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Aristophanes in performance in the 21st-century classroom

Lily Kelting

I have found that teaching Aristophanes in translation can be difficult.  Students crave context, balk at flipping to endnotes, stumble over names that they cannot pronounce, and become frustrated and embarrassed.  Teaching Aristophanes in performance might double these problems.  Reading or translating these plays slowly allows the time to situate references in their historical contexts, mining valuable insights into Athenian political or cultural history; in performance, untranslatable puns fly by at a rapid clip.  Complex political ideologies might be upstaged by slapstick violence.  Yet for a student actor, the work of script analysis starts with much the same work as that done in a Classics seminar: understanding of historical performance practices and Athenian cultural referents.  “Translating” these scenes into staged comic “bits,” rather than into written English, forces the student ensemble to make their own critical interventions into scholarly debates about Aristophanes—such as the charisma of the comic hero, the genuine hostility of the “poet’s war,” the ease with which the audience recognizes parodies of tragedy—and translate these “theses” seemingly effortlessly to a contemporary audience of their peers.  Thus, I argue that an ensemble-based directorial approach to Aristophanes’ comedy, in the rehearsal room and the classroom, is a valuable pedagogical tool that allows these particularly referential, intertexual, and, yes, funny plays to come to life for college students.

Secondary scholarship on ancient performance techniques provides valuable context for the reception of these texts in their original context and throughout history (Hall, Wrigley; McLeish; Csapo; Russo; Slater).  While turning an eye to the theatricality of these plays lends richness and depth to the written text (see especially Slater), I have found that even such performance-based approaches do little to prepare potential theatre-makers and audiences.  In this paper, I describe a university workshop offered in conjunction with a theatre-history seminar on Aristophanes.  This workshop brought together a group of non-Classics and non-theatre students to read, discuss, and re-imagine Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen.  With graduate students from the Theatre and Classics programs, the ensemble analyzed and developed concepts for two scenes within the play.  By staging scenes rather than the entirety of the play, the ensemble was able to work with two very different adaptation strategies within the same play—one translating topical references into contemporary ones and one sticking very closely to the original text but drawing stylistic inspiration from contemporary comedic tropes.

The latter scene imagined Praxagora as Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope, a bouncy bureaucrat accompanied by a large pad of nonsense statistics and figures; the former spent much time discussing the contemporary valence of charges of effeminacy.  Are these jokes potent or offensive?  Who should stand for Kleisthenes?  (Justin Bieber.)  A third exercise used performance to begin to answer another critical question: would the audience be aware of the male bodies of the performers or would the female characters read as credibly female within the world of the play?  Ultimately unknowable questions about audience reception in the ancient context took on new charge in the rehearsal space.  Circular debates, for example, over the female comic costume that might be pejoratively called “academic” were ignited by pragmatic choices made by a male actor to don a woman’s costume in a spirit of stereotyped burlesque or credible realism.  Male students performed the opening scene in shapeless “housewife” caftans and sequined mini-dresses.  The playful space of the theatre allows students not only to see both sides of the argument, but to try both on.

Session/Panel Title

Performance as Research, Performance as Pedagogy

Session/Paper Number

34.5

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