Monday, February 18, 2013

The Question, February 18, 2013

More than “translationese”
by Estelle Rosen

Elizabeth Ten-Hove, a Classics student in her final year at McGill, is currently directing the McGill Classics Play’s 2013 production, Sophocles’ Philoktetes. In previous years, she played Kassandra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Hippolytos in Euripides’ Hippolytos. Beyond McGill, she has served as stage manager for Oimoi Productions’ Hippolytos (2012 Montreal Fringe), and most recently appeared as a member of the Choir of Theban Women in Scapegoat Carnivale’s October 2012 production of Euripides’ Bacchae.

CHARPO: I was intrigued to learn about McGill Classics Play. Tell us about the background and why Sophocles's Philoktetes for the 2013 McGill Classic Play's presentation?

TEN-HOVE: I was fortunate enough to arrive at McGill at the same time as Lynn Kozak, a professor of Ancient Greek whose interests include Greek drama and its reception. She had been involved in productions of ancient tragedy elsewhere, and wanted to start a similar program at McGill. Everyone in the department was on board with the idea, and the result was our February 2011 production of the Agamemnon.

The McGill Classics Play program is distinct from other theatre opportunities at McGill in several ways. Our program allows students to engage with the ancient texts beyond the academic setting in which we would ordinarily encounter them. Each year’s production begins with the Greek: a volunteer group of students meets regularly throughout the Fall term to translate the play of the year into English. This forces us to think of the words not only in terms of literal meaning—the syntax, morphology, vocabulary—but also as poetry. A script for performance must be far more than the “translationese” we employ in the classroom. This creative engagement with the Greek is always illuminating, and translation group meetings are filled with lively discussions over sound, sense, and everything in between.

Each January, scripts in hand, we approach the year’s text from yet another new perspective: that of performance. Problems of staging, motivation, tone—all these shed light on the play in ways we wouldn’t have considered if we’d just kept our noses in our books. In this year’s play, for example, the character Odysseus falls silent several hundred lines before the end of the play. There is no indication of when (or whether) he leaves the stage. Academically, we have a clear answer to the problem: ancient dramas only allow three actors onstage at a time, not counting members of the choros, and Odysseus would have to change costume to play another character. But when precisely does he leave? We played with about six different options as we were blocking our version, each of which painted a different picture of Odysseus, ranging from an almost comic coward to a helpless spectator.

I was involved as an actor for the first two years of the program. The play was a highlight of each year

The rehearsal process also provides new perspective in a different way. One of the key goals of the Classics Play is inclusivity, and anyone, whether they are in Classics or engineering or anything in between, is welcome to participate. Our choros usually ends up a motley crew, but so much the better! The thoughts of those who are less well-versed in the texts and their historical contexts are always eye-opening, and it’s a real joy for those of us who are in Classics to be able to share something we love with those who might not otherwise have the chance to encounter it.

I was involved as an actor for the first two years of the program. The play was a highlight of each year, and as time passed my experiences onstage came to influence my academic interests more and more. When the opportunity arose to direct the 2013 production, I leapt at it. Even more than acting, directing has required me to immerse myself in the text and think about it from different angles while I try to help weave the disparate elements of plot, character, theme, language, music, and spectacle, into a cohesive whole.

Why the Philoktetes? I was drawn to the play because it is in many ways an odd man out among Greek tragedies. No one dies (not to spoil the story!), the choros plays a far smaller role than usual, and the cast of characters is extremely limited. Most of the action involves the three main characters—Philoktetes, Neoptolemos, and Odysseus—as they define and redefine themselves and their relationships, make difficult decisions, and struggle with what it means to live in a society in which duty and justice so often seem opposed. It is, in this sense, a very timely play—I may even say a modern one.

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