Review/Interview, Euripides' Bacchae, Translated by Kenneth Cavander, Directed by David William, Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, 25 June to 18 September. Sallie R. Goetsch, Department of Classical Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, U.S.A. e-mail: Sallie.R.Goetsch@um.cc.umich.edu
One thing you can say for David William and the Stratford Festival is that they are committed to outreach. I was welcomed to my interview with a 'Media Guest' bag, a free set of slides of the Bacchae, and a very friendly manner. William himself, slightly disheveled and breathless, opened his spacious office to us with apologies for his unprecedented lateness and a complete willingness to talk about the first Greek play to be done by the main company at Stratford for more than 30 years.
William was educated in England, and so of course learned Greek, and had read the Bacchae in school. But his years in the army took him away from his studies, and philology seemed too hard to go back to. His friend Kenneth Cavander, however, went on to be a classicist and was later commissioned to do a translation of the Bacchae for a production at the Old Vic. That production never went up, but William tagged the translation in his mind as the one he would like to use if he ever produced Bacchae. Before he actually did use it, he asked Cavander to update the language. It is a good translation for audiences unfamiliar with Greek culture: it explains mythology and multiplenames and gives modern geographical names instead of ancient ones. 'More people have heard of Lebanon than of Lydia', William said when we remarked on that. Yes, but the context in which they have heard of Lebanon may not be one which he wants them to recall while watching the Bacchae.
The very modern translation was incongruously at odds with the show's design, which drew primarily on African and Mayan motifs in order, William said, to get behind the Greek and into the more primitive culture which provides the subconscious life of the play. The whole show was beset by dichotomies which hampered its effectiveness and hobbled its progress. William chose to use masks and nonspecific costumes in order to avoid the 'journalistic' and 'psychological', yet it was psychology which inspired him to do this production at this time. He had visited a friend in a hospital and encountered in passing a big, brawny guy who looked the picture of health but who turned out to be a provincial policeman who had had a complete breakdown because he was unable to live up to the macho image he felt was required of him. 'At that moment', William said, 'I knew I had to do the Bacchae'. Yet it was not this intense and still current issue of identity which William's production brought out. The jutting jaw of Pentheus' belligerent mask summed up the character entirely: there was no softer, more human figure repressed in tehre, only a ghastly parody of femininity in a long frilly pink gown. That his stiff heavy costume imprisoned him seemed only an accident, not a deliberate choice: most of the actors were similarly hampered. Pentheus was a pigheaded tyrant, and then a deliberately grotesque and perverted female, unable to be anything else. The only moment of sympathy which William intended us to have for him was his hesitation just before Dionysus asked whether he wanted to see the women on the mountain.
Nor was our sympathy with Dionysus, who was clearly portrayed as a merciless tyrant from the very beginning of the play. Alone of all the characters on the stage, he looked the way Euripides describes him: white skin, rosy cheeks, long fair hair. The tyrant can be an Aztec king ready to tear the heart out of his enemy's living body, the maenads can be African idols whose faces are not even human, but the all-powerful divinity is a white boy. Dionysus' mask took him out of the idiom of the production and introduced a political element which must, given William's commitment to including actors of color in Shakespearean productions, have been unintentional.
William did not know absolutely from day one that he wanted to use masks, but decided that to do without them would be naturalistic in a way he felt inappropriate for the production. He began rehearsals without masks, and said that his actors had some difficulty with them until they learned the law of the mask, which is that you can only live in the present. William, who has played in half-masks himself but is not experienced with masked drama such as Noh, is fascinated by what he calls the 'vocabulary' of the mask,the freedom it grants. It is true that masked acting, done well and in an appropriate space, is very effective. The Tom Patterson Theatre, which features three-quarter seating around a long rectangular thrust, is much smaller and more intimate than any Greek theater. And while William thought that his actors took to their masks quite well once they got used to them, I spotted only two whose masks were truly their faces and not appendages on their heads - and those two were members of the chorus. I found myself watching them rather than the principals, because they were simply more interesting to look at.
Of course, once they had got rid of their long grass skirts, the chorus membres were free to move their bodies in a way in which many of the other actors were not. Masks demand large gestures, or at least definite gestures, concentrated, energetic movements. Pentheus and his followers were too tightly bound in cloth to make any such movements, and so their masks were flat and unexpressive, their performances static. It was often hard to tell who was speaking.
The production was further marred by an excess of special effects, expenditure to no purpose other than trivialising the show. Rather than investing in bull's heads with glowing eyes and broadcasting Dionysus' voice from all directions during the earthquake and the epiphany, rather than creating a pile of gory white limbs on a stretcher, William would have done better to use his most important resource: his actors. Euripides had very little in the way of special effects, and had to create the mood of his productions in broad daylight, with acoustic instruments, relying on human beings to make his play work. Stratford's actors are trained and talented, and by boxing them into their costumes and overshadowing them with lights and electronic noises, William did them a disservice.
But it is hard to be harsh to somebody who believes that Greek drama, like Shakespeare, was meant to be performed and cannot be properly appreciated on the page. I admire William's commitment and understand that he intended far better than he achieved. But his production was at cross-purposes with itself and would have benefited from closer interaction with Greek culture and Greek stagecraft. Rather than disparaging him, I would prefer to invite him to work with those who study ancient theater, so that we could learn from each other.
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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 2 - July 1993 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington firstname.lastname@example.org ISSN 1320-3606