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A Severed Head

THE MAKING OF THE BACCHAE a contemplative preview of the upcoming production

By Matthew A. Carter, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

As Kathryn Walker is quick to admit, "staging Greek tragedy can be very hard to pull off." The 1997 Visiting Artist at Radcliffe has imposed this difficulty on herself with delight. Her audacious production of Euripides; The Bacchae opens this week, the result of many years of reading, thinking about and loving the play.

Walker has written that the play "explores the terrain of the ineffable." The god whose cult it concerns is beyond mortal understanding: Dionysos is automorphic, xenophoric, acrobatic, dark, sexual and fierce all at once--a gleeful irreverent demanding reverence. So Euripides focuses on our experience instead: the human response to divinity.

Walker sees the play's interpretation of that experience as contemporary and relevant, and presents what she calls a "profound disillusionment with the values of the state," in a "narrow, legal and power-obsessed society." Dionysos, held in myth to be the inventor of theater, imposes on civic order a dancing, crowded and angry disorder that could sweep, perhaps, over Boston as readily as over Thebes.

Music for a Grecian Ode

This primeval dynamic appealed to William Harper, who composed the score for The Bacchae.

"It's known that in the original Greek drama there was music all the way through and that the choral odes were especially important," Harper said in a telephone interview. "The question becomes how to reinvent those."

The innovative answer was Walker's. She says she opted for them not to be sung "in favor of the distinctly musical possibilities of the speaking voice." She also found C.K. Williams' English version of the play, which she adapted for this production, "ravishing to read." She claims for her chief love "language used skillfully," and finds much to love in the Williams.

Harper agrees: "It's the most beautiful translated thing I've ever read."

He adds that the quality and pleasures of the text led him to an approach "almost operatic in conception, and my definition of opera is 'what is fun'." Computerizing Walker's recitation of the odes, Harper pooled talents with Walker and choreographers Claire Mallardi and Tommy Nebblett in a kind of multimedia approach.

Perhaps in part to reflect this diversity of presentation, Harper chose to be stylistically eclectic. His score alludes to Renaissance music and rock alike.

"You're supposed not to be aware of where you are historically," Harper explains.

Stranger in a Strange Land

That exciting disorientation is an aim shared by Walker, who is fascinated by the possibility that Dionysos might be earlier and more eastern than Hellenistic civilization.

"I've got the Maenads as a chorus of Asian women, and a silent Magna Mater figure onstage," Walker says.

The attention Walker pays to the feminizing influence of the god has led her to to one of her boldest directorial decisions: casting a female (Winsome Brown '96) as Dionysos.

"He seems to represent the woman, the outlaw, the stranger, the barbarian," she writes. "He plays with the feeble inventions of human order. Women become freer, more powerful and dangerous than men. Roles are reversed, the king becomes a woman; magic overpowers logic."

All this, she points out, hastens the activity of the drama to its violent and destructive end--Agave blindly helps to rip apart her own son Pentheus, the leader of the city. It is a revolution, although without the specific aim of liberation ("I don't think of it in that 60s kind of way," Walker explains).

Even considering the enormous complexity of the play's issues and personae, Walker chose to cast mostly undergraduates. "In many ways professional actors are less interesting than student actors, particularly Harvard actors." Walker says she looked to local professionals only for the roles of older men--Cadmus and Tiresias, who ought to be physically convincing.

Walker herself performed as Agave in the early 70s, at the same Agassiz performance space, what she calls "the best little theater in Boston."

But for all the difficulties of performance, perhaps the text itself posed enough challenges.

The Goods

The Williams translation used by Walker combines a nuanced style, reflective of the original Greek, with a highly developed sensitivity to what modern lyric poetry can do. Consider the following excerpt from one of the odes, described in Martha Nussbaum's preface to the translation as "a mixture of beauty and horror":

What is nobler than to hold a dominating hand above the bent head of the enemy? The fair, the noble, how we cherish, how we welcome them.

