Staging the Greek Plays

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To stage the Greek plays you must first understand them, and if you want to understand them, throw away your copy of Aristotle’s Poetics.  To put it bluntly, Aristotle doesn’t tell us anything worth knowing about Greek drama per se.  The Greek conception of tragedy was very different from our own, and it bore little relation to what Aristotle says:  he was philosophizing about what he thought made the drama significant, and that is a far cry from describing it.  And it is worth noting that the 5th century was the time of the great tragedies, and  Aristotle was writing in the 4th century.

The plays speak for themselves.  Alcestis was performed in the position of a satyr play, the rather scurrilous sex-farce which traditionally followed every sequence of three tragedies at the festival of the Dionysia.  It ends happily and is full of broad humor, but nonetheless it was regarded as a tragedy.  Philoctetes ends happily.  No one is even seriously threatened during the play, which is largely filled with moral discourse—and it was regarded as a tragedy.  On the other hand, our modern notion of tragedy is best exemplified by Hamlet, which ends with the death of Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude, and to get there we have already done in Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.  Plays that the Greeks saw as tragedies are frequently very different, and they have nothing to do with Aristotle’s philosophizing about the tragic flaw and catharsis (whatever these things can really mean).

The next step in understanding Greek drama is to read the play of your choice with close attention so as to get a sense of its dramatic power.  I recommend Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus, or Agamemnon.  They are great theater, interesting and exciting.  Can anyone reasonably say that these plays are gripping, fast-paced drama when we read them, but that they should be performed as turgid, rigidly-stylized productions?  This absurd idea is fostered partly by our notions of how the actors were costumed, but those notions are largely based on bad information.  The masks, for example, were made of linen and did not conceal a sort of speaking trumpet, as is sometimes said.  They continued to be used in the fifth century because they were practical, allowing three actors to play all of the principal roles, but I would guess that they might have been magical in origin, a hold-over from the time when the actors would impersonate the Gods, perhaps.  Nor did the actors stalk around on tall clogs, although they did wear boots called “buskins.”  It might, sometimes, be interesting to keep the masks, but the buskins have no dramatic purpose.

Now that we’ve freed ourselves from crippling preconceptions, we can plan the staging of our performance.  The real problem is to decide how to use the chorus, and in fact, its dramatic significance diminished over the course of the fifth century, the choral odes becoming mere musical interludes in some of Euripides’ later works.  The odes are baffling.  (They certainly baffled members of the Florentine camerata—which included Galileo’s father—leading them to think that they were recreating the Greek theater while they were actually inventing the Italian opera!)  The first thing we must do is simplify them.  English lacks the grammatical endings that help the listener sort out their tangled syntax, and they are replete with arcane references and allusions to mythology.  Consider David Greene’s excellent translation of one strophe of a choral ode from Oedipus Tyrannus:

If I am a prophet and wise of heart

you shall not fail, Cithaeron,

by the limitless sky, you shall not!—

to know at tomorrow’s full moon

that Oedipus honours you,

as native to him, and mother and nurse at once;

and that you are honoured in dancing by us, as finding favour in

sight of our king.

Apollo, to whom we cry, find these things pleasing!

What meaning can this possibly have, even for a well-educated modern play-goer?  To begin with, what or who is Cithaeron?  In a performance it would be better to have the chorus sing something more like this:

If I am a prophet and wise of heart

you will know, Oh Mount Cithaeron,

you will know tomorrow—

at the full moon you shall not fail to know

that Oedipus honours you as his native home

as having been both mother and nurse to him,

and we will honour you in dance

because you found favour in the eyes of our King.

Oh Lord Apollo, find these things pleasing!

Every reader of the plays knows that the chorus has two functions.  Part of the time it represents a group of interested parties (Greek elders in the three plays I have mentioned).  The members of the chorus interact with the actors at such moments.  During the choral odes, on the other hand, it is clear that time has stopped, and the actors are unaware of the singing and dancing.  The chorus takes on the role of a commentator that puts the action into some kind of context.

