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.

Behind the cricketers is a wooden screen representing a building, almost certainly a palace – though, never having seen a palace, you can’t be sure – from which characters will come and into which characters will go and behind which the horrors that the messenger will speak of are sure to be enacted. This ‘scenery’ is an innovation. There used, probably, to be only a mound, representing a tomb or, less plausibly, an acropolis like the one looming behind you actual size, but since playwrights discovered this hidden interior, you often have to guess what is going on from the sounds which escape from behind the façade, or from what you have learned of the characters, their long-term grudges and secret affairs, or from what you can remember of myth, and at some point a wooden platform will roll out from the building to confirm your worst fears, adorned with some bloody aftermath, carefully arranged. You are a bit worried about this passion for special effects. They even have cranes now to show Pegasus carrying Bellerophon across the sky and gods and goddesses descending.

Gone are the days when poets dealt with contemporary issues, The Sack of Miletus, The Persians; now it’s all mythology, so much safer for being more distant, no threat of lawsuits, less chance of confusing modern crises with the crisis on stage. The heroic period was very different from the one you find yourself in – all that dynastic intrigue, all those tyrannical monarchs with their fancy costumes, like barbarian clothing, with sleeves (!), a barbarous society and in most cases barbarous ancestry too, and women, as wives, daughters and mothers of dynasts, up to all kinds of mischief. That’s one of the most important achievements of modern democracy, as tragedy never ceases to remind you; it has put all those women, all those Electras, Phaedras, Antigones and Clytemnestras, safely in their place. And thank god there are no Athenian women here to witness women’s past propensities, to give them god knows what ideas.

You will already have some sense of what is in store from the programme announced a few days earlier at the ‘weighing-in’ session, where the poets (‘makers’) stand before the public with their actors (‘hypocrites’) unmasked. The play that follows Medea is called Dictys, the name of the fisherman who rescued Danäe and Perseus from the floating chest. You wonder how the poet will make a whole drama out of that unexpected trawl, but you can be fairly sure it won’t fit with Medea to make a sequential three-part play – since Aeschylus has gone, no one seems much interested in trilogies and Euripides especially has a taste for subjects of contrasting mood and tone, like a three-part symphony with a humorous encore (the satyr-play, the fourth play in the tetralogy) rather than a drama series. On the other hand, there might well be a shared theme, in the case of Medea/Dictys, perhaps, the theme of single mothers washed up on a foreign shore.

It is foolish, however, to speculate. The titles of Greek tragedy seem designed to give as little away as possible away. Who would have thought that an Agamemnon, a Libation-Bearers, a Kindly Ones and a Proteus would form an Oresteia? That a play called Electra ends with a matricide might come as no surprise, but you would probably not expect an Orestes to revolve around a plot to kill Helen of Troy, or a play called Helen to open in Egypt or an Iphigeneia in the Ukraine. And who could have anticipated that a Phoenician Women, for god’s sake, would conceal yet another play about incestuous Thebes, or that Sophocles’ second Oedipus, I ask you, would be set in your own suburbs? The poets were not above commenting on or even parodying their rivals. In his Chrysippus, for instance, Euripides seems to have accused Oedipus’ father of child abuse, making this crime the start of the whole dreadful saga. Euripides’ prequel makes Sophocles’ play seem retrospectively both more open and more closed, the strange, inscrutable justice of the gods becomes much more mechanical, balanced and clear, but there remains one final skeleton still hidden in the family closet, when poor Oedipus thinks he has finally got to the bitter end. Everyone knows that there are different versions of myths told in different places, but sometimes you suspect the ‘makers’ are just making it up.

