I’ve been pondering the Cambridge Greek Play since seeing it last Saturday at the matinee performance. I’m not entirely sure how we ended up with tickets in the very front row – I think it had something to do with booking as soon as tickets were available – but there we were, ensconced for a double bill of Aeschylus’ Prometheus and Aristophanes’ The Frogs. I’ve been trying to work out what I thought of it ever since. I mean that in a good way.
The history of the Cambridge Greek play goes back to 1882, when the first play in Greek was performed, fuelled by an interest in ‘authentic performance’, costumes and sets – the photographs are wondrous to behold. The play is performed every three years, and although special trains are no longer laid on to get the keen audiences up from town, the theatre is still packed out (translations are now provided by surtitles). There is a healthy tradition of performing Greek plays in the UK – Kings will be staging Aristophanes’ Wasps in February, and in historical parallels I recently saw an fantastic archive photo of the women of Bedford College in the late nineteenth century togged up in togas and false beards for one of their productions. It’s a pleasure to see that the Cambridge contribution is not only maintained, but well attended. Well attended, I should add, not only by those of us who might be considered under professional obligations as academic staff, teachers, graduates, undergraduates and school pupils, but by members of the general public. These audience members may have done a bit of Latin and Greek themselves at school, or may have simply come along because the play was listed in the Cambridge Arts offerings for the month and they fancied seeing what it was all about. So the producers and cast of this play have a tricky brief to fulfil – they have to make sure that the results of their labours appeals to these often divergent audiences.
This year was a first for the Greek Play because it offered two plays instead of the normal one. There’s a good reason behind this, namely that it recreates a little of the original Athenian theatre-going experience. At the Great Dionysia festival, the audience would normally have watched three tragedies and a satyr play by the same playwright; three tragedians would submit a day of drama and one would be pronounced the winner. Five comedians would offer a play each, and their contest would take up a day. We only have one surviving tragic trio (Aeschylus’ Oresteia), and one complete surviving satyr play (Euripides’ Cyclops); the decision to couple the Prometheus with an Aristophanic comedy was therefore one of necessity as much as anything else. However, I do wonder whether we will be seeing this format again. As G pointed out, the interface between the two worked so well because Frogs is all about tragedy, and whether Aeschylus or Euripides is Best Playwright, and so the production was able to offer not just comedy, but comedy targeted at the very thing the audience had spent the previous hour or so watching. Part of the pleasure of Frogs definitely came from seeing characters from Prometheus acting in silly non-tragic ways – I’m not sure that repeating the experiment with any other Aristophanic or Menandrian play would be so effective. (This presumably was in the minds of the producers when they made their choice…)
I think one of the reason I’ve found it hard to work out what I want to say about the Greek Play is that the two halves were, in their own ways, really rather good, but trying to talk about them together is like trying to say sensible things that cover chalk and cheese. Which perhaps is part of the point – I find it easy to think of things to say about the way that the two interconnected (leave the audience at the end of the rather depressing Prometheus knowing that they can have their ice cream safe in the knowledge that something more up-lifting is on the way, and leaving the theatre humming the music to brexexexex coax coax), but less easy to find things to say about how the two dramatic interpretations connected to each other. If nothing else, it has reminded me how multitalented Athenian actors must have been to be able to deliver the very different requirements of comic and tragic acting. So rather than try and say unifying things, I offer a few comments on each half individually.
I rather liked Prometheus. It’s not a play I know particularly well, but it has had a great deal of influence in its Nachleben – Percy Bysshe Shelley, for instance, got rather overexcited about it and wrote his own version, and the rest of the Romantics also found Prometheus an inspirational figure for overturning convention and resisting authority and bringing about new cultural dawns. What this production did was draw out the fact that, frankly, it’s not an easy play to watch. At all. It begins with Prometheus being chained to his rock (in this case, a ladder on stage), and remaining there for the entire play, suspended, stretched out, battered, suffering. Erm. Yes. Not comfortable. One doesn’t know where to look – which is perhaps the point. A lot of the dialogue deals with Zeus, newly crowned king of the gods, and his autocratic rule – Prometheus ends up in this position because of his unwillingness to keep fire from mortals as Zeus decreed, which provides lots of meat for discussion. The force of that ethical enquiry becomes much more pointed when there is a suffering body on stage in front of you, never letting the debate become abstract, never letting you forget that this isn’t just a hypothetical enquiry into some mildly interesting question. As so often with Greek drama, it is easy to forget the force that plays gain when they are actually staged, not just read as words on a page. (Shallowly, I should also note that I loved the costumes of the chorus, daughters of Neptune, who were beautifully sea-like and had fabulous seagulls made of newspaper. Also, Neptune had a brilliant sea-foam jacket that I covet, despite its impracticality for daily use.)
The Frogs, by contrast, decided to cleave to the Aristophanic spirit rather than the rule, and went all post-modern and breaking the fourth wall and modern comedy sketch. Which was gloriously anarchic, and I suspect Aristophanes would have approved. Significant chunks of the dialogue were rewritten, jokes were made using medium of the surtitles, the political jokes lampooned members of the current government, the songs were set to modern tunes, the frogs were dressed in green bathing caps, Charon wore fishnets, Euripides was an Angry Young Man and spoke his Greek in a suitable accent while Aeschylus had a tweed jacket with elbow patches… you get the general idea. It’s rather hard to describe the zaniness, but it’s what made it work – rather than try to be All Faithful, it took the sense of what Aristophanic comedy was about and plugged it into modern comedic conventions. And I say that as someone who got a sweetie thrown at her during the parabasis, or improvised chat to the audience, to bribe her into liking the play.
So, where do I find myself at the end of this? I think my conclusions are mainly reminders of things I already knew, and that the Greek Play has reinforced. First, that drama (Greek, Roman or otherwise) is meant to be performed, and we lose things from our understanding of plays when we forget that. Given that I’m teaching a Euripides course this year and translating a Plautus play this term, that’s rather important. Second, the most successful classical receptions are not those which are overly reverent to the original, but those that seek to communicate its essence. Of course, it’s possible to go too far in that direction and lose sight of the actual ancient material entirely, but that’s not a problem that performances of Greek plays tend to experience.
At any rate, if you have not yet been to see a Greek play yourself, at Cambridge or elsewhere, I heartily recommend the experience – it gets you closer to the ancient world in a way that reading cannot do on its own.