Feature:

Opsis and Logos: 
Euripides’s Hecuba at the Pearl Theatre
Company and Will Powers’s The Seven at
New York Theatre Workshop

Michael Peter Bolus


In The Greek Sense of Theatre: Tragedy Reviewed, Classical scholar J. Michael Walton distinguishes between two variant assumptions regarding the nature of Ancient Greek theatre: “the visual aspect of the Greek theatre has for so long taken second place to the spoken word...it is still the common belief that what was said in the Greek tragedies was more important than what was seen” (2). Walton argues that because the extant tragedies are most readily accessible in print while scant evidence remains of the original productions, misguided emphasis has been placed on the plays’ literary characteristics as distinct from the theatrical components of live performance. Two recent productions--Euripides’s Hecuba by New York’s Pearl Theatre Company and Will Powers’s The Seven (based upon Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes) by New York Theatre Workshop--neatly illustrate the competing sensibilities described by Walton. 

 

Euripides’s Hecuba begins with the former Queen of Troy newly subjugated--stripped of both power and dignity by the conquering Greeks. In his prologue, Hecuba’s murdered son Polydorus describes a woman “shorn of greatness and pride, and everything but life, which leaves you slavery and bitterness and lonely age.” The severity of the dichotomy between the life she once knew and her current predicament is  emphasized in her opening monologue: “Give this slave those hands you offered to her once when she was Queen of Troy.” Her already unbearable suffering is exacerbated by a dream in which she has foreseen the death of Polydorus and her daughter Polyxena. Unaware that Polydorus has already been killed, and understanding that a demand by the Greek warrior Achilles will lead to Polyxena’s slaughter, Hecuba implores the gods to “beat back this dream and preserve my children.” Hecuba’s pleas are indicative of her loss of power. She has suddenly found herself at the mercy of her captors, helpless, frightened, and rageful. Yet, as the action unfolds, we witness a most resolute and resourceful Hecuba identify and employ the one one weapon she finds readily at her disposal: language and its inherent powers of persuasion.


Hecuba at The Pearl Theatre.

The Pearl Theatre company’s revival of Hecuba, which opened on January 15th, 2006, admirably embraces and clarifies the polemical tensions on display in Euripides’s craftily--if unconventionally--composed Tragedy. The art of rhetoric--so central to 5th century B.C.E. Athenian civic life in general and Euripides’s dramaturgy in particular--is prominently featured in this most thematically fertile of Greek tragedies, and the Pearl company crisply animates the manipulative argumentations at the heart of the drama. What the production lacks in passion and stylistic invention, it makes up for in rhetorical precision and clarity of expression--emblematic of what Simon Goldhill has called in his Reading Greek Tragedy the “drama of logos.” In Goldhill’s conception, “logos, dialectic, rhetoric,--the role of language itself...is not just treated as if it were a transparent medium, offering instant or certain access to meaning or thought or objects; rather, the role of language in the production of meaning, in the development of thought, in the uncertainties of reference, is a regular source of debate not only at the level of philosophical enquiry or literary self-consciousness but also in the more general awareness of the possibilities and dangers of the tricks and power of words” (2).

 

Under Shepard Sobel’s self-assured direction, Joanne Camp’s Hecuba is simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, resourceful and desperate. Her expert manipulation of language in constructing her argumentative pleas to Odysseus and Agamemnon (both played with refreshing simplicity by John Livingstone Rolle) betrays a woman well-versed in the sophistic arts and well-aware of her weakened position as conquered subject. The legalistic exchanges between the principals lend appropriate focus to the moral, ethical, and jurisprudential issues at the play’s foundation. Unfortunately, the production simultaneously disregards the play’s potential power to affect audiences on profoundly visceral levels. The emotional dilemmas dramatized in Hecuba are pondered rather than felt, assessed rather than absorbed. The effect does, in fact, undermine Aristotelian notions of catharsis, but simultaneously illustrates his much-debated relegation of opsis--or spectacle--to a subordinate position in Tragedy’s problematically codified hierarchy.  

 

An altogether different sensibility is embraced by the creators of The Seven, which premiered at New York Theatre Workshop on January 19th, 2006. Writer/Composer Will Power, Director Jo Bonney, and Choreographer Bill T. Jones seem to subscribe to Edward Gordon Craig’s assertion that it is the dancer, not the poet, who is the “father of the dramatist.” Based on Aeschylus's Seven against Thebes, The Seven is emblematic of the idea that modern practitioners must adopt the totality of the Greek Tragedian’s conception of theatre--an understanding issuing from a comprehensive employment of drama, music, and dance as integral to achieving the desired emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic effects.