Medea is a case in point. Euripides’ first play, Daughters of Pelias, had put the famous witch in her most notorious role, persuading said daughters to boil their father to death. It came third, and you may well have thought this Medea of over twenty years later would be an improved version of the same tale, designed to carry off first prize second time around, but the Nurse who recites the prologue passes quickly over all those other dramatic Medeas and leaves us instead in Corinth. Just possibly you might know of an obscure Corinthian myth which tells how the Corinthians killed Medea’s children out of revenge for her poisoning of their princess, in which case the tragedy’s Chorus of local women, apparently so sympathetic to the foreigner, will take on a murderous potential; like bacchantes, only more bourgeois. But you would not, in all likelihood, be expecting their own mother to murder these poor refugees, since, until Euripides came along, there was no sign of such a tale.

You begin to understand why this Euripides is at once both popular and despised. He tries too hard to seduce you with theatricals and surprise. He has a tendency to flatter the city and its past, and, even when he’s more restrained, he keeps his eye too lingeringly on you, the audience, rather than on other, more mysterious, things. He’s too obvious, too transparent, too obviously keen to win. You can see why the comic poets describe his work as katapugosune, ‘an easy lay’.

After the Nurse’s prologue Medea herself is heard for the first time. Pat Easterling in The Cambridge Companion, the most rewarding and engaging guide to the plays in their cultural context, tries to conjure up something of the formal structure that an unmusical production misses: ‘Medea sings from inside the house, and the Nurse chants in recitative ... Enter the Chorus of Corinthian women, ‘singing and dancing in the same anapaestic metre’ – two shorts and a long, like the march of the royal princes in The King and I – ‘but soon modulating into more varied lyrics ... Medea, still off-stage, sings again in the same anapaestic rhythm, her sung delivery contrasting with the Nurse’s recitative ... Medea comes out of the house and makes a long speech to the women in an orderly and analytical style’ – iambics – ‘which contrasts strikingly with the passionate emotion of her songs.’ It’s most peculiar, as Edith Hall notes in Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy, that modern translations do not generally mark which parts of a tragedy were spoken and which were sung, although there is some difficulty, as Easterling admits in a footnote, over anapaests (often described as ‘recitative’ or ‘chant’), which fell somewhere in between.

This formal structure is particularly relevant to any reading of Medea. An important part of the visible action of any tragedy is peitho, ‘persuasion’ or ‘seduction’, in this case the charm that the witch Medea uses to manipulate other characters, but also the poet’s seduction of you, the audience, the drama in real time. In Medea, Euripides seems to set himself a challenge, reminding us of Medea’s past crimes and violent passionate nature in the prologue and her off-stage moans, but then systematically erasing that image by putting on stage a calm and collected woman, whose final apotheosis above the house on a chariot drawn by serpents, with her dead sons emblazoned, remorseless in revenge, might still take us by surprise. An important part of this seduction lies in the fact that the on-stage Medea never launches into tragic arias, but confines herself to cool, rational speech. At the same time, her refusal to sing undermines any real complicity with the singing Chorus that the text implies, and might hint at her divine status, since tragic gods and goddesses, like household slaves, avoid song.

Hall generally prefers to find the significance of form in questions of gender, ethnicity and status. Singing indicates an emotional character, Orientalising, womanish (but also human and free). Easterling prefers to focus on the way that song and speech, along with other formalities, work within the dramatic context of particular plays. If household slaves (almost) never sing it is because they are (almost always) less prominent in the drama.

If song is more emotional it is also more formally artistic. So plaintiffs were criticised for ‘sing-song’ delivery of their case in court (which might indicate either excessive emotion or lack of sincerity, ‘doing a number’) and a Hellenistic treatise claims that songs sounded more ‘tragic’ if they broke down every now and again into plainer speech, the diva struggling to finish her song, too wracked with real emotion to perform.

The spectacle of Greek tragedy is just as contentious as its sounds. Were semicircular theatres like the theatre of Dionysus the exception rather than the rule in the fifth century? Did the actors use a stage or speak from the orchestral centre? How did they stage Prometheus Bound? How did they dance? David Wiles contends energetically with Oliver Taplin’s pioneering work on the staging of tragedy. His determined attempts to knock down unwarranted assumptions and to undermine slowly solidifying consensuses are effective and chastening. His own suggestions, however, seem, if anything, less secure and his arguments are as opportunistic as they are forceful, exhorting readers to break out of their own cultural frame on the one hand, and appealing to universal facts about theatrical space on the other. I like his emphasis on ritual, however, and in particular his observation that in Athens an altar, much used during the festival, stood directly behind the centre-stage door, the door into which numerous victims, including Agamemnon and Medea’s children, pass, as if all tragic killings had a hint of human sacrifice.

Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy attempts to link the performing arts with other performative elements in Athenian culture. Performance has become a key concept in a wide range of anthropological studies and cultural histories. But if we all perform every time we put clothes on or speak or step out of doors, in what ways does Athens differ from, say, Renaissance London or Sixties Indonesia or an Internet discussion-group, in its performativity? Simon Goldhill, editor of an extremely diverse collection, conscientiously emphasises the ‘different levels and sites’ of Athenian performance, its ‘complexity and range’, ‘so much more dynamic than many of the cases that have been used in performance studies’, but these are claims which could be made with equal force by students of other times and places and left me none the wiser, though I can see what he means.

One important difference between Athens and elsewhere might be found in the extreme opposition between public and private. The epistemological tension in Athenian drama, the emphasis on problems of knowledge – of character, of event – finds ready parallels in Athenian life. What went on inside an Athenian house was invisible both to neighbours and to the state. There was so much paranoia about adultery that a male intruder could even be put to death. This meant that the public gaze was particularly hungry for information and subjected all outward signs to ravenous readings, the way you walked or talked, who you were seen with, whose house you visited, what time you left. Court-cases provide numerous examples of the scenes so familiar from tragedy and comedy of dramas enacted in the space in front of a house, quickly attracting bystanders. Harold Pinter described the origin of his early plays in sightings through doors of people in rooms. Euripides was more likely to be provoked by walking down the street.

It would be a foolish man who did not think carefully before he threw himself on the mercy of such thirsty eyes and ventured out of doors. A corollary of this is that the Athenians seem to have been peculiarly flexible in assuming characters and roles. Just as the actors took on several diverse parts in the course of a day of tragedy or even in the same play – the same man in Bacchae, for instance, taking the role of the obstinate King Pentheus and of the maddened mother who murders him, holding up his head, that is the mask he has just changed out of, for all to see – so, outside the theatre, Athenian men seem to have had little conceptual difficulty singing songs taken from tragedy that were written for wretched daughters or Trojan queens. When Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding sing the same soul classics they take care to change the gender of the pronouns, creating two very different songs; but for all their misogyny, Athenian men do not seem to have thought twice – singing Sappho, say, at a symposium – about assuming the persona of a girl. It is indeed striking, as Froma Zeitlin, among others, has observed, that Athenian citizens so often ‘played the Other’, women, barbarians, royalty, goddessess, slaves, but perhaps the Otherness only serves to emphasise the roleness, as it were, of roles. Athenian performances may have been ubiquitous and dynamic, but they were also very self-consciously performances; Athenians never seem to have confused playing at something with ‘the real thing’. This does not necessarily mean we have to invoke some pre-modern instability of identity, it may simply be that as cultural actors Athenians were much more Alec Guinness than Method school.

If actors seem to have been peculiarly uncompromised by the lines they spoke, the same was not true of the poets who wrote them. A famous passage in Aristophanes shows the poet Agathon becoming womanish in order to write a female part and writers generally were closely identified with their words. From an early stage the tragedians were quoted out of context for general observations on life, the Universe and ways of the world as if a poet’s ability to assume the diverse viewpoints of their characters gave their wisdom a greater, more general force, but it was still Euripides talking about the wretched condition of womanhood, not some wicked Georgian witch, which makes me wonder if this new emphasis on the performance of tragedy might be going too far. It is always good to exercise your visual and aural imagination, but perhaps you are still getting the point if you pick up Medea in order to read what Euripides has to say. For an ancient Athenian the skinny text, inasmuch as it represented the wise words of a polyvocal poet, might not have been such a paltry thing after all.