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by Archaeology Newsroom

Medea and Hippolytus in 1984. The importance of theatrical space

The theoretical position taken in this article is that the structural characteristics (shape, dimensions, disposition of parts) of any theatre exert a significant influence on the overall effect of a given theatrical event. This is particularly true in the case of the ancient Greek theatres, whose formal characteristics reflect the society whose needs they served, and which are in turn reflected on the structure of the plays created for performance in these theatres. Nevertheless, many “revivals” of ancient plays tend to impose an ideological or aesthetic superstructure upon the plays, which, ingenious or compelling as it may be on its own merit, is usually at odds with the explicit dramatic action of the play and its articulation through the actions of the performers within a dramatic scheme which is uniquely served by the structural characteristics of the surviving ancient theatres.Two relatively recent productions illustrate this point rather pertinently; the Medea of the Japanese Toho company, and the Hippolytus of the National Greek Theatre, both performed in the summer of 1984 in the theatre of Herod Atticus. The resounding success of the former must be attributed not only to the admitted virtuosity of the actors, but also to the fact that the production was skillfully tailored to the specifications of the theatre which, though not of the same period as the Euripidean plays, includes most of the features of an open-air classical Greek theatre. As a result, the dramatic action of the play, with its characteristic structure of episodes alternating with choral stasima, and its outward-reaching thrust, extending uninhibited from the performers to the public and beyond the theatre to the polis, was given its full dramatic scope and expression, despite the language “barrier” of the Japanese performance.

By contrast, the production of Hippolytus largely ignored the structural characteristics of the theatre, as well as those of the play. A new theatrical space was established, which erected a barrier between the performers and the public, isolated the performers from one another, and detached them from the characters they were portraying, as well as from the action of the play. In this way, the basic characteristics of Greek drama among which are its dynamism, its universality, and its ability to commune and to communicate in many levels, were seriously undermined. Furthermore, the production ignored the specific dramatic imperatives of the Hippolytus, which is built upon a powerful contrast between the character of Phaidra (who is as dynamic as Hippolytus despite, and even because of, the constraints placed upon her) and that of Hippolytus This contrast is also expressed in spatial terms, through the division of the scenic space into interior and exterior space; Phaidra’s palace/prison and the seemingly limitless domain of Hippolytus. In general, it can be said that when the production introduces a dramatic scheme which clashes with the existing mechanism of the play it purports to recreate, this results in the destabilization of the inherent economy of that play, and a subversion of the play’s relationship with the public. This is not only contrary to the spirit and purpose of classical Greek drama but is thoroughly anti-theatrical as well.