[MA Creative Writing] Lysistrata – Essay

Module: Intertextuality: Story, Genre, Craft

PART A: A piece of creative writing in any genre, in response to one or more of the case studies presented in the module (and to individual reading and research following on from the case study materials).  This could be a response to one or more core texts, or an adaptation or ‘version’ of a self-chosen text, as negotiated with the tutor  (3, 000 words) [60%]

PART B: An analysis of the intertextual relationships between your creative writing for Part A and two or more of the literary texts studied, demonstrating an understanding of key concepts introduced in the module, and their impact on your own work.  You should refer to at least one of the Case Studies in detail.  (2,000 words) [40%]

 


 

Part B – Lysistrata (An Essay)

In Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S Eliot argues that every poet should write with a ‘historical sense’, from within the mind of the generation and in response to their predecessors. He argues that when an established text is used as stimulus, the two works should not be placed in competition with each other, but ‘measured by each other’ in a way that adds to the appreciation of both works.[1] Eliot’s allusion to Dante’s Inferno in the epigraph of The Lovesong of Alfred Prufrock, for example, adds depth to his own poem (allowing him to suggest the ideal type of listener for Prufrock’s confession) and alludes to the timelessness of the former text.[2] Intertextuality of this kind requires a formalist approach, so that the re-working of the material is not seen as an attack on the author, but as a tribute to the longstanding relevance of the work itself.

Much of Eliot’s theory can be applied to the adaptation of classical texts for the stage, specifically regarding a current trend in contemporary European theatre, led by auteur-directors such as Katie Mitchell, Thomas Ostermeier and Ivo Van Hove, that sees the classical work completely reimagined in accordance to the director’s creative vision. Many traditionalists see these adaptations as unfaithful to the original source, but this new wave of directors agree with Eliot in saying that ‘Novelty is better than repetition’ and that the best way to pay respect to a historical text is to respond to it, rather than reproduce it.[3]

Silviu Pucârete, a Romanian director-auteur known for his drastic adaptations of classical work, states that there is a problem, particularly in British theatre, of seeing the classical as ‘sacred’ and thus, they are continually remade but never retold in an engaging manner. The way to retell these works successfully, Pucârete argues, is to open it up and try and discover new things.[4] Similarly, Simon Stone, writer and director of The Wild Duck and Toneelgroep’s Medea, refers to the original text as a ‘blueprint’, stating that ‘the moment a play becomes a piece of theatre, you need to convince the audience it has something to say about the life they have now’.[5] This approach has much in common with Eliot’s ideas on the ‘ideal order’ of art, where the artist has a responsibility to alter the work in accordance to the needs of their generation, and understand that this alteration is not an improvement upon the original.[6] It is with all of this in mind that I began to read Lysistrata, wondering what it would have to offer the twenty-first century.[7]

In The Director’s Craft, Katie Mitchell discusses the importance of distinguishing the ‘ideas’ of the original play and its new concept. The ideas, for Mitchell, are what the original writer focussed on whilst creating the work, and the concept is something that the director imposes upon it. To find the ideas of the play, the director must undergo a ‘detailed study of the material’ (Eliot calls this a ‘concentration’)[8] and repeatedly ask themselves: What is the play about?[9] Following this concentrated process, I found that the ideas of Lysistrata were as follows:

  1. The play is about women withholding sex. (The most important idea)
  2. The play is about finding peace.
  3. The play is about…

After establishing the ideas of the text, the director can then develop their concept by taking the most important idea of the play and asking how it is relevant to people living now. Following these instructions, I found that my concept for Lysistrata was as follows:

  • What would happen in the twenty-first century if sex was withheld?

