Thursday, 29 November 2007

The Women of Troy

I'm not going to get to Katie Mitchell's much-blogged-on production of Euripides' The Women of Troy, partly because tonight I'm opening a production of Euripides' The Trojan Women. Bloody National Theatre, always nicking all my best ideas.

Writing the adaptation has been one of the toughest writes I've ever had to do. For seventy minutes (eighty in Mitchell's production, but she's added lots of dancing while I've just put in a song), nothing much happens on stage, relationships change very little and there's almost no drama in our understanding of the term. It's an exercise in sustained tension, almost never driven by the characters on stage, almost always driven by the sudden arrival of Greeks. Andrew Field is right to use it to challenge the notion that Greek plays end in catharsis, although it's worth pointing out that the notion comes from Aristotle, not Brecht. Beyond Antigone, Brecht didn't display much interest in Greek drama and used Aristotle's theory not to engage with the Greeks but to elucidate the ways his work was different from - in his mind - pretty much all drama that predated him.

And yet there is something Brechtian about the givens of much Greek drama. Early in his career he commends the young Helene Weigel, to whom he is not at this point married, for her performance as the servant in (I think) Oedipus. She enters and proclaims the death of Jocasta in a perfectly controlled and measured way, and the young Brecht is struck by this (all-too-rare in the theatre of Weimar Germany) avoidance of histrionics. It's easy to imagine that this led to his formulation of the much-ruined-at-A-level conception of the "street scene", in which eyewitnesses report a road accident while bracketing off their statements with "he said" and "she said" and so on, putting them at a critical distance from their own observations. Yet it's my experience when devising or running workshops that develop work out of stories from life, that people rarely give in to histrionics when reporting real events. They are calm, and they are measured, and they look for laughs however grisly the matter, in many ways just like in that performance of Helene Weigel. The reportage of offstage events onstage, it seems to me, lends itself to sachlichkeit.

Now that I think about it, I realise we've shat on this somewhat in my adaptation, through the way we've deployed Cassandra. In the spirit of the democratic apportionment of stage time, I've got most of the major Trojan women on stage most of the time, rather than having them pass through on coaches or whatever (reading between the lines of some reviews, it sounds like Mitchell may have done the same thing). So most of the reportage is done by Cassandra, who with her "gift" of second sight is able to witness these events as if they were happening in front of her. So she's pretty histrionic. No critical distance there, then, except in so far as, however compelling the evidence, she is cursed never to be believed by the other women, which is on occasion quite funny; Cassandra going loudly nuts and everyone else looking at one another wondering who's going to address the elephant in the room and tell her to shut up.

And as my PhD thesis hypothesises, the further you get into a Brecht show which isn't a comedy, the more prominent becomes a kind of comic verfremdungseffekt. There's nothing like laughter to remind us we're in an audience. It's not out of a conscious adhesion to my reading of Brecht so much as out of the same instinct that makes me read Brecht in that way, but the grimmer the situation in this production, the funnier the show gets. The second half starts with a game of grandmother's footsteps and ten minutes from the end Hecuba, who's on her last legs by this point, tells a no shit actual joke.


I hope to regale you further with my thoughts on Greek drama, but frankly it's unlikely. I've been planning to blog about this show since we started making it, but the aforementioned PhD thesis is causing a bottleneck of all other output. If I don't finish and hand in by December 31st I'll be shot, so it'll be slim pickings from me for a while longer. Now I'm going to go and knock out 3,000 words before I go to the theatre at teatime. Wish us luck!


Andrew Field said...

You may find this book interesting.

I think that I agree with you entirely. And it's a shame you won't see Mitchell's show because it really does highlight the through line from Euripides to Brecht and Artaud. The more that changes the more that stays the same.

alexf said...

i was going to make the point about Aristotle over at andy's but didn't for fear of becoming his resident Brecht bore.

It's worth noting that Aristotle wasn't even a contemporary of the Greek dramatists whose work survives today (he was born 22 years after Euripides died). He wasn't a dramatist - in fact he was much more like an academic, and in his understanding of theatre he made many of the mistakes that modern (or relatively modern) academics (and pseudo-academic theatre critics) make. Further, (and hoisting modern terms that don't quite fit but will have to do) he outlined the theory of catharsis in response to the ultra-conservative attack on poets in Plato's Republic. Broadly, this is that the poets make people unhappy and so should be banished from the state (the political consequences of this unhappiness and of their banishment should be obvious). Aristotle defends the poets without really shifting the terms of the debate as his old teacher set them - he accepts the unhappiness but reframes it as a positive - a purging of negative emotion which might otherwise turn into negative action (negative towards whom we might ask, the person?, the state?) So art doesn't really cause any problems for Plato's Republic after all. phew!

As such it's not really surprising that Brecht rejects the Aristotelian premises. In fact, in his desire to agitate, to create in people a "critical attitude" which is turned towards society and which in turn results in action, he might be said to be pretty close to Plato in his conception of what artists do, but on the other side of the barricade in his sense of what he wants them to do.

I'm not sure how the Aristotelian understanding of theatre got passed on to early twentieth century germany, but if it's anything like the UK the influence of various mistranslations and misunderstandings of Aristotle's own misunderstandings of theatre started around the renaissance (i think) and smowballed into a sense of HOW THEATRE IS SUPPOSED TO BE that persists even now (i remember as a kid being taught about the unities of time, space and action which are at least as big a bastardisation of the original writings as, say, method acting is of Stanislavski's work.)

danbye said...


Although I do sometimes wonder if Plato was joking. Given his lionisation of Socrates' brave death at the hands of the dastardly authorities, I'm not sure how reliable are his conservative credentials. Maybe he was leaned on.

It's also worth pointing out (I sense we're all preaching to the choir, but perhaps there's a reader who's interested) that in creating the famous (and also much-ruined at A-level) table setting out distinctions between the Epic and Dramatic theatres, Brecht didn't intend to set himself up as in opposition to the Aristotelian conception (as he saw it). He was sufficiently irritated by this consistent misreading of his intention to add a footnote stressing that the table represents "mere differences of emphasis".

The plot of The Name of the Rose rides on the idea that Aristotle wrote some stuff about comedy too, but that it was lost in the Alexandria fire. It would be interesting to see what Brecht made of that.

sarah p said...

go on then, let's have a list of suggested comedies which Aristotle and Euripedes probably wrote, which got lost in the Alexandria library fire. My turn:

"Whoops, Cassandra!" by Euripides.

alexf said...

seriously dude - you're not that far off - the only surviving greek satyr play is the cyclops (i think that's what it's called) which is basically the same as a tragedy with pretty much the same subject matter, certainly the same sources, but with everyone running round getting drunk and all the performers wearing big fake cocks.

danbye said...

Yep. And it's by Euripides.

alexf said...

double whammy!

Andrew Haydon said...

Inevitable Classics Joke Dept: Euripides trousers; Eumenides trousers...