Staging the Classics

“Death, robbing my eyes of light,

Give back to the world it’s untarnished purity!”

Dancer Gertrud Frith in Medea

Racine’s words through Phaedra’s lips could be the coda for Ancient Greek tragedy. Through the death of the tragic hero, the world of the play is cleansed and the audience having, “ridden the waves of a ship at sea in a hurricane” is returned safely to shore. When done right, the audience shares the emotional journey of the main characters. They, too, are purged and catharsis is served across the divide.

For the Ancient Greek theatre-goer attending the Festival was a religious experience. They went there to be entertained, to be instructed and to be cleansed. The plots, lifted from their religious histories were parables to be learnt from. The Gods, ever close, were powerful onlookers in the drama. They held fate in their palms. They could be outraged or appeased through curses cast, supplications entreated and taboos broken

Magic and superstition are used in the plots like weapons of war.The heroes may refuse to worship a particular god. They may break a taboo. They may entreat the intervention of the Gods in an act of revenge. Their aim is to influence their own or another character’s destiny. In so doing they empower themselves to walk amongst the immortals. The gods hear their echoing hubris and they act swiftly to silence the cacophony.

Ancient Greece was a deterministic, patriarchal society that was suspicious, at best, of foreigners. Its stage reflects this.

Again and again the great tragedians preach against pride but not in a modern sense. The hero must never place him/herself above his/her humanly station. They must wear their  dignity without coddling themselves in ego. Not an easy labour when you consider that the hero was a public figure. His/her decisions were speculated upon in a voyeuristic society. . Personal honour and reputation modulated the hero’s behaviour. The chorus’ judgments were tweeted away as the hero came to terms with his/her crisis. Tweeted is perhaps an understatement, (but I hope my analogy works.) Ancient Greece was a more discerning society than our own. It wouldn’t settle for the modern adage, ” All publicity is good publicity.”

There is a lot of assumed knowledge in a classic text, whether it is Racine or Euripides. Having endured the test of time these plays come to us in print together with pages of end notes, modern translations and dense introductions that reveal their contexts. A theatre-goer should never leave the theatre feeling puzzled as to the intent of the production. So how do we make a play written beyond the barricade of history speak to us today?

A director looking to stage a classic will be drawn to a text that strikes a cord. From the Ancient Greek repertoire, Euripides’ call is clearest heard.

Then to informing today’s audience about the erks of Ancient Greek society, religion and mythology without handing them a history book before the lights go dim. This is wrapped up with the interpretation of the script. Does the director present a historically accurate adaptation complete with masks and chorus or modernize it with a more naturalistic approach? What about deconstructing the text? To deconstruct the text assumes a deep and thorough understanding of the text, its problems and the intention of the playwright. When done well, the original ideas become clearer.

I like deconstruction, it’s used across the board of theatrical arts. When an actor prepares s/he deconstructs the meaning of her/his lines. Her/his emotional memory is called forth to experience the necessary empathy. When the production designer visualizes the performance space s/he has taken the themes of the drama and created a physical metaphor.The risk of choosing deconstruction is the ease in which personal responses to the plot can suffocate the original intention of the playwright. How far should a text be deconstructed – all the way to abstraction?

The next hurdle is deciding how to deal with the chorus. Get rid of it altogether? Allot personalities to lines and cast them as definite characters? Employ a choreographer or orchestrate movement techniques to keep it relevant within the flow of the narrative? Dealing with a chorus can be complex and time consuming. Each actor must have a relevant role to fulfill to add value to the effectiveness of the group and there can be long periods of silent stage time for an individual chorus member. If one chorus member becomes disengaged, it can upstage the reality of the whole.

Finally, the pivotal decision the director is called to make is how real to make his production. By real I mean relevant. Sometimes abstracting provides the most real experience. But not always. Sometimes the most traditional rendering is the most powerful. So long as the playwright’s concern is still relevant today.

I had the pleasure of attending Aim Dramatic Arts school’s performance of Hell Hath No Fury, on the weekend. It was a retelling of the myths of Medea, Elektra and Phaedra. Each myth was handled differently with varying success. The performances were experiences in: a more or less traditional interpretation; a very clever deconstruction; and abstraction. The performances are the inspiration behind his post and the next as well. I wish the students of the school opportunity, serendipity and many more performances.

