Posted in History, Media

They’re Reading Greek Tragedy Online – The Chorus – Part I

I’m going to start with a slight disclaimer- It’s been about five years since I looked at a Greek play in any sort of academic mindset, so to prepare for this series of posts I’ve been listening to Greek Tragedy, a series of lectures by Elizabeth Vandiver, from The Great Courses on Audible (which comes with the coursebook PDF). So far I’ve listened to the first five lectures: Tragedy Defined; Democracy, Culture and Tragedy; Roots of a Genre; Production and Stagecraft; and Aeschyleus – Creator of an Art Form. It’s given me a really nice intro back into the academic mindset and a good shove in the right direction, and I’m looking forward to listening to the rest over the coming weeks.

Disclaimer number two: The only two Tragedies I’ve studied in any depth are Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Euripides’ Medea, and with both of these we completely glossed over the choral segments, so coming into this special episode of RGTO I was new to most of the passages performed, from an academic viewpoint at least, though I have read Antigone. At this point I would also like to say that throughout my studies (at College and my first year of University), not once had it been mentioned that the Choral passages within these plays were performed through song and dance, to me at least, it makes it all make so much more sense, something Wednesday’s show demonstrated brilliantly. 

As you might have seen me say on Twitter, there is so much to unpack from this episode I’m going approach this in a slightly different way to how I plan to approach future posts, and I’m going to split it into two parts, this is going to be more of a discussion, then on either Tuesday or Wednesday next week, I’ll go through and break down the different performances in light of what we discuss today. With this being said, I’m going to jump to the end of the show, where Joel finished up by asking each of them two questions:

  1. What did you learn today?
  2. What new questions do you have?

So, here are my answers. 

  1. I learnt about how diverse Choral passages and their performance can be
  1. Would it be more insightful to study Choral passages from Greek plays from a Theatre Studies standpoint, rather than a traditionally ‘Classics’ one?

If you’ve read my post Home sweet Home, you’ll know that for a year in College (remember, I’m English so I was about 17) I studied Theatre Studies. I am by no means even nearly an expert in that field, or this one to be honest, but flicking through my annotated copy of Playhouse Creatures by April De Angelis which we studied for our end of year exam, it brought a notion to mind – I annotated it wrong. Okay, ‘wrong’ probably isn’t the correct term, but reading through, you can tell I was in the wrong field of study, it’s annotated like a Greek Tragedy, which would explain why I nearly failed. My annotations are all on the historical significance, on the commentary it was making about historical and contemporary politics, the significance of introducing certain characters, why it was done ect.. What’s not present in my annotations is the weeks we spent on theoretical staging. The weeks we spent looking at different approaches and how they can put emphasis on different emotions, how you can use staging and performance techniques as compliments and story-telling tools to accompany the script and elicit certain emotional responses from the audience. What’s not there is the weeks we spent looking at the effect all of this has on the play, and performance, as a whole.

When you’re working with translations of texts, you’re not always able to analyse them in a literary context in order to attain meaning and emotion. You’re not always going to be able to translate the repeated use of alliteration, or the use of plosive and sibilant consonants and created words. What I took from Wednesday’s show is that it’s so difficult to truly appreciate Choral passages until you take that step away from the ‘academic’ approach, and start to look at the various staging and performance techniques, and how they can be used to bring to light and establish the vast range of emotions often present in the passages, something that often isn’t conceivable when looking at it with a clinical, academic mindset. I think the overall perception at the end of the show highlights this perspective well. Once the Choral passages had been performed, they were easier to understand, their meaning more clear and the attitudes of those present had gone from ‘I just skip it when I teach it, get straight to the dialogue’ to ‘I’m never going to gloss over this again’. 

Would getting students to group up into groups of four or five and stage a performance of Ode to Man from Antigone be more insightful for them than getting them to read it at home because you’re getting straight to the dialogue in class? Probably, and I know my AS Classics class would have loved it at least. 

As is made perfectly clear within the show, there is so much we have lost when it comes to the actual performance of these plays, but that shouldn’t stop us trying to reimagine what it was like. You give students an empty classroom, and they have their own Orchestra to perform in, no fancy staging or lighting; you put a group of people on Zoom and you have modern issues with theatre of the mind and immersion. If you can figure out a way to overcome that, which we have all seen students do, which we’ve seen Out of Chaos and CHS do week after week, you can start to imagine how these plays could have looked, how they could have overcome these issues, the emotional responses the plays could elicit from the audience, and what they could have done to perform. Once you have that visual representation in your mind, it can be a lot easier to comprehend the messages, emotions, and information these passages are meant to relay to the audience.

***

I’m going to call it here, because I could honestly keep going for at least a few thousand more words (and some), and it has the potential to get a lot heavier than I ever intended for this place.

I’ll be honest, I’ve watched Wednesday’s show twice now, and even the second time I was so transfixed by the performances that taking notes was impossible, so with another watch under my belt, I’ll be back either Tuesday or Wednesday with part two where I’m going to at least try to look at the performances themselves in a bit more depth, then Wednesday evening (8pm BST/3pm EST) will be the next episode – Sophocles’ Antigone.

Read part two, an analysis of the performances here!

I would once again like to give thanks to:

The Centre For Hellenic Studies

Out of Chaos Theatre

Joel Christensen

And this week’s Special Guests – Anna Uhlig Ph.D. and Bettina Joy De Guzman

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