by C. W. Marshall
Anyone who spends time looking at how classical drama is performed today creates in his or her head an ever-evolving series of definitions concerning degrees of translation. The same terms are often used in the vocabulary of these discussions - translation, adaptation, version, rendering - but the semantic field that each term encompasses necessarily varies from one person to the next, as different influences from culture, upbringing, and experience exert themselves. The axis of 'fidelity' possesses many stops, and how we perceive these points depends on our familiarity and associations with the source material. But even this initial framing is inadequate: because I locate a modern performance against its relationship to a specific source text from antiquity (or its absence) does not mean that this is what the artists involved do, or indeed that this is a preferred means of reading a given performance.
This is a necessary obstacle in the course of reception studies, and no consensus will be possible: indeed, should a consensus emerge as to what separates a version from an adaptation, it would be the obligation of artists to challenge such definitions, pushing boundaries further, and forcing the audiences (scholarly or otherwise) to refigure how the source text and the imagination relate to one another. We need to acknowledge how much of the reception of contemporary performance is subjective: what we perceive might be very different than what is perceived by other spectators at the same performance, and it is only through the clarity of articulation that a dominant perspective may emerge, for good or ill. Theatre reviews serve this function, and their importance increases as time passes, eyewitness memories fade, and nostalgia or personal agendas revise the impression that the performance created. Good theatre provokes the emotions, but emotional responses are transient and can change in retrospect.
Further, significant changes can take place even during a run. I remember attending a performance of Prometheus Bound in Montreal in 1987. During an audience-feedback discussion early in the run, I commented on the decision to have Prometheus break her own bonds at the end of the play ('her': it was an female Prometheus), and suggested that this choice diminished (for me) the sense of ongoing tragic suffering, reducing a seemingly endless purgatory into 75 minutes of discomfort, and undermining the play's last line, on unjust suffering. I was told that later performances in the run removed this final stage action. I regret that comment, now, in the same way I regret audience-feedback sessions generally, because of the changes that they can produce in performers and in spectators and later audiences. Though I didn't particularly like the performance, something about it stuck with me, and in 1996, almost a decade later, while I was advising on the casting of a university production of Prometheus, I suggested an all-female cast might help accomplish the director's aims. Would I have made that suggestion without the Montreal performance residing like an itch in my memory? Unlikely. But the resulting performance appealed to my imagination in many ways, and helped me understand other aspects of the play I had not anticipated.
A single stage direction can affect the interpretation of a performance or of a play, and so what is needed particularly are reviews and appreciations of performances that isolate these moments - moments in which meaning resides for, at least, one articulate spectator. These may not always be moments of 'significant action': any staging choice has the potential to create a resonance with a spectator that will have this larger impact. How we respond to contemporary performance affects how we respond to the ancient plays. As these responses accumulate, our appreciation of ancient drama is necessarily enriched.
The productions examined in this issue of Didaskalia exist at very different points along the axis of fidelity. Documenting choices involving music and voice, the use of the body, and even the boundaries of the performance context itself, these discussions preserve aspects of the performances they describe - as subjectively experienced by the authors, who possess different relationships to the performances in question. Each discussion presents an implicit relationship to the source text, and the use of visual material and audio clips can enhance our perception of the performances and this relationship. But in each case, it is possible to identify during the performance a moment - a moment where, paradoxically, the meaning of the source text seems to emerge, not in the precise representation of an ancient idea, but in its alteration, as the ancient play is changed to conform to the vocabulary of contemporary performance. Choices like these demonstrate that there are other axes available to the creative performer beyond that of fidelity. In introducing a variation, a new meaning emerges, and that meaning can illuminate and interpret the ancient work in novel, unexpected ways, with the potential of making it new and fresh and exciting.