 

Photo credit: ADiamondFellFromTheSky / FoterCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

 

Advertisements

When Hadjiavatis pulls his Beard will Menander reappear? – Part 3

Hadjivatis and Hacivat; Karagiozis and Karagöz; two pairs of similarly sounding names for two pairs of visually different shadow puppets. Could Hadjavatis and Karagiozis have preceded the Ottoman era? Could they have been part of a satiric, comic tradition enjoyed by the Byzantines? Are their origins older still, Ancient Roman or Greek?

Byzantine Dancer

Relief Carving of a Byzantine Dancer

By the time Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium in 326 C.E., the fashion for Classical drama had passed. The new Christian empire did not care to preserve pagan writings that didn’t support the teachings of the Church. The popular, satiric, dance mimes enjoyed in the early circuses, like the Hippodrome, were discouraged or forbidden. Popular entertainment like mimes by their nature didn’t and don’t require scripting. Subsequently very little has survived in writing about Byzantine, satiric theatre. What has survived is in the decorative features of household items and personal adornments.  The Middle Eastern Dance Guild blog provides some lovely examples of artifacts illustrating Byzantine dance history, including a crown, a jewel box, a hair comb and textiles. 

Byzantine dancers were considered mimes and comic actors. This may seem a little too modern in terms of subtlety however it isn’t unique in theatre history. In the late 16th Century C.E. Japan, the female, Shinto shrine dancer, Izuomo no Okuni, dressed as a man and danced provocatively in dry riverbeds and within shrine compounds. While using the gestures of young children, she danced depicting males flirting with prostitutes. Morals were perceived as being corrupted and the authorities banned all performances by females in 1629. A little too late. A new theatre style had been born.

Okuni was the founder of the now, all male, Kabuki Theatre. I imagine Byzantine dancers to have had a similar approach to satire, as they too were censured by the Trullan Synod in 692 C.E.

20130518 99 Izumo no Okuni

Statue of Okuni the shrine dancer from Ikuomo, carrying both a fan and a samurai sword. She danced dressed in male attire and sent up men soliciting prostitutes.

Could Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis have existed within the Byzantine circuses as “dancer-clowns”, bereft of their names? As we have seen in earlier posts, their names are Turkish. Could their characters have existed as Byzantine, satiric mimes/dancers? Could they have been part of a performance tradition that harked back to Ancient Rome or even earlier to Menander?

Karagiozis, as we have seen, is tied to his Turkish counterpart Karagöz by the sound of their names and the earthy quality of their humour. Both characters have undergone a watering down of their bawdiness over at least, the last century. We know from early scenarios of the Karagöz and Hacivat shows that they display the kind of situation comedy that the Ancient Roman playwright, Plautus employed. He followed Menander in style. The use of stock characters, satirising ‘types’ in the community was a comic writing technique first employed in the theatre by Menander in the 2nd Century B.C.E.. He had studied the work of the philosopher Theophrastus. Theophrastus’ Characters was a discussion of personality types that included the Gossip, the Buffoon, the Parsimonious one and the Friend of Rascals among a list of others. Menander’s inspiration was subsequently taken up by Plautus. Although the Karagöz and Hacivat scenarios have their own unique character and structure, there is enough of a similarity to Plautus’ comedies to warrant thought.

By the time of the earliest references to Karagöz and Hacivat, in the early 16th Century or even perhaps during the time of the Seljuk Turks in the 1300s, the Byzantine world had replaced its official language, Latin, with Greek. Did the desire to read older Greek sources increase with this language shift? Could any of Menander’s scripts have survived to influence the emergence of Karagöz? Or did the circus performers, clowns, carry a tradition of Menander’s characters that influenced emerging theatrical forms and has survived into the present day as the shadow puppets, Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis?

Just considering the look of Hadjiavatis and Karagiozis certain observances can be made. Hadjiavatis, who is always garbed in Turkish attire, always tugs his beard. Why? He is a comic character. Is he appealing to himself for mercy? Is he so full of himself that he is showing himself a form of deference used in Ancient Greece? In Ancient Greece, a man’s beard was an outward sign of his maturity and his wisdom. By holding Zeus’ beard, Thetis implored him to aid her son Achilles in the Trojan War; Medea implored Creon’s mercy when he ordered her to leave Corinth; and the Centaur implored Herakles (Hercules) for his life. Is Hadjiavatis sending up this form of respect/obeisance?

NAMA Héraclès & Nessos

The Centaur implores Herakles (Hercules) for mercy by tugging his beard

Create a picture of Karagiozis in your mind. Not only is he short, in many instances he is disproportionately small. He has a hunchback with a bulbous, segmented arm. He is barefoot and wears green. This description can almost fit the satyr, Seilenos, pictured below. Seilenos, the foster-father of the god of wine and theatre, Dionysos, has a tendency to be lazy, drink too much wine, have too much fun and generally overindulge. If we lift the modern era meaning behind Karagiozis’ catch phrase, “We shall eat, we shall drink and go to bed hungry,” it could also be applied to Seilenos with a very different meaning. In the present day the phrase refers to Karagiozis’ perpetual poverty; for Seilenus it would refer to his insatiability.

A foot from a Roman couch depicting the satyr-like Seilenos, henchman of Dionysos the god of wine and revelry 1st-2nd century CE Bronze

Wine, laziness, revelry, a hunch back, short stature, long arms – all attributes of Seilenos and Karagiozi.

In the most complete surviving play by Menander, O Dyskolos, the prologue is delivered by Pan. Pan, like Seilenus, is a satyr. Given the use of situation comedy, stock character types and the similarity of Karagiozis to Seilenos, and Hadjiavatis beard tugging, can we hope to see evidence of the existence of a Karagiozis/Silenus figure in the as yet to be discovered history of Byzantine theatre? What of Hadjiavatis?

Comic actor

Ancient Comic Actor – Is that his beard that he is tugging?

Where might this evidence materialise? Foter.com? See the ancient comic actor above. He, like Hadjiavatis, pulls his own beard. Was he an earlier predecessor of Hadjiavatis, a prototype even? If only we could see the front of his face! Is he Roman or Byzantine and beardless or Greek and bearded?  From which time period does he brown-eye us? Where was he found and IS he tugging his beard? Intriguing.

Where else might evidence be found? Egypt, perhaps? In the final part of this exploration the importance of Egypt, it’s wonderful library in Alexandria and the discovery of Menander’s works will be explored.

Crafty Theatre’s Kabuki Theatre board on Pinterest

Byzantine dancer

Photo credit: jimforest / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Ikuomo no Okuni

Photo credit: Awfulknitter / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Detail of the Nessos Painter’s Amphora depicting Herakles and the Centaur

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Seilanos / Pan

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Comic Actor

Photo credit: Taifighta / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

When Hadjiavatis pulls his beard, will Menander reappear? – Part Two

The Byzantine Empire: God’s Kingdom on Earth. A world of mysticism, asceticism and philanthropy. A colourful world of pantomimes in the hippodrome, bride shows in the palace and liturgical processions through the polis. A byzantine court of intrigue and propaganda where the head of state and the heads of the Church toggled power and policy. A history peopled with philosopher-monks, pirate-archons, poet-nuns, emperor-saints, mercenary soldiers, eunuchs and slaves, marauding crusaders, cross-dressing clerics and fools for Christ. A people who lived their daily lives in, out and around awe-inspiring basilicas, thundering arenas, urban and remote monasteries, civic baths, hospitals and hostels for the poor. The Byzantines: a society that regarded itself as Roman but spoke Greek.

The Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

The Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

When Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the site of the ancient town of Byzantium in 313 C.E.he named his New Rome, Constantinople. The language and culture of his new seat of power was Latin. Theatrical pastimes were those of the late Roman empire. Gone was the popularity of classical dramas and comedies. Carnival and spectacle entertained the masses. Animal fights, chariot races and gladiatorial bouts were enjoyed along with jugglers, dancers, mimes, pantomimes and dramatic recitals.

