Friday 30 October 2015

Greek Theatre and the Suffragettes

Two things made this week’s topic inevitable.  Last week’s blog photo of Edythe Olive in the 1907 votes-for-women production of Euripides’ Medea attracted several emails, and I saw Sarah Gavron’s movie Suffragette. It passes with flying colours my basic test for cinema, being both entertaining and enlightening.

Actresses Franchise League 
I would have enjoyed seeing Bonham Carter and Mulligan recite the Euripidean Medea’s first monologue ‘Women of Corinth’, on the economic, social, and political wrongs committed against the entire female sex. Suffragists regularly did so at their meetings, in the translation of Gilbert Murray. The autumn of 1907, when Harley Granville Barker directed Medea at the Savoy Theatre, saw the first mass arrests of women activists, whose supporters noisily packed the stalls to applaud what they perceived to be a militantly feminist ancient play.

McCarthy as Dionysos
The Actresses’ Franchise League was formed in 1908. One of the most articulate members, Lillah McCarthy, determined not to let a man get the best part, starred as a cross-dressed Dionysos in Euripides’ Bacchae in 1908. She followed this up with a searing performance as Jocasta in Sophocles’ Oedipus in 1910 and as the spunky heroine of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris in 1912-1915.

When Gertrude Kingston became the lessee of the Little Theatre in the Adelphi in 1908, she knew about Greek drama because she had acted the role of Helen in the 1905 pro-Boer Trojan Women directed by Granville Barker. She was personally more interested in the photo opportunities afforded by glamorous Hellenic robes than by politics, but she still chose a radical feminist and gay rights campaigner, Laurence Housman (A.E. Housman’s brother), to translate Aristophanes’ Lysistrata for her company.

Laurence Housman
Laurence saw his opportunity, however. He had co-founded the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage (which does get a mention in the movie) in 1907. He saw Lysistrata as a ‘play of feminist propaganda which offered lurid possibilities’, and a vehicle for jokes about women’s exclusion from the suffrage.

Kingston as Lysistrata
McCarthy as Jocassta

Six months later Kingston also directed a scene from the play as part of a matinée organized at the Aldwych by the Actresses’ Franchise League and the Women Writers Suffrage League; the performance was enhanced by ‘carefully planned typical interruptions from the audience’, similar to the audience participation which had enlivened the performances of Elizabeth Robins’s suffragette drama Votes for Women! The Woman’s Press published Housman’s translation (1911); American suffrage groups also performed it.
Iphigenia in T

So the craze for Greek theatre currently sweeping London’s theatreland is by no means without precedent: I just wish that I could see any serious political ideals or agendas underpinning any of the productions on offer...

Friday 23 October 2015

Hellenism, the UN and Human Rights

Today is the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, which came into existence on 24th October 1945 at a congress in San Francisco. Three years later the UN General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Faisal Trad with Michael Møller
A month ago, the Saudi ambassador to Geneva, Faisal Trad,  was elected Chair of the UN Human Rights Council committee which appoints ‘independent experts’. Saudi Arabia has great expertise in human rights violations to offer. This year it has beheaded more individuals than ISIS, lashed blogger Raif Badawi for ‘apostasy’, and done absolutely nothing to prevent the Female Genital Mutilation rampant there.

I happen to be going to Geneva next week. If I bump into Trad I will be wishing the UN Happy Anniversary and reminding him of two articles in the Universal Declaration:

5      No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
19    Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Edythe Olive, Suffragette Medea in Murray's translation (1907)
I have been focussed on the UN since I was appointed chair of the Gilbert Murray Trust, which offers bursaries to support people promoting either the work of the UN or the study of ancient Greece (please do look at website and apply).  Murray was a brilliant academic and Professor of Greek who never forgot that intellectuals have a responsibility to offer their brains to the world outside the academy as well as within it. He was one of the leading figures in the foundation of the UN’s predecessor organisation, the League of Nations, and of Oxfam.

Murray avidly supported the rights of women. He defended conscientious objectors. He collaborated in the first versions of Greek tragedy staged to make political protests, the first being a London production of Trojan Women which denounced the brutal treatment of Boer women and children by the British. The cynical appointment of the Saudi Arabian Faisal Trad to what is obviously seen not as a profoundly important responsibility but a plum position has undoubtedly made Gilbert turn in his Westminster Abbey grave.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Wine, Norwegian Hellenists, and Song

Norwegian Acdemy of Science & Letters
Skol! We intoned it rather too many times over the dinner last night at the Norwegian Classical Association's knees-up in the beautiful building of the Norwegian Academy in Oslo. I have always enjoyed the drinking salutation of the Norwegians. It may be a coincidence, unless an Indo-European shared root explains it (memo to self to research this one), but the ancient Greek word for a popular drinking song was a skolion. This word is to be distinguished from a learned grammarian’s comment on a text, a scholion. An important distinction, although some of the scholia on e.g. the Iliad  are so crass that one wonders whether the grammarians had in fact been drinking when they inscribed them.

The Oslo Musical Papyrs--song from a tragedy
I’d been invited by the Academy’s General Secretary Øivind Andersen, one of the long line of outstanding Greek scholars Norway has produced. I first got to know about them when writing about the vocal techniques of ancient Greek actors, who in tragedy had to sing arias as well as speak dialogue. They wrote these arias on portable scripts they could take with them as they toured the theatres of antiquity. Several have survived on papyrus. The musical notation takes the form of extra letters written over the libretto. They tell us an enormous amount about how ancient tragic melodies actually sounded—large intervals were usually avoided, and the melodies wound sinuously up and down the ancient set scales.

