Tantalus Staged: Anthology, Narrative and the Audience

by Lorna Hardwick

There are some curious disjunctions in the critical debates about the stage version of John Barton's Tantalus (Barton, 2000). In some respects the framework of the debates has replicated those that have developed concerning the modern staging of Greek tragedy. For example, there are underlying assumptions about the coherence and status of the text(s) from which the translation or adaptation was made and there is analysis of how ancient Greek theatrical conventions such as the Chorus or the Mask are represented or adapted. There is sensitivity to the implications of transplanting ancient plays into modern cultural and political contexts. These kinds of debate acknowledge the cultural authority of Greek drama today. They also tend to emphasise ways in which performances transform audiences' awareness of their own situation as well as redirecting attention to the nuances of the ancient plays themselves.

The trouble about using this framework of assumptions and expectations for critical debate about Tantalus is that Tantalus is not a Greek tragedy, nor even a series of Greek plays. It is a new work which (like the Greek plays themselves) draws on a variety of mythical, poetic and dramatic sources. These are mainly Greek (for example the Epic Cycle, Homer, Pindar, Euripides) but the presence of some Roman material (including Vergil and Ovid) draws attention to the various ways and multiple stages through which mythological material has been filtered. The play sequence does indeed raise critical questions about processes of refiguration, in particular the relationship between anthology and new work (selection, juxtaposition, balance of perspectives) and on the issue of the adaptation for the stage of a written text based to a large extent on non-theatrical materials. Even the title Tantalus contains a compelling irony. The common thread among the melange of sometimes conflicting legends concerning Tantalus is the danger attached to sharing riches with mortals and the suspension of satisfaction or closure. This seems well-suited to post-modern theatre in that it blends literary genres and cultural and stylistic registers as well as the serious and the playful in a way which resists classification by traditional norms. In that it therefore also flirts with subverting the security of assumptions about the seriousness and formal coherence of Greek drama it is ill suited to those models of Greek drama which privilege its role as a theatre of critique, intervention and witness, notably in the last half of the twentieth century (Hardwick 2000, Malpede 2000).

The implications of the above are two-fold. The first is that by producing for the commercial theatre a new work based primarily on sources other than tragedy the author and director are stripping away the poetic and dramatic refigurations of fifth-century tragedy and examining the alternative potential of some of the material which has been adapted, omitted or marginalised by tragedians. Secondly, the work removes the political and civic context of tragedy. When the central and serious importance of fifth-century drama to the civic community is set aside, other kinds of audience and alternative cultural contexts are assumed or imagined. The potential of spectacle-as-entertainment is re-emphasised, sometimes in a register which serves to deny the seriousness of the underlying questions explored not only in tragedy but also in epic. This, too, involves a curious disjunction. In the Programme Notes to Tantalus Paul Cartledge quotes approvingly the aspiration expressed by the director Peter Hall in the Cambridge Clark Lectures:

It would surely be a paradise to live in a democracy mature enough to pay its artists to criticise it…I believe that we need live theatre more than ever. We need it above all to challenge dogma and to ask difficult questions in an increasingly simplistic society.

Relocating this aspiration to the Tantalus Programme draws an implicit comparison between the importance of theatre in the cultural politics of fifth-century Athens and its role in a modern liberal democracy. It also suggests that 'challenging dogma' and asking 'difficult questions' is more necessary in a 'simplistic society'; that is, it implies that the play sequence could indeed be judged according to its interventionist role and its ability to transform perspectives. However, the published text and the staged version are largely designed to offer a formal and aesthetic response to myth which is significantly different from that explored in tragedy, so the question is whether the alternative artistic form presented in Tantalus can (or is expected to) perform this interventionist function.

