On April 6, a full-house audience sat in the Minor Latham Playhouse for Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama’s production of Euripides’s Herakles, performed in ancient Greek and accompanied by Callum Armstrong’s playing of a fully reconstructed score on auloi wind pipes — the first time the instrument has been fully employed in the performance of a tragedy since ancient times.
With easy-to-follow supertitles adapted by Anthony Chu from Columbia Ph.D. candidate Caleb Simone’s translation, the language was a facet of the immersion rather than a distraction. To neglect the original language is practically expected in most performances of ancient plays. This play was remarkable not only in its faithfulness to the language, but in its equally careful attention to music and narrative. When the tragedy is performed in its native tongue, it preserves not only the story (as a translation would), but the original sound of the performance.
And even if one thinks of the ancient language as an empty gimmick, Herakles is a powerful drama in its own right. The play opens with an aggrieved city and a usurped throne, follows the hero’s miraculous ascent from the underworld and his descent into brief, god-driven murderous insanity. Theseus, king of Athens, arrives after the bout of madness to console the newly bereft Herakles. As is tradition in ancient tragedy, a chorus of elders narrates and comments on the events as they unfold.
Yilin Liu was particularly excellent as Lyssa, who seems dismayed by her power to drive others insane. Iris, goddess of the rainbow, was smug in her ability to harness that power. Theseus showed compassion even in his measured rebukes of Herakles. Megara was touchingly sincere and tender, and the usurper Lycus was comical in his brashness.
The music, often neglected if not entirely absent from performances of ancient plays, only heightened the dramatic tension of the production. The chorus delivered its speeches in tune with the auloi and further musical arrangement provided by Anna Conser, currently writing her dissertation on the relationship between pitch accent and melody in tragic music.
The chorus’ central role was musical: carrying the rhythm of the performance through sung, narrative speeches. Dressed in white togas, huddled over and wizened, its members moved and sang as a unit with sometimes-surprising alacrity. “The most distinctive element of Greek tragic song, to my ear, is the complex rhythmic patterning, which is preserved in the long and short syllables of the surviving text. The lyrics aren’t made up of lines repeating a certain meter, so the rhythms don’t fall into any single time signature,” says Conser.
The stage was nearly always filled with captivating, rhythmic movement. Lyssa writhed in the throes of madness. Herkales sat covered in blood outside the entrance of his home. The chorus leapt, sang, wept. All action was punctuated by constantly varying music. “In my compositions, I followed [complex rhythmic patterns] without compromise, and so I was often switching between 5/8, 6/8, 7/8, and 8/8,” says Conser. “It makes me appreciate that the ancient chorus would have learned everything by ear, rather than on the page, and would be reinforcing the rhythms with a very rhythmic dance. It also makes me appreciate how dancing in a tragic chorus would have been considered useful military training for young men, learning to move as a unit to highly syncopated melodies.”
Despite how far from us Greek myths may seem, this production of Herakles conveyed the power of a tragedy as much as any more recent or recognizable play could, without resorting to such shallow tricks as updating the setting or adding winking references. In fact, the performance was extraordinary because it fully embraced the original context. The setting was direct and simple, which drew more attention to the action itself and its similarities to present-day events.
Perhaps counterintuitively, by being fully submerged in a world of kings, divinities, heroes and gorgons, one is more easily able to accept whatever turn events take and focus on the deeper questions of human dignity, grief, and duty that the play asks one to consider. Though our conceptualizations of them may have changed since the play was written, even the most extreme events it depicts are familiar — Herakles’s daemonic madness, for example, could be understood as PTSD, or schizophrenia.
Music in a drama often dictates emotional tenor, now just as much as in ancient times. “Ancient authors, most famously Plato, discuss the ethical or emotional characters of the different modes,” Conser explains. “For example, after the chorus learns that Herakles has killed his family, they sing a traditional song of lament, or kommos. I composed this song using the Syntonolydian mode, which ancient sources tell us was appropriate for mourning.”
The past is only as foreign to us as it is unknown. To hear the words and music and watch the story unfold performed with vigor and full expression is to be given a unique sense of closeness to our ancient predecessors. It is incontrovertible that all things pass into history, but how much we interact with that history is up to us.
Barnard is by no means the only school to put on a play in the original Greek, of course. Oxford University of England has put on a triennial Greek play since the tutor, theologian, and classicist Benjamin Jowett helped a group of undergraduates mount a production of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon during the summer term of 1880. “We had a notion that a Greek play could be made quite as interesting on the stage as an English one,” recalled W.N. Bruce, a student involved in that first show. “We thought all the more of it, because we were none of us good scholars and were often rather scared at our own audacity, and were quite prepared to be told we were ‘fools rushing in where angels’ fear to tread!’” It was a bare-bones Agamemnon, but it still produced a remarkable effect: Robert Browning came to see it and the students were inspired to put on additional performances at several other schools and in London.
It is fitting that classical plays have in modern times become the province of schools. Education is a Janus-faced project, aiming to improve the future by learning from the past. Through ancient tragedy each generation can learn afresh from the experiences of tragic figures how best to understand sorrow.
And that’s what makes these performances not just edifying, but enjoyable: They help us understand the universality of human experience. No matter how remote in time or space we are from the ancients, we are still able to sympathize with and, in some ways, understand them. The rehabilitation of the art of ancient Greece, to which we have no direct connection, is a testament to the remarkable fact that even the most distant ages can still offer us something valuable.
You can watch a video of the performance here: