“Re-Imagining the Greeks” Conference: Cross-Cultural Adaptations of Universal Problems

Yagil Eliraz, stage director and professor of theatre and dance, facilitated the “Re-Imagining the Greeks” Conference.

Q: How did this conference come together? Did you just come up with the idea and pull together resources at Amherst?
We had a little extra budget this year, so Catherine [Epstein], our dean, asked if anyone had thoughts [on] what we could do with it. That immediately sparked an idea I’ve had for a long time, so I thought of people I’d like to bring, a budget and a detailed proposal. I am excited about adapting Greek tragedy as a director and a professor.

Q: How did you come to fall in love with Greek theater?
I reached a certain point in my career as a director where I got tired of realistic plays. I got tired of plays that took place in a kitchen and living room. Greek theater deals with giant problems that are unsolvable, and the works speak in a performative language that combines image and movement and text. In this way it is both very textural, very physical and very different from commercial theater which can be like television on stage. I had a really wonderful professor at Tel Aviv University who made me really passionate about Greeks.
The first production I did was an adaptation of Oedipus that was an opera and a play, so I composed a libretto and worked with my friend Iddo Aharony who is a composer. So we had sung text spoken text and dance, and it was very interdisciplinary.

Q: How did you choose which interpretations to focus on? (Japanese, African and/or American)
Did this mainly stem from the professors who were presenting or cultures that have adapted Greek tragedies?
I chose the cultures and then I chose who I wanted to talk about them. I taught a class in the fall on this topic, and I found these writers that really fascinated me. So the proposal that I’ve focused on in my class is artists from different cultures who have focused on Greek tragedies for an adaptation. We asked, why has this phenomenon of adaptation of classical Greek works been happening since the ’80s? When is it happening? What are some of the manifestations?
There are a few Japanese directors who have chosen to adapt and toured worldwide, like Tadashi Suzuki who is the best director in Japan. There are different theater traditions like noh and butoh that interact with texts from different cultural traditions. It’s not like they’re taking butoh and doing Tennessee Williams with this cause that wouldn’t make sense. It works with Greek because it’s old and because it works with music and dance and gesture and movement. Like butoh, Greek tragedy is presentational, not representational. What survived is a manuscript, but it wasn’t intended to be literature to sit on a shelf.
Some of the themes that are conflicts in the Greek tragedies are so universal that they are re-adapted and intended to be told and re-told in different cultures. Femi Osofisun, a Nigerian director, adapted “Antigone” taking action in colonialist Nigeria in the late 19th century, and that’s why they are choosing those texts.

Q: In approaching the idea that Greek tragedy is a universal resource, have you seen any influence from other cultures upon Greek tragedies to begin with?
The scholar from Holland Astrid van Weyenberg studies and challenges the idea of the white West and culture being born in ancient Greece. This interpretation implies that because Greek values are universal, the white West values are universal as well. That approach started to change in the 1950s and in the 1970s the idea that there is no one place and time that is ancient Greece. It took 800 years to form in a wide geographical region. There is an intercultural relationship between ancient Greece and ancient Egypt, the same way that ancient Greece sold sheepskin to Egypt, they exchanged culture between them. This is also true for Mesopotamia, Sicily and Italy. There was also a colonial relationship with the Athenians. Overall, there’s a process of absorbing many different cultures to form Greek culture. There is not something that one culture can put a hand on and say,
“that’s mine.”

Q: What effects does translation on the original Greek have on the plays?
I directed the Oresteia trilogy, which is the only one that has survived in total. There are three tragedies and satyr, which is like animals playing men in a weird variation on satyr. So we know that Oedipus trilogy was intended to be like that originally. When we worked on Orestaia, there were at least twelve translations. The Greek language works more with consonants, and English works more with vowels. The original language is metered in a way that cannot be translated. It’s the same problem we have in Hebrew when we try to translate Shakespeare … the iambic pentameter, that is also in Greek plays. When you’re working with the translation, you also want to maintain the metrical tone of the language. Meter is part of its identity on stage. How do you keep the meter in English, which is not the original meter in which it is written? That’s why it’s hard to translate into English, so it’s an ongoing negotiation between director and translator.

Q: What commentary could the Greek tragedy provide in today’s political climate?
I can answer that from so many different aspects and so many different angles because it is so relevant. I’ll give you an example: “The Trojan Women,” a play written by Euripides. We’re going to have a workshop with an African-American drummer, Neil Clarke, who specializes in African drumming. And I chose this play because it’s about the suffering of the victims in the Trojan War. I talked about this with Neil, and he says in Senegal there’s a special drumming for the suffering of slavery. He read the text, and it hit him so hard because it captures the feelings of we’re being enslaved now. Half a year ago I was reading an adaptation of this from a Syrian director who is adapting this to respond to the crisis. He has many Syrian women singing in a chorus, which is very rare in Syria. Today, there is a constant crisis of war and refugee and a constant exploitation of the “Other.” In Greece, the “Other” is the Trojans, the Persians. Unfortunately, our lives give us so many occasions of what the Greeks are talking about. So it’s just a reflecting mirror that we get to look at and ask ourselves those questions. Questions of morality, questions of social responsibility. I think what’s so exciting about Greek theater is the community aspect. It’s not about individuals—it’s about societies, it’s about the responsibility of individual in society. For example, with Medea and Jason, he’s going to marry the daughter of the king. It’s a domestic issue, but there is a still a societal aspect because there’s a chorus and I think that’s so cool. It’s like a multi-perspective drama.