Tuesday, February 20, 2007

More gladiators

Following on from this post, I notice that Mary Beard, who spoke at the conference, has blogged it. Her report of her own paper is interesting. Perhaps she overreacts in underplaying the importance of gladiatorial combats - lack of frequency, after all, can contribute to the importance of an event rather than detract from it - but we modern westerners, fascinated by the (allegedly) alien concept of men killing each other for popular entertainment, do generally overplay it. The gladiatorial games were not top of the bill when it came to Roman mass entertainment - that was chariot racing. I always tell my students that (depending on which figures you use) the Circus Maximus could hold between two and five times as many people as the Colosseum, that it was riots by chariot racing fans that nearly brought down an emperor (Justinian, in AD 532),* and that there's a reason Juvenal (Satire 10.81) says panem et circenses, not panem et munera.

*Not that there weren't riots in amphitheatres - that in Pompeii that got their amphitheatre closed down for a decade comes to mind.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Gladiators in Chester - apparently really

Alun Salt points his readers at this page from the BBC's website, reporting a conference this weekend that has happened in Chester. To someone who has studied Roman Britain, it seems a quite bizarrely written item. Take the second paragraph:

Experts have unearthed evidence in the remains of Chester Amphitheatre which suggests gladiators appeared there.

Well, yes, of course gladiators appeared in the amphitheatre. That's what happened in amphitheatres. Why should anyone ever think differently?

The next paragraph sheds a little more light - "It was previously thought the arena was only used for ceremonial activities" - but in fact you need to go to other reports to find that what this refers to is the notion that amphitheatres in Britain were only used for military parades and training.

Personally, I've never bought that. The only argument in favour seems to be that amphitheatres in Britain, such as those at Caerleon, Chester, and London, are often associated with forts or fortresses. But for a start, at least one isn't (Silchester). And in any case, an association with a fort doesn't prove that gladiatorial games didn't take place there. If you found a football field in a modern army base, you wouldn't conclude that, because of the military association, no-one actually played football there. I'm more than happy to accept that ceremonial events and military activities did take place in amphitheatres in Britain (after all, modern football stadia are used for activities other than football matches, such as pop concerts), or even that the Roman army paid for those sited next to forts. But I have never seen a convincing argument that these buildings were not used for the same purposes for which amphitheatres around the empire were built.

I wonder, as well, if there isn't a bit of cultural snobbery behind the military theory. It used to be suggested that the Greeks in the East weren't interested in gladiatorial games, because they didn't in general build amphitheatres - the subtext being that the culturally educated Greeks were above such vulgar Roman entertainments. The problem is, they weren't - what happened was that instead of building new specialist amphitheatres, already existing theatres and stadia were converted for gladiators. So I wonder whether in the past, British archaeologists wanted to think that ancient Britons, our noble ancestors, would have no interest in the spectacle of men killing each other. But it's now clear that the Britons loved it as much as anyone else in the empire, and I for one have never believed otherwise.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Antony and Cleopatra

I was going to blog about this news story, and point out that coins with this sort of depiction of Antony and Cleopatra have been around for years (there's one which, if not struck from the same dies as the Newcastle example, is certainly struck from dies made to the same design, illustrated in the Roman history text book I used as an undergraduate in the mid-80s), so the difference between ancient and modern portrayals of Cleopatra is not exactly 'news' - but then Mary Beard beat me to it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The education of the imaginary aristocracy

In the long-running BBC Radio soap The Archers, there is a character called Nigel Pargetter. I have tended to charitably consider him to be an idiot. Tonight, he surprised me by quoting Ovid from memory. The passage is Heroides 5.21-2, and the rather free translation Nigel quotes is:

The Beeches, faithful guardians of your flame,
Bear in their wounded trunks Oenone's name;
And as the trunks, so still the letters grow.

(I don't know the translator, as the only place I found that exact rendition through a Google search didn't attribute it. I'm guessing it's Victorian, and probably famous. Anyone know?)

It says something quite reassuring about our connection with the Classical past that a character on a soap opera (albeit broadcast on a self-consciously erudite radio station) can still quote Ovid.

