Crisis in the Classics by Gary Beck

There is a great theatrical need for readable and performable drama for students, scholars and theatergoers. The standard translations of the classics, first read in Classics 101, were derived from great Victorian and Edwardian scholars, who represented a very different audience and language from post-Vietnam America. Their scholarship was vast and may have intimidated subsequent scholars, some of whom were eager to present American styles. But they were uncertain how to disassemble the Homeric but ponderous literary forms that were beginning to alienate modern readers.

Translators concerned with the theatre reacted to the traditional sonorous renderings of Aeschylus and Sophocles with enthusiastic updatings, that frequently located gods and heroes in the Okefenokee swamps, a bar, or an inner city ghetto. This patronizing innovation of arbitrarily updating for modern audiences reduced the soaring greatness of the Greek drama. Fewer and fewer people were moved by the works that had thrilled western man, from the 5th century B.C., until 21st century ‘easy access’. Since it is much more demanding to attend a theater performance than to read the book, theater must make greater efforts to reach audiences already disillusioned with the classics.

Today, by its very nature, there is an elitism inherent in the classics, since the normal venues are the classroom and theater. This will expose the privileged class to the great ethical, intellectual and cultural issues of the classics, but not make them readily available to the vast majority of highly intelligent, but not so well educated American audiences. The classics should never be exclusionary. They can light creative fires in anyone. They should be available to everyone who can appreciate the scope of their grandeur, passion, nobility, arrogance, stubbornness and pettiness.

Unlike in ages past, today a book or theater performance must compete with an almost endless menu of diversions. However potent the material, it reaches a smaller audience than the New York Yankees, or Batman movies. But the Yankees and Batman may not endure the test of time as well as Aeschylus and Sophocles. The Greek drama is not a low cognitive activity, easily grasped. It is a profound experience that can potentially dazzle anyone with the wonder and brilliance of the human mind, as portrayed in the earliest and greatest expression of dramatic literature. Yet the drama requires effort and involvement from the reader or theatergoer, so they can glean the rich rewards from the extremes of comedy and tragedy.

Students who read classical drama shouldn’t have to trudge through the chores of stilted or deconstructured language in order to appreciate the grand issues and wonderful stories. The elements should be harmonious. Greek is one of the great languages of heroic poetry, as is English, so it is unacceptable for English translations to inhibit the use of imagination, and curtail the feeling of pleasure derived from immortal plays. First and foremost, a play must be readable. If someone can’t enjoy reading Aristophanes, they certainly won’t go to see his plays performed. This premise defines the need for accessible texts, that maintain their integrity. The ‘classics are heavy’ syndrome is inaccurate. We simply require an exciting text to shatter that misconception.

Today, instructors of the classics are as well prepared for their students, as well educated in general and as dynamic as teachers past. Yet they are more hindered by their archaic material, which is often difficult for their students to master. However dedicated the instructor, commitment cannot overcome the burden of language that renders a classic uninteresting or unappealing to an intelligent student. Students should be well-educated in the humanities. Yet the classics seem to be a declining factor in contemporary education, at a time when our society has great need of consideration of the moral issues that the classics present.

Our classics classrooms should be crowded with students, eager to intellectually grapple with the eternal problems that confront us. Instead, diminishing enrollments jeopardize the widespread dissemination of classical learning. We can’t condescend to bright minds with plays whose dialect and idiobabble confuse or demean great literature. That is as destructive as stultifying versification. We must clarify the language of translation so these wondrous works will thrill and delight readers. Instructors shouldn’t be perceived as curators of dreary literary relics. They should be appreciated as purveyors of tools from the exciting past, that relate to the present and could help us better deal with the future.

Current performance styles create a confusing arena for the classical drama. College drama departments generally encourage students to approach the Greek classics in one of two basic formats: A museum like reproduction, with turgid production elements, totally out of touch with the theatergoers, such as unison chanting choruses, rigid prose, stylized movement, and droning poetic recitation; or alternatively, arbitrary updating, with complete removal of the grandiose ethics and passions, rejection of the moral debate which is the substance of the Greek drama, and the critical fault of making every character socially equal, until class and moral distinctions blend into an amorphous mass of confused theatrical values, expressed as ‘you guys’.

