Theatre possesses an immense power as a method of communication about complex cultural and societal issues. Take Aeschylus’ Persae, written by a Greek playwright and performed in front of a predominantly Greek male audience, many of whom were likely in attendance at the battles detailed within the tragedy. You would think that the play would be overwhelmingly hostile towards its subject matter, the Persians, and yet Xerxes (King of the Persians) is portrayed in such a way as makes us somewhat sympathetic to his plight. Why is this? In part, I believe it is because Aeschylus wishes to present a universal humanity, tragic in its nature. Throughout Persae we witness the ubiquity of human vulnerability as Aeschylus takes his audience’s worst enemy and transforms him into nothing but a flawed, powerless, pitiful man. Part power move, part comment on fickle humanity, Persae shows us how powerful theatre can be.
We continue to utilise this power today. Three years ago I went to see Professor Nancy Rabinowitz discuss her work on teaching tragedy in prisons. Though not strictly Classics related, Wasfi Kani came to speak at Trinity College on her work performing operas in prisons through her opera company Pimlico Opera. Both women discussed how prisoners, who have often faced their own hardships in life (25% of people in prison in Britain have been in care), related to the emotions and struggles of the characters. The Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women is yet another example of theatre being used as a form of expression by inmates. The fact that a prisoner in the American 21st century prison system, or indeed in the British prison system, can relate to a character written by a fairly aristocratic Ancient Greek playwright two and a half thousand years ago speaks to the power of theatre.
In case I’ve not yet convinced you that Greek tragedy and comedy call across the millennia that separate us, let me provide you with another piece of evidence. In 2016, a group of female refugees toured the United Kingdom performing an adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan Women entitled Queens of Syria. The Ancient Greek tragedy serves as a platform for their individual testimonies as the women alternate between lines from Trojan Women and their personal narratives of war. In this, there is a link to the aforementioned Greek drama performed in prisons; it acts as a form of drama therapy. More than that, though, the play allowed these refugee women to communicate their trauma to an English audience in a language they’d understand. As articulated by one of these refugees;
“When you talk to a human being, and communicate with them, you have to talk in the language of this person. As I participated in the play I asked myself, what is the benefit of this, what can this play do? […] The play gave me the space to talk to these people, in the language they understand too.”
Ancient Greek theatre provides a medium for such communication because it is neutral. It is not, as has been touted in the past, an object of ‘Western’ inheritance, just as ‘Classics’ does not belong to the ‘West’, particularly given that ‘East’ and ‘West’ are ideologically constructed categories that fluctuate in meaning across the ages. Trojan Women belongs as much to these Syrian refugees as it does to you or me.
Ancient Greek theatre here acts as a shared language but these plays are performed in English, translated from the original Greek. In any translation we lose something; if we stick too closely to literal meaning, we lose some of the nuance, and if we strive to communicate all of the nuance, we lose literal meaning. It is a tough tightrope to walk. Brian Friel’s Translations expresses the dangers in translating brilliantly. Set in a hedge school in Ireland in 1833, we witness the locals, who speak Gaelic, Latin and Greek, try to communicate with the English soldiers who speak only English. Both sides consider the other ignorant as a result. The character Owen acts a translator, at times manipulating the words and at others changing them entirely. It speaks as a warning to take any translation with a pinch of salt.
The passing of time has allowed us to use Greek theatre to communicate issues we find too difficult to address face on. Interestingly, the Greeks themselves rarely set their drama in Athens, the location of performance, itself. Distancing a play’s setting from the viewer’s own softens the blow when it comes to introspection. It is easier to address one’s own flaws when they are presented as someone else’s entirely. This is why Greek theatre, tragedy in particular, works so well. Not only are the plays set in an entirely different society with its own distinct and complex culture, but we are separated from these events by thousands of years. It is easier to address our own flaws, both personal and societal, when they wear the mask of someone else’s.