VOODOO IN ATLANTA
Staging Aristophanes today, on the example of Thesmophoriazusae [transl. Urszula Tempska]
It is fall 2005, in Atlanta, Ga., in the southern United States. A student at the prestigious Oglethorpe University sits down at the computer and types as follows: “Dear Professor, I regret to inform you that I will be unable to participate in this show. I do appreciate the artistic value of the play, but moral and religious considerations prevent me from publicly uttering some of the words of the play. I took part in the auditions without having read the text.”
What play could have caused this reaction? It was a classic ancient comedy by Aristophanes, in the translation of Jeffrey Henderson, professor of Greek at Boston University, a world-known scholar of ancient Attic comedy and preeminent expert on the profane language of ancient Greece. Informed by this our “porno era,” as some have dubbed it, Henderson concluded that it was finally possible faithfully to translate the Greek texts into English. And that’s exactly what he did — nothing more. But that was enough for five students at a modern American university to feel offended. The letter quoted above was one of five similar emails I received. Numerous contemporary scholars consider Thesmophoriazusae — or Women at the Thesmophoria, in Henderson’s translation of the Greek original — one of the funniest plays ever written. And yet those five students did not wish to join in the laughter.
This was not Henderson’s or Aristophanes’ first run-in with Atlanta. In 1991, female students at Emory University refused to play little girls from Megara in Acharnians (lines 729-835). In the play, the girls’ father dresses them up as piglets. In ancient Attic slang, a “piglet” denotes “pussy.” To make things worse, the director envisioned the Megara father, who was putting his girls up for sale, as a black man from an American inner city ghetto. The show was eventually completed and staged, but only because the Megara father remained a white Greek, an ancient white guy to boot; and because a scene was added where two boys were being put up for sale as little “dickies.” For symmetry and fairness.
I cite these anecdotes to draw your attention to a fact crucial for the reception of a dramatic piece. Drama is more than text alone, because it takes on reality through the actors’ bodies. Recent decades have witnessed a peculiar “performative turn,” also in work with antique and ancient drama. Today, the performance itself becomes an object of serious study. In that respect, it has attained a status equal to that of the dramatic text, if not superior. The audience, in facing live actors, often endow a performance with meanings different from those previously detected in the text by scholars of classics or literature. Things become particularly complex with ancient plays, because no extant text can be considered the original. The poets’ original manuscripts of the 5th or the 6th century B.C. are irretrievably lost and, willy-nilly, we always begin by creatively reconstructing the texts.
Reconstructing the texts.
Two medieval manuscripts of Thesmophoriazusae have survived. One, in Codex Ravennas 429, currently housed in Ravenna’s Biblioteca Classense, dates back to the year 950. The other, Monacensis Graecus 492, is at the Beyerische Staatsbibliotheke in Munich. It is a 15th century copy of the Codex Ravennas, with very few, though sometimes correct, text variations. Extant are also three fragments on papyrus scrolls, containing a total of 110 verses of the play. Thus the main and most important source of the play’s text is the Ravenna codex. It is a priceless ancient treasure, the sole existing volume to contain all 11 comedies by Aristophanes. Graphological analysis indicates that it was executed by two scribes, who remain anonymous. The first scribe, in beautiful miniscule script, reproduced the texts of the plays, usually without identifying the speaker; as well as a portion of the scholia, i.e. the ancient commentaries. The second scribe, in small uncial script, better known as capitals, supplemented the scholia and made corrections to the text transcribed by the first scribe. He also added several names to mark the change of a speaker. Most of the remaining attributions were added in the 16th century, by Euphrosynus Boninus, who found the manuscript in Urbino and took it to Florence. The first edition of Thesmophoriazusae and of Lysistrata was prepared by Bernardo di Giunta (1487-1551) and published by his brother, Filipo (1450-1517), in Florence in the year 1515. Soon after, Boninus took the manuscript to Pisa, where it disappeared for centuries. Almost three hundred years later, Philippus Invernizi located the codex, this time in Ravenna. He used it to prepare his own edition of the comedy, which appeared in Leipzig in 1794.
The Ravenna manuscript contains many scribener errors, also those from previous centuries. Since the first Florence edition, generations of scholars have labored to reconstruct the original text of Thesmophoriazusae. Over 40 complete editions of Aristophanes have appeared so far, with various “definitive” versions of the play.
