Tantalus and the Problems of the Chorus

by Jane Montgomery

Tantalus is about myth - muthos: a play based around myth, a play about the creation of myths, a play that asks us to read between the lines of myth, to discover the story of the untold myth. It is a play that has also generated, of course, its own myth: a myth that, from the media coverage of its genesis, is every bit as fantastical, confrontational and ethically ambiguous as any of the stories it represents on stage: a new theatrical myth of heroes and anti-heroes, of gods and demi-gods, of the self-aggrandising and the self-abnegating; of those who talk and those who are without a voice;-a myth that is inherently associated with the machinations of the powerful and the resignation of the impotent …

Now, I’m being a little bit of an agent provocateur throwing in that last sentence. I am quite aware that by starting with such a provocative opening I am creating my own myth and asking you to deconstruct my words and read between the lines to find out who are the goodies and who are the baddies But as we know from these stories, myths do not yield easy answers. What Tantalus throws up for us in its three versions - the written text of Barton, the performed text of the Company, and the remembered and mythical text of those who have seen it or heard about it - is that concepts of having power and having a voice are extremely problematic, and very hard to define with any certainty.

I am here this afternoon to talk about the problems of dealing with a chorus, and it seems to me that this issue explores on a micro and macro level the issues of myth that Tantalus seeks to examine.

A couple of years ago I was teaching an undergraduate first year drama course…you know the sort of thing - ‘Introduction to World Theatre’ in 8 weekly sessions of two hours. I think we had a fortnight to deal with the Greeks (we were lucky - Shakespeare and the Renaissance only had a week), and we were asked to examine a Greek tragedy with our class in performance terms, leading to a semi-staged ‘sharing’ (don’t you love that word…the term theatre academics use when they’re worried their class’s presentation will turn out to be terrible) anyway, a ‘sharing’ of the text. The chosen play was, surprisingly for an introduction to Greek tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis. My class was apportioned the 1st and 2nd choral odes to perform. Of course, very quickly the expected question came up: “….what on earth is this rubbish? Who are these people?” Now, part of it was obviously natural 1st year resistance to pronouncing polysyllabic names with funny consonant configurations, but most of their confusion was based on the very simple fact that we have now no equivalent for the theatrical and societal role of the chorus. For these 18 years olds, acting out young girls eying up the dishy soldiers on a Greek beach was not part of their initiation into manhood, nor was it a celebration of civic pride, nor was it a religious exercise, or physical and musical training. To a group of would be actors brought up on Stanislavski with a smattering of Brecht, the chorus was a completely incomprehensible anomaly. The end product with these students was, I have to admit, pretty execrable, but the process was fascinating…not just the process with my students, but that of my colleagues with their classes too. I saw in that afternoon ‘sharing’ of the work we’d been doing a tapestry of just about every theatrical genre this century: physical theatre, where the lines were cut but there were some very pretty physicalisations of sailing ships; Brechtian alienation with a bit of Noh thrown in, with lots of neutral half masks and placards saying 'She is dying for Greece'; historicist reconstruction (of what period I’m not sure…maybe the 1880s) with a lot of speaking in unison and obligatory sheets and safety pins; and my lot…who, I suppose, would fall under the label ‘post modern’ eclecticism. Funnily enough, given the start of Tantalus, we had the chorus lounging around on beach towels listening to a Greek radio station (this being Melbourne, it wasn’t that hard to find a Greek radio station).

What came from the exercise was the realisation - scary and comforting in equal measure - that a chorus could be anything the cast or the director wanted it to be. Just as importantly, the chorus could be anything the audience wanted it to be. And that mutability is both liberating, but also, in theatrical terms, very dangerous. It is something that contemporary professional performances of Greek drama consistently show: the difficulty of how to handle the chorus when there is too much freedom for interpretation, and the very frequent failure of the director to find a coherent theatrical world for them to inhabit. One has only to think of Deborah Warner’s recent Medea, where the eclectic individuality of her chorus, complete with asthma inhalers, Women’s Institute cakes and highly idiosyncratic dress sense, led to confusion rather than clarity.

Every contemporary director has to find an answer to the problem of ‘what to do with the chorus’.

Now some plays are easier than others. The eponymous choruses of plays like Trojan Women, Suppliant Women etc are defined by their dramatic predicament and easily realisable in contemporary theatrical vocabulary. Our cultural signifiers are sufficiently powerful to create an identity for these women in the audience’s imagination, almost irrespective of what the director chooses to do with them.

But the issue is harder in plays where there is no easily identifiable ‘situation’ for these women. Who are the Job’s comforters who turn up in either of the Electras, for instance, or the Medea , or the Hippolytus etc etc etc? What does the term ‘ Women of Argos’ or ‘Women of Corinth’ -as they are usually described in the dramatis personae in translations - actually mean? The audience, like most theatrical practitioners, comes to these plays uncertain of those nomenclatures and hence uncertain of how to watch and process the entity and the identity of the chorus. We are brought up in a mimetic culture where naturalism is the standard, and any deviation from a naturalistic base requires some sort of extra assistance to help us decode the performance.

For the western performer, that rooting in naturalism is extremely deep. Most actors have experienced, if not embraced, a Stanislavskian acting training.
Even with most British actors - notorious for their laziness in not continuing acting studies post drama school - the pursuit of some slightly baulderized version of naturalism is the Holy Grail: - ”No, it wasn’t a good show tonight…I just couldn’t get into character” or “Yes, great show…I just felt it”. ‘Feeling it’ - that wonderful theatrical alchemy when the performer and the character become one, is the elusive goal that actually drives most actors.

It is possible to try a Stanislavskian approach to a chorus. The director must ask her actors to search the text for character clues, to use their imagination to assemble in their minds eye a history of their character, to look for subtextual meaning beneath their lines, to work out their objectives and superobjectives at every point in the script…and if you’re very lucky, that can, occasionally, pay dividends. I was fortunate once to work with a chorus who went to that technique like ducks to water and end result was very liberating for all of us. Currently, I’m working on a play where any attempt at naturalistic characterisation seems totally inappropriate. By and large, any advantages in a ‘naturalistic’ approach come purely through serendipity, and not from methodology; and all too often the process ends up collapsing with some unhappy chorus member wanting to understand the subtext beneath her character asking to be turned into a bird. The concentration on the individual, implicit in the System, necessarily negates the communality intrinsic in the chorus - and hence makes the chorus a nonsense.

So how about a Brechtian approach? That would seem to be closer to the mark. Performers stay as performers, and alienation prevents any chance for actor or audience to cling to the bourgoise vestiges of naturalism. Music and masks play an important part in the distancing process. However, we do hit a problem with the cultural and political connotations of Brechtian techniques. There is a substantial difference between using alienation techniques to examine the political polemic that Brecht writes, and using it to heighten the mythopoetic content of many choral odes, written for a different culture, and with a highly different political agenda. It is a technique that works theatrically best when consciously adapted (as with Brecht’s own version of Antigone), and works least well when foisted on a company as a director’s bright idea.

The contemporary equivalent is the director who says to the unfortunate actor ‘Can you be a metatheatrical construct for me, please?’ I say this with feeling…it has been said to me, and you try playing a metatheatrical construct for 6 months on equity minimum…that way madness lies….

Repeatedly we come up against the problem that the chorus is a distinct theatrical and cultural entity for which new rules of performance and performativity must be created. When you join a Greek chorus, everything you think you know about acting is tested to the very limits.

So what happens when you ask an actor to play a role that has no history, no character, no individuality , no subtext and in which there is no chance to show off, and no opportunity of ‘feeling it’?

This is where we come back to the untold muthos of Tantalus that I mentioned at the beginning of this paper- and it’s where several questions which have puzzled me all week come to the fore: questions about representation and reality; power and acquiescence; despair and regeneration. Can one have a voice, if one doesn’t have a character? Can one have a story without a personality? Can one tell a story if one’s words are taken away? Can the body speak, if one doesn’t have a face? In other words, what is the story behind a group of women with no names and no faces, mouths that cannot move but bodies that can be stripped; words that are not their own that can be arbitrarily cut? And just as a tantalising rider to that - am I talking about the characters in the Tantalus chorus, or the women who played those characters?

