I Guess One Out of Three Ain’t Bad

The Challenge of Performing Ancient Greek Plays
written by Director of Dramaturgy Kate Farrington

I’ve been thinking a lot about the theatre of ancient Greece.

The Pearl's Oedipus Cycle (2009)

John Livingstone Rolle plays Creon in the Theban plays. Credit Bob Johnson

The Pearl staff and actors get together once a week to read plays aloud. It’s very informal. We might read a work we’re considering for future seasons, or a contender for our Modern/Classic reading series. Sometimes it’s simply a play we like. The only “agenda” is to come together as a community to explore great works of art. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

These readings allow us to ask Big Questions we don’t always have time for in the bustle of production, but that are vital to the artistic life of a classical theatre. Are there any late 19th century plays that have gotten lost in the shuffle and would be worth revisiting? Does Marivaux have enough wit to compensate for his (no offense) lack of character depth?

For me, the most intriguing question these readings have raised comes from the Greek texts we’ve examined. In the world of contemporary performance, how many of the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus actually work as standalone theatrical texts?

This question is particularly complicated because, in a sense, no Greek play was intended to be a standalone.

The audiences of ancient Athens were the original binge watchers. They didn’t go to the theatre for a couple of hours, but for an entire day. Here’s how it worked: The Dionysia, the main annual theatre festival, required that participating playwrights submit four plays—three tragedies and a comic “satyr play” mocking tragedy. All four plays were performed in a single marathon day that lasted from sunup to sunset.

The three tragedies didn’t have to follow the same story. Yes, a playwright might show three different episodes from a single story, but he might also follow a character through three unrelated stories, or tell three stories whose only connection was thematic. The only surviving trilogy is Aeschylus’ Oresteia (made up of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides), which follows the story of the murder of Agmemnon and its familial fallout. Even then, we don’t have the satyr play that came with the trilogy, so our “complete set” is still missing its comic release at the end of the evening.

But every other Greek play you’ve read is only one part of a larger cycle of stories intended to be performed together—one “act” of a three act event. Trojan Women was the tragic culmination of three unconnected stories of the Trojan War. Medea was paired with two unrelated myths of passion; probably its lack of connection to the other plays is what makes it feel more complete than some other extant plays (just ask Fiona Shaw whose emphatically complete Medea gave me nightmares). None of the surrounding plays survive to tell us what the author was driving toward in his daylong artistic journey. This drives my dramaturg brain crazy . . . .

Obviously the incompleteness we sometimes feel with a Greek play has a lot to do with the differing cultural touchstones of 2,500 years’ distance. Most of us don’t walk into Medea with the history of Jason and the Argonauts at our fingertips (even if we’re Ray Harryhausen fans). And Medea’s myth is comparatively well-known—imagine trying to piece together enough context for Euripides’ Ion to make sense in performance. Heard of him? Don’t worry—no one has.

But more than cultural distance is this question of completeness. Without the luxury an at-home reader has to fill in the gaps with footnotes and Wikipedia, does enough of the artist’s original vision survive to perform his story well?

The last time The Pearl undertook Greek plays we tried to solve this exact problem by turning three Sophocles plays—Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone—not originally written to be performed together, into one evening. Did any of you see that production? How’d we do?

For those plays that don’t quite work alone (I’m looking at you, Ion), what can we as artists do to reclaim them? One of the most imaginative productions of a Greek play in the last 30 years was Lee Breuer’s Gospel at Colonus, which transformed the unsatisfying-on-its-own Oedipus at Colonus into a sumptuous revival meeting complete with gospel choir and live band. Great stuff, and reclaimed the play very effectively.

These are big questions with, undoubtedly, complex answers. Here’s what I’m sure of. I love these plays, and want to see more of them done. For every production of Oedipus, there should be an Andromache, or an Orestes. Let’s figure out how to do that.

What do you think? Which Greek plays have you found make for the best evening at the theatre?