2009-04-13 ConstantineTheGreat York

Constantine I aka Constantine the Great aka St Constantine

By moving his capital to the East, Constantine may have given himself a fresh start however the Empire would suffer the tensions of a division of east and west for centuries.When eventually the rift saw the independence of the West in 6th century C.E., Greek was adopted as the administrative language of the remaining Empire. The people of the Empire however, still regarded themselves as Romans.

They also believed they were God’s legacy on Earth.  They ordered their world to mirror the organisation of Heaven. As God had His hierarchy of angels, the Byzantines had a hierarchy of priests and civil servants. As the Church gave them laws and admonished their behaviour, the state collected taxes and provided infrastructure.

It was the Church that made a rudimentary education available to all. Ecclesiastical learning was the norm. For the wealthy classes, pagan texts written by the Ancient Greeks  and Romans were available. Texts that complimented the teachings of the Christian Church were encouraged e.g., Plato. However, texts that couldn’t throw light on the understanding of Christian tenants and dogmas were discouraged e.g., Aristotle. Pagan theatre did not fare well.

From the earliest dates, Ancient Greek drama was inseparable from pagan ritual. Early dramatic texts commemorate the pagan gods. The ancient plays were presented at festivals in honour of the Olympian gods e.g., Dionysus and Apollo. The cult of Dionysus with its Bacchanalian  festivities; bawdy humour and the practice of wearing short tunics to show off long, detachable  phalluses  would not be accepted by the new Christian religion.

The Christian God was a jealous god. Worship of all or some of the pantheon of pagan gods was not acceptable. The Trullan Synod, a gathering of over two hundred clerics in c.692 C.E., tried to snuff out pagan practices including theatrical ones. Performers would be denied Christian rights if they did not repent of their sin – performing.

Greek terracotta statuette of a Mime made in Myrina about 100 BCE (1)

Terracotta Statuette of a Greek Mime c. 100 B.C.E.

A consequence of this was the loss of many ancient texts. Monks and nuns didn’t break taboo and transcribe these works freely. By this time the ancient classics were no longer in vogue neither with audiences nor performers. Now even God frowned upon them. The carnival style amusements replacing them were visual, satiric, had an immediate response and were not dependent on scripts. The desire to investigate ancient plays would interest few. And then there was the curse of good house keeping.

In the way of the pre-modern world, nothing was disposable. The papyri of the ancient sources were more precious than the plays written upon them, plays that espoused pagan virtues and excesses. It was a matter of good economy and good virtue to wash out the original text and reuse the papyrus in a higher Christian cause. In this practice many palimpsests were created. It was because of this practice that the work of Menander was lost in the middle ages and then rediscovered in Egypt in 1907.

A Menander Palimpsest on papyrus

A Menander Palimpsest on papyrus

Menander (341/2 B.C.E. – 270 B.C.E.), the greatest writer of New Comedy in Ancient Greece had a heavy-handed influence over the later Roman playwrights, Plautus and Terence. Through the adaption of his scripts by Plautus and Terence his inspiration and style would influence the Commedia Dell’arte and later playwrights such as Shakespeare and Moliere. His work took the subject matter of the Ancients away from the realm of the gods and into the domestic situation of citizens. In his most complete surviving play, O Dyskolos, he acknowledges Pan in the prologue by having him deliver it.

Menander’s comedy was one of character, situations and ribald innuendo. He took the satiric writings of the philosopher, Theophrastus (c.371-c.287 BCE) off the page and created live character types in masks for the stage. Thus he gave prototypes for the stock characters of the Commedia Dell’arte. Despite his dramas winning the Lenaia Festival 8 times and Plautus and Terence acknowledging his influence over their work, knowledge that his comedies existed was all we had for 900 years. The scripts were somehow lost in the Middle Ages.

Can more be recovered?  How many lie dormant, hidden within palimpsests?

In the next part of this article, I will look at Egypt’s unique place in the hopes of recovering ancient texts and the connection the Karagiozi and Karagöz puppet theatre have with late Roman comedies and Byzantine theatrical performances.

See images of Byzantine artefacts  on the Crafty Theatre, Byzantine, Pinterest board.

Map of the Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Emperor Constantine I

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY

Greek Mime Artist c. 100 B.C.E.

