Saturday, September 4, 2010

Sophocles to "Elektra"-fy audiences attending Greek theater exhibit at the Getty

Votive mask of a Satyr Greek made in
the eastern Mediterranean
300-100 BCE
Photographed at the Getty
by Mary Harrsch.

Elaborate costumes, complex choreography, scenic architecture, and the iconic masks of tragedy and comedy depicted in the visual arts of ancient Greece from the 5th to 1st century BCE are the focus of the new exhibit at the Getty Villa, "The Art of Ancient Greek Theater" on display now through January 3, 2011. 

The exhibition is being presented in conjunction with the Getty Villa’s annual outdoor theater performance. This year's production will be Sophocles’ Elektra, directed by Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, with a new translation commissioned from Timberlake Wertenbaker. Performances are scheduled Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, September 9 through October 2, 2010.  A two-day international scholarly conference that will further explore the themes of the exhibition will be held September 24-25, 2010.  In addition, the Villa Theater Lab will present Understanding a Satyr Play: The Trackers on November 19 and 20, 2010.

Scene from "Seven Against Thebes" by Aeschylus
depicted on a red-figure storage jar produced
in Campania, Italy about 340 BCE.  Photographed
at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch.
“Ancient art and theater share a strong and enduring connection–one that is inspired
by mythology and the social, cultural, and political realities of life in ancient Greece and Rome,” says David Bomford, acting director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “With this exhibition and our annual production in the outdoor theater, we are delighted to bring ancient theater alive at the Getty Villa and invite our visitors to join us and discover how those themes found in ancient times persist today.”

In addition to the Getty's own collection of Athenian and South Italian vases, marble reliefs, figurines and masks, the exhibit will draw from major collections in Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the United States.

I found a humorous description of the history of Greek comedy by Brander Matthews in "The Development of Drama" published in 1912:

"Comedy seems to have sprung into being at the vintage-festival of the Greek villagers, when all was jovial gaiety and jesting license in honor of Dionysus. "On public occasions," so a recent historian of the origin of art has reminded us, "the common mood, whether joy or sorrow, is often communicated even to those who were originally possessed by the opposite feeling; and so powerful is infection of excitement that a sober man will join in the antics of his drunken comrades--yeilding to a drunkenness by induction." And these seasons of contagious revelry were exactly suited to a development of the double desire of mankind for personation--one man seeking to get outside of his own individuality and to assume a character not his own, while another finds his satisfaction rather in the observation of this simulation, in being a sympathetic spectator when actions are represented not proper to the actor's own character.

So it came to pass that there were companies of young fellows, often disguised grossly as beasts or birds, who broke out into riotous phallic dances, enjoyed equally by those who looked on and by those who took part. In time the dancers grouped themselves in rival bands, the leaders of which indulged in a give-and-take of banter and repartee, certainly vulgar and personal, and probably as direct and artless as the chop-logic dialogues of the medieval quack-doctor and his jack-pudding, or of the modern ring-master and circus clown. The happy improvisation of this carnival spirit which happened to delight the crowd one year would surely be repeated the next year deliberately, perhaps only to evoke an unexpected retort with which it would thereafter be conjoined in what might prove to be the nucleus of a comic scene of some length. Thus a species would tend to appear, as the tradition was handed down from season to season, enriching itself constantly with the accretions of every venturesome jester. However frail this framework might be, it would be likely to contain a rough realization of the more obvious types of rural character; and almost from the beginning there would be abundant and irreverent parody of heroic legend and of religious myth." - Brander Matthews, The Development of Drama
  Perhaps because of its riotous origins, Greek theater, like other aspects of Greek culture, was only tentatively embraced by the Romans.  Until the Theater of Pompey was built in 55 BCE, theaters were temporary structures of wood that were erected before scheduled performances and torn down afterwards. The construction of two stone temples had been attempted in 179 and 174 BCE but never completed.  Then a third temple was begun in 154 BCE but the consul P. Scipio Nasica, declared the structure to be "undesirable" and "harmful to public morals" (Livy, Periochae 48.68) and had the construction torn down.  Even in the late Republic, Pompey was forced to disguise his theater as a temple to Venus. Until 145 BCE audiences were not even allowed to sit while attending a theatrical performance.

A decree of the Roman Senate forbade sitting at theatrical performances "so that the manly behavior of standing might be known as proper to the Roman people for the relaxation of their spirits (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Words and Deeds 2.4.2)." - Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy
There were several key differences in both the construction of  theaters and in the structure of the performances presented to Roman audiences.

The Roman theater, although similar in form to the Greek theater, developed a magnificence and splendor in keeping with Rome's imperial status.  This grandeur is most evident in the stage building, which was raised to the height of the seating area.  Thus the stage building was normally three stories high in comparison with the two stories of the skene in later Greek theaters.   The orchestra in the Roman theater for the most part became a seating area because of the virtual disappearance of the chorus from Roman drama." - Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy
I found a rather anti-Roman comparison of Greek and Roman theater written by Wilhelm Schlegel in 1904.  Like many Victorian-era classicists of the period, he appears to idolize the cultural contributions of the Greeks and consider the Roman poets and playwrights little more than copyists!

Other deviations from the Grecian mode of representation were also sanctioned, which can hardly be considered as improvements. At the very first introduction of the regular drama, Livius Andronicus, a Greek by birth, and the first tragic poet and actor of Rome, in his monodies (lyrical pieces which were sung by a single person, and not by the whole chorus), separated the song from the mimetic dancing, the latter only remaining to the actor, in whose stead a boy, standing beside the flute-player, accompanied him with his voice. Among the Greeks, in better times, the tragic singing, and the accompanying rhythmical gestures, were so simple, that a single person was able to do at the same time ample justice to both. The Romans, however, it would seem, preferred separate excellence to harmonious unity. Hence arose, at an after period, their fondness for pantomime, of which the art was carried to the greatest perfection in the time of Augustus. From the names of the most celebrated of the performers, Pylades, Bathyllus, &c., it would appear that it was the Greeks that practiced this mute eloquence in Rome; and the lyric pieces which were expressed by their dances were also delivered in Greek. Lastly, Roscius frequently played without a mask, and in this respect probably he did not stand alone; but, as far as we know, there never was any instance of it among the Greeks. The alteration in question might be favourable to the more brilliant display of his own skill, and the Romans, who were pleased with it, showed here also that they had a higher relish for the disproportionate and prominant talents of a virtuoso, than for the harmonious impression of a work of art considered as a whole. - Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature by Wilhelm Schlegel

To see a variety of both Greek and Roman art objects embellished with theatrical masks or scenes from theatrical performances, I encourage you to view the following slideshow of artifacts I have photographed at the Getty as well as the British Museum, The Louvre, and various museums in Italy:

For those of you who can visit the Getty Villa in November, I highly recommend that you attend one of the performances of "Elektra" in the Villa's reproduction of a Greek theater.

The story of Elektra carries forward the tragic history of the House of Atreus.  Years after the bloody murder of King Agamemnon, his widow, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus, rule the city with an iron hand, while their daughter Elektra prays to the gods that her exiled brother Orestes might return to avenge their father's death.  Believed to have been written near the end of Sophocles' life, Elektra embodies the playwright's most profound portrait of the endurance of the human spirit, brilliantly ablaze with the warring, inner flames of hope and despair. - Elektra Director, Carey Purloff
Actually, both Sophocles and Euripedes wrote plays about Elektra (sometimes spelled Electra) the very same year.  A modern reviewer compares the two versions, pointing out that in his opinion Sophocles' characters adhere to societal values regardless of the personal consequences where Euripedes appears to advocate the assessment of alternative solutions and a degree of thought independent of societal dictates. 

I see next year the Getty will present "The Trojan Women".  I had the privilege of attending a performance of a modern adaptation of "The Trojan Women" presented by the drama department at the University of Oregon at their Robinson Theater a couple of years ago and enjoyed it immensely.

I learned even more fascinating information about Greek theater when I listened to  The Teaching Company's excellent lecture series on Greek tragedy presented by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of Whitman College.  I found it absolutely riveting!

The Art of Ancient Greek Theater    A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater: Revised Edition   Classical Tragedy - Greek and Roman: Eight Plays in Authoriative Modern Translations  Seven Plays in English Verse   Sophocles: The Complete Plays (Signet Classics)   Ten Plays by Euripides   Aeschylus I: Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides    Aristophanes: The Complete Plays   The Pot of Gold and Other Plays (Classics)   The Roman Theatre and its Audience   
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