Interestingly, the public reception of the work has not in general engaged with these issues. Audiences for the UK tour and London residency have been at or near capacity and largely adulatory. Standing ovations have been common. The reactions of theatre critics in the broadsheet newspapers and journals have been positive, in that acres of newsprint have been devoted to the production. Press discussion before and after the performances has treated Tantalus as a celebrity production, almost on the scale of Hollywood epic. The emphasis has been on the cost and scale of the rehearsal period and staging, the stamina demands made on the audiences, the eminence and past triumphs of the senior director (Peter Hall), the scenic and costume designer (Dionysis Fotopoulos) and the original lighting designer (Sumio Yoshii). The visual impact of the performance and the rhetoric of directorial display has been well documented (Hazel 2001). To this must be added the publicity generated by the alleged rows during the rehearsal process and the supposed estrangement between Barton and Hall. This was delicately hinted at in Barton's introduction to the published text:

This book represents my exploration and shaping of what I find most resonant and rich in the Greek myths on which it is based. The theatre version, however, has been drastically condensed to provide something more easily accessible in performance. My own vision, however, passionate, may not necessarily be welcome in that context , so all I can do is give the production as generous a welcome as I may. Which is more important about a new play? The author's text or the director who takes it over? A question easy to ask, but not so easy to answer' (Barton, 2000, p 7).
The copyright information provided in the published text contains the now standard sentence 'No performance may be given unless a licence has been obtained and no alteration may be made in the title or the text of the play without the author's prior written consent.'

Some theatre critics did, however, attempt to consider the impact of the changes made between text and performance. David Jays wrote in the New Statesman:

In the opening quote from Odysseus, the first clause is by Barton, the second a self-mocking addition, for the Halls continually soothe us with chuckles. You sympathise if Barton winced at the tone, especially the pneumatic flippancy of the first acts, making the chorus a bikini-clad gaggle of babes ("We're educated girls"). One of Barton's great directorial gifts is a melancholy comedy, so it seems unfair to flatten his text into a saga of funny things happening on the way to Troy. This disastrous beginning takes several hours to repair' (Jays 2001). Jays also notices how the plot of The Oresteia is related in a traveller's aside and describes Tantalus as 'the Apocrypha of the classical canon.'

The hype surrounding the production has been criticised by academic reviewers, including Marianne McDonald, who expressed the concerns that classicists sometimes feel about productions where they judge that that authority of the theatre director and the demands for financial success take precedence over the demands of cultural integrity (McDonald 2001). McDonald criticises the production for its stress on information-giving and directive narration ('we are told what we should think at every point') and for its lack of positive transformative impact on the audience ('no one can simply be an observer with impunity: we are all involved in what we witness'). She also criticises the production style, Hall's insistence on the use of masks, the way in which cruelty and sadism are represented on stage, the trivialisation of rape and the stereotypical depiction of women.

These points are well taken. However it seems to me that an alternative kind of critical engagement with the play sequence as staged might take a step back from all these agendas and consider the implications of three basic questions. Firstly, what kind of work is it? Secondly, what then are the critical tools and perspectives needed in order to discuss it? Thirdly, is Tantalus actually likely to be important in the theatre history of ancient Greek culture, and if so, in what respects?

I have already introduced the obvious point, that Tantalus is a new work and not a direct translation of a Greek play or poem. Even in the light of the revised and still shifting norms about what it is legitimate to include under the umbrella of 'translation' (Hardwick 2000 ch 1), Barton's work involves a significantly different kind of rewriting. It is more like an anthology in that it represents and draws on a variety of material relating to a central theme. Andre Lefevere has discussed the ways in which the anthologist has to 'assume the burden of selection' and has pointed out that there is ' a corollary which is almost never discussed, namely: on what authority does the anthologist shoulder their burden?' (Lefevere 1996). Lefevere sets the compilation of anthologies alongside editing texts, literary criticism and translation as a way of rewriting a literary text. Anthologies reproduce to some extent and then transmit the texts they rewrite. They provide readers (or spectators) with an image of a literature or a period in a literature or an image of a genre and if they communicate via translation the image is doubly mediated. Applied to Tantalus this approach suggests that Barton's play cycle as a whole provides a macro-image of all sources he is using, while each play also provides a micro-image of a particular episode or source. The question of how, especially in a theatrical production, the individual plays relate to the whole quasi-anthology thus raises issues both about Barton's own structuring of the material and also about the Halls' translation of it to the stage. In both cases the issue of 'authority' might raise questions about knowledge of the sources used (ancient in the case of Barton, ancient and modern in the case of Hall), coherence of the criteria for selection and aesthetic impact of the work as a whole.

Leaving aside for the moment, the role of the commercial theatre industry and the current apparently insatiable appetite of audiences for all things Greek, it seems from Barton's introduction to the published text that his intention is 'exploration and shaping of what I find most resonant in the Greek myths' (Barton, 2000, p 7). Exploration and shaping imply narrative and this approach meshes with Barton's strategy in The Greeks (1980), also directed by Peter Hall. A significant part of the author's aim in that work was to construct a dramatic narrative intelligible to those who had little or no previous knowledge of Greek culture. (Tantalus, too, is supposed to be largely self-explanatory, judging by the orientation supplied for the spectators.) However, the material on which Tantalus is based does not have the degree of formal coherence associated with Greek tragedy. Different versions of the story of the fall of Troy and its aftermath were placed, not side by side for comparison but in a sequence which has the effect of inviting response to the narrative thread. The ten short plays are based on a miscellany of sources and in performance were reduced to nine with the omission of Play 10, Erigone. This play was the most self-reflexive and contains the sequence in which, after the future is contemplated, the poet removes his mask and makes time stand still once more (Barton, 2000, Erigone, p 495). Thus the staged version of the play cycle ended with Helen and left the audience with a coda in which the expedition to Troy was exposed as based on an illusion.

The production used various types of narrative technique - the potentially boring explanations and introductions within the text, the acting styles, costume and set design and the adaptation of the Chorus, not only from Greek convention but also from Barton's text. Verbal explanations within the performed text at best sounded like the resume for a weekly radio serial and at worst patronised both the audience and the actors by denying that the action of the plays could speak for itself. In any case, some of the verbal explanations were simply inadequate for spectators who lacked background knowledge (for example, for those without awareness of Sophocles' Philoctetes, Neoptolemus' character development was simply incoherent). The narrative thread was rather artificially maintained by a series of updating speeches in which characters explained who they were and what had happened to them and to others. This was framed by a meta-narrative, represented in the stage version by the modern beach salesman/storyteller who, with the chorus of beach-girls, stepped in and out of the plays (the beach-girls becoming involved, to their detriment, as women of Troy).

In the early twentieth century, when directors such as Meyerhold wanted to challenge the passive role of the spectator, denarratising of performance was an important part of a strategy for enabling the audience to take on the role of co-creators. However, in the Halls' production not only was narrative dominant but the audience response to the narrative was directorially shaped, partly by non-verbal aspects of the production, especially set design, lighting design and costume. Narrative features associated with dress were an important element in signifying emotional and structural shifts from marriage to sacrifice and from spectatorship to slavery. Occasionally dress was used as a dismissive and even contemptuous metatheatrical allusion to other productions of Greek plays, for example in the costume and characterisation of Electra with its confusion between 'little girl' and Balkan guerilla images (for documentation of other productions involving Electra, see www2.open.ac.uk/Classical Studies/GreekPlays).

The decision to use masks also entailed several contradictions. It is sometimes claimed that as well as emphasising the narration of the myth (rather than the delineation of character) the use of masks gives the spectators a role in the construction of the emotional direction and register of a play (Wiles, 2000, p 152-3). This point was made very strongly by Alan Dobie, who played Odysseus and Calchas, at the post-performance talk-back at Milton Keynes Theatre UK, 1 March, 2001. Yet when the audience did become emotionally engaged with the figures on the stage, as in the developing relationship between Agamemnon and Cassandra, this occurred as masks and clothes were removed and the audience was swiftly redirected to cynical detachment by the coarse renarratising tone of the next play, Hermione.