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

A Menander Palimpsest on Papyrus

Photo credit: The Egypt Exploration Fund / Foter / Public domain

When Hadjivatis pulls his beard, does Menander reappear? – Part One

Image

20140202-003026.jpg

Hadjiavatis by Crafty Theatre, inspired by the illustrations of Michalis Benetoulias

Hadjiavatis, the town crier. Every time I look at him I can’t help wondering why he holds his beard. Why? Puppeteers’ depiction of him may differ: He may wear shoes or he may wear boots and within the confines of his Turkish garb of culottes, a turban, a jacket and  bearded face, the colour and style of his clothing may vary but he always holds his beard. Or pulls on it. Hacivat, his direct Turkish antecedent does not. It’s peculiar. Hadjiavatis is a Greek derivative of the Turkish name, Hacivat, but he looks nothing like him. What can it mean?

The Crafty Theatre Hadjiavatis puppet  pictured here is typical of the Greek puppet. The image of Karagöz and Hacivat below is also representative of these Turkish theatrical characters. Hacivat is on the left and Karagöz is on the right. Hacivat holds his fists directly below his beard. He definitely doesn’t pull on it or hold it.

Hacivat and Karagoz, two authentic puppets that I found in a Second Hand - Antique shop in Istanbul.

Hacivat and Karagoz, two authentic puppets that I found in a Second Hand – Antique shop in Istanbul.

Both Hacivat and Hadjiavatis are town criers. Hacivat is educated and represents the middle classes. Hadjiavatis, while not near homeless as Karagiozis seems with his derelict hovel, isn’t as privileged as Hacivat. Hacivat is better known for his comic dialogues with Karagöz. Hadjiavatis dialogue with Karagiozis is not singled out as particular. Karagiozis interacts similarly with all of the characters, they are his foils. Hadjiavatis generally enters the screen early in the story with news from the seray that will prompt the action and problem solving of the drama. Often he seems to be just a plot device driving the story. He doesn’t necessarily grace the screen again. His role is similar to that of the messenger in Classical drama. Which prompts the question, did Hadjiavatis as a character exist before the Ottoman period?

Karagöz and Hacivat puppet shows were a permitted entertainment in the Ottoman Empire. Linda and Kostas Myrsiades in their book Karagiozis: Culture and Comedy in Greek Puppet Theater, tell us that the Ottoman puppeteers overcame the Islamic directive against the realistic depiction of people by piercing holes through the hides of the shadow puppets to allow the characters spirits to escape. Could it be that in order for a native theatrical character to continue under Ottoman rule, it had to take on the characteristics of the Turkish shadow puppets? This then poses another question, was Hadjiavatis in his Turkish garb, pulling his own beard sending up his Turkish overlords?

If indeed Hadjiavatis survived from an earlier time we have to remember that beard pulling was a way of entreating mercy in Classical drama. Is Hadjiavatis begging himself for mercy?

Bust of the Greek playwright Menander modeled after a Greek bronze sculpted by Kephisodotos the Younger and his brother Timarchos Roman 100-150 CE Marble

Menander, the greatest playwright of the Classical New Comedy. His works vanished for 900 years

And what of Karagiozis himself? The bare-footed, undersized man dressed in green with a hunched back and an extra, extra, extra long arm? Visually Karagöz and Karagiozis are very different. Was there a pre-Ottoman antecedent for Hadjiavatis and Karagiozis? Perhaps Byzantine, perhaps Classical?

To determine this we must look at the Byzantine Empire, its span, society and attitude to theatre. We must also look at the survival of pagan Classics in the hands of the Byzantines. Menander, in particular. What sort of Greek speaking society would neglect or even censor the comic works of the greatest writer of Classical Greek New Comedy?

Then we will see whether Menander or one of his satyrs is lurking within Hadjiavatis beard.

Craft

The Crafty Theatre, Hadjiavatis puppet and Karagiozis’ Hovel stencils are now on the Crafty Theatre facebook page as well as the Crafty Karagiozis board on the Crafty Theatre Pinterest page.

Photo Credit

Bust of the Greek playwright Menander modeled after a Greek bronze sculpted by Kephisodotos the Younger and his brother Timarchos Roman 100-150 CE Marble

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA