Title footnote? 
theatre odyssey is a community-based theatre company, with its home in St. Andrews, working with local arts organisations, local residents and students to produce all kinds of arts: including theatre, performance poetry, and visual art exhibitions, all with a classical theme. The company now has two branches, one in St. Andrews, and one in Glasgow.
Since October 2000, we have produced seven varied productions. Those that will be referred to here will be my dramatisation of The Odyssey, (November 2000), Antigone, (April 2001), The Myrrah Project, Eros & Ares, and The One-Man Odyssey, a one-man version of the original full-cast Odyssey. These last three were all in our 2001 Summer Season. Finally comes our production of Sommerstein’s translation of Lysistrata, (April 2002). The emphasis will be on the two Odyssey productions.
There are two main areas to consider. These overlap and tie into one another. The first can be referred to as ‘Changing Things’, and the second as ‘Staging Things’.
I was recently at an interview and one of the questions I was asked was the old chestnut ‘How would you justify the study of Classics?’ The relevance question is often demanded of classicists. There is no doubt to my mind that Classics is ‘relevant’ to modern society: but part of what I find so interesting is seeing the similarities and differences between our own modern society and that of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Understanding the changes that have occurred, and those that have not, aids us in understanding both the ancient and the modern more coherently. How we adapt ancient myth, epic or drama into a modern play, and how we present an ancient text to a modern world onstage challenge previous assumptions about the texts, both the explicit and the implicit. Reasons for making changes may differ considerably.
Changing things from the original can be difficult. My adaptation of The Odyssey was just that – an adaptation. I’m not a linguist, and wouldn’t even begin to try a straight translation of the epic, which, I think, would be too long for modern theatrical tastes anyway. In adapting Homer, however, I retained many things from the original, but rejected others. I kept, for instance, the basic structure of three sections, (or, in this case, Acts), The Telemachy, The Travels and The Homecoming. I have seen versions of the poem which have truncated the Telemachy section completely, only including the Travels. One version even introduced Odysseus to Penelope while he is in Phaiacia. Some versions have generally been so unfaithful to the overall plot that they have become something completely different from the book. Adaptations can sometimes be more successful than the original – think of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, for instance. The same cannot be said of The Odyssey. For instance, the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is, although an enjoyable and imaginative take on The Odyssey, setting the story against 1930’s Southern America, unlikely to be seen in times to come as superior, or even equivalent, to the original epic. Likewise, my aim was never to improve on, or outdo, Homer. Rather, it was to present his work accessibly to an audience, some of whom may not have come across it before, in the hope that they might go away and read the epic for themselves.
To succeed in this aim, I could not have envisaged a production which was too inventive, and although I did have to remove some of the stories, for instance, the scar recognition sequence (Od. XIX. 467-475), I intended to keep the basics as true to the original as possible. This selection process was painstakingly difficult: choosing what to keep in and what to leave out ended up cutting out most things which were not entirely necessary for the story and leaving little scope for embellishment. Hence the scar sequence, although touching, poignant, emotionally charged, couldn’t be left in, as it was not entirely necessary to the flow of the plot. Other sequences were indispensable, for instance, Odysseus’ lies to Penelope, and his description of the purple mantle, close to the climactic killing of the suitors (Od. XXII). This is perhaps not entirely necessary to the plot itself, but it does significantly augment the plot structure. This emotional and ironic conversation is like the calm before the storm, and structurally, it helps us reach the final climax.
As well as selecting what to keep in and what to leave out, I also found myself ‘Changing Things’ in other ways. In the full-cast version of the show, (partly due to practical problems of getting enough men!) the parts of Circe and Tiresias were combined. In the One-Man Odyssey, however, Tiresias was revived, as he was just too enjoyable a character to cut. The cross-gender casting of Tiresias/Circe in the original Odyssey was interesting especially considering Tiresias’ hermaphrodite status, and indeed we cast a female in the part of Tiresias in Antigone. However, I have always viewed Tiresias for some reason, as being the all-knowing pedagogical figure of authority, rather like Alec Guinness in Star Wars. Thus I considered it easier for myself when using the character of Tiresias to play him in this way, rather than to put his words into Circe’s mouth, and spend more time trying to be convincing as a female character with no costume changes!