The untold story of Tantalus teases me with a circularity that refuses to yield easy answers to those questions. It is a circularity that has similarly perplexed many of the actors in the Tantalus chorus. It is relatively easy to deconstruct and analyse any performance as a spectator…we critics do it all the time…but it is a much harder thing to empathise with the experiences of those performing that piece - especially a piece as massive as Tantalus. All too often, experiential evidence is discarded as being unimportant - the text has more authority than the people who embody it on a nightly basis. But I believe there is a different authority that comes from the voice of those who have lived, enacted a script. Their story is different , but it has equal right to be heard.

Last week I went to interview the Tantalus chorus and at this stage I would like to express my deep thanks to chorus members Tess Lina, Nicole Poole, Joy Jones, Mia Tagano, Juliet Smith, Christina Pawl and company manager Jeremy Adams, who so generously gave up their time to talk about their experiences with me. In thanking them, I’d also like to point out that I have deliberately not differentiated their voices in this paper. It seems unfair, and inappropriate to single out the experiences of individuals here, where they can’t have any editorial control, so I hope they will forgive me for trying to hear a collective voice in the individual stories they told me.

My first questions were to do with the problem of characterization - how did they approach their parts in the first instance?

The experience of the chorus was diverse. Some had done choral work in the past; some worked from a Stanislavskian base; some from an Artaudian; several had performed in Suzuki based productions. Some had done Kabuki - a group of talented women, cast for their creative versatility…as well as their ethnic diversity.

The first week of rehearsals was looked back upon as a halcyon time: it was before several of the principals had arrived from the UK (and I think it’s worth noting that even now there can still be such outmoded terms used in the professional theatre as ‘principals’ and ‘chorus’ ; a distinction that is necessarily divisive and undermining) and in this period, the chorus was given free reign to experiment and improvise with the choreographer and composer. The first week was “inspirational” and then “it went from organic to cerebral”. There was no opportunity for the actors to develop a characterisation within the chorus: “you’d try to build a character and say I’ll have this line here and this there, and then a week later, they’d change the script”. What began as an exciting process of artistic exploration, through the months became a process of “serving the writers” as the text was constantly changed and adapted. And in that ‘service’ role, an interesting and disturbing parallel began to emerge between the myth they were dramatically exploring and the reality they were daily experiencing.

Frequently the point was pressed home to me: that “OUR VOICES WERE TAKEN AWAY” . As the rehearsal process continued, with two months of script analysis around the table and four months of many * hour days consisting of watching two ‘principals’ developing a scene while having no words to express themselves, the women of the chorus began to “lose our voice”: “When I first started with the text, the chorus was very much involved - we had opinions on what is society, what is a country, what is motherhood, we were questioning the status quo of the world as we know it, every time a scene happened…then that begun to be cut…as soon as the play began to be cut, that text was some of the first to go…as you watch this, as a professional, watching the feminine aspect…the professional and the personal anger starts to come out…why are we sitting in the dark, what is the purpose of being here ….”, “ …and I kept saying, I’m just going to sit back and trust….be a good foot soldier…but then the anger, the anger…and I’d keep thinking, why are we just sitting here saying nothing?” “ We were not only under directed, we were also pushed aside and we did not empower ourselves then...we began to allow ourselves…we are 9 strong women, but we began to become insipid…I don’t think it’s all their fault, as we must learn to stand up for ourselves even when that happens, or because that’s happening…I was frustrated with myself.”

Now this is a play where gender relationships and the abuse of women by men make up a large portion of the myth being retold. It’s worth noting here - and I acknowledge, this might be an apocryphal story - that apparently one of the original ideas for the poster was a headless female torso with a man’s hand on the crotch and the byline “There’s nothing like a good rape.” How can that woman have a voice in this iconography- she has no head; she has no mouth; she has only one orifice, which is clearly under the control of a man, and isn’t that useful in terms of personal expression at the best of times. Objectification by gender; objectification by sex; and the theft of the female voice. To quote again, “ in a strange way, that’s what happened to us…there was a lot of the female in John’s original script, but then…there was not as much…there was a real lack of female energy”. The lack of voice was most evident in a company discussion on the issue of rape, such a recurrent theme in the text, when “all the men spoke and not one of the women spoke…that was one of the most telling things”.

