April 24, 2013, by Alan Sommerstein

Song, dance, drama

This post is by Richard Rawles.

Since attending a conference in London during the Easter vacation, I have been thinking about Greek tragedy as a form of music drama, and how hard it is for us as modern readers to grasp this. If we watch a musical or an opera, one of the things which may delight us is the way in which song – or indeed song and dance – can find its way into all sorts of unlikely places. Isn’t it strange, but at the same time wonderful, that characters in opera can sing at the tops of their voices even as they are dying, romantically, of consumption? Wouldn’t it be fun if, walking down the street, we could suddenly see it transformed into a song-and-dance act before our eyes, with strangers suddenly stopping their business and joining in the routine, juggling with the apples from a conveniently situated fruit and veg stall, cartwheeling over zebra crossings, and so on? And where a boy meets a girl, and their hands touch for the first time in a moment of obvious importance for them in their story and for us in the audience, instead of saying ‘Oh, what cold hands you’ve got!’, isn’t it great that he can sing it – wouldn’t it be great if we could sing at moments like that! – so that the music and the song can allow the characters to express emotion in a way that we might struggle to do in ‘real life’?

 But at the same time as we find song and dance where they would never ‘really’ happen and a song represents speech, or represents thoughts which would probably never really be pronounced at all, so we also find song which represents… song. A character might sing a lullaby, or a serenade; we might hear singing from a church; or characters might sing a work-song in a context where, ‘in the real world’, such a thing might also have happened. Sometimes (Chicago, Little Voice, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger) the show depicts singers and songs as part of the plot, catering to our fascination with musical performance – or perhaps sometimes providing a cheap way of working as many musical hits into one story as possible!  This wonderful clip, quite apart from having some of the most glorious acting by a dog you could ever hope to see (I haven’t seen the full movie, Two Sisters from Boston, but I’ve watched this on youtube dozens of times; the canine double-take, presumably achieved with the help of Sausages, makes me grin every time – only Scooby-Doo could compete with it), takes the plotting of singing into drama to new heights: the characters go to a recording studio and find the great tenor recording a song on pre-electric-microphone technology – but in its original context in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger the song was already ‘excerpted’, so to speak, as a dramatic representation of a contribution to a singing competition!

 As usual with comparisons across the centuries, none of this maps very precisely on to the song and dance elements in Greek tragedy, but at least for me these reflections are a helpful reminder of how important those elements would be for the original audiences, and how hard it is to think about them in the same way from our reading, or even from most modern performances. It isn’t easy to think about how the musical parts and the dancing felt in the ancient theatre, or to develop a sense of their emotional impact in addition to a factual knowledge of their importance. But similar questions arose in the conference Paths of Song, held at University College London from 11th – 13th April and organised by Michael Carroll, Thomas Coward and Theodora Hadjimichael. The subtitle of the conference was ‘Interactions between Greek Lyric and Tragedy’, and as such one of the main topics (but by no means the only one) was how to make sense of the relationship between songs in tragedies, and songs in the world outside drama. At the moment the list of papers and speakers can be found here : the speakers from Nottingham were Patrick Finglass and myself.

 I was talking about Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women: a very unusual tragedy, in which the chorus is effectively the central character (scholars speak of a ‘choral protagonist’). This is a hard play to work on (well, I found it hard, anyway!): it’s consistently linguistically difficult, reconstruction of the trilogy of which it formed a part is very uncertain, and it survives in only one manuscript, which is defective and/or very corrupt in a lot of places – including places which are very important for the questions that interested me, about how the chorus sings and dances and how this relates to the singing and dancing of choruses outside drama. The chorus is the Danaids, the daughters of Danaos, who arrive in Argos from Egypt and claim sanctuary there in order to escape marriage with their cousins. I tried to explore ways in which (as I argued) their appearance and behaviour and words might make the audience think of a chorus arriving as theoroi: a choral pilgrimage from one city to another.

 As it turned out, female choruses of non-Greek origin were in fact a mini-theme: there were two papers on Euripides’ Trojan Women and one on Hecuba (in both of these plays, the chorus consists of female Trojan captives). But this was only one element in a rich menu of explorations of relationships between the plays and the rich and varied world of Greek lyric poetry – which is to say, the many different kinds of songs which were performed, by soloists and by choruses, all over the Greek world at the time of the tragedians and earlier. This was already an important and growing thread in tragedy scholarship, and it seemed plain at the London conference that it is still going strong, and can really help us to approach the complexity of tragedy as a form of music drama.

Posted in AeschylusReceptionTragedy