In Katie Mitchell: Learning from Europe, Dan Rebellato states that ‘Once this idea structure is uncovered it allows for the discarding of other, less fundamental aspects of the text’,[10] this means that the setting, era, length, and language of the original text is often toyed with. In Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies, for example, the Toneelgroep ensemble bring together Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra into a six hour political drama, set in a conference centre, where the actors are in modern business wear, and the spectators are encouraged to walk around freely.[11] I decided to set Lysistrata in an apartment in Britain in the twenty-first century, rather than the city of Athens; I shortened the length of the play considerably; and I completely reworded the original using contemporary English, only directly quoting a couple of lines from Sommerstein’s translation.[12]

The most radical change I made to the original was regarding the genre. As soon as I began to engage with the text with my concept in mind it became clear that my adaptation would have tragic consequences, not comic, and that my adaptation would deviate greatly from the original course of action. I liked the ideas of the play, but I was struggling with its direction in the action leading off the peace oath.[13] When working on Nora, an ungoverned adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Thomas Ostermeier (director of the Scahübuhne Berlin) had a similar experience. He said that despite being ‘completely in love with the play’, he was not in love with Nora, and he was ‘convinced’ that the performance had to build to a very different climax.[14] Some people might ask these auteurs, who adopt this destructive approach to adaptation, why they choose to use a historical text as stimulus instead of creating a performance from scratch. A classical work can be an effective starting point for a socio-political director; it is as though a metaphorical language forms between the new piece of work and the original, a ‘conformity’ as Eliot says,[15] that immediately asks the audience to actively reflect upon the progression of society. Eliot’s subversion of the Petrarchan sonnet form in The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock works in the same way. By constructing the lines around bleak imagery, such as blackness, lingering and drowning, Eliot comments on the anti-romantic nature of the modern metropolis, and the effect of the imagery is then heightened when the reader compares Eliot’s new sonnet with the romantic origins of the form.[16]

‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,’ Eliot says, and a newly created work is most successful when the glimmers of past artists ‘assert their immortality most vigorously’.[17]  As I was deviating from the original Lysistrata greatly, I wanted to hint back to the original, so that the sound of Aristophanes could be heard throughout the piece. As in the original, the Old Man and Old Woman in my piece act as a chorus, they interrupt the tragic action with short scenes that allude to the euphemistic comedy of the original; Lysistrata and Calonice still take an oath over wine; Lysistrata barricades herself in the apartment instead of the acropolis; and it is Lysistrata who ends up covered in toilet roll in my version, and not the Magistrate.

Similarly, T.S. Eliot uses snippets of other works within his own to build upon a feeling or image. He states that a reader undergoes an ‘experience’ with a text where the mind seizes and stores up ‘numberless feelings, phrases [and] images’ that will then come together like particles and form a new compound.[18] In The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, for example, Eliot’s allusions to Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress build upon his theme of missed opportunity[19]; and the reference to Hamlet near the end of the piece refers again to the protagonist’s indecisiveness.[20] I employed this type of fragmentation and reassembly in Lysistrata, by weaving lines from texts taken from My Personal Anthology, including Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis and Carol Ann Duffy’s Adultery, within the dialogue. In Scene 7 of my adaptation, for example, Lysistrata tells her husband to ‘Eat all the fucking peaches’, in an allusion to Eliot’s Prufrock. Unlike Prufrock, who does not ‘dare to eat a peach’, Lysistrata’s husband has not suppressed his desires, even at the cost of their relationship.[21]

I do not believe that this type of layering works as well in playwriting as it does in poetical writing, in the sense that it is difficult to layer imagery in a form based around dialogue. It does, however, take the dialogue in more spontaneous and interesting directions.  Also, as in Eliot’s poetry, it adds another layer of enjoyment for those in the audience who recognise the references. It is as if a secret passage has been built by the artist, between the original work and the twenty-first century, that we delight in.

It was not only famous texts that I intertextually referenced in my version of Lysistrata, I also took inspiration from the words of real people. Verbatim theatre has been growing in popularity since the early 2000s, when theatre companies such as Tricycle Theatre, and directors such as Robin Soans, began to value it as a socio-political form. By using real words said by real people, Verbatim theatre vows to speak the truth, and so it can be an incredibly helpful technique in making classical texts feel more relevant and engaging to a modern audience. With my adaptation of Lysistrata, I used Facebook to carry out a free-writing exercise, asking people to respond to the following sentence-starters:[22]

