style and performance priorities in general. My contribution, in so far as I had one, was through him. We had many energetic conversations about the recurrent leitmotifs, the mirror-scenes, the significance of props and so on: for me it was an elating experience to find my academic interests and research feeding into theatrical practice (7). We also had many conversations about details in the Greek - I remember the cast teasing their poet, "off for your Greek lessons!" - and this led occasionally to changes as well as interpretations. For example, the first version of Agam 1390-92 read:

spraying me with dark blood-dew, dew I delight in
as much as the dry earth delights in spring rainfall.

In response to my insistence on the twisted image of fertility in the Aeschylus, the poet came back with (much stronger):

spraying me with dark blood-dew, dew I delight in
as much as the graincrop in the fresh gloss of rainfall
when the wheatbud's in labour and swells into birthpang.

When I pointed out that the mutilation of emaschalisthê at Cho 439 included the genitals, he instantly changed,

she hacked off both his hands and feet


she hacked off his cock, his hands, his feet

And after I pointed out the emphasis on numerals in the closing anapaests of Choephoroi (1065-76), Harrison came up with the "One: …/ Two: …/ Three: …" that is in the published version.

I don't think I left many tangible marks on the production (8).I do recall, however, that I pointed out that the Athenian method of voting was by putting both hands in the two funnels above the voting urns, so that it was impossible to tell which hand had dropped the pebble (9). This was carried through, very effectively, into the eventual staging and music. And I was consulted on the sound of Greek. Although it is not in the printed text, it was decided that the production should close with a swelling choral setting of the last line of the Greek - the one and only time that the voices of women were heard the entire trilogy:

ololuxate nun epi molpais

Birtwistle insisted that I gave him the most exact phonetic version of this that I could manage. And there it is to be heard in the video recording - for those who listen carefully enough!

So my involvement in this production was wholly unofficial and unsystematic. And it was almost entirely exercised through intense - and for me very exciting - conversations with the translator. But he was far more than only the translator: his role was something like what in many countries is called "dramaturg" - if anything even more formative than that. It would be widely agreed that this was by far the most effective and powerful of Peter Hall's productions of Greek drama. And it is no coincidence that it is the only one he has done with Harrison.

My input in 1999 into the more recent National Theatre Oresteia could hardly have been more different. By and large this was also a successful event, though on a much smaller scale. Like the previous production 18 years earlier, it met with a very mixed reception on press reviews; but it was entirely sold out every single performance, and largely before booking opened to the general public. Yet the National Theatre authorities (directed at this time by Trevor Nunn) decided to close the production, if only because they had a queue of productions waiting to take over the Cottesloe. It was also the inaugural production in the smaller auditorium at the newly built Lowry Centre at Salford; and it travelled briefly to Toronto. It was highly successful with audiences in Canada, and generally so in London.

Everything was in extreme contrast. For a start the translator was not present: Ted Hughes had died in October 1998, before the details of the production team were ever arranged (10). That team was small: at rehearsals there were the director, designer, movement expert, sound technician, and the company of twelve actors and two musicians, the musicians contributing the music themselves. And for the first few weeks there was me, this time with the role of a sort of "dramaturg" (though, for various reasons, I was more involved in rehearsals of Agamemnon than of the other two plays). It was conceived from the start for the Cottesloe Auditorium, which is a traverse black box with seats on three levels running down both sides and the end. In contrast with the airiness of the Olivier, this was turned into a kind of oppressive, claustrophobic cell, teeming with noises and ghosts.

And Katie Mitchell, aged 35 at that time, is a very different kind of director from Peter Hall. She works with high intensity, and is notoriously demanding of her actors. While she involves the actors intimately in the process of finding interpretations, she is at the same time directing every single detail of the production. The first rehearsals were spent largely on discovering and exploring the themes and images of the trilogy, so that these were always in mind before sketches and improvisations were used as a way of discovering potential enactmants. In this case at least, she employed a kind of adaptation of the Method type of rehearsal. She encouraged the actors to find what the text meant for them in terms that they could translate into their own psychic experience: they had to seek for what would make their characters tick, and to express that. In keeping with this, Vicki Mortimer was looking for a kind of contemporary translation of the design, which was generally simple, using eclectic and mainly everyday "modern dress". Indeed many of the "Oxfam costumes" had been literally been picked up by her in charity shops. From the director's angle Mitchell was through and through seeking to translate the Oresteia into modern terms, discovering interpretation through her own culture and her own experience. This made a fascinating contrast with Tony Harrison, who was approaching much of his interpretation through his anthropological sense of how other cultures - and other theatres - work.

