Retelling the Ancient Story

An interesting class project … from the Johns Hopkins News-Letter:

The classics department might normally get the brush-off, but not after this intersession. The students in Robert Powers’s intersession class, Retelling the Ancient Story, worked together to produce 10 short plays and films that revised old myths into scandalous new stories.

The students had two weeks to hatch their original takes on old tales, adding flavor, modernizing and changing major plot points (sometimes). The result was Promiscuous Prometheus, a night of creativity and unabashed humor.

The myths that the films and plays are based on aren’t always obvious, but that’s a good thing. It makes for an entertaining mix: familiar favorites along with those that are unfamiliar and exciting to discover.

There was never a dull moment, even between pieces — when there was too much dead space during set changes, actors stepped onstage to tell jokes. And the audience’s enthusiasm more than made up for its modest size (hey, it’s intersession), creating an atmosphere of tangible enjoyment. Kicking off the evening was Reid Vanderlinden and Mike Zikoski’s short film Not Another Teen Mythology, the hilarious (and ultimately tragic) modern tale of Apollo and Daphne. Despite technical difficulties, the audience laughed throughout at the amusing dialogue and well-placed profanity. The show as a whole was not for viewers with delicate ears.

The second film, Rape of Persephone by Tippy Patrinos, told the story of Persephone’s kidnapping, a more traditional take. But the actresses (female Hades and Zeus) and props (Jack Skellington décor in the underworld) translated the story into something very different.

The first of three plays, Yasmine Holloway’s Between Love and Reason, impressed with its dramatic delivery, funny dialogue and the actors’ obvious heart. A tweaked take on Jason and Medea, the play painted Medea as a strange sorceress quick to zap puppies (and people) dead. It’s understandable that her father was keen for her to move out.

Aaron Enten’s play The Sun’s Eye deftly integrated technological special effects into the flow of the action and dropped enough Pokémon, Donkey Kong and other pop culture references to make the most discerning fan happy. Alina Pak treated us to Hopkins students costumed as Lady and the Tramp-esque dogs in her play The Sacrifice of the Lady, complete with ears, whiskers and a plate of spaghetti.

After a tiny intermission came the final five films. By the time the first, Jessica Noviello’s Sotto Voce, was over, it was clear the entire class had really come together to produce each others’ pieces.

Actors appeared in multiple plays and films, but they moved between roles with ease, going from muscled misogynists to gallant princes without batting an eye. Sotto Voce was familiar territory for the actors, moving Echo and Narcissus onto the modern college campus.

Next Andre Phillips switched off the colors for his neo-noir retelling of the Arachne myth, An Unfortunate Meeting, complete with sharp suits and shiny pistols. Chris Hynes used Ovid’s Lycaon as inspiration for Man Transformed Into Wolf, a tale of rapping and drug dealing with quite a soundtrack. The contemporary songs featured in all the films were well-chosen, both dramatic and funny.

The ninth piece definitely took the prize for most disturbingly violent. There were two smotherings that night, but in Anna Noronha’s film Snap the deed was done with a Barbie. The night ended on a monstrous note with Elizabeth Katzki’s Trash, showing us Medusa’s transformation into a hideous creature.

Promiscuous Prometheus was two hours of unparalleled enthusiasm. The pieces had more polish and pizzazz than one would expect from two weeks of work, and the collection displayed the diverse talent at Hopkins in every major from biomedical engineering to physics.

Promiscuous Prometheus powers up intersession(Johns Hopkins News-Letter)

Greek Theatres

Nice feature in Athens News:

ANCIENT Greece is remembered for many things, but one of its greatest legacies is drama. Today, in a technologically developed world where dramatic and comedic performances are easily accessible even on tiny, hand-held electronic devices, the performing arts are promoted incessantly as commercial products and seem to have become as regular a part of our daily bread as bread itself. The age-old pleasure of temporarily losing oneself in theatrical entertainment now appears more popular than ever.

Still, leaving technology aside, is modern society’s love of acting and other forms of artistic performance really so fundamentally different from the appreciation or experience of ancient Greek or Roman audiences?

History, archaeology and philology have shown that the people of ancient Greece, and later of Rome, were similarly enamoured of a whole range of public performances including not only dramatic, comedic and musical presentations, but also athletic contests, gladiatorial showdowns and animal fights.
Sporting events were usually held in stadiums or other facilities specifically designed for athletics, while other kinds of performances were staged in a different, equally distinctive type of structure: the theatre.

Recently, an international conference hosted by the Danish Institute at Athens (DIA) on 27-30 January 2012, brought together scholars from as far away as Sydney, Australia, to present the latest results from the study of ancient theatres in Greece, Italy, Albania and Asia Minor. While in Athens, this diverse group of respected specialists provided fascinating new insight and fresh inspiration on a subject that has been central to Greek archaeology since 19th-century antiquarians first began taking note of the intriguing stone steps that erosion was revealing at so many hillsides throughout the ancient Greco-Roman world

From at least the 5th century BC, people flocked to these large communal venues, or to their smaller offspring, the music hall (odeon), in which they would behold religious or secular performances. One of the clearest changes in the audience experience, then, may be that ancient theatregoers appreciated drama collectively and firsthand, while presentday viewers of the dramatic arts often choose to consume performances privately, individually or remotely through secondary means such as television, DVD or internet technology.

A multiplicity of theatres

More than 45 ancient theatres are known on the mainland and throughout the islands of Greece, many of which have been at least partly restored or adapted for use by contemporary performers and audiences.

Archaeologists have also revealed countless other Greek or Roman theatres in Asia Minor, Magna Graecia (southern Italy) and elsewhere throughout the Greco-Roman world. The sheer number alone of stone-built or rock-cut theatres, recorded to-date by specialists, attests to the popularity of the performances they once hosted and to the central role that a public theatre played in ancient society.

Virtually every community that possessed sufficient population and resources seems to have constructed a theatre as part of their ordinary programme of public works. Theatres presenting tragic or comedic performances offered a world within a world, just as they still do today, where groups of people could come together to experience something amazing, delightful, thought-provoking and emotionally stirring.

The first scholarly analysis of the dramatic arts can be traced to Aristotle’s Poetics (ca 335BC), while technical treatises such as that of the Augustan architect Vitruvius (De Architectura, 1st century BC) reveal ancient engineers’ highly sophisticated approach to the construction of theatre buildings (see boxes).

The recent conference at the DIA focused on the architecture of ancient Greek and Roman theatres. Of particular local relevance were talks concerning the theatre of Dionysus in Athens, as well as those of of Corinth, Sikyon, Messene, Aigeira, Dodona and Thracian Maroneia. Additional talks addressed important theatre sites in Cyprus, Asia Minor and Sicily. Occasionally giving the impression of a workshop, the well-organised conference offered numerous lively discussions and demonstrated that the study of theatres is a vital field that continues to yield important new results. Paper topics covered renewed excavations at many sites; impressive computer-based recording and digital reconstruction of the theatres at Maroneia and Apollonia-Illyria in Albania; and the welcome, long-overdue preparation-for-publication of the previously unpublished excavation data at Aigeira.

Other activities reported included the exploration of subterranean conduits and tunnels beneath the theatres of Dodona and Nea Paphos, Cyprus; the more secure dating of the Hellenistic theatre at Corinth (ca 300BC), now thought to be contemporaneous with the South Stoa of the Athens Agora; and the renewed investigation of the theatre at Kastabos, Asia Minor, just north of Rhodes. Among the most remarkable discoveries presented were three long stone tracks located just beside the orchestra of the large theatre at Messene, which allowed the entire scene building to be rolled away into a massive storage shed during the harsh months of winter.

Athens represents an appropriate setting for such a conference on theatres, since the city once was the cradle of drama, perhaps even its birthplace, from which the performance of tragedy evolved into a high art form during the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

Tragic plays, according to Aristotle, evolved from rustic religious rites called dithyrambs and satyrics, which were performed by the followers of Dionysus – the god of grapes, wine, ecstasy (partly achieved through drunkenness) and ritual madness. The worship of Dionysus was a liberating experience that encouraged people to lay aside their daily cares by temporarily abandoning their normal selves and ordinary lives.

The dithyrambs were performed by circular choirs, while the satyrics involved dancers costumed as goats (tragoi). These open-air rites accompanied by music originally may have taken place on conveniently flat, circular grain-threshing floors that later inspired the use of circular orchestras in permanent Greek theatres. Through time, dithyrambs and satyrics developed into a more complex choral performance interspersed with dramatic characterisations and storytelling known as a tragodia – a tragedy, but literally a “goat song”.

The cult of Dionysos

The cult of Dionysus may have entered Attica and Athens through the northwestern border town of Eleutherae. Traces of the Dionysiac cult at Eleutherae are preserved in the low, roadside foundations of a temple, from which, according to the 2nd century AD Roman traveller Pausanias, the god’s old wooden image “was carried off to Athens”.

An alternative ancient tradition credits the spread of Dionysiac rites to the small community of Icaria, an Attic deme (municipality) located on the north side of Mt Penteli near the modern town of Dionysos. Icarian tradition, as recorded by ancient authors, told of a native son named Icarius, whom Dionysus befriended and presented with a grape vine.

Dionysus also taught Icarius the art of winemaking, which he then passed on to his neighbours. Subsequently, having consumed too much of their own product, these inexperienced vintners became inebriated, assumed Icarius had poisoned them and killed him. Every autumn the people of Icaria celebrated Dionysus, and probably their tragic hero Icarius, by drinking, feasting, singing and dancing in a country festival that some specialists suggest may have led to similar rural Dionysia elsewhere and eventually to the establishment of the City Dionysia in Athens.

A further ancient tradition names Thespis, an Icarian, as the first performer to have played a character in a story. The Roman poet Horace wrote in the late 1st century BC that Thespis travelled throughout Attica with a troupe of his fellow performers in a wagon. Thespis was said to have been awarded the first prize ever bestowed on an actor for the performance of a tragedy, at the City Dionysia in 534 BC. Thespis and his troupe, then, would already have been entertaining Athenians in the Agora – the city’s marketplace and original theatrical area – long before the permanent Theatre of Dionysus was established on the south side of the Acropolis in the second half of the 5th century BC.

After a collapse of wooden grandstands in the Athenian Agora in the early 5th century BC, the Sanctuary of Dionysus on the South Slope and the later theatre built there became the home of Athenian drama. With 68 rows of seats, the theatre’s auditorium (cavea) was able to accommodate about 19,000 people. Although outside Athens even more spacious theatres were founded, including those at Dodona (17,000), Argos (20,000) and especially Megalopolis (21,000), the Theatre of Dionysus remained the celebrated centre of ancient Greek drama where the greatest tragic and comic playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, had all competed and likely left their audiences calling for more.

Several scenic elements commonly used in Greek theatre

Mechane, a crane that gave the impression of a flying actor (the Roman deus ex machina)
Ekkyklema, a wheeled wagon used to bring dead characters into view for the audience
Trap doors to lift people onto the stage
Phallic props were used for satyr plays, symbolising fertility in honour of Dionysus

Vitruvius on designing a theatre with proper acoustics

The curved cross-aisles should be constructed in proportionate relation, it is thought, to the height of the theatre, but not higher than the footway of the passage [diazoma] is broad. If they are loftier, they will throw back the voice and drive it away from the upper portion, thus preventing the case-endings of words from reaching with distinct meaning the ears of those who are in the uppermost seats above the cross-aisles. In short, it should be so contrived that a line drawn from the lowest to the highest seat will touch the top edges and angles of all the seats. Thus the voice will meet with no obstruction.

(De Architectura 5.3.4)

Vitruvius defers to Greek expertise in introducing harmonics

Harmonics is an obscure and difficult branch of musical science, especially for those who do not know Greek. If we desire to explain it, we must use Greek words, because some of them have no Latin equivalents. Hence, I will explain it as clearly as I can from the writings of Aristoxenus, append his scheme, and define the boundaries of the notes, so that with somewhat careful attention anybody may be able to understand it pretty easily.

(De Architectura 5.4.1)

Vitruvius on choosing the site to build a theatre

After the forum has been arranged, next, for the purpose of seeing plays or festivals of the immortal gods, a site as healthy as possible should be selected for the theatre, in accordance with what has been written in the first book, on the principles of healthfulness in the sites of cities. For when plays are given, the spectators, with their wives and children, sit through them spellbound, and their bodies, motionless from enjoyment, have the pores open, into which blowing winds find their way. If these winds come from marshy districts or from other unwholesome quarters, they will introduce noxious exhalations into the system. Hence, such faults will be avoided if the site of the theatre is somewhat carefully selected.

(De Architectura 5.3.1)

via: From goat songs to high art (Athens News)

Reviews from BMCR

  • 2012.02.12:  Julia L. Shear, Polis and Revolution: Responding to Oligarchy in Classical Athens.
  • 2012.02.11:  Andreas Kakoschke, Die Personennamen im römischen Britannien. Alpha-Omega, Reihe A, Bd 259.
  • 2012.02.10:  Ramsay MacMullen, The Earliest Romans: a Character Sketch.
  • 2012.02.09:  Katharina Volk, Ovid. Blackwell introductions to the classical world.
  • 2012.02.08:  Stuart Gillespie, English Translation and Classical Reception: Towards a New Literary History. Classical receptions.
  • 2012.02.07:  Christopher Ratté, Lydian Architecture: Ashlar Masonry Structures at Sardis, Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, Report 5.
  • 2012.02.06:  Aram Topchyan, David the Invincible, Commentary on Aristotle’s Prior Analytics: Critical Old Armenian Text with an English Translation, Introduction and Notes. Philosophia antiqua, 122.
  • 2012.02.05:  Andrew Wolpert, Konstantinos Kapparis, Legal Speeches of Democratic Athens: Sources for Athenian History.
    Michael Gagarin, Speeches from Athenian Law. The oratory of classical Greece 16
  • 2012.02.04:  Achim Lichtenberger, Severus Pius Augustus: Studien zur sakralen Repräsentation und Rezeption der Herrschaft des Septimius Severus und seiner Familie (193-211 n. chr.).