Greek Tragedy

New Perspectives

Spent a long and meandering day today, moving from one project to the next. Began with a voice tutorial with Adrienne Smook, an MA Voice student at Central who is offering small group and private tutorials for voice work with us. We first did a 45 minute group warmup, focused primarily on breathing - connecting breath with thought and the impulse to speak. One exercise I quite liked was a visualization of a specific place, where noises were used to identify things. This really served to help connect intention with breath and therefore voice. Another exercise I think I will use in workshops and classes is throwing a ball around the space, connecting breath, then a specific vocalization with the movement of the ball....aiming to curb the impulse to stop the breath and movement, allowing for smooth and continuous flow.

We also had a smaller private session with Adrienne, working on some more specific deep breathing and breath connection exercises. These really resonated with what I have been doing individually, connecting movement to voice - in this case, relaxation to voice relaxation, but using gravity in fetal or child's pose.

After this, went over to the Old Vic Tunnels for a dance dramaturgy workshop with Maryann Hushlak, dramaturg on Without Words. In some ways, this simply echoed our classes from last term with Paul Sirett about the role of the dramaturg. What I did find useful was the exercises and discussion on finding a language of creation. Maryann emphasized the importance of listening to how the creator talks about the projet, the kinds of words or phrases they use - this helps create a shared terminology of description for the process, and also enables creation of more practical materials like grant proposals. She also talked a lot about her process, particularly in the performance phase - analyzing the performance as well as the audience's reception. This is something I want to work into my workshop presentation in the dissertation - I am wondering if a Q&A would be useful to help understand the impact of the versions we see....and then help me draw some conclusions about identity and ghosts.

Finally, off to Birkbeck for Scene Study. A lot of talk of Hegel and Antigone today, so very apropo for my thoughts (not just now...always, really). I'm formulating my approach to the manifesto assignment, and think that I want to flesh out an anarchist tragedy of sorts...why do we need to define tragedy? Why do we spend so much time worrying about this? Now just to figure out how the form can merge...

Oedipus The King - Sophocles (trans Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay)

This is a really great translation of the text, which for me manages to balance the style and poetry with modern text and phrasing. The effect is a sort of timeless quality which positions Oedipus' struggle both staunchly in the past (where it belongs) and at the same time flings it forward.

Something that really stood out, that I didn't recall from previous readings was that after he has blinded himself, and is brought out for all to see the evidence of this violence, his young daughters (Antigone and Ismene) are brought out to witness their father in his lowered state. I couldn't help but think how strange it is that he requests not all his children (particularly the sons who he says can take care of themselves) but his young daughters. Oddly precipitating the life of struggle they (particularly Antigone) will have to come in the trilogy.

Ideas are flowing....

Our Theorizing and Scene Study classes this week have in a way merged into one for me. Theorizing spent time looking at the impact of scenography (design elements; costumes, set, props, sound, light, space) on our understanding of a play, specifically to do with ideology. We used mainly a structuralist approach to deconstruct scenes and look at what was going on in them. What really stood out for me was the role of power and ideology...looking at HamletMachine the assertion was made that this play is about the absence of ideology, the failure of signs. I disagree with this; the very nature of this play Mueller gives us is subversive, staunchly democratic in the strict communist world he is creating for. The fact that the play has no clarity for how it should be presented, what is or is not to be said or shown, is a rally against the dogmatism of the communist regime.

Onward and upward...Scene study was intended to be a focus on Violence in Greek theatre, with a guest speaker from King's College, expert in Greek history and theatre. His presentation was really fun and engaging, and got ideas flowing for me about not only greek theatre, but theatre in general:
- theatre as a space of citizen decision making
- violence represented through beauty/as beauty or art
- violence at the heart of the practice of theatre
- what is it about plays (art/objects) that engages us, even 2000 years along?
- does our current society really resist violence?
- tragedy as a vital forum for democracy

I think the biggest thing for me to come out of this class is the ideology, the re-inforcement of the status quo that we see through the emblems in the Greek theatre. In The Bacchae, women are invested with male acts; congregation, sex for pleasure, war/violence...and madness ensues. Dionysus represents both sides: male/female, order/disorder....and Euripides' message reinforces the social structure, and the balance necessary with this god.

Bertolt Brecht - He Said Yes/He Said No (Lehrstrucke)

We read this one in Scene Study at Birkbeck, discussing the structure, alternate endings, and impact of the two. This fable is structured like a Greek Tragedy, and with the original He Said Yes, Brecht shows us the result of blind faith in a tradition or law...a searing message give that he was writing for school children in 1930s Germany. The alternate ending, written after the school children expressed dislike for the ending, offers hope that we can overcome and fight back against these incoherent practices.

We discussed at length which has more impact on the audience, which will be more of a cause to action. I have to say that the second, for me, really does all the thinking for the audience, leaving them patting themselves on the back at how good humans can be in the face of incoherent laws. The first has an impact more in line with Greek Tragedy, despite turning it on its ear...pity and fear are evoked, but more importantly outrage at the world that would allow this to happen.

Bertolt Brecht - The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent (Lehrstrucke)

This play makes up part of Brecht's experimentation with making the audience part of the performance, to move them from spectator to auditor in a way we believe audiences of Greek Tragedy behaved. There were several texts/performances on this idea, all of which have open interpretation on repetition, removing pieces, etc.

This one in particular is rather interesting. It is structured like a Greek Tragedy, with the chorus talking to the "Tragic Hero" which here is a fallen pilot (or multiple fallen of the available interpretations). Here, though, the "crowd" is a character, who would have people placed throughout who know what is going on and lead the participation. The Crowd has conversations with characters, or repeats words almost in the style of a voice exercise to get at the meaning of the text.