The members are said to dance to the right and left as they sing, for that is what strophe and antistrophe (the parts of the odes) mean:  “turn” and “counter-turn”.  These terms may have persisted from a time when this was literally true, but the idea presents a practical problem for us since the strophes and antistrophes are oftentimes long, and we don’t really know what the chorus did.  I would open up the dance a bit.  Obviously, we should suit the movements to the words, insofar as that is possible, but there is no reason to have them moving to the right and to the left in any formal way.  It would be interesting to choreograph the dances to echo the images we see on Greek vases.  And what are the actors doing while all of this is going on?  John Ferguson suggests that they mime the action suggested by the choral odes, or to form a tableau vivant.  These are splendid ideas, and I especially like the second notion:  they should freeze and hold their positions.

This leaves us with the question of the music.  The only accompaniment the chorus had in ancient times was the flute, but we don’t have to slavishly follow the old tradition.  It fitted into an expectation that was shared by its audience, one that we don’t have, and while it was appropriate for them, we need to invent something that makes the plays live for us.  I might choose oboes and flutes, helped out on occasion by tambourines and wood-blocks.  Exactly what the music was like, we don’t know, since we have no examples of it, and the Greek references to musical theory don’t help us much.  I would choose rather Bartok-ian music which bears the stamp of the folk melodies of Eastern Europe and the Near East.  (The Ancient Greeks were far more Oriental than we popularly suppose.  The temples and statues were garishly painted, and the pristine white marble that we see today is the result of weathering.)  Let’s see how all of this might work together, using Oedipus for our example.  We’ll start just before the end.

A messenger from Corinth tells Oedipus that Polybus, the Corinthian king who had raised him as his own son, is dead.  Oedipus is elated:  finding a ray of hope in the thought that he doesn’t have to fear the prophecy—that he would kill his father.  But that elation is immediately dashed.  The messenger says that he, himself, had brought the infant Oedipus to Corinth and had given him to the royal family.  He had received him from a shepherd–the very man who has been sent for to clear up another question.  At this, Jocasta knows beyond all doubt that Oedipus is her own son whom she and her husband, Laius, had ordered abandoned on a hillside because of the prophecy that he would kill his father.  Thus, she knows for a fact that they have been guilty of incest, and she pleads with him not to continue the inquiry.  He scorns her, claiming that she is merely afraid he will be shown to be low-born, not a mate fit for a queen.  He is grasping at straws, actually glad to think that he might have peasant origins, for his safety now lies in such a belief.  Jocasta tells him that she has no more to say, forever, and rushes into the house where she commits suicide.  The chorus is standing in several small irregular groups on the stage near Oedipus and the messenger, who are standing together just to the left of center-stage.  One member of the chorus steps forward and tells Oedipus that he is afraid something awful will come out of the queen’s silence.  Oedipus is semi-hysterical.  He tells the chorus that whatever will happen will happen, at least he will know his parentage–that he is the child of fortune.

He makes a reassuring gesture that includes the messenger as a kind of partner in this final unraveling and freezes—becoming motionless on the stage.  The members of the chorus hurry to the edge of the platform and begin to sing and dance to a joyous song.  The accompanying music is wild and ecstatic.  “Oedipus will find his parents.  Who can they be?”  (This is the ode partially quoted earlier.  It will turn out to be dreadfully ironic.)  Then they break off, turning, as an old man is brought in from the left, and they reassemble in groups, some hurrying towards the newcomer to escort him to the king, some approaching the king as if to hear what is happening.  Oedipus, who has turned to the old man with a half-step in his direction, says that this must be the shepherd that they are all awaiting.

This is powerful drama, and the chorus can contribute to that, but only if all of the parts of the play work together to promote the action.  It must have had the same dramatic power in fifth century Athens, however it was performed, and no stodgy, formalized performance can provide that.  This is what we need to recapture.


If I were to own just one book on the Greek tragedies it would be Ferguson—now, unhappily, out of print.  It is full of interesting insights and useful information.

John Ferguson, A Companion to Greek Tragedy, (University of Texas Press, 1972)

David Greene and Richmond Lattimore, eds., Sophocles I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954)