One of the most important of the ‘musical papyri’ is in Oslo. It contains a plangent song sung by an ancient actor in an otherwise lost tragedy about Achilles’ son Neoptolemus.  You can hear a slightly imaginative reconstruction of what it sounded like here

Leiv Amundsen (right)
I feel a special affinity with this papyrus because it was co-edited by the gifted earlier Norwegian Greek scholars Samuel Eitrem and Leiv  Amundsen (in oil painting I'm pointing at in the picture) along with whom else but Reginald Pepys Winnington-Ingram, Professor at King’s College London.  His office is now mine. This thrills me because as long ago as 1948 he wrote the most significant article on Aeschylus’ Oresteia to appear until the 1970s, a profoundly feminist piece in which he explained that Clytemnestra’s real problem is that she knows she is smarter than her husband. So last night I feel that the Hellenist philological bond between Oslo and my institution was delightfully reaffirmed over Norwegian cod and excellent wine. Skol skol skol!

Saturday 10 October 2015

Ridley Scott & Aristotle on Mars & Entertainment

It was on 4 May 357 BCE that Aristotle got to grips with the planet Mars. May 4th is of course Star Wars Day, as in ‘May the Fourth/Force be With You’. One of my children was born on that date and once got free Star Wars minifigures in the Cardiff Lego shop simply by waving a copy of her birth certificate. Now my political party's leader, wonderfully, has a May 4 connection simply by looking like Star Wars’ Obi Wan Kenobi.

The View from Athens Pub, 357 BCE
Back in 357, at about 2000 in the evening Athens time, Aristotle (then in his mid-thirties and studying with Plato) watched the moon move in front of the planet Mars. He was the first known person in history to observe, I like to think from a tavern near the Academy, the distinctive planet re-emerging from behind the dark side of the moon on its other, ‘brilliant and shining side’ (On the Heavens, aka de Caelo book 2 chapter 12, 292a).

'The War-God Planet is further away than the Moon'
From this empirical observation Aristotle was able to infer that the moon was nearer to planet Earth than Mars, even though he still thought that the centre of the whole system was Earth. Aristotle, however, called the planet Mars by its Greek name ‘Ares’. (He can't be held responsible for the fact that this was the name of my warlike first husband, whom I left the night the Berlin wall came down).

I went on a family outing to see Ridley Scott’s dazzling movie Martian  yesterday. That is, we booked tickets once I had got over the fact that Teenagers Today are not told at school that Mars is further out from the centre of the solar system than Earth (they do know what happens in intergalactic computer games, just not in physical reality). I was also encouraged because the name ARISTOTLE can be coerced out of the letters forming the three words RIDLEY SCOTT MARS, although do not know what to do with the spare letters DYCMRS. (Suggestions from crossworders please in COMMENTS below).

What I have always loved about Ridley Scott is not that he comes from Teesside, although that has clearly made him grounded and funny and will be an advantage when dealing with the monster egos and morons he must meet in Planet Hollywood. His movies—Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma and Louise1492, and Gladiator are my favourites—have ALL managed to be educational and morally edifying as well as enthralling entertainment.

Scott not only seems to think that females are intelligent (the commander of the Mars mission is a woman). He just ‘gets’ that art can be both useful and pleasurable, as Aristotle keenly argued it must be in his Poetics; you should have heard the cheers in (Witney) Cineworld when rational science and transnational human brainpower, to the tune of ABBA’s Waterloo, got the highly resourceful Astronaut (Watney), a Botanist like Aristotle's best friend Theophrastus, off the Red Planet and back to family Homo Sapiens. More, please, Ridley. Aristotle would have approved.

Thursday 1 October 2015

How to Succeed as an Undergraduate: 9 things not to do

In UK academia, teaching staff are now sent almost daily directives telling us how to make our students feel at home and Enhance The Student Customer Experience. Many more management emails list things we may not do or say to them. While I have always been very pro-student, because so many of them are impoverished, anxious about their futures,  lonely,  and easily exploited, the beginning of teaching term seems an appropriate time to remind everyone that pedagogical relationships, like any others, are two-way.

There are several sure-fire ways of alienating your lecturer.  I am not bothered about texting on silent mobile phones, packed lunches, or anything else which does not disturb me or fellow students. But in the name of cordial entente I do recommend that students do NOT do the following (all examples, in ascending order of obnoxiousness, drawn directly from my personal lecturing experience).

 1  Write emails to her opening ‘Hey, Prof.’, ‘Hey Ms.’ or simply ‘Can you pop along all the materials for last week’s lecture and tell me the gist?  I can’t remember whether I attended it or not.’

   2  Snog your girlfriend/boyfriend noisily while she is lecturing. The Greeks may be exciting stuff, but there are limits.

   3  When she has spent several hours reading your thesis draft and annotating it with constructive criticism and suggestions, belligerently defend every point and demand to know what her academic qualifications are.

   4  Fail to wash and don clean clothes before tutorials in small offices with poor ventilation.

   5  Ask her the following: ‘I am paying the same fees for this course as Emily Klopstock von Metterhausen. Why has she got a First for that essay and I have only got a 2:2?’

  6     Say to her after a lecture on Greek tragedy, ‘It’s really strange: there’s a famous woman who’s written this great book on Greek tragedy with the same name as you, Miss.’

  7      Tell her you are the warlock of the coven of witches in Newbury and send her a mysterious wand inscribed with a spell naming her as Hera and yourself as Ixion.  (The latter sexually harassed the former).

   8   When she tells your class that she is shaken up because she feels bad about accidentally killing a badger driving to the station that morning, go onto Wikipedia immediately after the lecture and insert ‘Notorious Badger Murderer’ into the first paragraph of the entry under her name.

  9  Ask her when you have been introduced to her at the end of term departmental party if she would do a personal pole dance display for you and your mates in the rugby club.

Note to any former students who read this and recognise themselves: I am currently out of the country and not readily available to correspond.