  1. Love is…
  2. Sex is…
  3. Cheating is…

The words collected from these individuals are apparent throughout my adaptation, they helped me to discuss the breakdown of a relationship more accurately and spontaneously. I integrated some of the text directly into the dialogue of the characters, and used others as a stimulus for the action of the scene. In Scene 2, Lysistrata’s comments on her husband getting straight up after having sex and making egg and soldiers, took inspiration from one of the responses in which a person wrote ‘I had one guy who just went off and made beans on toast afterwards […] Like just sodded off’;[23] and in Scene 8, the Husband’s description of love being ‘the smile you give me in the morning’ is taken directly from the verbatim response (1.4).[24] Contemporary directors are always trying to find ways to progress performance art, and according to Eliot, it is essential that art is continually ‘ever so slightly’ adjusted so that it remains relevant.[25] It is becoming increasingly popular in the twenty-first century to use multimedia in contemporary performance. Multimedia can be used effectively in the adaptation of classical texts for the stage, because it immediately places the original work within a modern environment, and the performance instantly becomes more engaging for the current theatre-goer, who is surrounded by technology in everyday life. For Katie Mitchell, multimedia allows the director to stage the unstageable.[26] In her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, spot effects, sound tracks, and live broadcasts, create visual representations of the stream of consciousness narrative. It was a juxtaposition of symbolism and reality, exteriority and interiority, and of screen and stage, that critic Lyn Gardner likened to ‘having an out of body experience’.[27] A projector screen is used throughout my adaptation of Lysistrata, to explore the solitary moments we spend in front of screens in the modern era. In Scene 4, Lysistrata doesn’t speak at all, but we see her thought processes as she navigates the Ann Summers webpage, and in the final scene, we bear witness to Lysistrata’s distress as she contemplates divorce.

My idea to have a quote projected onto the screen as spectators take to their seats prior to the performance was influenced by Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People, where a quote on consumerism begins the play and acts as a point of reflection throughout the piece.[28] I wanted the audience to understand that the original Lysistrata ‘requires us to assume that consensual marital sex was the only kind of sex available’ and that in my version they were not going to be ignored.[29]

In contemporary theatre, the writing process is a collaboration, not only between the auteur-director and the original text, but also involving the actors within the ensemble who respond to the text, and sometimes even their spectators (as in verbatim theatre and interactive theatre). This approach shares many of Eliot’s views on tradition, where artistic progression is based around emotional responses. This way of working demonstrates an ardent concern for the artistic process itself, Eliot says that ‘it is not the ‘greatness’, the intensity of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.’[30] For many contemporary European theatre directors, this fusion can last for years. Ivo Van Hove, first directed Roman Tragedies in June 2007, for example, and it is still in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s repertoire today.[31] It is best to read my adaptation of Lysistrata with an understanding that the writing process is not yet over, that if taken on by an ensemble the work would continue to adapt and grow. Lysistrata will continue to be adapted in accordance to the ideas that were in the mind of Aristophanes over two-thousand years ago; it will continue to document society’s attitudes towards desire, peace, and long-distance relationships, as time and art progress.


 

Footnotes

[1] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and The Individual Talent”, Perspecta, 19 (1982), p.37 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1567048&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017].

[2] T.S. Eliot, ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1st edn (London: Faber and Faber, 1969) p.13

[3] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and The Individual Talent”, Perspecta, 19 (1982), p.37

[4]Aleksandar Saša Dundjerović, ‘Silviu Purcârete: Contemporising Classics’ in Dan Rebellato and Maria M Delgado, Routledge Companion to Contemporary European Directors, 1st edn (London, UK: Routledge, 2010) pp.94-95

[5] Nancy Groves, “Simon Stone: ‘If Theatre Could Be Half as Good As HBO, We’d Be Hitting Gold'”, The Guardian, 2016 <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jun/03/simon-stone-theatre-film-the-daughter-yerma&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017].

[6] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, Perspecta, 19 (1982), p.39 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1567048&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017].

[7] Aristophanes and others, Lysistrata And Other Plays, 1st edn (London: Penguin, 2002). pp.131-193

[8] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and The Individual Talent”, Perspecta, 19 (1982), p.42 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1567048&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017].

