EPIC PERFORMANCES FROM THE MIDDLE AGES INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Edited by Fiona Macintosh, Justine McConnell, Stephen Harrison and Claire Kenward

OUP (2018) h/b 643pp £110 (ISBN 9780198804215)

We come to Homer by reading text, but soon learn that it was meant to be performed: a voice telling a story to an audience, probably with musical accompaniment, possibly in song. Two examples of this in action are shown us in the Odyssey. The length of the epic poem enables the narrator to give a ‘big picture’ view of a traditional/mythical past, containing many episodes; the verse form enables him to give these episodes dramatic force. Hence the use by Greek tragedians of Homer and the Trojan cycle as a quarry for specific episodes they can refashion into plays. Virgil, steeped in Homer, also wrote a ‘big picture’ poem containing dramatic episodes, and one easily imagines him reciting bits of it at dinner parties held by Maecenas and his friends. If epic, therefore, is essentially a performance art, one would expect it to inspire and mutate into other forms of performance art, especially through those episodes which most catch the dramatic imagination, such as the Sack of Troy, and the point of this book is to demonstrate that this is exactly what has happened, and is still going on.

This is a cornucopia of a book. It is stated to have grown out of a Leverhulme-funded project ‘Performing Epic’ run by the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD), of which one of the editors (Macintosh) is Director. It contains 36 essays plus an Epilogue by 36 different authors including the four editors. Each of these essays covers a different type or aspect of ‘performance’, taken from different periods (Renaissance, Elizabethan, 18th century, 19-20th century, now). Most of them are by academics but some are by performers, and many of the topics are unfamiliar and fascinating.

It is beyond the scope of this review to give more than a very brief, and very incomplete, taster. Several chapters discuss how to define ‘epic’ as a genre and how it differs from theatre: this takes in, among others, Aristotle, Brecht, Peter Brooke’s staging of the Mahabharata. Others demonstrate how epic themes have been transmuted into other poetic forms: in the theatre (Shakespeare and his contemporaries, early modern French theatre), lyric poetry, cinema, even dance. 

Other essays cover oral performances, including those studied by Parry and Lloyd in Serbia with their musical accompaniments, Michael Tippett’s King Priam, Christopher Logue’s War Music, recitals by Alice Oswald, Simon Armitage, Barbara Kohler etc.; Dante also gets a chapter dealing with the dramatic use he made of his love of Virgil. Another section looks at how epic performances have reflected the politics of the time: Camoes’ The Lusiads, 17th century French and Spanish tragedy, the Dutch Republic’s ‘golden age’, Amazons in pre-Civil War masques, Ascanius in 18th century opera, up to Walcott’s stage performance Omeros. 

Another clutch of essays explores how classical epic, firmly established by the 18th century as part of every gentleman’s (and at least some ladies’) education, also appealed to hoi polloi through stage spectaculars and burlesques from Bartholomew Fair onwards, especially the Siege of Troy; this was the title of a so-called ‘droll’ by one Elkanah Settle, pictured by Hogarth, viciously attacked by Dryden and by Pope in the Dunciad because he was thought to be besmirching the classics, but very successful in pulling in the punters. Other examples of burlesques (common) and operas (elite) are quoted through the 19th century up to modern times. 

The richness of all this material is beyond summary; this is a book to keep and dip into from time to  time rather than read at a sitting (indeed, it would take several sittings), but almost every reader would be guaranteed to find several things in it which were new to them..

I cannot resist ending with one story. In a chapter on modern dance adaptations of the Odyssey, Cathy Marston, a choreographer who knows no Greek, was asked to listen to sections of the Greek text both spoken and sung in metre (by Armand D’Angour). Her aim, with her two dancers, was to convey the experience of Odysseus meeting his mother in the underworld but failing to make contact with her, and she developed some original movements to present this idea, which are described. These rehearsals were taking place in Oxford. Midway through them, Martin West came to rehearsal. ‘His visit was a formidable prospect. West seemed initially baffled by what gain there might be in choreographing Homer. Did the text really need any further amplification … Their dialogue was initially terse but opened up some useful ground … Subsequent to the initially uncomfortable conversation … it was illuminating to see how both seemed genuinely engaged by the experiment’. 

One would have liked to be a fly on the wall at that meeting.

Colin McDonald

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