We don’t know the date in which Euripides’ Herakles was composed, and all attempts to place a date to the play had been regarded as unsuccessful so far. It is believed that the most favored date is close to 423 – 420 BC, but we cannot know for sure. What we do know is that the Herakles is seldom given a high place among other Greek tragedies and the main reason for this is its dislocated structure.
From March 27 – 30, Aquila Theatre presented its own version of the Herakles at the Fishman Space in the BAM. Their portrayal of the Greek tragedy was somewhat affirming of that believe that the play should not be regarded a high place in the corpus of extant tragedy. Aquila Theatre’s version of the Herakles turned out to be, somehow, a mix between Greek tragedy and American Documentary theatre.
Director Desiree Sanchez and Translator/adapter Peter Meineck not only changed the structure of the play but they completely removed the original Chorus and replaced it with a series of interviews (projected on a big screen) of War veterans, introducing therefore the Documentary element into a classical Greek Tragedy.
As Stephen Bottoms explains in his article Putting the Document into Documentary, the value of documentary theatre as a reflection of our times lies in offering a dose of authentic realism, in order to help counteract the inauthentic ‘art for art’s sake’ that’s been ruling the commercial and bourgeois contemporary theatre. Apparently that’s what Aquila Theatre wanted to do when introducing the Documentary element into a classic script.
By removing the original Greek Chorus of the entire play, Director Desiree Sanchez’s intention is to bring realism to the tragedy of Heracles, and emphasize the Warrior side rather than the Hero side of the protagonist. Every time the Chorus is supposed to appear on stage, amidst a convoluted moment in the plot, the lights went down and a projection was shown in a big screen. A series of interviews with different war veterans would appear on the screen and then they would proceed to talk about their own experiences in war, explaining horrible and gruesome details of what being a warrior really meant.
However, these constant interventions did not help move the plot forward, as the interventions of the Chorus in the original script do. On the contrary, every time the Documentary element appeared on the big screen, the whole tension of the Greek tragedy plot would fade and the audience’s interest would diminish since of most of them could not find the connection between the plot and the audiovisual elements.
Why did this happen? It was necessary to go back to the Documentary theatre texts we know and take a look at their processes and techniques. One in particular seems relevant in this case, that of ‘moment work’ developed by Moisés Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project when composing The Laramie Project. As Kaufman himself explains in the prologue of the scrip, this method creates and analyzes theater from a structuralist point of view. A ‘moment’ is a unit of theatrical time. So, can we say the interviews substituting the original Chorus in the Herakles are ‘moments’?
Following Bottoms arguments, this curiously double-edged effect of juxtaposing contemporary interviews and classical Greek texts wants to draw us in with the suggestion that the events portrayed are closer to us and to our contemporary reality than your average Greek tragedy, while simultaneously drawing a line separating us from the horrors of War and those of ancient Greece warriors. Deep down, the purpose of Aquila Theatre’s production is to raise awareness not mere contemplation, and that’s the goal of Documentary Theatre.
To understand this is necessary to understand that the changes made to the text are not to ‘improve’ it but to give it another dimension. The Chorus is not replaced it is eliminated. Instead, the Director introduces a new element, ‘moments’ of contemporary history, testimonies that echo the subtext of the original Greek tragedy. It is hard to say whether or not the result is successful since Documentary theatre ends up being a completely personal experience. Most of the audience members were torn about the production and overall disliked it. Nevertheless, we can’t deny Aquila Theatre’s proposal it’s an interesting take on Greek tragedy and Documentary Theatre.
Written by Carlos Castro
Bottoms, Stephen. “Putting the Document into Documentary: An Unwelcome Corrective?,” TDR, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Autumn 2006).
Kaufman, Moisés. The Laramie Project. New York: Dramatist Play Service, Inc., 2001.