I also found myself having to continue to change things because of societal differences between the ancient and the modern. Consider Nausikaa, for instance. In Homer, Odysseus is washed up naked and alone, and hides from the young girls playing with their ball (Od. VI. 110-148). He then presents himself to them, still naked, being urged on by Athene. There are definite sexual overtones: this is Odysseus the sex symbol. In the modern world, it’s generally more acceptable to show people naked onstage. This was not the problem. The problem was that I could not have, in all good conscience, shown a middle-aged man present himself unclothed to a group of what we usually consider to be children. Here is a fragment of the altered version.
ODYSSEUS: O Gods! Where I am? What land is this?
HOMER: Odysseus hears giggling and hilarity from behind a bush. He looks around and
sees a girl and her friends playing with a golden ball. He says ‘Who on earth are they?’,
then realises what a mess he’s in. ‘I can’t appear before them like this!’ But Athene
gives him strength, and he knows that he must.
Greek views of sex and modern views are somewhat different, and we could not have represented the original intention on a modern stage.
Based loosely on Ovid’s tale, the story of The Myrrah Project is that of a young princess, Myrrah, who falls in love with her father. This is different from the Odysseus story, not because of paedophiliac connotations (since Myrrah is the instigator and they are in the dark, her father is unaware that he is sleeping with his daughter) but rather because of the incestuous nature of their relationship. This is something that has not changed – incest is still, quite rightly, a major taboo. Although I was prepared to show incest onstage, I was not prepared to show incest of this nature, with a very young girl, as Myrrah presumably is in Ovid. Rather, I endeavoured to make her older: it is established in the adaptation early on that she had remained in her father’s palace too long; she should really have been married off long ago. This was an authorial addition. Rather than having a girl aged between twelve and fifteen, in the Myrrah Project she was seventeen or eighteen.
This was not the only instance of change from the ancient text in Myrrah, which represented quite a different kind of adaptation from The Odyssey. There are also plot differences: The Nurse dies, for instance. This decision was made partly due to the lack of conclusion in the stories of Ovid – obviously, as the tales run into each other no conclusion as such is necessarily required in the Metamorphoses. The act of turning one of these stories into a full play, however, means a conclusion of some sort must be imposed onto the story, and the Nurse’s death provided the required ‘closure’. There are character differences too: Myrrah is a poet in the play, and loves nature. This makes her eventual transformation into a tree all the more appropriate. The whole play is also taken from the Nurse’s point of view: she, not Myrrah, is the central character. The play is different from the original poem, and was more aesthetically-driven. With The Odyssey, it was important for me to keep the main thrust and feel of the story, including the non-chronological order, etc. However, Myrrah was based on a shorter original text, and required some more padding out and elaboration in order for it to work as a play. The things I added, I did without remorse, and indeed, there is probably as much of me in the play as there is of Ovid. Even the changed spelling of Myrrha to Myrrah served a purpose of making the name easier to pronounce in English. The story appealed to me, yet I wanted, felt, needed, to change things.
In the productions I have done with theatre odyssey, I’ve also changed things for political reasons. Eros & Ares was a two act review of sorts which Dr. Jon Hesk (St. Andrews) and I co-adapted into a performance poetry production. Act One consisted of Greek love literature, taken from poetry, drama, history etc., and Act Two was similarly themed on war. There were two sets of performances, firstly in the Summer Season of July and August and secondly in September’s Summer Season: Reprised.
On September the 11th, when the planes hit the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, I was sightseeing at Buckingham Palace. Two days later I found myself on a train back to Scotland, still slightly shell-shocked, as was the rest of the world, I think, by what had happened. I had hardly thought about the production we were about to re-perform, and it struck me there and then that we had a problem. Britain and America were on the brink of war. There were concerns just beginning to be raised about America’s possible bully-boy tactics on smaller states. Listening to some of these arguments on my radio, it occurred to me that to do the second half of the production would be extremely insensitive, especially considering we had adapted the Melian dialogue from Thucydides into a situation whereby Athens, characterised as an American, bullies the smaller state of Melos (Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 5. 85-113). And so, Eros & Ares became Eros, half the length, and half the price, which our treasurer didn’t appreciate. September 11th, a contemporary political event, did have a direct effect on our presentation of the play.
Partly stemming from this experience, the production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata began to take shape in my mind. This may seem an odd choice, considering what I have just said. The first comment I heard on my choice was when someone asked our then Vice-Chairperson ‘Aren’t you afraid of mocking war at a time like this?’ This seems to me to miss the point completely. Though incredibly funny at times, the play does not mock war. Rather, it’s a pro-peace play, a fantasy, yet with a serious and poignant message. It balances an idealised wish for peace with an underlying ironic acknowledgement of the terrible facts of war. This is not the same as mocking war.
When we consider war in the modern age, my mind immediately turns to the 1940s, and so, on deciding that I did not wish to simply set the show in Greece, and, since we were using Sommerstein’s translation which is perfect for 40s-style musical numbers, we set the play in the 40s. Some implications have arisen from re-setting the play – For example, the new setting points up the fantastical element of Aristophanes’ play all the more: we are in a fantasy forties, where the English (and, in our production, Americans) are fighting not the Nazis, but the Scots. This might be interpreted by a modern audience as making some kind of statement on Scottish independence and devolution, and some Scottish classicists see Sommerstein’s translation as almost racist against Scots. His representation of the Spartan ‘enemy’ caricatures them through using Scottish stereotypes. References to pipes and alcoholism may offend some, but I do not feel this way. Whether or not Sommerstein intended it, the use of Scots and English to represent Spartans and Athenians respectively has undertones with respect to modern politics. By the end of Lysistrata, all come together with one accord, in harmony. Yet we know that in reality the hatchet cannot be buried so easily. Certain prejudices and conflicts between people of different social cultures cannot simply be given such a ‘quick fix’ approach in real life. So the impact of the play is deeply ironic. This is why the use of the Scots and the English to represent the Spartans and Athenians is so useful. By giving an audience something on which to hang the subject, using their own experience, using what they already know, we can get the story of the play to them more accessibly and directly.
There were clear difficulties in re-presenting The Odyssey, Myrrah, Eros & Ares, and Ancient & Modern, onstage, as they involve the metamorphosis from poetry into drama. In a culture which is increasingly beginning to accept the convention of ‘performance poetry’, and the German ideal of the gesamtkunstwerk, the total art-work, (which uses visual, musical, literary, theatrical and any other art form to create the finished product), the change is not quite as dramatic as one may think. There are obvious things one must do in changing from poetry to drama, such as choosing characters, deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, deciding on what kinds of voice to use, and getting to know the characters. However, the most interesting aspect of the movement between the two media involves staging, and this should be examined and explained in some more detail.
In many ways, modern staging conventions are very different from the Greek, and I would claim that some middle way between the two, splicing the ancient and the modern together, is a successful way of putting an ancient text on a modern stage.
We should have a very brief overview as reminder, then, of the basic Greek staging conventions, before going on to discuss how we have used and adapted them for the modern stage. As to the actual stage space, it was outdoors, with orchestra, raised platform area, skene, in Greek round. Performance-related conventions obviously used the chorus, who are there to inform the audience of plot developments and ramifications, and to intervene with the action, offering advice to the main characters. All actors wore masks covering the whole head, and rather elaborate costumes. These combined, would
Modern theatre is most often performed inside with the result that lighting effects, sound effects and smoke can be used to greater effect than would perhaps be possible outside. But apart from these, all the Greek conventions are still more than useable. Although all of our full productions have been performed inside, parts of the One-Man Odyssey, which we performed at the Pittenweem Arts Festival in August 2001, were performed outside. The openings of Acts 2 and 3, when Odysseus is washed up on beaches was actually performed on Pittenweem beach. The original full-cast Odyssey production was performed inside, but had a definite naturalistic staging theme, with leaves strewn across the stage, and logs to sit on. The outdoor feel and the gloomy nature of many scenes were accentuated in both productions by the use of a smoke machine and appropriate lighting, providing a mysterious atmosphere in the theatre.
