- Acting Greek Tragedy by Graham Ley
In Acting Greek Tragedy, Graham Ley clarifies that he is not attempting to fashion a new method of actor training. Instead, he intends to create an “approach” through which an actor’s dramaturgical analysis of an Attic tragedy can be applied to a performance, thereby training the mind rather than the body or voice (vii). John Barton’s similarly dramaturgically based approach in Playing Shakespeare is directly acknowledged as Ley’s inspiration for this (225). An expert in dramaturgy and performance in ancient Greek theatre, Ley previously published Ancient Greek and Contemporary Performance: Collected Essays (University of Exeter Press, 2015) and The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy: Playing Space and Chorus (University of Chicago Press, 2007). Ley breaks new ground in Acting Greek Tragedy, creating an accessible, thought-provoking workshop series that forces the actor to invert the conventional hierarchy of the stage by recognizing that the chorus is perhaps even more crucial to comprehending Attic tragedies than is the protagonist. Ley recenters the discussion by suggesting that “A full tragic character is to some extent inconceivable without a chorus” (50). This shift in thinking is in line with current scholarly interest in marginalized Greek characters, as in Florence Yoon’s The Use of Anonymous Characters in Greek Tragedy: The Shaping of Heroes (Brill, 2012).
Ley’s book is divided into four main chapters, each dedicated to exploring one of his acting workshops. These focus on monologues, dialogues, three-actor scenes, and scenes involving properties, with each workshop scaffolding onto previous ones. This structure allows readers to understand how to avoid the pitfalls of seemingly artificial language in Attic tragedies when faced with increasingly challenging circumstances.
In his introduction, Ley establishes the breaking down of scenes into “transactions” and “phases,” which go on to form the core of his workshops (2, 34). [End Page 118] Transactions are defined as the business conducted between at least two parties, and phases are a way to break down lengthy monologues into easily digestible portions of purpose and emotion. In short, phases are changes in the action, whereas transactions are character interactions within those phases. This is similar to Konstantin Stanislavsky’s kusok or bit, later referred to as beats.
Ley’s first chapter, “First Workshop—Monologues,” utilizes excerpts from Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea and Hippolytus, which Ley deconstructs into transactions and phases. A notable example is his proposal that Creon’s speech in Antigone, lines 162–210, during which he addresses Thebes as its ruler for the first time, is a transaction in which Creon aims to convince his people to support his rule and his burial proclamation, rather than simply a decree. This recontextualization indicates a need to address the chorus persuasively, as opposed to the dictatorial fashion with which this speech is often approached. Ley’s suggestion reinforces the significance of the chorus in Attic tragedy and encourages a broader range of transactional experimentation during workshops.
Chapter 2, “Dialogues,” draws on selections from Sophocles and Euripides to consider scenes involving two actors. Each excerpt is discussed in extended detail, allowing the reader to follow Ley’s train of thought effortlessly. Ley also continues to amplify the chorus in this workshop, cheekily declaring that “it should never be assumed that placing a chorus in a huddle (still less in a ‘formation’) will somehow release the true ‘Greekness’ of a scene or a section of text” (58). The key to demystifying the chorus instead lies in analyzing how it is affected by, for instance, one character’s public disparagement of another. Ley’s focus is on the chorus and not the lead characters, a substantial realignment of character hierarchy, which usually dictates that the protagonist and antagonist are more important roles. This creates a grounded world where the public, their support or opposition, trust or suspicion, can change the outcome of a play through their effect on the psychology and behavior of tragic heroes and their antagonists.
Scenes involving three actors are more complicated to dissect into transactions and phases, but Ley succeeds in proving in...