Departments of Classics and Drama
University of Canterbury, NZ
The question of how one should present a masterwork of ancient drama to a modern audience is an extremely complex one. It admits of no simple answer. However, it is perhaps useful to draw a comparison with another difficult, but less technically complex task, that of translation.
There are perhaps three readily identifiable ways in which a person with linguistic/literary expertise can approach the task of translating, for the sake of argument, Euripides Bacchae. There is the type of translation exemplified recently by the version of Richard Seaford, the intent of which is to give an accurate, even literal rendition of the Greek text into English prose. No attempt is made to reproduce the poetic spirit or dramatic power of the original. The translation is useful as a parallel text for the student or scholar whose main aim is to come to grips with and decipher the original Greek, or grapple with the detail of syntax and imagery. An uncharitable description of the purpose of such a work is that it can be exploited as a useful crib or key to the linguistic mysteries of the original. More charitably it is a valuable adjunct to a learned commentary and text.
A second type of translation is exemplified by both my version of the Bacchae produced in Christchurch last November, and by the version of Harry Love produced in Dunedin in 1997. In this case the translator should have the intention of production firmly in mind. Accordingly, s/he must attempt to recapture the dynamism and poetry of the original Greek, as well as being as faithful as possible to the literal meaning. This is a difficult and paradoxical procedure, since the translator must always be aware of the need to write dialogue and lyrics, which are capable of being performed with conviction. Of necessity such a translation aims to be a successful compromise.
On the other hand, some artists who translate and adapt ancient texts are not interested in the art of compromise. In the case of the Bacchae an ideal example of this type is the version of the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. Soyinka, influenced by the unhappy politics of his homeland, produced a new piece of art which draws its inspiration from Euripides, but makes no attempt to reproduce either the detail, the structure or the thematic thrust of the original. Rather he is fascinated by the challenge of attempting a creative cross-fertilisation between the distinct aesthetics of Africa and Europe. Parallel achievements are Pasolini's Medea and Oedipus the King, while Kakoyannis' filmic versions of Euripidean tragedy, with the exception of his Phaedra perhaps, are parallel in spirit to my second category of translation.
And so to production techniques: there is room for those who would attempt to reproduce the conventions of the ancient stage in so far as they can accurately be recovered, as there is room for the literal translation. I am myself, however, more attracted to an approach which accepts the advantages of modern theatrical technology, which is consciously informed by modern theories of direction, which makes some attempt judiciously also to relate the mysteries and meaning of the original to modern political, ethical and religious parallels. Such a work will be in some respects a compromise and I would cite as examples of this approach my own forays into the field of translation and direction with a number of plays, most recently the "Oedipus" plays of Sophocles and Seneca's Medea. What then of the third parallel category? Here the director is concerned closely to equate the dramatic and spiritual experience of the modern audience with the Dionysiac experience of antiquity. All the modern techniques of lighting, performance art, music are deployed in this venture, which is (by its very nature, as an original and, paradoxically, a derivative piece) fraught with risk and difficulty, but which promises in return a production which shares/reproduces the spirit of the original in so far as it can be re-captured at all in the modern day. My paper as well as expanding on the issues mentioned, above will discuss Peter Falkenberg's ground breaking production of what started off as my translation of Euripides' Bacchae.
University of Canterbury, NZ