Regina and Elizabeth Reynolds
Edited by Sallie Goetsch
Greek children were involved with the music and dance which form the foundation of Athenian tragedy practically from the time of their birth, and at least some of them were exposed to productions of tragedy and comedy. Indeed by Plato's time the songs of the tragic poets are just the kinds of things children learn from their nurses and in their earliest formal education (Republic II-III). In Book II of the Laws the Athenian decrees that anyone not trained in choral dancing is uneducated.
From the message which Ian Worthington received in December, it would seem that Americans are growing up uneducated:
The subject of Greek drama was on my mind this evening as I paged through my Internet mail and saw an announcement about your forthcoming e-journal. The reason for the subject being on my mind was that my daughter, a student in the U.S. in a gifted and talented program, has to put together a class presentation on Greek drama. Both my husband and I work at the Library of Congress and he checked the catalogue today and said that he found no juvenile works on this subject. I find that hard to believe.
I know you must be busy, as are we all, but on the off chance that you'd know of some works without having to look them up I thought I'd just drop you a note. My daughter (11) was even wondering if there were any adaptations of plays that her class could try to enact scenes from or even just read aloud. My understanding is that most of the surviving drama would not be appropriate or accessible to children.
Many many thanks for your trouble.
Regina's message made it clear that, at least in the United States, Greek drama is not normally thought suitable for young readers. I had to think very hard before I could suggest any secondary sources which might be even partly accessible to a bright 11-year- old. And the likely reaction of the Bush-administration NEA to Aristophanes was nothing to what Old Comedy would undoubtedly evoke with the parents and teachers of fifth-graders. Pre-teen audiences do not generally respond to tragedies in performance as their elders do.
But tragedy and comedy were not the major ways in which Greek children were involved with performance. Girls in particular would have been more likely to perform something along the lines of Alcman's Partheneion. Alcman is not available in particularly accessible form, but perhaps Regina's daughter could invent a basket-dance in honor of Artemis. The suggestion received the following reply:
[....]I know that Elizabeth will be delighted at your suggestion of using dance and song. Elizabeth has been taking both ballet and modern dance for several years and enjoys dance very much. Quite the right suggestion for my daughter, I believe.
I'll definitely let you know how this turns out. If Elizabeth makes up some verse to sing, I'll have her e-mail you a copy and a description. I do think that there is a good opportunity in your idea of developing something for young students. I know that there is much more emphasis on "hands-on" activities in today's curriculum than there was when I was in elementary school and I think that activities make much more of an impression.
Again, many thanks for your interest.
Regina (and Elizabeth!)
What ultimately resulted was not, in fact, an original basket-dance, but an idea of Elizabeth's own which proved to my satisfaction and that of her class that there are indeed ways of making Greek tragedy accessible to students at the primary level:
[......] I so appreciate your interest in Elizabeth's project. My husband and I were a bit disappointed that she didn't go with the partheneia presentation but even though I do get somewhat involved in her projects I try not to be a "stage mother" about it.
By Elizabeth Reynolds
My assignment was to conduct a lesson for my classmates on theatre in ancient Greece and to create an activity to cement what I'd taught them. Since I didn't have any luck finding books on Greek theatre for children I had to refer to my social studies textbook and some encyclopedias to compile a lecture for the class. Then came the hard part: finding an activity the class could participate in. I first tried to get my friends interested in a dance to Artemis but didn't have much luck so I chose a mock audition for the play Antigone.
My talk included information about how Greek theatre was born and its roots in religion, the actors and costumes, comedy and tragedy, the masters of these genres, and the theatres themselves. I illustrated my talk with a poster entitled "The Evolution of Greek Theatre." At the bottom I painted a misty circle representing religion. Coming out from the circle, I painted streams of colors representing singing and dancing, and then branching out of both sides, color streams representing comedy and tragedy. At the top was a Greek theatre with comedy and tragedy entering from either side.
After my talk I held the audition. Beforehand I looked through the text of Antigone and found some main dramatic speeches by Antigone, Haemon, Creon, and Ismene. I also chose some parts of the play where there was dialogue between two characters and put all the speeches into script books for each student. Next I made four masks. I cut the usual shapes of comedy and tragedy masks out of posterboard and painted them with poster paints. The facial expressions I painted on the masks went along with the speeches. For example, in Antigone's speeches she was enraged and almost ready to cry over her dead brother not being buried. I showed her face contorted into expressions of rage and sorrow. I painted her hair black and showed her face with heavy eyebrows, flushed cheeks and an open red mouth. I portrayed Creon as a stately but haggard old man with a grey beard and disheveled hair, and many lines of age on his face. Haemon had auburn hair and wreath of laurel leaves around his head. Ismene looked a lot more genteel than Antigone and her face was not as angered. I glued chopsticks to one side of each mask so the masks could be held up by the students as they auditioned.
I chose two students to audition for each role. The first students each read one of the main speeches and the second round consisted of two characters performing a dialogue. It was most interesting to watch the dialogue between the characters. Some students really got into their speeches and this helped me see who would fit the character best.
Both the class and I learned a lot. I had never heard Greek literature before and this activity really gave us a feel for how different Greek tragedies were from, for example, the acting we see on TV. This experience was better than just reading about Greek drama in a textbook because it gave us an idea of what the actors went through and then a chance to actually get into these roles.
No doubt Elizabeth's masks reflected somewhat outdated conceptions of the appearance of tragic masks, given the absence of good books on tragedy for young people. There is room out there for classicists who want to write for a younger audience, or to perform for or with them. The Presidential Forum at the APA meetings in Washington, DC this year stressed the value to universities of training students in Classical Civilization, Greek, and Latin at the high-school level. I would like to invite Didaskalia's readers to consider taking that yet a step farther, and focusing their creative energies on a primary audience. And if you do know of any books on ancient drama which are specifically directed at pre-teens, let Didaskalia know about them.
Regina and Elizabeth Reynolds
Regina Reynolds is head of the ISSN office at the Library of Congress.
Elizabeth is a fifth grade student in the Gifted and Talented Program at Mantua Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Her teacher is Barbara Hoffman.