So far as the skene is concerned The Odyssey productions, Eros & Ares and Antigone used no such backdrop, but back-projected images onto a white screen. These ranged from the eye of the Cyclops in The Odyssey, to the authors’ names for Eros & Ares. This screen took the place of a skene. In Antigone, the screen was not used for images, but to show tableaux posed by the actors, for instance of the dead Eurydice. The stage area behind was lit rather than the area in front of the screen. This allowed the scene behind to ‘bleed’ through the gauze. Thus, Antigone’s final entrance before her impending death was accentuated by her beginning her long speech behind the screen, dimly lit and with a candle, then coming out at an emotional moment to entreat the Chorus. Likewise, in the Odyssey, the screen was used for silhouettes.
In Lysistrata, however, we went back to basics, partly due to the nature of the theatre in which we were performing (Crawford Arts Centre, St. Andrews). This had less room backstage for such projections to be viable. In this play, we used a painted cloth, or ordinary skene, with the ‘doors’ area cut out, where there is a small proscenium-like entrance. On the cloth, however, one side represented the war of the men, by having a war-torn wall on it, while the other represented the love of the women, with love hearts dotted around it. The cloth acted, as did a skene, as a focus, framing the ‘stage pictures’.
A raised platform was used in The Odyssey in the upstage left corner, rather than upstage centre. This was developed for the summer productions, by having two platforms, stepped up, centre stage, with the cloth rising from the taller one, resembling a Greek temple, with the steps in front of the focal point.
Having productions in the round is often difficult inside, and in St. Andrews’ Crawford Arts Centre, where we have produced many of our shows, we have managed to have two audiences, in essence, looking at the stage from different angles. For Lysistrata, however, the show was in a Greek-style round. However, the seating was not raised, being on the same level as the stage. Though there was no orchestra/platform division, the stage was split down the middle: there was a male side, and a female side, and the chorus always performed ‘outside’ the Acropolis area, positioned upstage.
This production of Lysistrata used two choruses, a male chorus and a female chorus. This is a new move for me, as in the past, I have tended to amalgamate choral features into a single person (in Eros & Ares), a brother and sister duo (in Antigone), and even a Voice (in The Odyssey). The attributes of a chorus can be transplanted in this way to entirely different entities.
I find a chorus rather a strange entity for several reasons, but one of the oddest parts of a chorus to me is mask work. When a mask is put on, the actor immediately loses the powers of changing facial expression so important to any modern actor. In Lysistrata I used half-masks, in order to get the best of both worlds. Generally, a greater awareness by the actor is necessary regarding movement: the movement becomes more definite, and, the actor’s use of his or her eyes is important as well. By silencing an actor’s face, more creativity is required in the body. This is perhaps why masks are seen as such abstract things, and, indeed, in The Odyssey I used plain white masks for the ghosts of the underworld, which provided a suitably eerie atmosphere. Again, an ancient staging technique was adapted to suit modern tastes.
Ancient staging techniques can be used on a modern stage, then, either in the same manner as they were used by the Greeks, or in new ways, adapting the old to suit the new. Our reasons for making changes to the original plays, or the staging techniques used to put those plays on the stage, can range from sheer preference to absolute necessity. Either way, the ancient world may be ancient, but it is not yet dead. Through new dramatisations, adaptations and productions of ancient literature, new generations can, and do, appreciate the same things which the ancients did. There is some element of an educative aim in this, but perhaps more than trying to educate people, what I have been doing steps beyond that to sheer self-gratification and enjoyment. I do this because I want to – need there be any more reason?
 Further details of some of the performances referred to in this paper may be found on the database of performances at The Reception of the Texts and Images of Ancient Greece in Late Twentieth-century Drama and Poetry in English project website : http://www2.open.ac.uk/ClassicalStudies/GreekPlays/index.html [The Odyssey, 2000, DB id 2608, The One-Man Odyssey, 2001, DB id 2609. Also listed is theatre odyssey’s Antigone 44, 2001, DB id 2610.]
theatre odyssey’s website is at www.theatreodyssey.com. They also run www.classicalstudies.co.uk, a classics resource site for schools. The Glasgow branch of theatre odyssey is at 31 Queen Square, Strathbungo, Glasgow, G41 2BD.
 Alan H Sommerstein Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and other plays, Harmondworth, Penguin Books, , 1973.
 Three convicts escape to go on a quest for treasure and meet various characters while learning where their real fortune lies. Directed by Joel Coen (2000), screenplay by Ethan Coen and starring George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill and Holly Hunter as Penny Wharvey McGill.