The archaeology of the opening night
The Thesmophoria were the ancient world’s popular women’s festival, celebrating Demeter and her daughter Persephone, or Kore. In Athens, the festival came in the fall. Men were not allowed to participate in or witness the festivities and the program of events was highly secret. As is clear from his comedies, even Aristophanes did not know much about this festival, though he treated its rituals with utmost seriousness and never poked fun at it. During the festivities, which lasted for a few days, participating women did not return home at night. They slept in tents pitched on the Pnyx, a hill in central Athens, on mats made out of plants believed to temper sex drive. Probably only married Athenian women participated in the Thesmophoria. Presumably, mothers of future citizens should be relieved of their potentially wayward sexual desires. During the Thesmophoria women often reacted to this de-sexualization by indulging in filthy language.
The world premiere of Thesmophoriazusae most likely took place in the year 411 B.C., during Athens’ Dionysian festival. Only men participated in the performance. If Athenian women were in the audience, they were likely marginalized and relegated to the back seats. In a play depicting the Thesmophoria, this exclusion of women had a particularly symbolic significance, since the title festival normally excluded all men — who were now on the stage and in the orchestra, to the exclusion of women. In this first performance, anyone who wished to participate in the depicted festivities had to dress as a woman. Gender here was a function not of biology, but of costume and mask. Women’s de-sexualization, found at the core of the festivals’ ideology, was thus given flesh and fulfilled in this theatrical rendering.
The women in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae meet up by the Pnyx, in order to endorse the death sentence of a much-hated poet, Euripides. They cannot forgive Euripides for publicly disclosing and discussing women’s secrets, through creating female villains. Notably, they do not accuse Euripides of libel or lies. In Athenian courts, like in theaters, nobody asked about truth.
The Martin von Wagner Museum at the University of Würzburg has in its collections a bell-shaped vessel from about 370 B.C., depicting two figures in a painted scene. The scene brings to mind Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (in particular the action at lines 750-755).
In Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, to dissuade the women from endorsing his death sentence, the terrified poet Euripides sends to the Thesmophoria festival an elder male relative, dressed up as a woman. When the man’s cover is blown, he grabs a swaddled child from the arms of a bystander and takes refuge with it on the high altar. As does the eponymous hero in Euripides’ Telephos, one of his most notorious characters, parodied here by Aristophanes. In Thesmophoriazusae, the baby’s mother brings firewood to the altar, to induce the man, with fire and smoke, to leave his sanctuary. But the man threatens to murder the baby. As he unwinds the swaddles, he finds inside a leather wine pouch instead of a baby. He then “murders” the “baby” — in order to get a drink of wine — and the “mother” rushes to collect the “blood.” The painting on the vessel does not depict the firewood brought in by the “mother.” The old man is barefoot, although in Eurypides’ Telephos he wears women’s sandals. He also does not have a phallus, which plays such an important role in Aristophanes’ comedy. Perhaps in southern Italy of the 4th century B.C., Thesmophoriazusae was staged slightly differently and the Würzburg Bell-Crater informs us little about the opening night in BC 411. Today we are simply unable to reconstruct the first production ofThesmophoriazusae, though we can still experience the play in performance. But what can make the staging of ancient drama successful and relevant today? Who cares about Greek heroes?
Staging the contemporary
The first modern Greek performance of Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae — one of the very first in Europe — took place in the early 20th century, in 1914. It was a semi-pornographic sexist manifesto, with an all-male cast, in the style of the French populist théâtres de boulevard. The play’s theme was transformation. The key parts were played by Athens’ most notorious transvestites, dubbed metamorphotes or “transformators.” The heavily patriarchal Greek audience was fascinated with the ambivalence of their own sexuality. But they were also preoccupied with the social and political changes of the time, which might undermine the future of patriarchy. Thus, the men vented their fears and thrills by staging, in a theater, ambivalent depictions of anti-men. Male dominance was to be strengthened through marginalizing the opposite sex — literally. Women were forced off the stage and also banned from seeing the play — the show’s playbill explicitly stated that female spectators categorically would not be admitted. This interdiction was stamped on every one of the first three pages of the program. The obscene fiction could, after all, encourage women to immoral conduct, maybe even provoke them to question male authority. The play’s translator to new Greek, Polyvios Demetrakopulos, did the translation in prose and divided the play into three acts, according to the custom of the day. He did not censor Aristophanes’ vulgarities and increased their number in the part of the female protagonist. This transvestite show reactivated the ancient raunchiness and translated it into the language of 20th century theater. The sexist Demetrakopoulos broke the taboo of classic scholarship.
