Friday, January 31, 2014

Taplin and Tragedy

My complaints with Mr. Taplin tend to stem from my own bias when it comes to writing style. I found his book wordy and more of a survey instead of an argument. I don't know that there is anyone who would disagree with a lot of his ideas and observations. Although everyone might envision different ways that the elements of the drama would play out, the importance of the elements and the importance of visualizing the play instead of reading should be obvious to all. In the end, if you already had a cursory knowledge of Greek drama, culture, and theater performance, it was not life-changing. I do feel like I understand Greek tragedy better because I read this book.

What do you think, Fulano? [pointing to an audience member]

Though they may have played on the same stage, Greek Tragedy and Greek Comedy have some stark differences. Obviously, as their labels imply, there is the difference in content, but that aside there are also a number of conventional variations between the two dramatic genres. In all honesty I'm still relatively new to Greek Comedy, and so with this post, I'd like to raise some questions for pondering, rather than presume to provide answers of any sort. Think of it as an exercise in taking a moment to think about classic theater. Who wouldn't want to be able to say they did that, right? That being said, this post is no good without people commenting to share their thoughts! That's right: audience participation! Some minor generalizations are bound to follow, but bear with me, I think this might be worth contemplating.

First of all, there's the chorus. As time passed and we shift from "Old Comedy" (400's BCE) through "Middle Comedy" (404-321 BCE) and finally to "New Comedy" (323-ca.250 BCE), the chorus becomes increasingly marginalized, so for the purpose of this post, we'll focus on comparing Old Comedy with tragedy. Tragedy had a Chorus of 15, whereas comedy had nearly twice that, with a chorus of 24, and at least in the case of Aristophanes, these comedic choruses were usually animals or features of the scenery (like clouds). The tragic choruses tended to be some group of people from the city/area where the play was supposed to take place. And so...

Question number 1!
What do you think the difference in experience would be between these two types of choruses? (Tragedy= 15 normal citizens [usually], vs. Comedy= 24 fantastical things [usually. e.g. frogs, clouds, etc.])
Follow up question:
What advantages/disadvantages would these differences provide their respective genres?

Next, (and this may be one of those generalizations,) tragedy was usually to the point of pensive, philosophical commentary on such classic questions as the meaning of man's existence, fate vs. choice, and man's relationship with divinity. Comedy on the other hand was often used to lighten the mood (satyr plays being a good example of this) as well as to make socio-political commentaries on their contemporary issues. This too, faded somewhat with time as the political situation in Greece shifted, and freedom of speech was largely subdued. But again, focusing on Old Comedy...

Question number 2!
These Philosophical and Socio-political commentaries raise certain questions about life and society.
What does it tell us about ourselves and our entertainment that these questions have not changed much in the last 2500 years?

Finally there are the irreverent elements of Old Comedy which include: exaggerated phalluses (yup), poop jokes, fart jokes, cross-dressing, and just general slapstick and tomfoolery. So just jumping straight to the question...

Question number 3!
Why do you think it is that so many of these elements of humor are almost universally considered funny?? (regardless of era, language, and culture)

Well that's it, don't forget to share your thoughts in the comments, I'd love to hear what people think about these questions! Until next week.


A Review on Taplin's "Greek Tragedy in Action"

             I have rather mixed feelings about Taplin’s work Greek Tragedy in Action. From a scholarly perspective, it’s hard to disagree with the points that he presents.  I think that his goals to incorporate a visual performing aspect or a “stage of the mind” into the way Greek tragedy is read and understood are very pertinent to a more complete grasp of the genre. Taplin’s arguments make one really evaluate the playwright, his motives and how he chooses to portray a story. The background he provides on the logistics of Greek theatre is both helpful and clarifying. All in all, Taplin creates an insightful reader; one who looks for blocking clues within the lines, evaluates tableaus, looks for symbolism in limited props, and ponders story timing.  After Taplin, it is hard to merely trot through a plot. He has given his readers the tools turn Greek literature into a more three dimensional experience.  However, his book is a bit tricky to read on its own. Because he continually references many different Greek plays, it is hard to truly benefit from these references unless one has recently read the play (which in some cases we had).  I believe that the knowledge within this book may be more beneficial if certain sections were published in the same copy of the play to which they refer (as an afterword/ annotation of sort). I find that the organization of this book may be its flaw. I might have found it more helpful if Taplin began with a brief overview of all his concepts and then did a chapter per play. He could then, in separate chapters, set up each play and review the important theatrical concepts within that play. This way, readers wouldn’t have to be constantly switching gears to different storylines to benefit from his references.  Also this system may be more convenient for those who are trying to put on a production of one of the plays he mentions. This way, one could find all the commentary on a specific play in one chapter as opposed to having to fish for it throughout the book. In a sense though, I see that Taplin may have set the book up the way he did in order to compare and contrast different examples that match a concept. Unfortunately, for me, that aspect doesn’t redeem the effort it takes to continually remember different plot lines in order to understand his point.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mirror Scenes in "Hamlet, Prince of Grief"

Last week in class we read and discussed Oliver Taplin’s chapter on mirror scenes from Greek Tragedy in Action. In our society’s current entertainment milieu, saturated with CGI and multi-million-dollar special-effects blockbusters, we sometimes forget the bare power of simple theatrical techniques such as verbal and visual repetition. Taplin notes how effective such techniques can be in Greek tragedy, emphasizing that when you have a repeated stage image in a play, the meaning is often found in analyzing the differences between the two scenes.

This past weekend, I saw a play at the BYU International Theater Festival that brought home to me the efficacy of a well-performed scene of repetition. The play was a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet entitled Hamlet, Prince of Grief, performed by the Leev Theater Group from Iran. The single actor in the show, Afshin Hashemi, put in a powerful performance (also a reminder that good theater doesn’t necessarily need a lot of actors). The mirror scenes in question bookend the play at the beginning and end. As Taplin points out, it is only when you see the second pair of a mirror scene that you realize that there is a repetition, which causes you to reassess the scene you have previously witnessed and look for differences between the previous scene and the one currently displayed before your eyes. In case you have the chance to see it in the future, I don’t want to give away too much about the ending of Hamlet, Prince of Grief, but I will say that the mirror scene in question comes at the point in the Hamlet story at which Hamlet organizes the famous play-within-a-play that depicts the death of the king in front of the court. In the Leev Theater Group’s version, when the actor starts into the play-within-a-play, he repeats the lines and the blocking of the opening scene of play, with a few subtle differences, which leads the audience to understand that they have been watching the play-within-a-play all along. The full force of the repetition, however, lies in the difference between the two scenes, which I won’t reveal here for fear of spoiling it. Go see the play if you have the chance, and bask in the power of a simple, well-executed theatrical technique that is as old as tragedy itself.