Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.42

RESPONSE: Ewans on Marshall and Storey on Ewans (BMCR 96.9.29)

By Michael Ewans, Dept of Drama, University of Newcastle,

The editor/translator's first reaction to this long review [ed. note: of Ewans' Everyman translation of Aischylos, Oresteia] must be gratitude; printed journals of the classics normally ignore new translations, while by contrast Marshall and Storey (henceforth M&S) have devoted to the first volume of my new Aischylos the length of argument, detail of observation and magisterial discussion traditionally bestowed only on an editio maior. This is welcome, both because far more students and other readers will read this new English Aischylos than any new edition of the Greek text, and also because the thinking behind this new series of translations departs considerably from tradition.

Readers of BMCR will be well aware that since the publication of Oliver Taplin's The Stagecraft of Aeschylus in 1977 scholars have paid much more attention to the visual dimensions of Greek drama; a number of other, similar but inferior monographs have appeared, and it is now obligatory for scholarly editions to return to the practice of Sir Richard Jebb, and offer some views on how their chosen play might have been staged.

However, these commentaries have invariably been written by scholars who practise only the discipline of classics, not the discipline of drama; and their conjectures have not been tested either in workshop or in production. By contrast, though I read Literae Humaniores at Oxford, I bring to the Everyman series over twenty years of research, production, workshopping and teaching in a Department of Drama. During this period I have begun to acquire some practical understanding of how the surviving texts might have been intended to work in their original theatre. Facets of the texts which have hitherto been obscure have become plain; and some issues which have bulked large in scholarly interpretation of Aischylos have turned out not to be particularly important when the script is treated as a text for performance.

The resulting methodology has seriously disturbed M&S, in small things as in great. They are not, for example, in the least grateful to Everyman for printing the first English translation which provides stage directions for the original Greek performance space, not for some unspecified modern stage, and an extensive glossary of Greek theatrical terms. Instead, they cavil at our use of such standard theatrical terms as 'preset' and 'strike' to describe practices which certainly must have taken place in the Athenian theatre, for which unfortunately we do not know the original Greek word. (Similar distaste -- surely not ignorance -- is later bestowed upon the standard post-Stanislavskian term 'beat'.)

These are ultimately only matters of taste; but the review's methodology is deeply flawed. Drama is a practical discipline, like the social sciences; as such, it shares to a considerable degree the methodology of science. Results gained by experiment can be tested if replicated by other experimenters under similar conditions (this has already been done with a number of the findings of my Oresteia); and they cannot be rebutted without such experiment. So, when dealing with the results of workshopping and performing a translation in a replica of the Greek theatre shape, it simply will not do for the reviewer to sit in his or her study and assert from the comfort of a chair that (e.g.) 'at times it is not clear E's suggestions would function on the ancient stage' (clear to whom? and for what reasons?), or that 'at its very worst. the translation is very difficult to speak or understand'; the cited example (L B 900-2) caused no difficulties to a student actor in the premiere production -- in fact the lines made a great impact on our audiences. The punctuation in this edition is designed to help an actor to breathe and articulate the verse, and for this reason may sometimes look awkward to a reader (as to M&S at Ag 320ff.).

Lack of practical experience with the Athenian theatre shape and its conventions is evident when M&S criticize my view that Elektra appears twice, played by a silent face, in the second half of L B, and Hermes did not appear in Eu scene 2; once the dramas had been workshopped both ways, it became evident that these choices would be far more effective in the Greek performing space than the alternatives. Similarly, M&S are seduced by Taplin's idea that when Klytaimestra first enters she 'stays by the door as a guardian'; this sounds great in theory, and certainly the fact that she guards the threshold needs to be emphasized in production -- but not by keeping Klytaimestra static beside the skene, at the expense of the interactive movement needed to articulate the action of Scene 1 and bring it alive in an orchestra.

The reviewers also believe that I am 'content to have performers regularly and repeatedly turn their backs on the audience'. Since the audience surrounded the players on three sides, it was not possible in the Greek theatre to turn your back on the whole audience anywhere except extreme back centre; but it is -- and doubtless was -- essential for actors to be able to turn their backs regularly on some of the audience at any one time, or they will all have to be clustered at the back of the orchestra for the duration of the performance (as was the case, with disastrous results, in Peter Hall's notorious National Theatre Oresteia, justly criticized by Rush Rehm and many others).

I make no apology for the use of colloquialisms and short forms in tragedy, 'which was something grand and mysterious to its original audience' (M&S ad fin.) for performance today. Whether we like it or not, audiences both ancient and modern have no time for the mysterious, and contemporary audiences are bemused by grandeur. A text which is designed to realize as much as possible of Aischylos clearly in performance will inevitably look very different from one written by a modern poet who normally writes verse for readers rather than for audiences (see xxxv ff.).