Friday, February 09, 2007

2007 KCL Greek Play

Sophocles, Trachiniae
King's College London Greek Play
Performance seen: February 8th 2007

The first Greek tragedy I ever saw in the original language was Sophocles' Trachiniae (Women of Trachis), in Cambridge in 1983. I still remember it vividly. Now the relatively rarely-staged (compared to the Oedipus Rex and Antigone) Trachiniae becomes the first play I've seen two Greek-language productions of (without, incidentally, seeing an English version in the interim).

I've noticed over the years that the King's Greek Play has a tendency to be theatrically experimental. Even when the staging is fairly conventional, they'll choose a leftfield text like Rhesus. 2007 is no different, and director Caroline Fries scatters throughout the play what I can only describe as artifices, seeking to engage the Greekless audience. Perhaps that's appropriate, as Trachiniae sees Sophocles himself experimenting, with a female character, Deianeira, Heracles' wife, who is, as Judith Mossman noted in her pre-performance talk, not bad in herself, but through naivety and a lack of common sense manages to kill her husband, a central conflict between two characters (Heracles and Deianeira) who never meet, and a Messenger whose initial action is to report an offstage messenger's speech.

The question is, do any of the artifices work?

Before tackling that, I have to be fair and point out that playing a role in a Greek-language production is difficult, especially if one is not a native speaker of the modern language (and there are noticeably fewer people in prominent roles with that sort of background than there have been in previous years). Not only does one have to remember lines in a tongue not one's own, but one has to appear as if one knows what the lines mean. I have seen Greek language productions where actors were speaking words when they clearly had no idea of the meaning, and had just learned the text by rote. No-one in this year's King's Greek Play committed that sin. And these are amateur actors and an amateur production. So I cannot set too harsh a standard upon such a show (which is not to say that student productions cannot sometimes reach very high standards indeed).

So, what are some of the artifices? The production makes a point of eschewing surtitles. I think this is a shame, as I was glad to see them appear in 2005. Instead, there are short readings in English. These are usually given at microphones by the sides of the stage, though the dying Heracles remains on his cot. They are translations of lines of the play, summaries of the action, or texts that resonate with the same themes (I recognized Shakespeare and the King James Bible). There are also short filmed sequences projected on to the backdrop (as there had been in a previous KCL version of the Antigone that I saw, and didn't much like). I'm not sure that this helps the audience follow the play's action - I found myself wondering how someone unfamiliar with the work would cope. The film sequences also occasion the odd pause as the cast wait for them to start, which cause the action to drag. (As does the bringing on of Heracles, where the lights are dimmed as his cot is pulled on by stagehands, who then left before the action resumed - far better, surely, to begin the scene as Heracles is brought on.) All this can only be accommodated through what seemed to be the slashing of significant sections of the Greek - this at least is what I surmised from the way those around me following the work with their Oxford Classical Texts flipped their pages over.

The Chorus are clad in Greek-style dresses, and masked, after a fashion - their faces are painted white, with a black domino mask painted across that. The intent here may be to present the Chorus as uniform, but in fact the make up actually highlights the differences in their faces. But there is some attempt at music (though little movement), with the Chorus singing two songs, and a duet with Deianeira.

Deianeira is portrayed confidently by Charlotte Murrie, and it soon becomes clear that her halting delivery is intended to show Deianeira's state of mind, and not because she has forgotten her lines. (Unfortunately, the play began with an English prologue by an actress who had forgotten her lines.) She is clad in a forties cocktail dress, with a large flower in her hair, an echo, as the programme notes reveal, of Billie Holiday's look. Heracles' new bride, Iole, is clad identically, underlining the way in which she is intended as a replacement for Deianeira. It also adds incestuous overtones to Heracles demand that Iole be married after his death to his son Hyllus - like Oedipus, Hyllus is to plough the furrow previously ploughed by his father.

I can't say that there were any particularly bad ideas used in this production. But the artifices seemed to me not to add up to more than the sum of their parts. There was no unifying theme bringing the various devices together - for all that last year's production seems to have somewhat divided people I've spoken to, there was at least a single central idea from which the other ideas flowed. I couldn't see that in this production.

So this version of Trachiniae seems to me to be a failed experiment. But it is a failure produced by people who have talent. To progress one must experiment, and if that exposes one to the risk of failure, that does not invalidate the experiment, for that is how one learns.