Acting Greek Tragedy

Acting Greek Tragedy

by Graham Ley


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780859898935
Publisher: University of Exeter Press
Publication date: 05/15/2015
Pages: 255
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Graham Ley is professor emeritus of drama and theory at the University of Exeter. He is the author of numerous books, including From Mimesis to Interculturalism and Ancient Greek and Contemporary Performance, both published by the University of Exeter Press, and The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy and A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Acting Greek Tragedy

By Graham Ley

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2014 Graham Ley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-987-1




I always start the full sequence of Workshops with what can be called for convenience 'monologue', although there is more to that term, which I shall soon explain. The fact is that monologues are familiar technical territory to many actors, and it is possible for workshop participants to work in pairs on the same piece, which I think is constructive at an opening stage. We then also get a taste of a good range of Greek material, seen through the experience of individual dramatic characters. All this makes the work accessible and relatively easily assimilated in the first steps, since there is a great deal to take on board. Just about everything to do with acting Greek tragedy requires an adjustment to assumptions or set practices, and there is little point in making an assault out of the process of learning.

The second, convenient quality of working from monologues is that it is possible to introduce a large number of the important considerations attached to the idea of transactions without heading straight into the core of the idea itself. It is not so much that the core idea is difficult to grasp; but when you are adjusting in almost every way as a performer, integrating and implementing what can seem initially like a central concept can be daunting and counterproductive. The temptation will then be to go for the concept at all costs, when in fact the supposed concept is a formulation of what should take place through analysis and realization.

Another advantage of starting with monologue is that although each piece should be studied in its context within a scene, and in the larger movement of the play, it can be played almost anywhere and anyhow. This is really quite important when a great deal is being taken on board. I have known actors who are listening and thinking and learning from the word go, but who will cover their early learning by playing an old game, pitching a few casual tricks into a tentative presentation of what they see in the script at present. This is fine in the first instance, and almost always dissolves by the time of the second Workshop. In particular, I invite participants to locate the monologue anywhere in the studio they choose, avoiding attempts to reproduce a picture of the conditions of the ancient Greek theatre in miniature.

In fact, almost any assumption about conventions of space is initially preferable to that attempt to show us Greek theatre and how it was played. Some monologues feel best as if played indoors, and seating is also fine if anyone feels inclined that way. But there should be no pressure about space and its definition at this point. It is something that builds very well over the full extent of the Workshops, and rushing at it is unnecessary. That is not to say that I will not gradually make suggestions about how the workshop participants may be used as a chorus and as an audience. But I expect those suggestions not to register very strongly at this stage, or — if they do — not to register effectively in space. The monologue gives a performer the chance of the comfort zone of the self, the actor as unit in a supportive environment, and that is just fine to get people over the threshold.

Monologue is a word that is Greek in formation, with monos meaning 'alone' or 'by oneself' and logos meaning (in this instance) 'the spoken word'. Monologue means the same as soliloquy, which is derived from Latin, in the corresponding two parts of meaning. There is no philosophical difference between them, although at times critical thinking is inclined to use soliloquy for a reflexive, internal monologue. Now in Greek tragedy it is very rare indeed for any character to be completely alone with the audience, since the chorus is constantly present once it has first appeared, which is early in the play. There are only one or two exceptions to that in the surviving plays, when a chorus is removed for a short period, and I shall mention one of these in a moment. Before the chorus appears, characters may be alone for at least a while in those introductory sections which are conventionally if rather misleadingly known as prologues, since they are not necessarily separated from the rest of the play. But the explanatory prologue by the character of a god, which is rather remote from the human characters in the dramatic action, is indeed a feature of some of the tragedies of Euripides.

So in these prologues, and on those few occasions when the chorus is temporarily absent during the course of a play we may get characters 'speaking alone'. In such circumstances, their isolation may be a significant factor. When Ajax commits suicide in Sophocles' Ajax, the chorus has left the playing-space in one of those rare instances I mentioned, and he is resolutely on his own as he speaks for the last time. When the Watchman introduces us to the scene and setting of Agamemnon, the first play of the tragic trilogy Oresteia by Aeschylus, he is conscious of letting us into a secret which he can speak aloud only by virtue of his lonely job, stuck up on the roof of the palace at night. When gods tell us what they think, feel or intend to do at the beginning of a play, as an audience we sense that this is something that we are privileged to hear, and gods are autocrats in will and intention. Just listen to Dionysus at the beginning of Euripides' Bacchae or Aphrodite at the beginning of his Hippolytus and, as the catchphrase has it, be very afraid.

