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Eva Palmer-Sikelianos / A chorus for The Persians of Aeschylus

 

 

Eva Palmer-Sikelianos
A chorus for The Persians of Aeschylus
 

 

    Arriving in America again I was weaned from expecting help for my main objective from any individual or any institution. Or not quite that, because I still felt sure that there are in America people who would help the Delphic work if they knew about it, and institutions, too. But I was entirely weaned from the idea that I myself could do anything about it. So one of my hopes in coming again was to get a chorus of men, and give the greatest of peace plays: The Persians of Aeschylus. My problem was to get fifty men together and teach the chorus, that good actors would want to be in it. I thought of college settlements where I knew that they had classes of drama. Could I not, in one of these places get a group together? I tried several. But in each I found that the individuals who came to my classes were never twice the same. I gave my first lesson over again for new faces each time I went. They seemed to be a moving population, almost like people in the street. I thought of Summer Schools in colleges, and several of these invited me to come and teach. But through correspondence I learned that these also harbour a moving population: three weeks for one group, and then a new group for three weeks. There seemed to be no permanence in teaching the poor.

    After several efforts of this kind I put aside my hope of getting a group of men, and I accepted an invitation from SmithCollege to direct their Senior Class play. I chose The Bacchae of Euripides, which, the following year, I also gave at Bryn Mawr. Each of these experiences was pleasant as a pastime, but unsatisfactory as a play. In neither of these colleges do they give credit for work in the drama, therefore any time given to the play is stolen by the students from the all-important objective of acquiring a degree. It is wonderful, under such circumstances, that even a scratch performance of such a play as The Bacchae can be accomplished. Nevertheless, such an effort is demoralizing. It puts the drama on the level of "recreation" in the modem sense, whereas it should, and could be, Re-Creation.

    After this I heard of the foundation of the Federal Theatre. Here, I thought, will be an opportunity to obtain a chorus of men. Blanche Yurka urged me to try it; and she arranged a meeting with the Director of the New York branch of the W.P.A. Theatre. Mr. Barbour asked me to come on the "Project" and found a department of Greek drama. I told him I would need Fifty men for my chorus, Five actors, and one actress; also threads for my loom in order to weave the costumes, and two weavers whom I would train myself. That was all. Mr. Barbour’s answer was not once encouraging: he himself, he said, was sitting on a keg of dynamite and did not know when it would blow up. But anyway he asked me to try, and I decided to risk it. After a long wait, a group of fifteen men were assigned to me. These were tap-dancers, a few vaudeville stars, circus riders, etc., several of them were sick, and not a few were drunk. They were all indignant, in fact in a state of revolt at having been put in a Greek play. They considered it girlish, and beneath their dignity. The situation was so bad that it was interesting. If these people could be convinced, anybody could.

    So there I stayed and worked with these furious human derelicts. Other indignant tap- dancers and actors were gradually added to my group, but by that time the first ones had become my partisans, and made fun of the impotent rage of the newcomers. After some months there were about forty men who were singing and dancing simultaneously all five of the great choruses of The Persians. The sound of them was magnificent, and the looks of them was rather good considering that many were half decrepit. As soon as the thing got going they forgot all about their fury, and finally became equally violent in their effort to keep the group together whenever the unpredictable policies of the Federal Theatre tended to break it apart. This was a satisfaction. But it was the only one which this institution vouchsafed me.

    During all this time there was no sign of life from the heads of the Federal Theatre. I frequently wrote letters; so did the group, with all their signatures. We asked for anaudition. But the General Director of the whole Project in Washington never came, and the Director of the New York section never came. The only word I had from Mr. Barbour about this play was a message through some subordinate that he would not sanction the purchase of threads for the weaving of the costumes. It was, I was told, too expensive. (Five hundred dollars was to have been the cost of costuming a whole Greek tragedy). But, at the very time of my application, the Federal Theatre was mounting another play, just opposite to where I was rehearsing. The cost of this play was a hundred thousand dollars, so the story went, and the name of it was Horse Eats Horse. So the refusal to buy my threads was all the notice The Persians ever received after more than nine months of work.

    About a month before Christmas, a hurry call came to me from one of the sub­directors; would I write and teach the music for a Christmas play? They wanted certain psalms of David, a few passages from the prophets, and a few from the New Testament. This I found interesting, because it gave me an opportunity to apply the Greek method in music to a religious context. I wrote a number of things very quickly, and started to teach them immediately. Before Christmas they were ready, and sounded well. But in the meantime there had been some difficulty with the author of this play, and the whole thing was called off. The directors also never heard my Christmas music.

    After that, another sub-director came one day, and took away my best singers: "borrowed them" as the phrase was, "for a few days". I never saw them again. This same sub-director gave me a few more tap-dancers, and thought I ought to be satisfied.

    I did not have the courage to start teaching the great Aeschylean choruses all over again, especially as there was no way of weaving the proper costumes; so I smashed The Persians which no one had seen, and started to direct a comedy of Aristophanes. This also interested me, because it was an opportunity to apply the Greek method in music to a context which was very gay. I decided to do this play with modem clothes, as this seemed within the capacity of the Federal Theatre; and then, by changing a few proper names, and also a few allusions, to modem equivalents, the thing became extremely funny, and amazingly up-to- date. The music had jigs, drinking songs, and so forth, which were fun to write. This comedy fell quickly into shape, and again I asked for an audition. This time the directors of the Federal Theatre responded, from Washington and from New York. On different days they both saw a "run through", and both expressed enthusiastic approval, with promises of collaboration in all details which needed their help.

 

 

 

 

 

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