Thursday, September 13, 2012

Letters from Alvina Krause: Teaching Greek Tragedy Fall 1973

When I studied with Krause in Bloomsburg, we did not work on Greek drama. After I got the job at Northwestern, I visited her for a Greek tragedy infusion. The following week she sent me the notecards below. She sent the letter below some time into the first quarter of teaching (I think--she did not date her letters. On most, I pencilled the date I received them, but not this one).
During the breaks between every quarter and the summers of the first two years of teaching, I went to Bloomsburg to work with her on whatever it was I was supposed to teach the following quarter. Those visits and frequent phone calls during the quarter and the teaching journal I sent to her each week--and which she returned with lots of suggestions and comments and notes--kept me afloat the first two difficult years.

Before I ever taught Greek drama I had an experience that revealed Greek drama to me. In London I rushed to the British Museum to see the original Greek sculpture on exhibit there. I found myself in this immense room--a long, long room. I hurried down the center of it to find the Venus. Suddenly at the end of the room I found myself up against something huge, gigantic, terrifying and there was the name "Venus". I froze. This ugly mass, this rough dark immense thing. The dream of a lifetime exploded. I turned and ran back down that long room. But at the door--thank God!--I looked back. And there she stood--the Venus I had known all my life: Beautiful! Magnificent! I almost wept.

Distance. Space -- revealed the Goddess I had known for so long. When I started teaching Greek Drama that experience was my basis: Space, Sculpture, Columns, the Parthenon-- Have you created this for your people? Our world is so crowded, so petty, so small. But in the Greek world where sculpture was a dominant art Venus could be magnificent in her colossal size. Vastness, distance is imperative. Do your people go to the shore of Lake Michigan and look across into that vast space? And do they believe that law and order prevail? Does a God really speak from the sky? And still Man had the capacity to stand erect and tall. Did you begin with the magnitude of Greek sculpture? The Greek dramatists have that same magnitude. the realism of magnitude, of distance, have you created it? There are no petty contortions in Greek sculpture. If there is agony it is colossal agony but it is real in its magnitude. And it is beautiful in its clarity. It is magnificent. Can your students create a sculpture of Medea in her tragic agony?
Stay with it! You are growing. Thank god you are not satisfied!


Read Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way of Living. Make it your own thinking. Use it as background--out of what did Greek drama spring? The thinking of the Greeks--the social attitudes--
But remember: Bring the classics up to you today. Do not simply go back into the classics.
Antigone lives today
Edith Hamilton has a great essay on Greek tragedy. I no longer own it. Maybe John Van Meter can find it for you--or send you to the librarian who can find it.

Remember: Greek audiences came with their picnic baskets, their families--for the whole day--What must the acting have been to hold their attention? To grip them.
Medea and Women's lib--
Antigone and the Hungarian Youths who chose death rather than Russian rule--
Greek drama fell into what we know as a classic form but under the form was rebellion, passion, tragic anger.
Contemporary--the March on Washington--Nixon--Creon--etc.
Why begin the year with Greek Drama rather than with Albee, Chekhov--the bigness of it, releases the actor--Play to the horizon first, then come into the living room--Establish the size, the bigness, the all-encompassing theatre first--
Reach out first then, within
Greek drama has no walls

They are not chanting a formal, pompous statement which bores them; they are wildly insisting that the audience, the gods, somebody look at these terrible things that are happening. They are passionately concerned with the drama. Only by singing their screams can they make themselves heard and understood. Only by dancing their fears, their exorcisms, can they raise their reactions above those of a mob to a universal plane.

Each play has its own particular idea--each has its own style

Find the basic outlook on life--

The astonishment of living

Art of sculpture was part of daily occupation of Greeks--Never a museum art--
Embodied beliefs--stood as a symbol of their lives, beliefs.
Infinite simplicity a sense of fitness, rightness--
They put art above all living pursuits--not as propaganda--artist was a free agent, Then best is exalted, clean, never coarse, cheap, mercenary, sensationalized, unintelligible, distorted
Study Greek statues until they burst into organic life--
Lines, wrinkles, creases, blemishes are removed in the interest of the essential.

