There are 32 extant Greek tragedies. Countless others, of course, have long been lost to the ashes of time. But it has been said of that core corpus of 5th century BC plays that not only do they represent the birth of theater and are key founding texts of Western civilization, but that they comprise all the possible dramatic situations that have ever been devised (an assertion clearly made many, many years before Dumb and Dumber To).
But imagine for a moment that it was possible to pack all of that dramatic story stuff — all of the savage, ultra-violent, hubris-driven clashes of capricious gods and all-too-human heroes from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides — into a single, epic and stageable master-drama. What would that play be like?
“Just like a long day,” laughs playwright-director Sean Graney, the resident classicist-auteur of the Hypocrites, Chicago’s premiere re-interpreter of classic plays, both ancient and modern. “It’s a 12-hour day, which is just long for the actors and is a long process to tech. And it’s long for the audience.”
Graney is speaking of All Our Tragic, his celebrated and impossibly ambitious, contemporized marathon mash-up of every Greek tragedy in the classical canon that became the surprise hit of Chicago’s summer theater season when it premiered in August. Graney and his 20-odd actor cast will be presenting a rare, two-day, single-performance-only staged reading of All Our Tragic at Getty Villa in two six-hour installments on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 8 and 9.
The genesis for the work was Graney’s 2011 condensation of the seven extant Sophoclean tragedies that he called These Seven Sicknesses. That mere five-hour evening cemented Graney’s now signature approach to reworking the Greeks. Apart from extended running times, the Graney method includes jettisoning the gods, collapsing the chorus into a kind of girl-group trio of singing narrators, and swapping out the antique iambic trimeter of Athenian drama with something more archly and colloquially American-vernacular.
It worked. Despite the modernized language and a consequent mock-heroic tone of black comedy that sometimes approached parody, the evening so evocatively unleashed the underlying passion, power and complexity of the tragedies that Graney decided to take the concept even further.
“I just felt subconsciously that some people were hungry for a prolonged experience,” he recalls. “You know, an experience that asked a lot of an audience. In return, because you made this commitment, you would get a reward that is unlike more pedestrian or traditional theatrical experiences.”
Graney has structured All Our Tragic, which contains remnants of Seven Sicknesses, into four parts of progressively shorter duration: “Physics,” dominated by gods and demigods and origin stories; “Politics,” focusing on the Theban Plays and the bad ends that come to Oedipus and Antigone; “Patriotics,” which mostly covers the Trojan War; and “Poetics,” which deals with the House of Atreus.
Unlike in Chicago, the Getty performance is a stripped-down staged reading, and though it will include much of the blocking from the original production, there won’t be scenery, and the actors will be in street clothes, reading their parts from Kindles. (Graney says that there will also be supertitle projections of the text.) That means that L.A. audiences will miss out on a crucial, audience-immersive aspect to the Chicago staging.
Because in addition to telling the stories, Graney says he also wanted to get to something more ineffably radical about the original experience of seeing Greek tragedies, which he points out were written to be part of the Dionysia, the daylong Athenian festivals of eating, drinking and theatrical performances held each year in honor of the god Dionysus. So to the nine hours of All Our Tragic’s actual onstage performance, he included three hours of formal meal breaks at communal tables, but left the food out for casual nibbling for the duration.
The result, he says, was both unexpected and humbling.
“By the end of the day,” Graney remembers, “everybody was talking to each other, everybody was sharing food together. … It was just this mess of community — not everybody being selfish and grabby, just everybody not worrying about the banal politeness of this society from where they walked in. And they were cheering at the start of the act by the end of the day. And I realized they weren’t cheering for the plays, they were cheering for themselves and the actors. They were cheering because they were a part of something and contributing to something that was unique and exciting and bigger than themselves.”
All Our Tragic plays at Getty Villa on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 8 & 9.
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