At this point Pentheus has been doomed and the Bacchant chorus is praising the sweetness of vengeance. The scene is creepier than mere Halloween fantasy. The immediacy of Williams' language, its claim on the play's disturbing juxtaposition of beauty and inclemency (the chorus as, perhaps, "Les Belles Dames Sans Merci"?) must be what attracted Walker, Harper and the rest of the staff.

Coda

Though there has recently been a great growth in interest in the Classics (one that Walker fostered on campus last spring, by participating in the reading from Robert Fagles' new Odyssey that included Fagles and Jason Robards), it is still easy to be skeptical about the relevance of Greek tragedy, especially a very archaizing and formal one, to modern life, and thus to question the value of any such production, no matter how many risks it takes. But the remedy for the doubt is available to anyone willing to admit how exquisitely the work of Euripides, especially The Bacchae, frames the most complex moral questions we know:

How, if at all, should religious duty supervene on civic duty? At what price is the Dionysiac impulse repressed? On the other hand, what happens to society in a climate of total vengefulness? When does reason fail to account for our experience? Is the rejection of reason ultimately worth the danger it invites? Why does religious ecstasy give way to violence? And what does this say about our gods' anthropomorphism? Does the beauty of divine ritual withstand the "rage for meaning"?

These are obviously worth consideration, and the current production phrases them as carefully and boldly as they deserve. Kathryn Walker and her talented colleagues have conceived an innovative approach that the drama can sustain, fully in keeping with the provocative words from its final chorus: "Many forms/are there/of the divine.

Even considering the enormous complexity of the play's issues and personae, Walker chose to cast mostly undergraduates. "In many ways professional actors are less interesting than student actors, particularly Harvard actors." Walker says she looked to local professionals only for the roles of older men--Cadmus and Tiresias, who ought to be physically convincing.

Walker herself performed as Agave in the early 70s, at the same Agassiz performance space, what she calls "the best little theater in Boston."

But for all the difficulties of performance, perhaps the text itself posed enough challenges.

The Goods

The Williams translation used by Walker combines a nuanced style, reflective of the original Greek, with a highly developed sensitivity to what modern lyric poetry can do. Consider the following excerpt from one of the odes, described in Martha Nussbaum's preface to the translation as "a mixture of beauty and horror":

What is nobler than to hold a dominating hand above the bent head of the enemy? The fair, the noble, how we cherish, how we welcome them.

At this point Pentheus has been doomed and the Bacchant chorus is praising the sweetness of vengeance. The scene is creepier than mere Halloween fantasy. The immediacy of Williams' language, its claim on the play's disturbing juxtaposition of beauty and inclemency (the chorus as, perhaps, "Les Belles Dames Sans Merci"?) must be what attracted Walker, Harper and the rest of the staff.

Coda

Though there has recently been a great growth in interest in the Classics (one that Walker fostered on campus last spring, by participating in the reading from Robert Fagles' new Odyssey that included Fagles and Jason Robards), it is still easy to be skeptical about the relevance of Greek tragedy, especially a very archaizing and formal one, to modern life, and thus to question the value of any such production, no matter how many risks it takes. But the remedy for the doubt is available to anyone willing to admit how exquisitely the work of Euripides, especially The Bacchae, frames the most complex moral questions we know:

How, if at all, should religious duty supervene on civic duty? At what price is the Dionysiac impulse repressed? On the other hand, what happens to society in a climate of total vengefulness? When does reason fail to account for our experience? Is the rejection of reason ultimately worth the danger it invites? Why does religious ecstasy give way to violence? And what does this say about our gods' anthropomorphism? Does the beauty of divine ritual withstand the "rage for meaning"?

These are obviously worth consideration, and the current production phrases them as carefully and boldly as they deserve. Kathryn Walker and her talented colleagues have conceived an innovative approach that the drama can sustain, fully in keeping with the provocative words from its final chorus: "Many forms/are there/of the divine.

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