I learnt that, as well as working with extraordinary intensity in rehearsal, Katie Mitchell subjects herself to long weeks of preparation, studying the text, worrying over it word-by-word, and reading round it. I already admired her work, and I knew her personally, but not well. So it was a pleasant surprise when she asked me to help her with this preparatory process. Thus it was that we found ourselves sitting for several days in a café in London, drinking endless espresso coffees, and going through that script detail by detail. She wanted to explore every word, every theme, and every association with me. She bombarded me with questions about ancient Greek theatre and society; we traced every single change of metre and mode of delivery; we tried to disentangle every network of images. Much of this, I have to say - including much that I consider important - left no trace in the eventual production, at least not so far as I could see. But other things did. And it is the unpredictable transmutations of our café lucubrations into the theatre that may be of some interest.

Some issued into relatively small details. For example, I had pointed out in passing that Mount Arachnaion, the last beacon before Argos in Clytmnestra's chain (Agam 309), is the mountain in the background of the audience's view from the ancient theatre at Epidaurus; but that no one (so far as I know) has ever lit a beacon there to synchronise with the prologue of Agamemnon, even though this would be easy to manage with modern communication technology. This was irrelevant to Aeschylus and irrelevant to the Cottesloe, yet it gave Katie Mitchell the idea of lighting and holding up a match in the darkest corner of the auditorium to represent the beacon seen by the Watchman. My obsession with the topographical feasibility of the beacon-chain in Clytemnestra's speech at Agam 281ff., showing her control over the external male world, led to a determination to have her display an actual map with the beacons marked on it. I was commissioned, while I was in Greece that September (making a film with Tony Harrison as it happens!), to buy a suitable map. I managed to find, for the equivalent of 50 pence, a simple coloured geophysical map of the whole of the Aegean without modern Greek names on it. This was colour-reproduced and used in each performance. The further touch, which only developed in later rehearsal, was to have Clytemnestra throw the map into a kind of bath and have it burnt, while a tiny portable video-camera projected close-ups of the flames, so that you got the picture of the burning map projected onto the back screen. This suggested both a rejection of the masculine world of the map, and a kind of burning world left in the wake of the destruction of Troy.

On a larger scale, it was our discussion of the function of the chorus in Greek tragedy that led Katie Mitchell to develop her handling of the chorus in Agamemnon. I repeatedly came back to the notion of 'witness' (11): to the chorus as witnesses, people who see and experience the things which happen in the plays and survive to tell the story, and who, instead of being all caught up in the action, try to channel their experience into expression - into poetry and song. Thus old men in Agamemnon (72ff., 104ff.) emphasise how old they are, yet insist that they can give an account of the departure of the expedition and the events at Aulis. Mitchell turned them into war veterans, some of them in wheelchairs, others with the stiff march of old soldiers. They were men who had seen action in the distant past, and were now witnessing the wars of the present. One of them had a typewriter on a little tray by his wheelchair on which he'd clatter away, making a record of what they were watching. Another had an old cassette recorder on which he replayed the crackled recording of what Calchas (spoken by me!) and Agamemnon had said at Aulis ten years ago (12).

One of the major themes of the trilogy that most preoccupied Mitchell was revenge. We talked about the importance of not pretending that the deep-rooted desire for revenge is something that does not exist for us in our present-day "civilised" society. One of the threads we began to draw out of the text was the dissatisfied dead, the dead who had not yet had their proper due paid to them. And, in association with that, she began to think more and more, working back from Clytemnestra's appearance in the third play, in terms of ghosts. This led to the presence of many ghosts in the first two plays (and at one time we even thought the chorus of Furies might consist of the ghosts from the first two plays). Throughout the entire length of the Agamemnon the ghost of the sacrificed Iphigenia (played by the diminutive Icelandic actress Asta Sighvats ) was present on stage. Still wearing the gag that Agamemnon had put round her mouth at Aulis, she was sometimes stock-still on some perch, sometimes running in and out of the action. And in one of those wonderful moments that a truly imaginative director can conjure up, this girl-ghost, who has so haunted Agamemnon's past and has been so demanding of vengeance through the person of her mother, went up and stood by the body of her father, now lying dead in the bath. Then the dead man's arm slowly reached out and held his little dead daughter. As well as being breath-takingly unexpected and moving, this anticipated the point made in the third play that, however much Orestes was justified in taking vengeance on his mother for killing his father, she remains irreducibly his mother. That fact of blood wins half the votes in the trial. The hint was that the man who killed his own daughter for the sake of the expedition to Troy still remains irreducibly her father.

A final example. In that London cafe we went painstakingly through every recurrence of the motif of cloth and clothing and the weaving of fabrics in the Oresteia. We had reached the passage of the recognition-scene in Cho (231-2), where Orestes produces a piece of weaving which Electra had worked long ago, before he was sent away, and which he has kept as a kind of keepsake. And Katie suddenly said, "Of course, Clytemnestra would have kept Iphigeneia's dress!", referring to the clothing that flowed to the ground at Aulis (Agam 239). "She would have it to give her strength, when she struck Agamemnon". And she then linked that with the cloth that Clytemnestra throws over him in the bath, the 'evil wealth of cloth' (Agam 1383 - not in the Hughes translation). This train of thought, with its psychological speculation, would not be acceptable in terms of orthodox scholarship: but it was theatrically very effective, when there was the little girl's dress draped over the edge of the bath in which Agamemnon lay dead.

Before the first performance the motif of Iphigenia's dress had grown (a photo of a little girl's dress lying on the wet sand provided the poster and the cover of the programme). The dress also multiplied into one of the key moments in this powerfully disturbing production. When Clytemnestra told her women to lay out the purple path before Agamemnon (Agam 905ff.), two of them each took a corner of the sort of vague heap that had been lying at the back of the stage. They ran forward up to Agamemnon, spreading this great purple piece of cloth behind them. It happened fast, and it was only when they put it down on the ground, that you realised that the path that Agamemnon is going to tread on is made up of dozens and dozens of little girls' dresses, all fixed together. He is going to tread on the "keepsake" of the sacrifice of his daughter, multiplied by the vengeful obsession of her mother. It was a breathtaking moment.

Most directors (and other formative influences in the theatre) who undertake the production of an ancient Greek play are interested in the original performance, and in its context, cultural, social, political. Even those (rather many!) who have no time for scholars or pedants still have the curiosity, if only as a possible source of ideas. All too many have resorted to out-of-date or cranky or unreliable sources, whether books or people. What none of them wants is a scholar - however good - who wants to supply them with a complete interpretation, or with an all-pervasive theorisation.

So what we scholars have to accept, whether we are writing in our study or participating in the rehearsal-room, is that the aspects that most interest us are not necessarily those that are going to interest or inspire the theatrical interpreters. It is nice to think that the current preoccupations of scholarship are going to be the very "things in the air" that are going to excite the practitioners. But the match invariably proves to be far from complete, and the emphasis quite different. And sometimes it is aspects that are unfashionable, or even academically unsustainable, that capture the creative interest. In such cases, it is, in my experience, still possible to contribute, without being dishonest: firm views and standards are, in fact, respected, provided that they are not maintained to the death. The crucial thing is to keep an open mind about what is or is not going to take root (it is not so very unlike our experience as teachers!). There can be, in fact, a special pleasure and excitement in that very unpredictability.

Photographs by Ivan Kyncel from the National Theatre's Oresteia (1999)

Oliver Taplin
Magdalen College