Placed right in the centre of this is an almost slapstick comedy act with two clowns and Mr Smith, which feels like it is a mix of Shakespeare and Charlie Chaplin. But unlike those, the tale of Mr Smith is quite clearly an allegory for man asking others to take care of his problems.

While parts of the text feel heavy handed in their style, I could see creative ways of bringing this to the stage.

image: Leonard Braskin - Bertolt Brecht

Sophocles - Antigone

This has been a favourite play of mine for a very long time. The clash of forces between the ruler (master) and citizen (slave), father figure and daughter, law and reason is very vivid, and ignites my imagination. Antigone does what she thinks is right, and sticks by this choice...then cannot live in a world where she is condemned to death for this. Her suicide seems initially like she is cheating, however she has no other choice; this way she dies at her own hand and not that of her oppressor.

Interestingly, this play, unlike many Greek Tragedies, has a single action, but many side-actions. I hesitate to call them sub-plots, for they are still along the initial line of Antigone's plight, but the love story, suicide, etc almost tend toward our more modern understanding of plot.

image: Woman Struggling to Break Free of Contentment - Naznin Virji-Babul

Henrik Ibsen - Ghosts

What a beautifully twisted story. The lives of these 5 people (and one deceased, but ever-present Captain) are intermingled far beyond their knowledge at the start of the play, with the exception of Mrs Alving. This woman's deception, to achieve control and maintain status, tears apart those around her intellectually and physically, until they have all reached a point of despair. Osvald is physically and mentally ill, but for reasons he does not understand. This echoed strongly of the curses on a family we see in Greek tragedy....however Ibsen's searing criticism is that these curses originate in someone who lies with all their power to maintain a veneer of propriety.

This would be a really interesting play to tear apart and re-imagine. The matriarch Mrs Alving, although we initially feel for her situation, eventually becomes villainous as the information unfolds. These characters cannot be fulfilled; they are devoid of all hope and joy of life.

This also called to memory Kierkegaard's night of infinte reservation....the orphanage burning through the night is a test of faith, which these characters ultimately fail.

image: Edvard Munch - Two Women On The Shore

Bertolt Brecht - Antigone

I have felt a connection to the story of Antigone for some time. At her core, Antigone is a woman who does what she ought to and not what she is told by convention; her defiance of expectation to do what she thinks is right echoes through later heroines in theatre history. And she stays with this choice, even when offered the opportunity to declaim her actions and save her life.

Brecht's interpretation, translated by Judith Molina, is an interesting update of the story. Brecht focuses on the politics of the story; contrasting the Elders' blind faith in Kreon with Antigone's action to honour her brother. For me, this breezes over the important philosophical argument, to reach the political argument. Clearly this is influenced by Brecht's views on the role of theatre, and also the time he is writing for. But for me the more important piece of Antigone's development is that she will not renounce what she believes in, even if given the chance to live.

This has made me want to re-read the Sophoclean original....with some ideas.

image: Antigone by Albert Toft (1907)

Random Encounters With Various Centuries

Began the day (after yet another trip to the Greenwich council to sort Sarah out with school....still somewhat unresolved) with a trip to the National Gallery. Sarah decided she wanted to look at paintings from the 15th century. This is certainly an odd request for a 7 year old, but we complied. She really enjoyed moving through the rooms on that side of the gallery, looking at the various ways religious iconography was represented. Of course, being 7, any painting with a dog or a horse was immediately of interest. Also amusing was a 17th century peepshow from a Dutch painter whose name is escaping me. I couldn't help but think about how remarkably old and yet new this idea was, and was drawn back to an exhibit of Wanda Koop's work that I had seen over the winter at the WAG. The feeling of actual overt voyeurism in art, reminding me of the necessity of a level of voyeurism for the audience of any work of art...otherwise what is the creation for?

Another thing that stood out was a friend's comment, upon looking at some Rembrandts, that he seemed to "get lazy" as he got older. In fact, the relaxing of the lines in his later work signifies to me a more intense level of work; his ability to capture the human spirit evolved with the seeming devolution of rigidity in his lines. Just thoughts, I suppose.

On to we had the Birkbeck portion of Scene Study, in which we discussed The Oresteia triology (Aeschelys). The discussion was interesting, but I found it frustrating for a couple reasons. First, we seemed to focus a lot on the plot details, and only at the very end got to the ideas within the play, never reaching the images through which these ideas are examined. Secondly, I sort of felt throughout the discussion that I wanted to speak and jump to these points, but could sense that this would not be well-received. The focus on things such as who made up Greek Audiences, etc, tended on the Anthropological for my tastes, today at least. I was itching to discuss the meat of the play, but didn't really get the chance. I am hoping the debate in this class is able to progress beyond; i would love a great discussion of the nature of Tragedy.

Aeschylus - The Oresteia

Required reading for Scene Study at Birkbeck. This is split into 3 parts, developing the line of the same family, but each could stand on its own. My thoughts:

- pain and sacrifice are major themes. Also the "truth", and what this is.
- women are portrayed in very specific roles:
1. Innocence - Iphigenia, who is eventually killed as sacrifice
2. Whore - Helen (of Troy) who causes the war, out of which all events ensue
3. Manly - Clytemnestra, in this play is stoic, the word Manly is used to describe her as she acts in society without her husband.
4. Servant - Cassandra

- the imagery of lions stands out

- vengeance
- family (what is family? What are the ties of family?)
- grief
- major images are to do with snakes, specifically Clytemnestra's dream

The Eumenedies
- builds on the previous, with a focus on duty & responsibility

Overall the women are what really stood out to me...The story itself is terrible, and a sad story of betrayal and the demise of a family.

image: Martha Graham as Clytemnestra (dancer) in 1958