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Staging a Tragedy

Story by
Nancy Joseph
Jeannine Clarke and Steven D. Thomas rehearse a scene from Euripides’ Helen.

Jeannine Clarke and Steven D. Thomas rehearse a scene from Euripides’ Helen. Media credit: Karen Orders

When classics students study Greek tragedies, they usually read the text and discuss it in class. But in a new course, “Greek Tragedy in Performance,” students studied a Greek tragedy in depth and then brought it to life, performing it at the end of the quarter.

The course was the brainchild of Ruby Blondell, professor in the Department of Classics, who designed and co-taught the class with Cathy Madden, assistant professor in the School of Drama. “I usually teach Greek drama as text,” says Blondell, “but with dead words on a page, you can’t come close to capturing their real meaning for the original audience. With this course we wanted to find a way to perform a Greek play that would capture something of the original experience, but in our terms, for a modern audience.” 

Professor Ruby Blondell (left) and Cathy Madden watch students rehearse.

Professor Ruby Blondell (left) and Cathy Madden watch students rehearse. Media credit: Karen Orders

Blondell approached Madden with the idea, and Madden jumped at the chance. “In drama, we begin rehearsing plays and need to learn quickly what is important in the world of the play,” she says. “This was an opportunity to research the period and plan a play with that in mind. It provided another way of exploring texts, for both drama and classics students. Watching them feed back and forth, sharing their very different skills, was fantastic.”

The play Blondell chose for the course was Euripides’ Helen, a drama that upsets many conventional notions of Helen and her role in the Trojan War. “I didn’t want to pick the obvious play, Medea, which is the most performed Greek play by a wide margin,” says Blondell. “Helen is very different. Although it is a tragedy, it has comedy in it and a happy ending. Plus, I’ve always wanted to do a course about Helen, who exerts enormous power because of her awe-inspiring beauty. You can love her, you can hate her. She’s been presented so many ways—good Helen, bad Helen, guilty Helen. She can be a victim or a figure of power.” 

Students consult their scripts while rehearsing a scene.

Students consult their scripts while rehearsing a scene. Media credit: Karen Orders

Students were introduced to all these Helens. Before tackling Euripides’ play, the class explored the myth of Helen and read Greek tragedies by other authors. Then, working in groups, they began studying aspects of Euripides’ play and the context within which it was originally performed. The goal was to research and prepare three scenes for the final performance.

One group focused on direction. They chose the scenes to be performed and researched how the play had been produced in the past. Other groups—for acting, the chorus, and design—also researched original Greek productions to inform their work. “The design group had to create an environment for the play without a budget, in a large classroom rather than a stage,” says Madden. “It was a real challenge.” 

Still another group was responsible for preparing the script. They began with a translation that Blondell describes as “prosaic and literal—not particularly suited to live performance—which gave the students somewhere to go with it.” Those familiar with ancient Greek worked with the original Euripides text to liven the translation. “The students were able to make choices for the scenes they were translating,” says Blondell. “They could make it funny or serious. They could decide on a linguistic style to use.” 

In formation to suggest a ship, students rehearse a scene from Helen.Photo

In formation to suggest a ship, students rehearse a scene from Helen. Media credit: Karen Orders

By the end of the quarter, the students had lived and breathed Euripides’ Helen. As they performed the play for their classmates, friends, and department faculty and staff, their fondness for the Greek tragedy was evident. 

“I hope we have succeeded in giving students a richer understanding of Greek drama as a performance and not just text,” says Blondell. “Hopefully this will inspire people to be creative in how they think about an ancient text.”