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Edwin Lee Gibson in The Seven. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Seven Against Thebes is one of the two or three oldest of the extant Tragedies, having been first produced  in 467 B.C.E. The play revolves around the battle between Polyneices and Eteocles (Oedipus’s two sons) for control of Thebes. The brothers had agreed to rule Thebes alternately following Oedipus’s self-imposed exile. After the first year, Eteocles refuses to surrender the throne to Polyneices. Polyneices amasses an army of supporters and marches on Thebes to reclaim the throne he believes is rightfully his. Meanwhile Eteocles, the acknowledged King of Thebes, prepares an army of loyalists to defend his city-state. To the Theban populace, Polyneices is excoriated as a treasonous would-be usurper, while Eteocles is exalted as the noble guardian of  his beloved homeland. The two brothers meet in combat at the seventh gate of Thebes and destroy each other, fulfilling the curse bequeathed to them by their doomed father.  

 

Like Aeschylus before him, Powers appropriates the pre-existing myth to serve his own dramatic/thematic ends. Powers’s hip-hop treatment of the story--complete with a live DJ (Amber Efe) as chorus and an Oedipus (Edwin Lee Gibson) reconceived as a 1970s-style pimp--infuses the myth with a contemporary, urban flavor. The result is a triumphantly energetic mix of street rhythms, selected samplings, rap, modern dance, and old-fashioned storytelling techniques, all played out on Richard Hoover’s bleak, starkly suggestive set.

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Jamyl Dobson in The Seven. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The production’s stylistic conceits are not as baldly irreverent as they might at first appear. Two competing versions of the origin of Tragedy both highlight dance and music as integral to Tragedy’s fundamental nature. The first, espoused by Aristotle in Poetics, maintains that Tragedy was born of the Dithyramb--originally an ode in honor of the God Dionysos--sung and danced by a satyr chorus. The second version, championed by Walton and Gerald F. Else, among others, suggests that Tragedy is a direct descendant of the rhapsodic tradition, where an oral epic poet would sing of heroic, mythical deeds, while a group of  supporting choral dancers, accompanied by a musician, illustrated the action through physical gesture. An example can be found in Book VIII of Homer’s The Odyssey, supportive of the argument that dance, physical gesture, and music were germane to the visual and aural components in Tragedy’s conception and execution.

 

As Eteocles, Benton Greene is strong, resolute, and dogmatic, exhibiting an increasing stubbornness provoked, in part, by Right Hand, his manipulative aide, played with appropriate smarminess by Tom Nelis. Jamyl Dobson’s Polyneices strikes the right note of self-righteous indignation, fueling that peculiar brand of rage that can only be directed at someone you love. The cast is rounded out by a predictably and stereotypically balanced mix of ethnic types, including a cliched, cat-like Asian martial artist (Pearl Sun). Central to the proceedings is Efe’s DJ, who manipulates her turntable as if it were a magic wand, turning back time and assembling familiar samplings of a wide array of musical stylings. She helps creates a vivid, ambient world at once familiar and strange.  

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Amber Efe in The Seven. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Power’s general design deemphasizes the communal import of the myth’s narrative premise--the element which would have been of primary interest to Aeschylus’s civic-minded audience--opting instead for a more detailed exploration of the personal dynamics and growing tensions between the two brothers (it should be noted that Polyneices does not even appear in Seven Against Thebes). This approach feeds the emotional impact of the familial rift, but it also dilutes those ideas which formed the bedrock of Athenian civic ideology: good citizenry, patriotism, treason, and the prosecution of war--themes which render the story especially relevant to a United States of America deeply embroiled in an increasingly unpopular war which has been waged in the name of self-defense. The ambivalence inspired by these themes feeds the ambiguity at the heart of Aeschylean morality. Was Aeschylus a jingoistic “warrior-poet,” championing such Athenian virtues as loyalty and self-sacrifice for the good of the commonweal? Or was he an anti-war dramatist, warning his Athenian contemporaries of the dangers of hubris, complacency, and needless aggression. It should be remembered that Seven Against Thebes was produced in Athens just eleven years after the end of the Persian conflicts, when the idea of a “just war” was neither an abstract concept nor a quaint notion but, rather, a concrete reality made manifest by the collective Greek armies’ heroic resistance. In our current climate of skepticism with regard to armed conflict, one might assume that The Seven would resonate with the startling complexities attending the myth’s primary themes. But the “logos, dialectic, rhetoric” described by Goldhill is suffocated by the production’s more viscerally thrilling elements. Powers’s ability to breathe such exciting life into the ancient myth is commendable. If only he had preserved those vital elements which do not require resuscitation.    

        

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