Posted in History, Media

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

Reading Greek Tragedy Online – The Chorus – Part II

Hi! Welcome back to part two of my write up of last week’s special episode of Reading Greek Tragedy Online – The Chorus. You can find part one here, the brain was working in peculiar ways. In light of Saturday’s discussion on a different approach we can use to study and understand choral passages in GreekTragedy, I’m going to attempt to do a slightly more in depth look at the performances from last week’s show. I have no idea how this is going to go, this is coming from a year studying Theatre Studies and a lifetime obsession with Musicals so here we go!

Performance 1) Parados – Sophocles’ Antigone

Performed by Betinna

This is the only performance from the show done in Ancient Greek, and although it is a single voice, rather than a full chorus, it gives us an idea of what a traditional performance of this may have sounded like. The juxtaposition of imagery between the beauty of nature, against that of the army marching to war is echoed beautifully within the accompanying music, going from a flowing legato melody to a more regimental, rigid, staccato accompaniment. Even without the translation though, listening to the flow of the lyrics weaving through the melody tells a story in itself. A performance is more than just the lyrics, and I think this is demonstrated well here, and highlights the need to look at these passages outside of a traditionally ‘classics’ approach, the performance adds so much to the passage that just isn’t easily visible through an academic lens.

Performance 2) Parados – Aeschylus’ Oresteia (Agamemnon)

Performed by Evvy, Paul and Hannah

This performance of the Parados from Agamemnon is great, though is arguably a much more ‘modern’ approach. The use of both the closeups and background of the camera shot for Paul and Hannah was a genius way to break out of the ‘middle ground’ that zoom promotes and helped add to the tense atmosphere they created. Not only did they succeed in creating that tense, on edge atmosphere, they did so while making it feel  a very intimate, as if they were sharing all this gossip specifically with me, which is something Zoom can be great for –  when performing to a single focal point (the camera) rather than to a whole audience, you can create an awesome feeling of eye contact and direct conversation that these three did really well.

The ‘gossiping’ feeling that this performance evoked lends itself well to the massive info dump we’re given. Not only is this the set up to the play itself, but also the trilogy as a whole, and the chorus, (Evvy, Paul and Hannah in this instance) are trying to tell the audience everything they need to know as quickly as possible before they get caught gossiping, and this is brilliantly demonstrated by the covering of the camera for the last few lines of the scene, it’s almost as if they’re trying to hide [me] from the character entering so they don’t find out they’ve been gossiping and was a great little trick and something I wouldn’t have considered doing. 

Performance 3) Ode to Man – Sophocles’ Antigone

Performed by Sara

So I said in part one that you can’t always translate the use of plosive and sibilant consonants, alliteration and the like so can’t always analyse texts in the way we would in the original Greek – this is one where I’m happy to admit that’s not the case, here, and the ‘percussive sounds’ that Sara speaks about after the performance are there in the original greek too. The use of those sibilant consonants is played on really well by Sara, the use of the choral voice layering is a fantastic way to approach this – although there is only one person on screen, you get a sense of there being a crowd, or the rest of the chorus being there with the techniques used. As Joel said, hitting the nail on the head, it makes for a very menacing performance that highlights the duality of fear, being both terrifying, and terrified, a sentiment echoed in the text itself. 

This style of performance, though granted I always assumed a full chorus rather than a single voice with choral voice layering, is how I have always imagined this passage being performed and would love a chance to play around with staging, costume and lighting with a full chorus, working along the same lines as what Sara did for us here, there are so many different ways even this style of performance can be approached, the opportunities really are endless, though I’ll get back to that at the end.

Performance 4) 5th Stasimon – Euripides’ Medea

Performed by Evvy and Hannah

Medea is possibly my favourite Greek Tragedy and the Chorus is a lot of the reason behind that, even though it was completely glossed over when we studied it. Because of the complexity of the Chorus and their attitudes throughout the play, I find it very difficult to comment on individual choral passages without looking at the play as a whole. The 5th Stasimon highlights many of the issues faced within greek theatre though, the main thing being that pretty much all of the ‘action’ happens off stage, as is the case here. 

This was ‘staged’ extremely simply, and it worked really well. As much as at this point in the play the visual focus is on the chorus, the action itself is happening off stage, so nothing fancy needs to be happening visually, it allows the audience the time to imagine what the action looks like without it being present before them. The audience are in exactly the same position as the chorus as neither of them can do anything to stop these events unfolding, they are just static witnesses wishing they had done something when they had the chance.  The static nature of performance on Zoom echoes this really well as well, because there is that physical separation when the window pops up and we can hear the children shouting. 

Performance 5) 5th Stasimon – Sophocles’ Antigone

Performed by Betinna

I came out of this with questions more than anything, the main one ‘Would the audience have known the lyrics to the hymns to the gods often found within Greek Tragedies?’ And without that answer I really don’t know what I can say about this piece, other than the importance of instrument choice and how it can change depending on the feel you’re going for, and the media format you’re using. This is another stunning performance from Betinna and I absolutely loved it. If the hymns within Greek Tragedies are hymns the audience would have known then I completely get their use – everyone sings along to disney films and musicals, because we know the lyrics and it adds a sense of inclusion to the performance. Religion is always going to be part of the reason these hymns are included, especially to Dionysus, but there could have also been that ‘everyone join in’ aspect to it as well, at the end of the day these plays were meant to be performed and watched, and I think sometimes we can forget that when diving into the analysis of these plays. 

Performance 6) Binding Song – Aeschylus’ Eumenides

Performed by Lynn

I don’t even know where to start when analysing this performance, I have absolutely no experience in this style of vocal performance and there is no way I would be able to do this whilst doing the performance justice. What this performance did highlight for me though is something Anna said earlier in the show – although we say these performances would have been ‘sung’ it wouldn’t have always been what a modern audience would perceive as music, but more of a vocal performance, something Lynn did phenomenally – she managed to bring a depth of emotion to the passage that, having now seen this performance, should have been glaringly obvious. 

In Conclusion…

I just want to finish this up by saying that if this very brief analysis has shown me anything, it’s how vastly diverse choral passages in Greek Tragedy are, and the many, many ways we can stage these performances to bring better insight to modern audiences. I watched this TED talk the other day about Greek Mythology and how through reinvention, each story can find relevance in today’s world and can be understandable and relatable to a modern audience. Through approaching these plays from a slightly different perspective, like CHS and Out of Chaos Theatre have been doing over the last few months, we can take them from the pedestal of elitism Classics often finds itself upon and make these amazing works of literature into something everyone can understand and enjoy. 

Again, massive thanks to CHS, Out Of Chaos, Betinna, and Joel. Now time for dinner before tonight’s show!

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