No such thing as original… Writing plays and the ancient Greeks

Charles Mee

Charles Mee

I have a lot of time for the American playwright, novelist and historian Charles Mee. I was first introduced to his work by Phillip Zarrilli, who directed a large scale site-specific production of his version of Orestes in the US in 1998.

Mee does not believe that there is such a thing as an ‘original’ play – the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare retold existing stories and he believes all performance is both original and adaptation – we ‘remake’ as we go along.

His ongoing (Re)Making Project and the texts available on the site are offered as a free resource to be taken, used, refashioned and put to each artist’s use. He invites writers, dramaturgs, actors and directors to ‘…pillage the plays as I have pillaged the structures and contents of the plays of Euripides and Brecht and stuff out of Soap Opera Digest and the evening news and the internet, and build your own, entirely new, piece…’ He then encourages practitioners to share their own new re-makings. This way the old stories are made new, with resonance to contemporary audiences.

‘My own work’ Mee writes on his website ‘begins with the belief that human beings are, as Aristotle said, social creatures—that we are the product not just of psychology, but also of history and of culture, that we often express our histories and cultures in ways even we are not conscious of, that the culture speaks through us, grabs us and throws us to the ground, cries out, silences us.’

Owing to this, he tries to get past traditional forms of psychological realism, which in many ways over-simplifies the reasons why human beings do what they do. In an essay on theatre and translation for Theatre Journal in 2007, he celebrates what he views as the ancient Greeks more complex understanding of what it is to be human – what historians call multifactorial explanations: ‘We see now that we are formed by history and culture, gender and genetics, politics and economics, race and chance, as well as by psychology,‘ he writes.

Three years after writing my own version of Aeschylus’s Persians, I recently came across Mee’s opinion of the Greek chorus and found it similar to my own: the Greek chorus is the voice of the community, but composed of individual voices. In the version of Persians I wrote for National Theatre Wales in 2010, I separated out what I felt to be the different tones and ‘voices’ of the collective chorus into separate, identifiable, individual figures (I would not call them ‘characters’). They created the foundation and relief upon which the ‘principals’ rested.

‘I think the structures of the Greek plays were like Rolls Royces’. Mee states in the essay. ‘They work perfectly.’

I’m inclined to agree.

For further information on Charles Mee:

http://www.charlesmee.org/about.shtml

Kaite won the 2011 Ted Hughes Award for New works in Poetry for her version of Persians. For images of Mike Pearson’s stunning site-specific production, plus reviews and other information, see: http://www.kaiteoreilly.com/plays/persians/index.htm

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