One might then say that these are true monologues, but Greek tragedy is full of speeches of considerable length, and it is this characteristic that merits specific attention. If we turn to the other end of the spectrum, many speeches are counterpoised to a speech by an opposing character in the same scene, in an overtly formal structure that may even constrain the speeches to a similar length. Other speeches are delivered to a community represented by a chorus, still others to characters waiting apprehensively for news. Characters may also be addressed by a god, to be told how pitifully they have erred and what they must subsequently do. Many speeches fall into one of two categories: they participate in an almost legal atmosphere of trial, often in accusation and defence, or they act as reports given to the chorus or to characters, not always but often by slaves, soldiers or working people who might be classified as 'messengers'.

Clytemnestra telling it how it is (not), from Aeschylus' Agamemnon

Let's now take some text, and handle it with a relatively light touch. This is Clytemnestra in Agamemnon by Aeschylus, the first play of the Oresteia trilogy, on the occasion of the return home to the city of Argos of her husband Agamemnon, successful in the war against Troy:

CLYTEMNESTRA: Men of the city, Elders of Argos, I 855
am not ashamed to speak of how I love
my husband. Time erodes
all reticence. I have not learned from others —
I shall tell you of my wretched life
for all the time this man was camped before the walls of Troy.860
First, for a woman to remain at home
alone, without a man — that is unbearable:
she has to hear so many fresh and wounding rumours —
one herald comes, and then another brings a tale of woe
worse than the last, crying sorrow for the house; 865
indeed, if this man here had suffered from
as many wounds as rumours said
which reached us, he'd have more holes in him than a net.
And if he'd died as many deaths as stories claimed
he'd be a second Geryon with three bodies 870
and he could boast that he had got a triple cloak 872
of earth, a death for each of his three shapes.
Because of all these stories that came back,
they often had to hold me forcibly 875
and free my neck from nooses I had strung from up above.
That's why your son's not standing here
as he should be, the guardian of the pledges made
by me and you, Orestes; do not be amazed;
our faithful ally's looking after him, 880
Strophios the Phokian. He alerted me
to dangers on two sides: first, your peril in the war
at Troy, and then the chance that popular
revolt might overthrow the Council,
since men often give a further kick when one is down. 885
So this excuse of mine bears no deceit.
But as for me, the gushing fountains of my tears
have now run dry, and not one drop is left.
With waiting late at night my eyes are sore
as I cried bitterly because the beacons for your victory 890
always refused to light; and in my dreams
I was awakened by the gentle rushing of a gnat
buzzing aloud, since I saw you suffering more
than could have happened in the time sleep shared with me.
Now I've endured all that, with joyful heart 895
I would proclaim this man the watchdog of a farm,
the saving forestay of a ship, a high-roofed house's
solid pillar, or a father's only son,
to thirsty travellers a flowing spring,
and land for sailors suddenly in sight beyond 900
their hopes, a fair day dawning after storm.
These are the words in which I think it right to honour him:
may Jealousy stand far away; we have endured so much
before. And now, my dear beloved, step 905
out of this chariot — but don't permit your foot
to touch the ground, my king, the foot that conquered Troy.
Women, why do you wait? I have instructed you
to clothe the area with fabrics where he has to walk.
Create at once a crimson path, where Justice may 910
lead him into a house he never thought to see.
All else a mind not overcome by sleep
will justly make, with gods' help, reach the fated end.

This is not a particularly long speech by the standards of Greek tragedy, nor by the standards of Clytemnestra in this play, who delivers speeches throughout the action, deferring only in the end to her lover Aegisthus. It is a delightful piece, and perhaps some of the exaggeration communicates itself without much sense of context: the gnat buzzing is a wonderful moment, and the set of comparisons between lines 895 and 901 lays it on very thick. The character is seen to be enjoying herself as a public speaker, something a woman is not meant to be in ancient Greek culture, proving her rhetorical skills. This display is not lost on her husband, who in the rejoinder that follows drily compares her speech to his absence, in that both were very long.

It is also an immensely deceitful speech, since it conceals the fact that Clytemnestra detests her husband Agamemnon, and in his absence has taken his cousin Aegisthus as her lover. This has been hinted to us as an audience, if we did not already know the myth, and so we hear the account of her painful waiting with great irony. She may have been strung out, but if so it would be in hoping to hear of his death, and strung up she would not have been. Nor was she on her own at night. But this is the saga of the faithful wife, and it conceals very violent thoughts about triple deaths, and a net like that in which she will eventually trap her husband. Later in the play Clytemnestra will be seen standing over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and his lover Cassandra in such a net, and she will then inform the chorus and the audience with relish that she has spoken a great deal in deceit until this moment that all is accomplished.

But what in particular I would like you to notice is that Clytemnestra addresses her speech to the Elders of Argos, who are the chorus, and not to her husband. She does later address Agamemnon directly during the speech, in the passage on their son Orestes, who is notable by his absence, and subsequently in her picture of nocturnal misery and grief. But she then returns to addressing Agamemnon in the third person, as 'this man' (896) and 'him' (902), before swinging into 'my dear beloved' at 904. This speech is indeed a speech, and not part of a conversation: one can imagine Agamemnon standing in his war-chariot or carriage, and being the 'subject of discussion' until he is told to move. This is a monologue that is a long way from private thought, although its public aspect conceals very private thoughts.