The result of this conjunction of narrative strategies and directorial domination was that the spectators were not challenged to be involved at both narrative and authorial levels. A narrative audience temporarily consents to enter into a world of fiction, responding to the story as it unfolds. An authorial audience can engage with ambivalence and multiplicity of meaning and can respond to and supply contemporary allusion (Hardwick 2001). It is actively involved with the author and the company in the process and direction of translation. Any attempts of the audience of Tantalus to move in this direction were swiftly and brutally undermined - a theatrical application, perhaps, of the contempt for modern audiences implicit in the observations by Peter Hall quoted in the Tantalus Programme Notes. Yet it is ironic that this return of the audience to the role of intellectually passive if enthusiastic spectator lies alongside Hall's proclaimed intent to use live theatre to ask difficult questions. It might be argued that a directorial critique of 'dogma' was implicitly present in the production, but in this case 'dogma' seems to have been construed as an expectation that drama based on ancient Greek sources would not trivialise suffering in war, rape and manipulation by the gods. Interestingly, Barton's printed text was at its most vibrant when closest to tragedy (in the Iphigenia sequences for instance) and even the staged Tantalus more than once teetered on the brink of recognition of why an Oresteia was created (for example, in its hints of the rich ambiguities in the triangular relationship between Agamemnon, Cassandra and Clytemnestra, in the dramatic force of the conflicts between public and private obligation and in the narrative urgency of finding a way to resolve the cycle of revenge). Indeed one possible response to the limitations of Tantalus is an enlarged understanding of why tragedy emerged as a public art form and why the deeper aspects of tragedy's transformative potential and its role in intervention and witness have exercised such aesthetic and political power over the centuries. (Of course, in order to attain that larger awareness spectators need access to Homer and the tragedies as well as to Tantalus. They need especially to understand the social function of Homer and of tragedy in antiquity. Awareness of the social and economic function of commercial theatre today would not go amiss.)

The last of my three questions was about whether Tantalus is important and if so, why. Despite the residual triviality of the production values I think it is likely to prove significant and even influential in three respects. Firstly, it was widely reviewed, well attended and well received by audiences and is likely to influence popular perceptions about ancient Greek culture in a way which is limited and limiting, both emotionally and politically. The challenge, then, is to find ways of developing audience interest into a broader appreciation of how and why the story of Troy does not stop with the Tantalus version. It would, after all, be no bad thing to discover that Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides were exceptional artists.

Secondly, the status of the director and designer and the financial investment in the staging and tours mean that Tantalus is likely to become an iconic production, used as a yardstick for approaches to the staging of 'Greek' material and shaping audience expectation in respect of design and acting styles, an icon with which subsequent productions are compared and, to a degree, against which they are measured. (Other examples of iconic, even canonical, productions include Mnouchkine's Les Atrides and Peter Stein's Oresteia, both of which overturned stereotypes and provoked critical debate.) It is unlikely that the whole of the Tantalus cycle will be revived in the near future, if at all. However, there might be interest in staging individual plays (should permission be granted). Iphigenia or Cassandra, for example, might have something to contribute to the current interest in exploring the treatment of key figures across the work of several authors. Because of this possible future influence the genesis and strengths and weaknesses of the production need to be debated and the coherence of its formal aspects and production values subject to scrutiny.

Thirdly, I suspect that the debates surrounding the production may prove to be a watershed, revealing growing divergence in responses to Greek material by academics, theatre critics, audiences and the commercial theatre. Until recently, almost every major production of a Greek play, even in adaptation, has been treated seriously, even reverently, by critics, academics and audiences (sometimes with the curious implication that any Greek drama on stage is better than none). The reasons for current academic approval and disapproval of Tantalus are many and various. If these debates force academics to re-examine their own assumptions about ancient epic and theatre and to face up to the cultural and economic pressures which shape modern performance, so much the better.

The irony about Tantalus is that it is precisely Hall's assumptions about the simplistic nature of modern audiences which have flawed the attempt to ask serious questions through the medium of live theatre. In the nineteenth century, burlesque played an important role in popular reception of Greek myth and plays; perhaps in the twenty-first century musicals and film block-busters may provide an analogue. (Tantalus has affinities with all of these). One thing is sure. There is a difference between a populist approach to audiences, which is thought to make commercial sense, and a democratic approach to audiences which respects their capacity to engage with 'the difficult questions'. Future dramaturgs and directors please take note.


Dr Lorna Hardwick
Department of Classical Studies
The Open University, UK