An Easy Lay

James Davidson

  • Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy edited by Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne
    Cambridge, 417 pp, £45.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 521 64247 7
  • The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy edited by P.E. Easterling
    Cambridge, 410 pp, £14.95, October 1997, ISBN 0 521 42351 1
  • Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning by David Wiles
    Cambridge, 130 pp, £13.95, August 1999, ISBN 0 521 66615 5

A great deal is lost in the translation of any play from the theatre to the page, but to restore what is missing from the mere words of Euripides’ Medea, to rise from the soft paperbacked volume you might buy in any good bookshop and finish in an hour to the experience of an Athenian watching the play’s first performance in Athens in the Theatre of Dionysus in late March 2430 years ago, demands an imaginative effort much greater than would be required if you had plumped for a Pinter or an Ibsen or a David Hare.

When we hear, for instance, that Aeschylus’ rival Phrynichus was particularly noted for his choreographies, or learn from Peter Wilson in Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy that the shawm (aulos) which always accompanied a performance came in various shapes and sizes depending on the musical context (the ‘wedding shawm’, for example, consisted of one ‘male’ and one ‘female’ pipe); that the shawm-players sometimes mimed a commentary to a text, spinning round like discus-throwers or pulling at the chorus-leader to evoke Scylla; that Ionic metre (di di da da) carried Oriental connotations, while the catalectic trochaic tetrameter acquired a musty flavour; that there was a hint of ‘whore-songs’ detectable in Euripides’ ‘arias’; that actors representing born (as opposed to captured) slaves almost never sang; that a couple of lines in Medea were still being satirised half a century later for their excessive use of sibilants; the typed-out text seems suddenly very skinny indeed.

Even the most imaginatively energetic and well-informed scholar, however, is unlikely to be able to re-create the full impact of a specific performance, but only to develop a generalised appreciation of the possiblities of ancient dramatic space, the range of colours, tones, rhythms and gestures which might or might not have enlivened the experience and all their culturally specific resonances which might or might not have enriched it.

We can make a start, of course, by putting ourselves in the open air, a space we share with the characters. Even at their most disbelief-suspending, Greek dramatists never made so bold as to evoke an interior under blue skies. If you tip your head back far enough you will see the Parthenon towering behind you, a monument to all the wealth and power your city has accumulated over the past fifty years, and which is still pouring in, as you witnessed on the first day of the drama festival when all the ‘allies’ paraded, city by city, with their tributary silver and gold, enough, you cannot help thinking, ultimately to dissuade the Spartans from embarking on that Peloponnesian War they currently threaten so unreasonably. To right and left, your fellow citizens, arranged in a precipitous semicircle, jammed together much closer than modern spectators are used to, with barely enough elbow room to lift the winejars that everyone seems to have brought along, thinning their skins progressively to the plays’ emotional impact, provide the most vivid and comprehensive image you are likely to see all year of the people of which you are a part, many more citizens than attend the Assembly, which occasionally uses this theatre for meetings of a more straightforwardly political kind.

Unless you have somehow managed to win the privilege of front-row seating, the huge round performance ground will seem a long way beneath you, its performers indistinct, despite their fancily coloured costumes, their features further faded against the sun, which moves over the sky behind them throughout the day, at least enabling you, from the angle of the shadows they cast, to tell how much longer you will have to put up with some particularly ‘frigid’ drama. Watching a Greek tragedy, says David Wiles, was an experience most similar to watching a cricket-game, only three actors on stage, stick-figures in the distance – bowler, batsman and a wicket-keeper ready to stump him – supported by a whole chorus of fielders, dancing in a phalanx of 15. You are glad that these days actors are professionals, loud-voiced at least, terrifyingly loud, in fact, and that tomorrow Sophocles will not be repeating his error of trying to speak his lines himself, inaudible beyond the front rows.

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