Until the year 1983 Greek law contained the so-called Civil Family Code, which gave the male absolute power over the family. The man was fully responsible for all major decisions regarding his wife or children. The woman was relegated to the “private sphere.” According to tradition, the law made her a “natural” care-giver to children and the elderly. She was completely financially dependent on her husband. This system effectively prevented most Greek women from functioning in the public sphere and from finding paid work outside the home. But the seven years of military dictatorship (1967-74) awakened the Greeks. Everyone — women and men alike — equally felt the effects of the ruthless rule of patriarchal authoritarianism. After the dictatorship fell, societal voices demanding changes in this archaic law grew louder and louder.
An important voice in this national debate was a 1982 staging of Thesmophoriazusae by a female director, especially that Koula Antonide staged the play in the “sacred” space of the Epidauros theater. The majority of female characters were again played by males, but not by transvestites. Antoniade cast unattractive, grotesque-looking men. She fitted them with fake bellies and huge, grotesque masks. Most shocking were their enormous, double genitals — both male and female. This deconstruction of sexuality robbed the actors of gravitas, or seriousness. Before opening night, most actors rebelled against the rule of the female director. They refused to wear the caricature masks and during the first shows they openly demonstrated their displeasure with such staging of the play — as was duly noted by male reviewers, who hysterically condemned the show. Still, one year after this feminist Thesmophoriazusae opened, the archaic and anachronistic Family Code was struck down.
Identity as performance.
I began working on Thesmophoriazusaein mid-September 2005. The United States were still embroiled in the war with Iraq, but the news media were dominated by reports from New Orleans. The city of Atlanta became very involved in helping the victims of the Katrina hurricane. Oglethorpe University organized a special air lift to transport sick and injured individuals out of the affected area. Students from New Orleans appeared on our campus. Our Atlanta students, in turn, traveled to the Mississippi River, to help rebuild the city of New Orleans. Atlanta, a great center of jazz and rap music, also took care of hurricane-affected musicians. Concerts were dedicated to the cause, radio stations ran fundraisers and operated information centers.
I began my Thesmophoriazusae work with the actors with only one basic assumption: the drama would be interpreted by these American artists, while my role was only to help the show come into existence. I limited my input to areas of theater practice. The Greeks wrote their drama in highly rhythmic verse, which surely affected not just the way they spoke on stage, but also their choreography — how they moved. To accomplish a similar effect, I proposed including in the show a musician with a range of percussion instruments, whose music would dialogize with the actors throughout the play. Percussionist Zack Parris accompanied the actors from the first rehearsals on, co-creating the characters by devising a separate musical motif for everyone. The actors themselves harmonized their lines with this music, introducing shortcuts where necessary. Thus, the interpretation of the play was emerging spontaneously.
There was little interest in replaying or reconstructing an ancient festival. Everyone knew that the audience would not get the ancient references. Atlanta is not a hot-bed of ancient Greek scholarship. Few aficionados of ancient drama live there. New Orleans, on the other hand, was omnipresent on campus. Against this background, discussions about voodoo rituals, which Louisiana is known for, came most naturally. We decided to set the action of our Thesmophoriazusae in New Orleans. Aristophanes probably knew as little about the secret Thesmophoria as we knew about voodoo… And we named the project Voodoo at OU (short for Oglethorpe University).
Those who worked with Aristophanes’ comedies have proposed a whole range of possible takes on theThesmophoriazusae, mostly focusing on the battle of the sexes. But in Atlanta, as almost everywhere else in the southern United States, the main social conflict is that of race. For this reason, I invited Atlanta’s preeminent African-American actor and a director at Seven Stages, Isma’il ibn Connor, to participate in the play. Isma’il proposed that our play squarely take on racial prejudices and stereotypes. For many the epitome of manhood, he played the effeminate, homosexual poet Agathon. He played the part in “whiteface,” alluding to the notorious tradition of minstrels who painted their faces black (i.e. performed “in blackface”) to convey racist attitudes towards African-Americans.