Note the:
Resistance to forces
Balance with infinite variety
Dance in Greek drama was an expression of ideas by means of human body actions: Character, passion, were expressed in posture and rhythms, movement

Not creeds--they were unknown. Poetry, music, nature, ancestors, history.
Gods were impersonations of powers of nature and of their own passions. Earth, sky, sea, fire, wind. Love. Wisdom.
Gods were Man's ancestors. Like men they fought, lived, bore grudges, spent much time on earth helping and hindering man.
Intimacy in relations between man and Gods--If a ship was lost man called Poseidon to account--In victory he turned to Athena
Religious life was part of politics not a Sunday affair.

Hubris, the sin of pride brought inevitable punishment
Sin did not involve conscience. There was no moral brooding
no traumas

Balanced man did not neglect some of the gods. Gods were jealous. An untended shrine was a portent of disaster.

Her eyes smoldered under heavily-lidded brows
She wore heavy jewelry--preferably gold
Her gowns were low-cut--and she had a bosom

She had the magnificence of mountains where storms had been
A Columbia professor said the above about Clytemnestra. Sorry I can't find the exact quote. For me it sums up the lady. Note the opposites: magnificence smoldering--Sex vs tragic depths

No cold Greek statue but a Queen who has suffered wrong.
Opening scene between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon: magnificent! He knows: to step on the red carpet is hubris--and Cly- tempts him to do it--The response of horror from all on lookers is a dramatic climax that shakes the world.

It might be wise to start your class performances with a messenger assignment for this epitomizes Greek drama. They can be done by man or woman. In this lib age: probably a woman.
There are people who say the dramatists used a messenger to tell the offstage bloody event because the Greeks could not take the actuality on stage. Bunk! The Greeks were as inured to violence as we are--or more so. The slaying was not performed on stage--probably--because without lights or curtain what would you do with the dead bodies? So the messenger was created: one who was capable of bringing the offstage tragedy on stage. And so the messenger speeches are great pieces of drama. A servant, a witness, a soldier--someone with the capacity to speak graphic speech runs, rushes in--horrified, terrified but the tale MUST be told. Underscore that MUST-- The tale is not idle gossip, is not horror for the sake of horror--it must be told to a particular recipient. The bearer of the tidings does not want to tell the gory details: he must tell them - it is imperative that Medea hear. She must be told. (Clamp your hands over the actors mouths, restrain them in every way until they get the imperative urgency and necessity) The roles must have been assigned to great actors for only great ones can achieve these magnificent climaxes. They take the drama right up to the final tragic moment--

1. The messenger has been an eye witness of horror.
2. The messenger must bear the tidings to the character involved--
3. He (she) comes at break neck speed-
4. He is pulled two ways--back toward the horror, forward toward the recipient
5. He neither babbles nor does he orate: he articulates a horror of exactness with demanded explicity what he is almost incapable of telling.
6. The listener is active: Medea is glorying in the message; she demands every gory detail (But always remember she is no common bloody murderer--She is tragic in that overpowering deep, passionate love is in combat with equally overpowering hate that must revenge the incredible insult to love. Medea and Jason were two great lovers who gloriously sought the Golden Fleece together. At Corinth she is a savage alien -- Jason deserts her for a princess. Because of the greatness of her love she must strike-- Hate overcomes love) So: Medea glories in the message, exults in it, demands more, more, at the same time part of her is die ing in tragic anguish-- Love and hate are close kin, you know--
7. The messenger's entrance is forecast and built on stage. I think Medea is standing high upstage looking off right in anticipation. I think when she sees him in the distance she cries out, runs down in an exultation, hands clasped high "God and God's Justice" and swings up to focus on his entrance. I think perhaps in sheer exhaustion and fear he drops to one knee. Perhaps she advances on him with arms raised-- he has to begin his tale--

If the assignment is successful, if students get absorbed--perhaps you will go on with more Medea--
Then Antigone

LAW (hubris)
Man may not question the law of gods, the law of man--
Law is Law.
(Elizabethans sought the law within self)
Tragedy is always imminent when a law is broken.  Any line that refers to the breaking of a law should be followed by ominous thunder--

1 comment:

  1. How well I remember a class exercise in which I was supposed to be the messenger reporting to Medea the effect of the poisoned gown! I fell SO short! And AK worked for twenty minutes, invoking forest fires and everything else she could think of. If I had SUCCEEDED, I'd have gone into acting. Since, I didn't -- writing.

    Prairie Mary