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How New is Aristophanes in New Orleans

Wilfred Major

This paper studies how changes in broad political context permeated two recent adaptations of Aristophanes plays staged at the same institution but separated by a decade in time and tumultuous changes in the New Orleans community in which the performances were embedded. The analysis yields an important example of how national and even global trends can be enmeshed in extremely localized changes in a community, resulting in two similarly engaged but markedly contrasting adaptations of ancient Athenian comedy.

Loyola University New Orleans included a newly commissioned adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata on its main stage in Spring 2004. This adaptation included a new translation, newly composed songs for the choral sections, and some interpolated lines added by the director during rehearsals. The adaptation was restrained in some respects. The language was colloquial but rarely anachronistic. Topical references and jokes were generalized more than updated or replaced. Characters were costumed in a wide range of outfits from different time periods and cultures to promote the sense that the themes of the play spanned space and time. Local and contemporary references were few and limited. Broadly, however, the adaptation and production were informed by the widely publicized political performances of Lysistrata, especially in the wake of the Lysistrata Project a year earlier (Major 2003, Hardwick 2010). This political context fueled the production’s most radical departure from the original script. The show closed with a fast-paced medley that summarized and emphasized the play’s anti-war theme. It also spotlighted a line about another contemporary controversy not otherwise mentioned in the adaptation, same-sex marriage.

It was in the Fall of 2013 when Loyola University New Orleans again included an adaptation of Aristophanes in their theater season, this time of Wealth. Performances of this otherwise rarely-performed play had already been staged to tie-in with the economic crises of the 2000’s and controversies about the distribution of wealth, but this new adaptation was more explicit in using Aristophanes’ play to address contemporary economic issues. The chorus of the play is transformed into workers stuck in minimum-wage jobs, for example, and historical references were consistently updated to include, for example, the topic of gender and economic inequality. Other than the degree of explicit modernization, however, the suffusion of the contemporary political climate was analogous to that of the earlier Lysistrata, in that the purpose was to highlight how the tensions in a 2,500 year-old Greek comedy resonate sensibly, indeed powerfully, in the world of the adaptation’s performance. Additionally, the setting and context for the adaptation was explicitly New Orleans and its environs (Rosenbecker and Preeshl 2014). In one sense, this seems to make the adaptation more local, topical and specific, but more complex factors are involved. Since the production of Lysistrata, New Orleans had become the focus of national attention for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the region had subsequently featured prominently in reports on the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. In this way, the setting of New Orleans becomes a logical one to dramatize the cumulative effect of three different major crises in the nation over the previous decade. Andindeed, at one point the adaptation explicitly steers away from allowing either Katrina or the Deepwater Horizon to become just pointed local humor.

The complex interplay of local topicality and broader trends in political dialogue, and how this interplay shapes and reshapes the composition and performance of plays that already have a substantial performance tradition is valuable when reflecting on the diversity of presentation of similar topics preserved in the scripts from fifth- and fourth-century Athens. In the rapidly changing world of Athens during the time spanned by the surviving scripts, a few years and a different playwright evoking earlier stages of the theatrical tradition could generate a production that seems, from our distant perspective, radically different from that of his predecessors.

Session/Panel Title:

New Wine in Old Wineskins: Topicality in Modern Performance of Athenian Drama

Session/Paper Number

66.4

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