So what we have now is a chorus whose role is, in the rehearsal room, unpleasantly beginning to mirror that of their stage personae - the sort of mimetic alchemy that the method actor could only dream off. Deprived of a voice, inhabiting a subsidiary, servile role, uncertain of the future and, further on in the process, objectified as bodies to be used at the male whim. Again, it is worth noting that although the chorus members had signed nudity clauses and the stripping and branding scene had been known through the rehearsal process, it was not actually done until the technical rehearsal and the first preview. “We knew about this scene for 6 months…it wasn’t addressed ‘til the previews…and men had to strip us, and these men had to deal with it…to ask that of any actor is disrespectful and inhumane - to the men and the women both.”

The issue of somatic objectification and identification is very interesting here.

The stripping scene has caused much controversy, and has certainly been toned down since its early days, but it is still a problematic moment theatrically - not because it is particularly brutal…I don’t think it is brutal enough, and I agree with the chorus that “it’s not one thing or another”. It is problematic because we are asked to watch the somatic violation of bodies whose faces are hidden, whose expressions we can’t see, who have no physical signification save the vulnerably exposed flesh or the unmoving neutral mask. “ Nothing in man, not even his body, is sufficiently stable to serve as a basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men.” Apart from the gender exclusivity of that, Foucault has a point. Who and what are we looking at when we watch that scene? Where is the stable signifier that can give coherence to our perception? Is it a ‘real’ or a ‘mimetic’ violation of a real person, of a fictional character, or indeed of a passive audience forced into observational complicity? Interestingly enough, Hall was apparently never convinced that nudity and masks would mix, and thought for a while about having the women wear “some piece of something that would distort the body, but he didn’t address it.”

For the actors, it is an issue that is still unresolved. How is their body performative in this instance? “I have thought about my body at various stages…pictures of the holocaust…I decided I was beyond the point of shame but still had vanity as an actor…I’m big enough to admit it. But the other thing was the larger human experience, but eventually I went back to shame because of the newness of the experience for the women in side the story… trying to shelter my own body from the eyes of men around me and holding my breasts which are not ample by any means and thinking, god, breasts are such fragile things….in the moment of acting I had the moment of realisation of the fragility of bodies being abused all over the world and that quite a few of those bodies are my skin colour too…in Denver I had a flashback with the branding….it had an ethnic/cultural/racial moment, and I just lost it and felt here are these bodies being displayed and branded and I’m being asked as an actor being asked to portray that.” At the same time, though, the mask gives the actors strength: with the mask on “I feel stronger, I feel safe.”
Perhaps that is the key problem of the chorus - how does the actor square the circle of being a person but not being a character, of having a body that is both real and representational.

I found the end of Tantalus, after 12 hours of sitting in Milton Keynes, very moving, and I felt greatly for the chorus as I watched’ the emptiness of the image’ as they removed their masks. But what has moved me more than the staged myth of Tantalus has been the untold myth of the chorus’s experience. Some of it is my personal sympathy, having acted myself in a chorus where I had no voice, or watched others in different productions, struggling with the chorus silence (they might also serve who only stand and wait, but it doesn’t make it any easier). The joy of this story is that these women have now regained a voice… “I see more and more a coming together… Noticing more and more the power and spirituality of the women in the group...I feel our voices are coming back more and more and we are being able to be more present on stage and present in our space and sharing of space.

This is homogeneity out of diversity and necessity A greater generosity than in a naturalistic play. This is fundamentally a generous art.”

I would suggest if there is any one thing that can solve the problem of the chorus, it is just this: the generosity of performers, who, despite adversity, can share an egoless joy in the communality of their role; in giving collective voice to our endlessly changing cycle of muthoi.

Jane Montgomery
Leventis Visiting Fellow in Greek Drama
Cambridge University