Another African-American actor took the part of the brute Scythian policeman. He spoke in a distinct black American vernacular, sometimes dubbed ebonics. Instead of a bow, he wielded a shotgun, frequently firing at his prisoner and killing him (rather like in a Witkacy play). Most controversial was a huge black phallus dangling from the fly of the white actor playing the leading part of Eurypides’ old relative, Mnesilochus. This prop was hotly debated on campus. One professor of ancient Greek warned me that, because of that black phallus, the conservative Georgia authorities would close down the university. Less controversial were the ecstatic dances of the chorus and the women’s monologues, represented as ravings of madwomen — perhaps because their choreography, created by a phenomenal dancer from Jamaica, Jhana Grant, evoked authentic voodoo rituals, which Jhana knew from first-hand experience. The actors filled the play with other local and topical references. In place of the leather wine pouch, a huge Coca Cola bottle appeared on the stage. The Coca Cola headquarters are located in Atlanta. One of the most popular students on campus, Brent Rose — gay, flamboyantly open to experimentation, plus a fabulous poet — played the part of the transvestite Clisthenes.
In the United States, including Atlanta, improv theater is extremely popular, where actors perform skits on topics dictated by the audience. Also for our show, one of the most fruitful moves was getting the American artists to try free-flowing, unconstrained improvisation. I suggested that during a special midnight show for students, the actors leave behind everything previously agreed-to during rehearsals and instead propose their own takes and solutions. To restore some theatricality to the performance, I invited an Italian painter onto the stage, who, throughout the show, sketched large-scale portraits of the actors. We later displayed them in the vestibule. The audience reacted to these improvised Thesmophoriazusae in a very lively way.
Thesmophoriazusae took the campus by storm. The student paper “Stormy Petrel” published an enthusiastic review. Many came to the show several times, and some saw every performance. Laughter broke down all stereotypes and prejudices. Everyone laughed, no matter what race, sex, religion, or political persuasion. The same Greek professor who was once scared of the black phallus, gave a hilarious lecture before the opening night, got enormous applause, and in the end offered to give his talk before every show. The black actor from Seven Stages was later hired by the University to teach a workshop, while the drama department was practically mobbed by hopefuls during casting for the next show.
To sum up — Greek drama took on another, new life, when young artists used it to filter their own culture. Aristophanes’ scripts still inspire to a performative act. Staging ancient drama today can still lead to surprising self-discovery.
Jeffrey Henderson, Epilogue, in: American Journal of Philology 123.3, 2002, pp. 509-510. The staging was also discussed by its director, see: Mark Evenden, The Obscure, the Obscene and the Pointed: Staging Problems in Aristophanes, or the Naive Dildo, in: Drama: Beiträge zum antiken Drama und ihre Rezeption 2, (edd.) Niall Slater– Bernhard Zimmermann,Stuttgart 1993, pp. 92-101.
Jeffrey Henderson, The Maculate Muse. Obscene Language in Attic Comedy, Oxford 1991², pp. 131-132. But see also: Aristophanes, Acharnians, (ed.) S. Douglas Olson, Oxford 2002, p. 261, at lines 738-9.
On the manuscript tradition and modern work on the text see:Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae, (edd.) Colin Austin– S. Douglas Olson, Oxford 2004, pp. lxxxix-civ.
On Thesmophoria see: Robert Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens, Oxford 2005, pp. 270-283.
Arguments for the presence of women on the audience in: Jeffrey Henderson, Women and the Athenian Dramatic Festivals, in: Transactions of American Philological Association 121, 1991, pp. 133-147; Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy and Athenian Religion, Lanham 2003, pp. 177-184.
Würzburg H5697 (Beazley Archive 1006967).
Eric Csapo, A Note on the Würzburg Bell-Crater H5697 (‘Telephus Travestitus’), in: Phoenix 40, 1986, pp. 379-92; Oliver Taplin, Classical Phallology, Iconographic Parody and Potted Aristophanes, in: Dioniso 57, 1987, pp. 95-109.
Gonda Van Steen, Trying (on) Gender: Modern Greek Productions of Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, in: American Journal of Philology 123.3, 2002, pp. 407-427.