Nor do I apologize for what seems to M&S to be an 'over-confidence' of presentation. They forget that the Everyman series is designed to provide a commercially viable alternative to the Penguin, Methuen and Chicago editions. To help new readers and performers with these complex and much-studied dramas, our series editor has kindly permitted a generously footnoted introduction and notes; but there are severe limits of length, and a requirement that the argument be clear and intelligible; frequently, therefore, I have had to pronounce more dogmatically than I would in a learned monograph or an academic article.

I don't know what would count for M&S as a 'sufficient reference to the divergence of scholarly opinion', but the gross overannotation, which in the last twenty years has made much classical philology impenetrable, even to specialist readers, has no place in a popular edition. Hence the brief discussion and abbreviated references on the (e.g.) date of the first festival, the attendance of women, and several other matters on which scholars will doubtless long continue to argue; also for the the omission of references to the work of Conacher, Heath, and D L Page. Far from being 'the best discussions' (M&S), these treatments of the trilogy are remote from any feeling for how Aischylos' dramas might have worked in performance in 458, or how they might work today; therefore, they are of no value to my intended readers. (Taplin and Sommerstein are another matter, and my major differences with them are duly annotated, though M&S ingenuously forget this). Finally on bibliography, the references to some of my own previously published writings are not due to an arrogant desire to exclude the views of others; they simply refer to further support for some positions which could not be argued at length within the scope of this edition.

The review is marred by a few hasty slips; for example, my performances were uncut, and this is clearly stated at xxvii n 32; I do not, as alleged, "'depreciate [sic] interpretations or details with which he disagrees as 'comic'"; of the six citations, two are two wrong references, and my other four uses of the word comic refer to passages of Aischylos which in performance could with advantage be played for their comic value; Greek tragoidia was not always a solemn, intensely humourless medium like Racine. (I would never deprecate any learned interpretations, having been taught that I must always take these very seriously, both at Oxford and at Cambridge.)

My book has its hasty slips too, and I am sincerely grateful for places where M&S have found them -- for example, on the number of the citizen body of Athens; the failure to note some Euripidean parallels; the extra line in the K2 stanza of the kommos in L B; perhaps I even need to gloss 'libation bearer'. All of these things can and will be set right in the next reprint.

But the central tenets of this edition have been developed over long periods of concentrated thought and production activity, and will not be changed. M&S would apparently prefer it if controversial interpretations were not unleashed on a wide public, but confined to obscure monographs and learned journals. (Similar sentiments in British academe obliged George Thomson to publish one of the best English editions of the Oresteia in the [then] Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.)

I am totally unrepentant about promoting before the widest possible audience the unfashionable, but almost certainly correct, views that the Oresteia does not depict an overall change or evolution in the universe or in the gods' view of justice; that Klytaimestra is not a consistently strong character, but one whose power flows and ebbs as the trilogy unfolds; and that in the trial scene Athena creates a tie which frees Orestes, rather than breaking a deadlock by a casting vote. I am sure I have not said the last word on these or several other controversial matters; but the energy with which M&S restate traditional orthodoxies as if they must obviously be true is strong testimony to their tenacious hold, which at the very least deserves to be challenged.

The heart of their attack on my book lies in one sentence; 'A central difficulty with the translation is E's implied confidence that his dramaturgy and Aischylos' are the same'. This is very curious. When a philologist edits the Greek text, discriminating between manuscript readings and modern conjectures, does not he or she assume (though it is rarely put in such blunt terms) that his or her poetic taste and Aischylos' are the same? Or at least that the choices made in the edition will be made using all the methods, and all the wisdom, available to classical scholars, together with the individual editor's own (subjective) literary taste and best judgment?

I have done exactly this -- but bearing in mind that Aischylos conceived his poetry not to be read but to be enacted. This necessarily demands that we employ not only the methods and the wisdom available to classical scholars, but those which we can also gain from the discipline of drama as well -- together with the individual editor/ practitioner's own dramatic taste and judgment. To do so is not to be confident that my dramaturgy "is the same as Aischylos'"; his dramatic techniques were obviously different in many ways from those of any modern director -- just as his techniques of verse writing differ from those of any modern poet. However, unless we experiment in informed workshop or performance, we cannot test any hypotheses about the dramatic techniques of ancient Greek tragedy.

The Everyman series continues; Suppliants and other Dramas is already published, and with two collaborators in other universities I am actively engaged on the first book of a two-volume Sophokles, scheduled for publication in 1998 and 2000. I hope that as further volumes appear, our focus on blocking, patterns of movement and clues to significant action, and the style of our translations, will become more acceptable to scholars and more familiar to students, and the recognition already accorded to this research elsewhere will become more widespread. Then perhaps we will nurture students who are truly aware, through participation in performance as a learning tool (rather than, as often in classics departments, performance as fun, unrelated to formal study), that these great verse texts were drama first and foremost, and were never designed to be studied in divorce from the action in the orchestra.

PS: Please let me reassure M & S that, being a director who needs to attract audiences to his shows, I don't need a scholarly reference (Griffin 1996) to tell me that Athenian tragedy was designed to be entertaining, as well as central to the life of the polis; see now Suppliants and other Dramas (1996), xix ff., where I suggest answers to the question what kind of entertainment tragedy was.