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Doubling in practice and pedagogy

Amy R. Cohen

In Euripides’ Hecuba, Talthybius reports in detail the events surrounding the sacrifice of Polyxena by the Greek troops (518–582).  Listening to the account are her mother Hecuba, a chorus of other newly enslaved Trojan women, and, of course, the audience.  The audience hears not only a sensitive speech about a terrible situation: we also hear, quite literally, Polyxena’s voice, because the actor who plays Talthybius played Polyxena in the previous scene.  The connection of the two characters with the voice of one actor gives an extra level of pathos to Talthybius’s pity for the grief-stricken Hecuba.  If the actor playing Talthybius makes even a small shift into the voice he used for his previous role as Polyxena, the moments when he reports what Polyxena says to the Greek army (547–552 and 563–565) make an even more powerful emotional impact on the audience.

Most modern productions skip the three-actor rule in practice: professional companies tend to use modern casting conventions, and school programs usually want to cast as many students as possible and so abandon that particular ancient convention even if they are observing others.  This paper will show, however, that moments like Talthybius’s messenger speech give modern teacher-directors ample reason to use and teach doubling in their productions and in their classrooms.

In the classroom, using an assignment, for instance, that has students make doubling charts requires them attend to how the playwrights constructed the plays for as few actors as possible.  This exercise gives students a concrete introduction to thinking of the play as a text for performance rather than as mere poetry on a silent page.  Including doubling in students’ assignments shows how the simplest decisions—who appears on stage when and who plays which characters—affect the substance and meaning of the whole play.  How do our reactions change as an audience when we hear the voice of the Polyxena/Talthybius actor again in the character of Polymestor, the treacherous ally on whom Hecuba takes terrible revenge in the Euripides play?  Such a question gives students opportunities to discuss where the audience’s sympathies lie, how they might or might not change over the course of the play, whether the playwright expects us to praise or condemn Hecuba’s actions, and so on.  Many other classroom techniques, of course, can lead into such issues, but doubling keeps the discussion tightly bound to the realities of performance, which should be one of the central lessons of any class on ancient drama.

In actual productions of ancient drama, doubling offers lessons and experiences that most students will not find elsewhere.  With doubling, a campus production whose aims are, at least in part, to teach about ancient dramatic practices, recovers and uses one of the techniques that Euripides and his contemporaries could exploit in their productions.  For the student actor with or without masks, doubling roles in ancient drama is an acting challenge about embodying several characters within the space of ninety minutes and manifesting differences in a clear enough way to distinguish the several characters for the audience.  The experience allows students and teacher-directors to explore the kinds of actor preparation that are useful for different traditions of drama, and it expands the students’ repertoire of techniques.  Productions that include doubling also reveal a deeper texture that the playwrights wove into the structure of the play.  Those productions, this paper concludes, are the most successful in conveying the whole substance of Greek dramas, and therefore in teaching students and the public about the ancient world.

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Performance as Research, Performance as Pedagogy

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