Books and arts

Staging the Greeks

A new course marries literary analysis and dramatic performance

By Deborah Yaffe
Published in the July 16, 2008, issue


Students, singing “Old Nassau” at Epidaurus in Greece, traveled to the ancient theater to inspire their work on a Greek tragedy to be performed next fall in the Berlind Theatre.
Courtesy Tim Vasen
Students, singing “Old Nassau” at Epidaurus in Greece, traveled to the ancient theater to inspire their work on a Greek tragedy to be performed next fall in the Berlind Theatre.

After six weeks’ intensive study of ancient Greek drama, a group of Princeton students stood in the 2,400-year-old amphitheater of the Greek city of Epidaurus, a space renowned for its acoustics. One by one, they mounted the stage to sing, declaim, or chant in tones destined to reach the 55th row.

“Each of us got up on the platform, and the first thing we could say was, ‘Wow!’” says Lucas Barron ’09.

That study trip to Greece during the University’s March spring break came at the midpoint of a new course, “Re: Staging the Greeks,” which married literary analysis to dramatic performance and will culminate in the fall with a production in McCarter Theatre Center’s Berlind Theatre.

The course treated Greek plays as works “meant to be seen and heard, not meant to be studied and read,” says Tim Vasen, a lecturer in the theater and dance program, who taught the class with program director Michael Cadden. “We can re-create this as living theater that was created for that society to talk to itself, about itself,” adds Vasen.

The 16 students, all experienced actors, auditioned for the class and by midsemester had read the complete 44-play ancient Greek canon.

Each week, the class devoted one meeting to academic discussion and one long afternoon to presenting previously rehearsed scenes, in styles ranging from the straightforward to the radical. One group of students experimented with shadow theater, performing part of a scene behind a white sheet; another updated Aristophanes’ bawdy, topical comedy Lysistrata with references to their own sex lives.

Their immersion in Greek drama, students said, enriched the study trip, which was financed by the Program in Hellenic Studies. The group toured museums and ancient sites, worked with Greek actors and directors, ate grilled octopus, watched the sun rise over the Acropolis, swam in the Aegean Sea (“It was freezing — oh, my God!” says Rebecca Foresman ’10. “That’s something they definitely don’t tell you in the legends!”), and saw a Greek-language production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

They also conducted academic business, gathering on the roof terrace of their hotel with the illuminated Parthenon looming in the background to debate — in the spirit of Athenian democracy — which play to perform in the fall.

With the class split after days of discussion, Sam Zetumer ’09 suggested breaking the deadlock in an appropriately Greek way, by introducing an element of chance — what Zetumer says the ancients saw “as a way of including the gods in your choice.” So they placed the ballots in a pillowcase and picked the winner: a combination of two tragedies, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis.

For Agamemnon, one of the oldest plays in the Greek canon, the students will use a translation by Princeton comparative literature professor Robert Fagles, who died just days after the group returned from Greece. For Iphigenia at Aulis, one of the last plays in the canon, they will use a new translation by Barron, a comparative literature major.

The pairing of legendary scholar and emerging talent represents, Vasen says, “a torch passing.”

Deborah Yaffe is a writer in Princeton Junction, N.J.

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