[9] Katie Mitchell, The Director’s Craft, 1st edn (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009). pp.47-49

[10] Dan Rebellato ‘Katie Mitchell: Learning from Europe’ in Dan Rebellato and Maria M Delgado, Routledge Companion to Contemporary European Directors, 1st edn (London, UK: Routledge, 2010). P.331

[11] Shakespeare, William, Roman Tragedies (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra), directed by Ivo Van Hove (Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 2007-2017)

[12] Aristophanes and others, Lysistrata And Other Plays, 1st edn (London: Penguin, 2002). p. 135-136

[13] Ibid. p.149

[14] James Woodall, ‘Thomas Ostermeier: On Europe, theatre, communication and exchange’ in Dan Rebellato and Maria M Delgado, Routledge Companion to Contemporary European Directors, 1st edn (London, UK: Routledge, 2010). p.371

[15] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and The Individual Talent”, Perspecta, 19 (1982), p.38-39 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1567048&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017].

[16] T. S. Eliot, ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1st edn (London: Faber and Faber, 1969) p.16-17

[17] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and The Individual Talent”, Perspecta, 19 (1982), p.37 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1567048&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017].

[18] Ibid. p.40

[19] Eliot, T. S, ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1st edn (London: Faber and Faber, 1969) pp.13-17. Regarding the lines: ‘There will be time, there will be time’ and ‘To have squeezed the universe into a ball’.

[20] Ibid. p.16 ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;’

[21] Ibid. p.16

[22] See Appendix, pp.10-14, section 1

[23] See Appendix, pp.10-11, section (1.2)

[24] See Appendix, p.14, section (1.6)

[25] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and The Individual Talent”, Perspecta, 19 (1982), p.37 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1567048&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017].

[26] Rebellato explains how Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’ is ‘often considered unstageable’ but Mitchell’s use of multimedia allowed her to create a ‘stunning’ adaptation. See: Dan Rebellato ‘Katie Mitchell: Learning from Europe’ in Dan Rebellato and Maria M Delgado, Routledge Companion to Contemporary European Directors, 1st edn (London, UK: Routledge, 2010). P.331

[27] Lyn Gardner, “Waves Sets a High-Water Mark for Multimedia Theatre”, The Guardian, 1987 <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2006/dec/04/wavessetsahighwatermarkfo&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017].

[28] Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People, directed by Thomas Ostermeier (London: The Barbican Centre, 2014).

[29] Aristophanes and others, Lysistrata And Other Plays, 1st edn (London: Penguin, 2002). p. 135-136

[30] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and The Individual Talent”, Perspecta, 19 (1982), p.40 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1567048&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017].

[31] William Shakespeare, Roman Tragedies (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra), directed by Ivo Van Hove (Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 2007-2017)

 


 

Bibliography

Aristophanes, Alan H Sommerstein, Lysistrata And Other Plays, 1st edn (London: Penguin, 2002) pp.131-193

Bartlett, Mike. Doctor Foster. (BBC One. 2015.)

Duffy, Carol Ann, Love Poems, 1st edn (London: Picador, 2010)

Eliot, T.S., “Tradition and The Individual Talent”, Perspecta, 19 (1982), 36-42 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1567048&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017]

Eliot, T. S, ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1st edn (London: Faber and Faber, 1969). pp. 13-17

Gardner, Lyn, “Waves Sets a High-Water Mark for Multimedia Theatre”, The Guardian, 1987 <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2006/dec/04/wavessetsahighwatermarkfo&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017]

Groves, Nancy, “Simon Stone: ‘If Theatre Could Be Half as Good as HBO, We’d Be Hitting Gold'”, The Guardian, 2016 <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jun/03/simon-stone-theatre-film-the-daughter-yerma&gt; [accessed 16 January 2017]

Ibsen, Henrik. An Enemy of the People, directed by Thomas Ostermeier (London: The Barbican Centre, 2014).

Kane, Sarah, and David Greig, Complete Plays, 1st edn (London: Methuen Drama, 2001)

Mitchell, Katie, The Director’s Craft, 1st edn (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009)

Rebellato, Dan and Maria M Delgado, Routledge Companion to Contemporary European Directors, 1st edn (London, UK: Routledge, 2010)

Shakespeare, William, Roman Tragedies (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra), directed by Ivo Van Hove (Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 2007-2017)

Wood, Zoe, and Sarah Butler, “Tesco Cuts Range By 30% To Simplify Shopping”, The Guardian, 2016 <https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/jan/30/tesco-cuts-range-products&gt; [accessed 14 January 2017]


 

Word Count: 2194

Mark: 72

 

 

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