Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The 2010 - 2011 Book Reading Project -- Part Three (The Plays)

     I don't know how often people sit down and read plays.  I like to see them as well, more so when I can see them relatively cheaply.  On the other hand, when the local company down the street (literally) charges $26 for a lukewarm staging of "The Women", I think I'll spend my money on books and (oftentimes bad) movies.  Still, I think it is often best to read plays as plays and not as literature that strips away all the needless bullshit.

     Let me begin by saying that I really enjoy Robert Fagles as a translator.  He takes the works in question seriously but does not drown them in archaic language or impenetrable imagery.  He also takes great pride in giving the reader the tools to understand the story in a way the original audience would have know it.  I will not even pretend to give any great or profound insights into these plays; there is enough written about them by professionals that will far exceed anything I can come up with for this blog.
     It is impossible for me to read Antigone without thinking of Dan Sackett's staging of it at CSHS in the fall of '92 (with Steven Sonnefeld, Giani Cutri, and Brian Krok all wearing ridiculously restrictive gold painted masks).  I was taking Mr. Sackett's Acting and Theatre class at the time, so we had to read the play ahead of time, then provide a review of it afterwards.
     Still, I think there is something worthwhile in the play itself.  It is a rather simple story, and by itself pretty unrewarding.  Antigone stands up for honoring her brother – and the gods – in defiance of state authority, which is actually issued by her uncle.  She gets punished, her uncle thinks better of it, and in the end she kills herself.  The language and the pacing of it is what really makes it work, but it is better understood with the greater Theban story.
     Oedipus the King may be one of the most read plays of all time.  Sadly, it skips all the cool action of the Oedipus story.  What Sophocles gives the audience is a great moment of a man bringing about his own damnation.  He is given every opportunity to forestall or prevent it, but Oedipus is too impetuous and prideful to relent in the curse he throws out, unknowing that it will fall on himself.  It works as a psychodrama, but is again unsatisfying without a broader understanding of the legend.  Thankfully, Fagels keeps the reader well informed.
     Apparently, Oedipus at Colonus is the least regarded of the three plays.  This baffles me because it has the most to say.  Oedipus, in exile, comes to the fringe of Athens where he (briefly) becomes a prophet and comes to peace with his end.  It works better as a play and examination of the human character than either Antigone or Oedipus the King.  Maybe that is because Sophocles got to work in some notion of the Athenian character; it plays as more than just a removed retelling of a known story.

     This is one of the instances of translations mattering.  I read both the Dover Thrift Edition – which at $1.50, it is hard to argue that I was expecting top shelf treatment – and Philip Vellacott's translation for Penguin Classic Books.  Even with the better translation, I still turned to Robert Graves' The Greek Myths Volume Two (1955) which has a better explanation of the legend and the characters assaulting and defending the gates of Thebes.  There is actually a very cool story in there, but this is early drama and focuses on the role of the citizen in light of a city being threatened and of the importance of accepting one's fate.  I think I would disappointed in a traditional staging of The Seven Against Thebes, but would still be interested in seeing someone take the challenge of doing it.

     There may be a message in Medea other than don't fuck over the woman you promised to love, but that's the central point that spoke to me.  Borrowing from another well known legend, Medea also deals with the notion of which civil institutions have primacy.  Jason returned to Corinth with Medea as a prize (and his wife), but he can further his position by marrying someone else.  Dover's translation (by Rex Warner) actually isn't that bad, and at $2 I am definitely not complaining.

     It isn't surprising that a translation from 1865 leaves a little to be desired.  On the other hand, Dover Thrift works in the world of public domain material and there have been surprisingly few scholars who have made their bones with the works of Euripides.  It is also entirely possible that much of the attention The Bacchae has received is due to it having survived more than it being a masterpiece.  There is a plot, but essentially the story boils down to the fact that the gods can be capricious and cruel – so don't doubt them or their power – and they have the power to make women into murderous beasts.
     Surprisingly, an 1888 translation is much better than an 1865 one.  It may help that Sophocles is a more accessible author than Euripides.  Actually, Euripides wrote an Electra play as well and it would probably have been more responsible to read both and make a judgment on how each handled the story.  Sophocles' Electra is an engaging read and develops the characters more than Aeschylus does in The Libation BearersElectra, in some ways, reads as a more modern play than other Sophoclean works.  Yes, it still has the occasional insufferably long speech – and this edition isn't all that clear on marking what is spoken and what is sung – but the interplay between Electra and her sister, her mother, and her brother have a timelessness to them.

     I don't know if I have ever read a translation of Lysistrata that did not have me laughing out loud.  I will admit that this is not the best version available, but at $1.50 it is better than it has a right to be.  Maybe Lysistrata isn't as universally honest a play as The Women at the Thesmophoria, but it requires much less context to understand.  Aristophanes has a complex relationship with the women he writes; they are both the strength and weakness of his Greek world.  I honestly assume that everyone who has an interest in reading has read (and probably re-read) Lysistrata.

     This is another play where I read both the Dover Thrift Edition (George Thomson translation) and Penguin Classics (Philip Vellacott translation).  At $2.50, the DVT Prometheus Bound is still a disappointment.  It somehow lacks the rhythm of Vellacott finds and feels mostly incomplete.  The Penguin version gives some great insight into how this play may have been staged – something that would still be mildly challenging in presentation – and provides the reader some clue as to the more cryptic references (and also indulgently notes where the play has been cited in other works).  It is hard to read Prometheus Bound  – or The Bacchae – and not see the influence on Christian mythology.  Prometheus is the savior of mankind and is suffering for them, but he also has the secret for the salvation of Zeus and must be restored to his own type of godhood in the end.  Ultimately, what is disappointing is that so little of Prometheus Unbound survives.  Reading its fragments is little more than frustrating when approached for non-academic purposes.

