I’ve been slowly working up my second case study for Screen Plays which concerns stage plays produced on television in educational contexts. Recently I’ve been continuing my research into The Open University’s A307 Drama distance-learning course which was transmitted on television each year for five years from 1977: there were sixteen productions in all; I’ve written on Oedipus Tyrannus and Macbeth, and this month I’m researching the other productions alongside interviews with the BBC producers and academic staff who worked on them.
I’m also making a small start investigating television productions of theatre plays for schools, starting with those which connect with my first case study which concerns television productions of ancient Greek plays. I have written about the BBC Schools productions of Philoctetes and Bacchae in 1961-62 and, in this post, I will consider the nearly contemporaneous 1961 ITV Schools eight-part series entitled The Angry Gods, which comprised abridged versions of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
Many productions for schools offered plays in abridged versions and the extent to which these fall within, or outside of, the Screen Plays net (in terms of, for example, our database-in-progress) is a matter for consideration. Where do we draw the line concerning abridged works? Certainly, play productions for schools are part of the wider history we are investigating, but there is undoubtedly a qualitative difference between, for example, The Angry Gods versions of Iphigenia at Aulis, which was boiled down to around ten pages of script (approximately 10 minutes of screen-time?), the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy which were abridged to twenty-five minutes each and The Winter’s Tale which was spread over four programmes. The case of The Winter’s Tale shows that not all schools productions were severely abridged, although the fact that a production of Euripides’ Medea, which ITV Schools transmitted over three programmes in 1963, was advertised as an ‘unabridged’ version suggests that some abridgement may have been usual. It is also worth noting that not all productions were done on a shoe-string and without a dollop of imagination, as John Wyver’s recent post on Ronald Eyre’s 1960 BBC Schools production of Julius Caesar illustrates.
The Angry Gods was an Associated-Rediffusion series for schools transmitted by independent television networks across the UK and Northern Ireland. Aimed at teenagers aged thirteen and over, the eight programmes in the series went out towards the end of the school day on Wednesdays, with a repeat on the Friday, from January to March 1961. The series offered ‘A study of guilt and retribution in Aeschylus and Shakespeare’, focusing specifically on the Oresteia trilogy and The Winter’s Tale and with a brief look at Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis as a prelude to the Oresteia (‘The Angry Gods. Educative. A Rediffusion Television Production’, ART/48/1-4, BFI Library; unless otherwise indicated, all archival materials cited are located in this folder). In a brochure designed to explain the series to teachers, the aim of the series is described as being
to bring the theatre of these two widely different ages within the small compass of the television screen. This will obviously necessitate free adaptation of the action and text to give the most vivid interpretation, particularly in the case of the Greek plays, but the aim will be specifically to show how the force and power of these dramas continue to the present day. (‘The Angry Gods. Independent Television Programmes for Schools. Notes for Spring Term 1961. Associated-Rediffusion’, p.4)
The titles of the eight programmes were as follows:
1 A Sacred Offering, first transmitted on 18 January 1961
2 The Crimson Path, 25 January
3 The Black Furies, 1 February
4 The Judgement, 8 February
5 Some Ill Planet Reigns, 22 February
6 Apollo’s Angry, 8 March
7 The Flowers of Spring, 15 March
8 The Oracle is Fulfilled, 22 March
The series, directed by Pat Baker, featured Martin Worth’s commentary and adaptations, music by Eric Spear and designs by Barbara Bates. The plays were transmitted from Wembley Studios. Students from the Central School of Speech and Drama took the parts of the Chorus. Main roles were played by Jill Balcon (Clytemnestra / Hermione), Bernard Brown (Polixenes), Zoe Caldwell (Cassandra), Anne Castaldini (Iphigenia), Avril Elgar (Electra), Christopher Gilmore (Florizel), Nigel Green (Agamemnon / Leontes), Neville Jason (Orestes) and Jane Merrow (Perdita). Michael Hawkins was the narrator.
Programme 1, A Sacred Offering, seems to offer a good example of how to use television as a pedagogical tool, contextualising plays and dramatic conventions which may have been unfamiliar to the schools audience. The Sacred Offering opens with familiar shots of the Jodrell Bank observatory, a microscope and a polling station to illustrate the narrator’s statement that for the origins of drama, as for many other things, we must look back to ancient Greece. Antiquity is not, however, idealised: Athens as the birth-place of democracy is discussed but ‘cruelty and injustice, poverty and even slavery’ get a look-in too (A Sacred Offering camera script, p.2). Theatrical conventions of ancient Greece, such as masks, are introduced and a brief, dramatized extract from Euripides’ Bacchae is used to illustrate discussion of the idea that the individual actor came about through one of the chorus group stepping outside to engage in dialogue with his colleagues. (No recordings of these programmes exist in the archives, but there are some stills printed in the promotional material: this scene is illustrated with a photograph which show a set with some steps and big chunky walls; Dionysus, represented by a plaster cast on a pedestal, is surrounded by four chorus members who seem to be wearing masks, wigs and hooded cloaks and who stand with their right arm raised, palms turned towards him in a gesture of respect. Interestingly, the same set was used for The Winter’s Tale.)
