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Staging the Thyestes

Published on
April 4

The Barnard-Columbia Ancient Drama Group’s production of Seneca’s Thyestes runs April 4 – 6 in Minor Lathan Theatre, Milbank Hall. Performances are at 8 PM every night at 2 PM on Saturday. Tickets are $5 at the door, the TIC, or online. Directed by Claire Catenaccio and made possible by the Matthew Allen Kramer Fund, the production features original music and choreography, hand-crafted puppets, and the author of this blog post in an opera hat and exquisite make-up.

Here’s an idea. Let’s say you want to mount a play from a corpus of theatrical literature composed, produced, and performed in a cultural context radically removed from your own. Your options are the few dozen plays from Greco-Roman antiquity that survive intact rather than as mouse-chewed papyrus fragments, all of which were mounted somewhere between 1,900 and 2,400 years ago. Pick one and make it good.

It’s a challenge. Never mind that comparatively little evidence remains for the plays’ staging, choreography, music, or audience composition. Never mind, even, that each possible candidate for your production belongs to a distant, and sometimes impenetrable, conceptual and cultural world; Heracles’ appearance in Euripides’ Alcestis means something different to the child of the 1990’s who watched the Disney film from whatever it may have meant to a fifth-century Athenian. Let’s start with your wanting to put on the play in its original language—a language that your audience does not know and your actors do not regularly speak. And still you think that the exercise is worthwhile enough that you’re willing to dredge up an underperformed gem from the mud of cultural obscurity, and make it engaging to an audience by and large unfamiliar with the cultural and literary tradition on which you’re drawing. The exercise is curious: engaging spectators in a play they may never have heard of and whose language they will not understand when they hear it.

This unusual exercise has been the Barnard-Columbia Ancient Drama Group’s project since 1977. Each spring we mount an original-language production of Greek or Roman drama with English-language surtitles. Our choices have hardly all been Medea andOedipus the King. In fact, the choices tend towards the non- or less-canonical. In the past three years, we’ve staged Plautus’ Persa, Euripides’ Alcestis, and even the ninth book of the Iliad; our production of Seneca’s Thyestes opens tonight. The Latin-language play tells the gruesome story of the brothers Atreus and Thyestes, a pair of Argive princes feuding over their father’s throne; Atreus invites his brother back from exile on the pretense of sharing power, butchers Thyestes’ children, and serves them to their father as part of the celebratory feast. (Food puns have abounded among cast and crew.)

This as every year, the play has been a treat to act in, and I’m confident that our feast will more than sate the audience’s theatrical appetite. Getting here has been a challenge: our productions offer the same pleasures and struggles as English-language theatre for an English-language audience and then some, like translating the Latin poetry into faithful but accessible English prose, learning the niceties of classical Latin pronunciation—talk to me some time about the nasalised final m—or scanning hundreds of Senecan iambic trimeter lines.

If the challenges are greater, the reward is, too. The Latin or Greek performance isolates the power of a play’s language in such a way as no translation could do justice – power that comes across even if someone may not understand the words without reference to the surtitles. Consider Atreus’ and Thyestes’ closing couplet:

Thyestes –  vindices aderunt dei.
his puniendum vota te tradunt mea.

Atreus –  te puniendum liberis trado tuis.

Th. The gods will bring me vengeance.
My prayers give you to them for your punishment.
 
A. And I give you to your children for the same. 

Atreus’ grimly witty plays on Thyestes’ own indignant speech, and an original-language production allows a spectator to hear these verbal echoes.

But the richest reward comes when, from the stage, I can see the audience respond to our productions as presenting something psychologically and emotionally real. And then it couldn’t matter less that we’re speaking Latin words penned in the first century CE. Language barrier and all, we’ll have done our job.