DRAMA AT THE CLASSICAL ASSOCIATION
Annual General Meeting, April 4-7, 1994
University of Exeter
Reported by Sallie Goetsch
Department of Classical Studies
University of Michigan
An annual general meeting, of course, is not a conference on theatrical performance. But the program of the 90th AGM of the British Classical Association was in fact weighted heavily toward dramatic production. This was thanks in great part to the efforts of David Wiles, who assembled a 7-paper panel on theatrical space which lasted all day Tuesday.
Leslie Read of Exeter ('The Fifth-Century Orchestra: Staging Assumptions in the 'Rectilinear or Circular' Debate') started off the proceedings by reexamining the evidence in light of our own proscenium-haunted preconceptions. His conclusion was that theaters in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE had no single canonical shape, and that deme theaters particularly varied a good deal in construction. This led to a good deal of speculation on the logistics of touring the demes, a more concrete version of which Read has promised us for Issue 5.
Rush Rehm of Stanford ('Spatial Transformation in Tragedy: The Ritual Catalyst') distinguished theatrical, scenic, extrascenic, extratheatrical, and metatheatrical space and argued that the transformative liminality of ritual exists within and across them. By evoking rituals the Athenian poets manipulated the empty space of their stage, taking the Theater of Dionysus from public to private, general to specific, past to present.
David Wiles of Royal Holloway ('Did Euripides Betray his Inexperience at Alkestis 860-1?') discussed a new polarity in Greek theatrical practice: the opposition of left and right, east and west, and made a convincing case for the western, stage-left eisodos of the Theater of Dionysus as the entrance from which salvation came, whereas the eastern, stage-right eisodos led to stagnation and destruction.
Lowell Edmunds of Rutgers ('Diegetic Space in Greek Tragedy') used Sophocles' OC to illustrate the non-mimetic nature of space offstage. Because the audience cannot see that space even in a symbolic representation, the actors must create it for them out of words, just as Antigone creates the world for her blind father by describing it. Wiles contested Edmunds' assertion that diegetic space is "prior", arguing that it is created not from nothing but from the mythological, social and artistic context of the production.
Suzanne Said of Columbia ('Tragic Space Among the Barbarians') treated a specific example of Rehm's extratheatrical space which was also at times diegetic space. The happy Greece which Iphigenia tries to conjure in Euripides' IT proves to be a fragile illusion; in actuality, the poet's discourse constructs Hellenic territory as barbarous by its parallels with the harsh land of Tauris.
Nick Lowe of Royal Holloway ('Comic Houses') characterized the plots of New Comedy, as mapped onto the 4th-century stage, as 'Houses having sex with one another:' oikoi conspiring to perpetuate themselves by socially approved citizen marriage. The innovation in stage practice of a three-door skene therefore reflects the shift in Athenian political focus at the end of the 5th century.
Sallie Goetsch of the University of Michigan ('Staging and the Date of Prometheus Bound'), argued that the production problems of Prometheus are best overcome by use of mimetic dance.
Three further papers deserve mention, though they did not address problems of staging specifically. Keith Sidwell of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, made a case for 'para-comedy', the parody of characters and scenes from plays by rival poets, in his 'Aristophanes and his Rivals.' Alison Sharrock came from the University of Keele to convince us that the really clever thing about Plautus' Pseudolus is that he can deceive the audience into thinking he has a plan ('A Sense of Superiority: Deceiving the Audience in Roman Comedy'). And Richard Seaford of Exeter explained Ajax's 'deception speech' in terms of mystery cults, an interpretation valuable for any actor who has to undertake the part ('Sophokles and the Mysteries').
On the evening of April 5, Peter Wiseman and Mary Beard staged a debate about performance possibilites in Rome, with Wiseman arguing in favor of the quasi-dramatic performance of hymns and other works at religious and private festivals.
On the evening of April 6, the Exeter drama department presented Attis: A Performance of Catullus 63 in the Roborough studio theater. The production was the weightiest piece of evidence which Wiseman could have brought to bear, a powerful argument that hymns like Catullus 63 can be and indeed should be performed, whether or not they were in antiquity.
Inspired by Peter Wiseman and directed by Les Read of the drama department, Attis featured 36 drama students, four masks, and musical instruments appropriate to Cybele's rites: an oboe, drums, cymbals, and even a pair of homemade bullroarers. The masks were quite beautiful: Cybele in silver with gilded crown and corkscrew curls; her lion in gold with tawny mane; Attis pale in a red Phrygian cap; and a maenad with wild hair of twine and ivy crown.
The masks were the province of a single actor. In the first, Latin half of the performance, the chorus processed in, led by the eerie, Eastern wails of the oboe, to form rows facing the audience. Men and women alike wore plain blue, green, and brown tunics reaching slightly below their knees. Flickering red light played over them in the dimness, creating a powerful aura of mystery--in the ritual sense, that is.
As they began to sing Latin galliambics, passing the words from high to low voices through a quite beautiful harmony, the actor stepped forward and donned the mask of Attis. He then embarked on a vivid pantomime illustrating Catullus' hymn, gestures fluid and precise, kneeling in a red pin-spot for the castration, holding the maenad's mask up to dance through the woods in company, falling in his exhaustion. At the waking and realization, he lifted the Attis mask from an agonized face and assumed the mask and stance of Cybele calling her wayward lover back. Finally he embodied the lion itself, chasing Attis, and disappeared back into the chorus of worshippers, who then exited as the lights went down.
Up came white lights to reveal Publius Clodius Pulcher in a tuxedo, explaining about the Megalensian Games, Catullus' authorship of the hymn, and the prohibition against Roman citizens becoming Galli. The chorus then embarked, in more natural lighting, on a repetition of the hymn in English, including whirling processions around a painted design on the floor and further enactment, shared as were the lines, of the adventures of Attis. A single sweep of a glittering sickle sufficed for the castration--a remarkably tasteful and effective handling of a difficult staging problem. Cybele was portrayed by a woman enthroned with robe and crown, and her lion was our original actor in copper lame trousers, dancing bare-chested and long-haired.
'Drive others insane,' the hymn concluded, followed by a blackout. The ambivalence of Catullus' poem was clear; the imagination of the director and the talent of the performers even clearer.