Posted inCultures

Classical Cabaret: ‘Songs of the Silenced’

Illustration by Neily Raymond

From 26th to the 30th October 2021, Songs of the Silenced (written by second year CAAH student Sav Sood and second year medic Alex Rawnsley) will be performed at the Burton Taylor Studio. It’s a cabaret show about the often ignored women of Greek mythology, reviving a dying art style with stories from a long dead culture.

But, are the Classics really dead? I would argue not. Ancient mythology permeates our culture, to the point of becoming an integral part of our literature and language. ‘To fly too close to the sun’ is a common idiom meaning to do something reckless and overly ambitious that causes one’s own downfall. It’s a reference to Icarus, a character from Greek myth, who actually flew too close to the sun, melting the wax in the wings his father made him and causing his literal fall into the ocean. Examples like this show that the Classics still have a current and recognisable impact on our Western worldview, even if the original stories and people seem so far removed from us. Chaucer and Shakespeare, two of the most famous and still widely read authors of literature in English, were both heavily influenced by the Classics. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, written in the mid-1380s, and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, written c.1602, are two retellings of the same love story set during the Trojan War. Not only did both writers heavily allude to the Classics, but they felt the myths were important enough and interesting enough to be completely retold in a new format. Shakespeare not only had ancient sources to work from, but Chaucer’s too, and both had other European and English poets who had also reworked the stories before them.

So why do we keep adapting the Classics? What is it about these stories that not only invite us to read them again, but to write them again as well? I think, at least a part of it, is that the myths have no one original source. They are open to teasing and shaping, plucking elements from one version or another to allow the author to use a recognisable story for their own purpose. Even the most famous ancient texts like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey or the Attic tragedies are really adaptations themselves. They are the surviving works that we look to now as key authorities, but the myths and characters belong to a religion and an oral culture that pre-date even Homer. What we call ‘the Classics’, at least when it comes to literature, have always been adaptations.

Nowadays, we seem to have developed a weird paradox that both reveres and fears anything we deem ‘original’. Many of the big box office hits of recent years have been sequels or reboots or a part of franchises that pump out the same narrative – just a little bit to the left – again and again and again (my apologies to Marvel fans). Yet we are also obsessed with the idea of the ‘genius’ of the author. We believe that a creator must make something wholly on their own and it must be fresh and new and never been done before. I don’t have the word count or expertise to dissect this phenomenon, yet this paradox of thought seems to reconcile itself when I approach Classical literature and all its permutations that have been born throughout history. 

The difference right now is that it is no longer just rich, Western men who have adopted these stories and used them to tell their own tales within the public sphere. Anne Carson, a classicist herself, published Autobiography of Red in 1998, a verse novel inspired by the surviving fragments of Stesichorus’ poem Geryoneis, that deals with a variety of themes in a contemporary and ambiguous setting. Anaïs Mitchell explores the destructive effects of late capitalism and comments on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Hadestown, a musical first staged in 2006 based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that is now on Broadway with a rich and diverse cast. Ali Smith uses Ovid’s rendition of Iphis and Ianthe from his Metamorphoses to comment on gender and sexuality in her 2007 novel Girl Meets Boy

These are but a few examples that I particularly love. The Classics have always been used to suit the needs of the contemporary audience, so why shouldn’t we rework them now to tell our own stories? To grant voices to those who have always existed yet have been shunted aside. To enrich our Classical culture with the lives and loves and memories of everyone and anyone who wants to share.

Songs of the Silenced is a delicious piece of new writing that exhibits just this ethos. Sav and Alex invite to the spotlight the female characters that are often forgotten in light of the louder men who seem to rule the Greek myths. Cabaret, too, is a dying art, and Songs of the Silenced breathes new life into a medium that values the interaction between performers and audience – which I think is what we really need as we try to keep theatre thriving in the face of government funding cuts and the fallout of COVID. The show is accessible for those who know nothing of the Classics but promises a fun and entertaining evening for those (like me) who are studying the subject themselves.

Songs of the Silenced runs from 26th to 30th October at the Burton Taylor Studio, and £5 concession tickets can be bought now on the Oxford Playhouse website.