The narrator then calls upon the imagination of the pupil-viewers, ‘walking’ them around the physical space with a mixture of words and images (described from notes in the camera script in square brackets below):
Well, imagine yourself a citizen of Athens over two thousand years ago. It is spring, the most important time of the year to worship the god Dionysus whom you depend on to make the crops grow. As part of the festival in his honour, you know that various plays to be performed [Mix to 1: Clytemnestra / Iphigenia / Agamemnon with Servant on top of rostra] are now being rehearsed […] then is enacted the chorus proceeding with the image of the god in procession, before the festival […] and so, next morning, to the great theatre of Dionysus [camera pans round the first tier of seats in an ancient theatre] […] All eyes are on the circular area known as the orchestra [where] the chorus will perform. (p.6)
Before a ‘greatly shortened version’ of Iphigenia at Aulis (p.8), the narrator relates Paris’ abduction of Helen and the Greeks’ subsequent decision to wage war on the Trojans. He leaves the story at the point when Agamemnon has instructed his wife to bring his daughter Iphigenia to Aulis to be married to the hero Achilles, when really he will sacrifice her in order to appease the gods and secure fair winds for the sea-journey to Troy. The ten or so pages of the camera script devoted to the play are, as indicated above, a very condensed version of the main action: for example, choruses are boiled down to around ten lines maximum and Achilles doesn’t appear as a character. But what does remain is to the point, getting across the main thrust of the drama. Consider how Iphigenia’s plea to her father for her life abridges and condenses around forty lines of the original play:
I have nothing left to offer you
But tears, my only eloquence. I hang
A suppliant. Kill me not in youth’s fresh prime.
Sweet is the light of life, while all beneath
Is naught. He’s mad who seeks to die, for life
Though ill excels whatever’s good in death. (p.14).
Programmes 2, 3 and 4 each present an abridged, 20-25-minute version of a play from the Oresteia trilogy. The Crimson Path, which deals with Agamemnon, opens once again with the narrator. ‘Remember the agony of Agamemnon at Aulis?’, he asks, ‘[…] Why were the gods so vindictive towards him? To the early Greeks the gods seemed very often vindictive, revengeful and immoral. […] That evil might be more due to man than God was one of the things which in the 5th century BC was only just being realised – and it’s this question, how far Man or God is responsible for good and evil, that dominates the plays we’re going to see from now on’ (camera script, p.1). The narrator goes on to explain the background to the plot, but carefully avoiding the potentially morally problematic issue of adultery. Rather than introduce Aegisthus as Clytemnestra’s lover, he simply says ‘While [Agamemnon] was away at war his wife plotted ‘her revenge – with someone else who hated Agamemnon too; Aegisthus, who had not forgotten the butchery of his brothers by Agamemnon’s father’. The play opens traditionally with the Watchman, but the dramatic pace is broken up with the reappearance of the narrator who offers an interpretation of his words, thus: ‘He is depressed by the darkness of night, the darkness of a house whose king and glory are absent. From all such darkness, the darkness in fact of sin and evil itself, he prays for release, for deliverance, for light. But, as we shall see through all this play, when the light comes it brings new darkness with it’.
The Black Furies and The Judgement both present their respective plays – Choephoroi and Eumenides – with just a small amount of introduction from the narrator. Unfortunately, however, it is not possible to know how much social contextualisation and discussion of theatrical conventions and the issues of the play was given for The Winter’s Tale since the camera scripts for these do not exist in the archive. (At first, the possible reason for preserving the scripts for programmes 1-4 and not 5-8 seemed unfathomable but, after further research, I suspect that this may have had something to do with the fact that the first four programmes on Greek plays were, two years later in 1963, re-broadcast as part of a new ITV schools series called Theatres and Temples: The Greeks.)
We do, however, know from other kinds of source how the programme makers intended to establish the link between the Greek and Elizabethan theatre. In a leaflet (pictured above) entitled ‘The Angry Gods. Independent Television Programmes for Schools. Notes for Spring Term 1961. Associated-Rediffusion’, which seems to have been written with schoolteachers in mind, the dissimilarities are first enumerated, with emphasis on the formality and restraint of the Greeks with regard to the off-stage location of gruesome acts of bloodshed, whereas ‘The Elizabethans on the other hand loved to see acts of violence: stabbing, strangling and gouging out the eyes are all part of the spectacle which they enjoyed’. ‘Many deep and significant similarities’ are then listed: first, ‘in both periods the theatre was for everybody and the audience drawn from every walk of life'; secondly, performances took place in the open air, in theatres where ‘the seats were arranged in a circular formation with the acting taking place in a central space, the orchestra in the Greek theatre, the apron stage in the Elizabethan’ (p.4).
This same leaflet informs us the first of the four programmes on The Winter’s Tale – Some Ill Planet Reigns, 22 February 1961 – began with an introduction to the Elizabethans. Some links with Greek drama are therefore traced in the play itself: it is described as having ‘the theme of atonement for sin and revenge for past crimes’, some (rather more vague) ‘classical feeling’ and the reference to the oracle of Apollo (p.7). The programme then opens with Leontes accusing his wife Hermione of infidelity with his friend Polixenes, and the rest of the story is worked out in this and the three subsequent programmes.