     Back in that Acting and Theatre class, we put on a performance of Everyman, and we were so far from good that it is safe to say we were awful.  I honestly have no recollection of having to remember as many lines as Death and the Angel – the two characters I played – have in the play, so maybe we were working off of an abridged version.  There isn't much to these plays; medieval morality plays can't match Ancient Athenian glory.  Still, I would recommend people take a look at Hickscorner because it seems to make a much better case for being an unapologetic sinner more than anything else.  I honestly have no strong feelings about either Noah's Flood or The Second Shepard's Play
     Shomit Dutta's translations of Wasps, The Women at the Themosphoria, and The Frogs includes many of the digs at prominent Athenians who would have been sitting in attendance during the performance.  He also excises some of the raunchier material (in part because there are some missing lines for them, in part because there are no good translations, and in part because it may be too offensive).   
     Wasps doesn't have the sunniest outlook on people's natures – some cannot be helped – but it does put a dog on trial, encourage old men to grope young serving girls, and establish that Athenians used to carry their coins around in their mouths.  There is a joke about a daughter kissing her father to get the money (and Aristophanes isn't even going for anything incestuous), but I think it was really a clarion call for the invention of pants and pockets.
    The Frogs has a cowardly Dionysus – this was performed during the Festival Dionysia, so Aristophanes had to be the ballsiest person in Ancient Athens – descending into Hades in an effort to rescue drama.  Dionysus and his slave Xanthias keep trading places, which works to some degree but was undoubtedly pretty original when presented in 405 BC.  There is some argument over the state of theatre in Athens, but Aristophanes comes right out and asks the audience 'what is to be done with Alcibiades?'  He used his comedy as a platform to discuss the course of the war that Athens was on the verge of losing (Athens surrendered the next year) and if they should once again turn to the man who may be history's first recorded psychopath.  Still funny, but oddly weighty.
     The Women at the Themosphoria is, at times, funnier than Lysistrata.  It requires more of an understanding of Athenian society, sure, but it fancies Euripides being tried by the women for presenting them in such negative light (see The Bacchae and Medea).  Euripides dresses his relative Mnesilochus as a woman – and singes off his manly hair with a torch – to go speak as an advocate for him.  Instead, Mnesilochus recites the many betrayals and foibles of women that Euripides has not publicized in his plays.  It is consistently funny and even a little offensive. 
     I enjoy Fagles, but he really challenged me with "A Reading of 'The Oresteia' – The Serpent and the Eagle", an 82 page explanation of the themes and meanings of the plays.  It reads as though Fagles took an academic paper – maybe even a dissertation – and adapted it to make it minimally friendly to the layperson.  Yes, I'm counting 'The Serpent and the Eagle' as its own entity; my rule is that any introduction over 40 pages is a piece unto itself.
     Agamemnon is one of the plays that most literate people have gotten around to reading.  Sure, Agamemnon needed to sacrifice his daughter so his forces could (eventually) defeat the Trojans, but in doing so he sealed his own fate.  Leave your wife alone for ten years with an intense hatred of you for killing your eldest daughter and maybe you should suspect she's going to kill you.  Bringing back the hot, young priestess of Apollo – your reward from taking a temple at Troy – isn't going to make things go any better.  Everyone is in the wrong and the right in this story; they do what they have to and have to endure the consequences.
     The Libation Bearers brings Orestes back to his father's kingdom and surviving sister Electra.  The plan?  Kill his mother and her lover to avenge the death of his father.  The problem?  Well, killing one parent to avenge the other seems to be the start of a vicious cycle, doesn't it.  Eventually that debt can't be paid.
     And that brings us to The Eumenides.  So there are these furies pursuing Orestes, driving him mad and forcing him to suffer the consequences of having killed his mother.  Except that to read the actual text of the play – actually any play where the furies come into play – and they are really just mentioned as, well, "fury".  It may have been that there was some fear in actually invoking the furies, or maybe the state had to been driven by the entities.  At any rate, The Eumenides deals with the the primacy of grievances; is one's first duty to blood or to the state?  What are the burdens of civilization?  Of course, all of this needs to be answered in Athens (great propaganda).
     Back in that same Acting and Theatre class, Bill Barker and I did a Sam Shepard scene for or in-class performance.  It had been a while since I'd read any Shepard, so I figured Seven Plays would be a good re-entry point.  Without getting into insufferable detail, I'll just say that True West and Curse of the Starving Class are intensely honest and truthful modern American classics.  Buried Child is a little indulgent but still has some worthwhile insights.  The Tooth of Crime comes off as inconsequential; it does not survive well beyond its era.  La Turista doesn't end up making the point I think Shepard was after.  And I don't really have the musical acumen to truly appreciate Tongues.  Without seeing Savage/Love performed, I can't really judge it.  It is more performance piece than play, and it may be great or a disaster.
     I have read A Doll's House at least six times, though this was the first time since 2001.  I still love it, but I am now struck by how shallow all of the characters in it really are.  Nora's sudden realization of her situation at the end of Act Three seems manufactured, but who would fault her running away from her cowardly, controlling husband.  The Wild Duck is a little less humorous than what I imagine Ibsen was striving for, but it fits in well with his themes of trying to live by external perceptions and treating social status as guide posts.  Hedda Gabler is perhaps, now, my favorite fictional character.  She is like a more successful, less damaged, just as hateful version of me.  The Master Builder is surprisingly subversive, replete with the seduction of a child and fantasies of being raped by Viking raiders.  A man's aspirations contain the seeds of his own destruction, sure, but Ibsen makes it both funny and brooding.

1 comment:

  1. This is Brian Krok. Your right, the mask WAS restricting. Not as much as the tights and furry satyre shorts I had to wear for Mr. Sackett's " Evohe!"