by A.S. Postma
translated by D. van Ophuijsen
At the end of November 1996, the Dutch group 'Het Homerostheater' (HHT) will stage the Antigone of Sophocles. HHT is a company of working people, university students and secondary school pupils who share a strong connection with the culture of ancient Greece which moves them perform classical plays in the original language.
The roots of HHT are to be found in a school in The Hague, the Montessori Lyceum. Its (then) resident classics teacher Lodewijk Saldien and some of his pupils first recited parts of Homer on some stage in 1963. At that time, this was done as part of a 'cultural day' in school under the rubric 'From Steam to Atom' (an appropriate context, for while the Greeks did not have steam power, they were the first to conceive of the atom).
The tradition of truly full-length recitations of Homer had its beginning some two years later. From about 1985 on, only the 22nd and 24th books of Homer's Iliad (Hector's death and the ransom of his body by Priam) were actually performed. When Saldien retired it seemed likely that the tradition would come to an end, but then a few former 'actors' from his productions, myself among them, founded Het Homerostheater. In 1995 we decided to expand our programme to include the performance of real drama. We had not tired of Homer, but the Iliad is epic rather than drama; each of the spoken 'roles' is interrupted by at least one verse of narrative text, which tends to keep the dialogue from flowing smoothly.
Antigone was an obvious starting point for our new dramatic performances. The characters are immensely strong personalities, involved in a very strong conflict. Antigone will also be an examination subject for many secondary schools in the Netherlands in 1997. Thus the choice of this play ensures a reasonably large audience for our performances and therefore enables us to stay within our modest budget as well as to continue and expand our tradition.
HHT's mission is to bring the culture and language of Classical Greece to the attention of more and more people. We emphasize the importance of an accurate approach of the text so that our audiences can experience genuine Greek drama . We pay special attention to the metre in our delivery and even pronounce the pitch accents: a sharply rising tone for acute, a more modest rise in tone for the grave, and a falling tone for the circumflex. For us the metre determines stress and not pitch. Our pronunciation of classical Greek is a 'historic' one: that is, we pronounce letters the way some philologists think they should be spoken. We pronounce the aspirants : theta, phi, chi as t + h, p + h, k + h rather than (English) 'th,' 'f' and 'ch'. Diphthongs are as follows: epsilon-iota sounds like 'A' in 'ape', epsilon-upsilon is A + oo + w ('oo' is pronounced like the 'o' in 'tomb'), and omicron-upsilon 'oa' as in 'boat'. Within these guidelines, however, we are free to make our own choices of tempo, pitch and pauses.
We aim at authenticity with regard to the theme as well. Every performance is inevitably an interpretation, no matter how hard we try to be authentic. But we want to play Antigone with a maximum of respect for its author. We find that an interested audience with some affinity with classical culture is able to appreciate Sophocles' ideas and we want to be no more than the medium through which his story reaches the public. We are not trying to make anything artificially attractive to a modern audience by adding some 'juice' of contemporary hot issues. For example, in our production nobody will find a homosexual Haemon who uses the conflict about Antigone to extort some degree of acceptance of his sexual orientation from his father. We focus instead on the mythical conflict between the two kinds of laws: those of the state, which thrives on civil obedience, represented by Kreon; and those of the gods, who demand service for the sacred care of the family, represented by Antigone.
Still, our performance is not necessarily a completely traditional one. We are not under the illusion that classical language and classical themes guarantee a complete authenticity. If that were our aim, we would, among other things, have to perform in an outdoor theatre in Greece, with 3 male performers undertaking all the roles and 15 chorus members, all masked. We could not do this if we wanted to. We play in normal theatres, with modern decor, no masks and no multiple roles.
I also had the task of training a chorus for the first time in HHT's history. In classical tragedy, the chorus participates in the dialogue as well as singing in the stasima which provide a sort of philosophical commentary on the action but do not directly affect it. In addition to the usual challenges I was faced with a shortage of appropriate personnel: for the prescribed chorus of 15 Theban elders who form the Kings' council, only three 17-year-old schoolgirls are available to me. Consequently, the nature and dynamics of the chorus can be expected to undergo quite some change.
An independent choir has come to our aid for those choral parts which are not connected to the action. This choir is the 'Nieuw Koor Oude Muziek' in The Hague, guided by a very inspired director who is also a musical conservatory graduate. She has composed music for the stasima of Antigone and rehearses it with her choir. Of course this music does not pretend to be authentic, as we know far too little about the theatre music used by the ancient Greeks. It was probably played on kitharai or auloi and sung in unison, but we know very little more than that.
Under the guidance of Lodewijk Saldin, the HHT used to take the text of Homer as the only point of departure. What we knew about the way the roles should be played, we knew from the text. With Homer, we had the advantages as well as the disadvantages of the narrator's interruptions of the dialogue. The narrator/poet provides a considerable amount of information concerning the personal qualities, characteristics, and emotions of those who appear in his epic, all valuable to the stage director. In the case of classical tragedy, it is only the dialogues themselves that can provide this kind of information. Although there are numerous commentaries on and interpretations of the plays, they often contradict each other or are otherwise limited in scope. An excessively academic approach to a production carries the risk of rigidity or ballast. We have found it useful to put some emphasis on drama-exercises. Entering into a part and developing it requires skills which must first be taught and then practised. We used one such exercise to envision Kreon and Antigone confronting each other while waiting for a bus.
In working with the protagonists, I have focused on the principle of necessity. I believe classical tragedy is a form of theatre that renders the essence of each of the great human emotions. Tragedy must, therefore, avoid irrelevant clap-trap. Words must not be spoken by an actor just because they are in the script; movement cannot result simply from the orders of the director. Some real necessity has to be there for each and every word or action. Both actors and audience must be able to feel this necessity, the electricity between the characters, when they interact. Quite a few people have a hard time doing this because the classical language is not our own, so I work a lot with Dutch text in the margin or between the lines. From the necessity of the different emotions and motivations, confrontations arise which move us very deeply and sharply. This is what a tragedy needs.
By working in this way, we have achieved a certain kind of theatrical renewal within our tradition of ancient Greek theatre tradition. The actors find the way of working intensive, perhaps demanding, but it offers them an opportunity to expand their acting skills and they also find it rewarding.
Sophocles' Antigone performed by Het Homeros Theater Preview: Friday November 22, 1996 Performances: Friday November 29 and Saturday November 30, 1996 Place: Haags Montessori Lyceum, Nassau Bredastraat 5, Den Haag, Netherlands For tickets telephone +31 (0)23 - 5 32 49 35 (Secretariaat HHT). Here you can also order video and audio tape recordings.
Arne Sybren Postma
(Arne Sybren Postma is pursuing a teaching certificate in history.)