It is also a speech that balances another, the opening speech made by Agamemnon on his arrival home from war as a victorious general and as monarch of Argos. Neither 'he' nor we as the audience may be expecting a balancing speech from Clytemnestra to follow; but on the other hand, what we as an audience have heard from her up until this point might suggest that it could. Once it does, and once the sense of balancing visions from two contrasting characters appears, we may begin to detect another important aspect of the scene, namely that these two characters are bidding for command and control.

Until this point in the play, which is many years after Agamemnon's departure for Troy, Clytemnestra has been in charge at Argos, and she has spoken authoritatively to the chorus of Elders. They welcome Agamemnon, and with his speech he starts to reassert his authority. Clytemnestra's speech counterbalances that bid on his behalf, and assertively continues her insistence on commanding the attention of the chorus, and writing the story on her own terms. As so often, Greek tragedy is strongly shaped by the relationship between one leading character and the chorus, and Agamemnon despite his status and his victory is unable to displace Clytemnestra in her control of the playing-space. He is the leader that the Elders want, but he is not the one they actually have.

We might readily discuss this scene in terms of transactions. The explicit transaction of the scene, as it opens, is the return of Agamemnon to Argos: his greeting to the gods of his land and thanks to the gods for victory, and his transformation from a military into a civil leader, which he anticipates in his speech. His return has previously been announced by a Herald, who has also announced the victory to the chorus, so this is potentially a climactic transaction since it would entail the displacement of the interim authority of his wife. He wishes to complete his transformation by making an offering to the gods of his house (this is the palace, elsewhere called the halls).

The transaction that Clytemnestra has in mind pays no attention to any of this at all. As she hints darkly here (lines 910–13), and reveals clearly later after the act, she has planned for a long time to murder Agamemnon in revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, at the time that the fleet sailed to Troy. She plans to get Agamemnon (and indeed Cassandra) into the house where she will immediately carry out her revenge. So she flatters him, sells him a story about her grief and fidelity, and hopes with her elaborate deceit to persuade him to enter his house in an arrogant way, treading over tapestries that are fit only for gods. Ultimately she succeeds, he gives in to her, and walks in to his death. Her transaction is successful, his is a lamentable failure, and both transactions are suspended against a backcloth of the governance and welfare of Argos, and ultimately of the nature of justice in Greece, which the trilogy takes as its major and concluding subject.

As you can see from this example, what a workshop must do is to address the context of the monologues. That means looking at the scene in which they are cast, and looking out to the play as a whole. It may be that proves a great deal to take in; but it is an exercise that is operative even in the first stages, and will have effects. I would advise performers in this instance to look at the speeches that Clytemnestra makes before and after this scene, to see how the character uses speech to exercise control, and how that control works in response to different stimuli in the tense continuity of events that the play represents. Time presses on characters in Greek tragedy, even if there has been a long run-in to this point: Clytemnestra may have had a long time to plan, but she is responding in the moment, with complete consciousness. Her articulate self-confidence grates on male senses of 'a woman's place', and she relishes that in everything that she says.

All Greek plays start with a situation that is at least tense, and which is tipped into almost frantic action soon after they open. The cliché that Greek tragedy is static is laughable, almost as ridiculous as the belief that it is classically serene and composed: it is frantic, urgent and explosive. Each scene adds further urgency to the evolution of the action, and characters struggle to keep pace with events. Hardly a character is allowed to occupy stable ground, and winning or retaining the conviction and support of the chorus is a challenge for almost any leading tragic character. Authority is assertive, fragile and flawed, and that is how tragedy declares to us its democratic origins, which are suspicious of any individual authority.

One further point emerges from this first view of a monologue and through it of a scene. What we call 'Greek' tragedy was an Athenian creation, and the city of Athens at this time was an innovative democracy, as I have just mentioned. What that meant fundamentally was that political decisions were made in a public assembly by voting citizens, as opposed to by aristocrats in a restricted council of their members, and that the legal system was trial by a large jury of fellow citizens, as opposed to judgment by an aristocrat. These were the two major components of the democracy, and both depended on public speaking and on the capacity to listen to arguments with excitement. The democratic habits of Athens account for the delight in extended speeches in Greek tragedy, and for the high expectations of them.


Excerpted from Acting Greek Tragedy by Graham Ley. Copyright © 2014 Graham Ley. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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Table of Contents

First Workshop—Monologues
Second Workshop —Dialogues
Third Workshop —Three-actor Scenes
Fourth Workshop —Properties
Last Thoughts—Looking Back, and Forwards
Notes on the Recordings
Index of Greek names and characters
General index

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