Drama became the exclusive province of the university as the training ground for professional theater in the 1970’s. This was a by-product of the emergance of regional theaters, affiliated with universities. The nature of this custodianship of theater is still evolving. The need is great for theater departments to include the classics departments as collaborators or consultants in play production, since theater professors are neither historians or cultural scholars. This would facilitate exploring the complexities of Greek drama and result in more meaningful performances. This may require diplomatic and conflict resolution skills, since theater departments frequently treat the Greek classics like any other period, while their major concern is with the Elizabethans and moderns. This is a natural occurrence, since these periods are of more current interest to students, due to easier access in reading and the ready availability of numerous theater productions. Thus the unique differences between the Greek drama, which was a state-approved, social, religious, political and dramatic spectacle, perhaps historically closer in significance to a combination of a church mass and an election rally, are not treated differently than a Broadway musical, or a National Endowment for the Arts funded production in the not-for-profit theater.

The lack of theater commitment to the unique integrity of the Greek drama authorizes directors to deconstruct the classics and rebuild them, however they choose. Although this may sometimes allow interesting flights of fancy in individual creative expression, other values are neglected. Audiences quickly weary of Lysistrata protesting panty raids in a college dormitory, or Agamemnon as a Mafia Boss, strutting around a bar, buying drinks for the house to celebrate his victory over Troy.

It is necessary to reignite the interest of readers and theatergoers to the value of the classics, lest they be lost to future audiences. The Greek drama potentially offers an emotional rollercoaster ride, first rate entertainment, eternal human values and the richest body of extant ancient literature. This is a heady combination that must harness all the component elements of the plays, in order to reach and fulfill the audiences of today, as well as tomorrow. All we have to do is spur a neo-renaissance in the classics.


3 Responses

  1. I disagree to some extent as to the “real” value of preservation. Instructing the young on the proper way of performing and interpreting the instructive situations and morality of the classics AS IF they were applicable in todays context is asking the young actors to dissociate even more than actors are called upon to do simply by performing.
    This is a very well-stated clearheaded essay however.

  2. I’ve never seen Greek drama performed, but have always enjoyed reading it. It’s stupid not to teach it in high school, instead of college. The great truths in Greek drama need to be seen, heard, understood; need to be a part of our daily discussions. In that vein, I thought the movie Troy was an amazing production, Achilles saying “young men die in old men’s wars” while the kings who want to control the world, never risk their own lives – clearly a reference to the imperial Bush Dynasty.

    When I was in Athens I walked around the ancient amphitheater, a moving experience; like you could still feel the presence of Aeschylus and Sophocles shouting immortal words to a packed audience. If…we have progressed at all in 3000 years, then where are the amphitheaters of today?

  3. As you walked those ancient silent stone of the amphitheater of Athens you walked in the cultural focal point of a country with a population about the size of Brooklyn. That we are privy to the writings of a highly literate, self reflective culture that was within generational memory of a time when their relatives were wandering the woods dressed in skins and eating acorns is a wonder.
    . The essence of Greek drama is the primal terror of unbridled nature as it plays out against our feeble attempt to civilize the human animal. As such it may well be better understood in biker bars or tattoo parlors than on a stage with guys in togas with cardboard swords shouting to the heavens. In a tiny population like ancient Athens, the Dionysian festival was an occasion where one sought catharsis as a religious experience. The magnificent staging of well known stories (in tandem with three days of debauchery) brought this population to a higher state of consciousness. The closest our American culture has ever come to such a state, sadly would be something like the original Woodstock. ( I reserve actual events like 911, etc for another category)
    I don’t know if there is a place in the American theatre for classic drama. Taken out of it’s profoundly cathartic context, it really is little more than a series of plays badly in need of cutting. (Which presumably is why modern dramatist focus on the later dramas as opposed the earlier more essential works)
    Very badly paraphrasing a line from the movie “My Diner With Andre” (which I haven’t seen for 25 years) ,,,”todays audiences have been so bombarded with sound an light and effects and horror that you almost have to cut their balls off to get them to feel anything” The Greeks had days of festival, removed from their homes and familiar surrounding in which to shake loose from their normal perceptions to achieve a state in which they were able to grasp the profundity of these dramas. We who appreciate the classics have quiet rooms ,glasses of brandy and well trained minds prepared for the task.
    To recreate the classic experince would take something like the “Hill Comora” specticle of the Mormans. Perhaps a more fitting exercise would be to harness the American zeitgeist and create a truly American carthitic experience

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