May 13, 2015, by Oliver Thomas
Women of Troy part 3
Lynn Fotheringham analyses some audience responses from last week’s production of Women of Troy.
In my last post about the New Theatre’s Women of Troy, I mentioned that I was conducting some audience-research via an on-line questionnaire. I am interested in the different ideas of ‘authenticity’ that affect our response to representations of the ancient world, in films, novels, comics, … or stage performances. So my questionnaire asked such questions as: ‘What five words come to mind when you hear the phrase “Greek tragedy”?’ and ‘Which aspects of this production felt “Greek”, “tragic” or “ancient”, or surprised you?’
I’ve received twenty full responses (and I’m happy to receive more), thirteen from students doing degrees in Classics subjects and seven from others (although only three of these had never read/seen any Greek tragedy previously). Unsurprisingly, some differences between the two groups can be detected, although I acknowledge that the sample is not large enough to be statistically significant.
Classicists came up with a wider range of words relating to Greek tragedy, even allowing for the fact that there are so many more of them in the sample. They mentioned many more personal names, e.g. of mythological characters prominent in tragedy; only one non-Classicist named such a character, Oedipus – probably the name most associated with the genre. Some Classicists indicated awareness of the family focus and strong female characters in many plays (‘family’, perhaps ‘love’, ‘women’ x2); the words ‘competition’ and ‘collective’ point to awareness of the institutional context of the original performances. Obviously it would be nice to take points such as this as evidence that we manage to teach our students something in literature modules! The technical term ‘catharsis’ was mentioned by one Classicist and one non-Classicist; like the name Oedipus, this is clearly a word associated with tragedy outside the classroom.
Given the larger number of Classicists, it could be argued that certain aspects of subject-matter and dramatic form loom larger in the minds of the non-Classicists, who mentioned gods four times to Classicists’ once, and the chorus three times to Classicists’ twice; two respondents from each group mentioned masks. The prominence of these aspects is not surprising. If the Classicists mention them less frequently, this may be because they take them for granted. Some of these aspects also came up in response to other questions, focused on the production.
Eight Classicists and five non-Classicists answered the question about which aspects of the production felt ‘Greek’, ‘tragic’ or ‘ancient’; all the Classicists felt that the aspects they identified contributed to their enjoyment, while two of the others felt that they detracted. Six Classicists referred to the chorus here. One also noted inclusion of ‘choral speech’ as something surprising about the production, since many modern productions avoid this approach. All this suggests that the chorus may be a key element of the response to a particular production for Classicists, although only two had thought it worth mentioning in relation to the genre. By contrast non-Classicists seem less focused on the chorus when analysing the performance, with only one mentioning the ‘songs’ as a (negative) Greek/tragic/ancient feature, and one as a (positive) surprise.
Although both groups of respondents included words relating to sadness/loss/grief/crying as associated with the genre, two of the non-Classicists mentioned the awful bleakness of the play as a surprise as well as Greek/tragic/ancient: ‘the characters kept saying it would get worse and it did!’ In fact, Women of Troy is particularly relentless, for the genre, in both its negative plot-trajectory and its focus on lamentation; in many Greek tragedies more actually happens, and some even have happy endings. It’s interesting that one of these people was positive about the experience and the other negative.
Obviously audience-reponses are very complex things, but this initial experiment in researching them has given me much food for thought. It’s not too late to fill in the questionnaire if you saw the performance and would like to add your own thoughts to the data!
Top: Cassandra (Lara Cowler)
Middle-right: Andromache (Jessica Lundholm)
Middle-left: Chorus-members (Alice Simmons, Rachel Connolly, Iona Hampson, Boo Jackson)
Bottom-right: Menelaus (Sam Greenwood) and Helen (Rachel Angeli)