you're reading...

In Rehearsal: The Bacchae (BBC, 1969)

Hugh Morrison's book Acting SkillsMy post today is something of an aside, since the television programme I’m considering doesn’t fall within the methodological net of Screen Plays owing to the fact that it is a programme which considers only a couple of scenes from a play. The half-hour programme in question was the second in the In Rehearsal series, a creation of the BBC Further Education department for transmission on BBC 1 at 11.30am on Sunday mornings in 1969, with a repeat of the series in 1970. To me it’s interesting as an example of the BBC’s Further Education programmes of the late 1960s and early 1970s, thus enabling me to extend my knowledge about the BBC’s educational programming concerning drama, and also because the particular programme I’ll be looking at takes a Greek play as its point of study, so it’s also of some relevance to my Greece on the Small Screen project. Certainly, then, it seems to be worth a footnote on the Screen Plays blog.

The second programme in the series focused on Bacchae, the ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides in which the god Dionysus comes to the city of Thebes where his divinity has been denied even by his own aunt Agave. Dionysus consequently drives the women of Thebes mad, compelling them to celebrate his rites on the mountain Cithaeron. Pentheus, son of Agave and king of Thebes, is extremely hostile to this new religion and imprisons Dionysus. The god retaliates by causing an earthquake and showing his power over Pentheus by persuading him to dress as a female worshipper of Dionysus in order that he may, supposedly in safety, approach the group of women on the mountain and look in on their all-female rites. On spotting Pentheus in disguise, however, the women – deluded by Dionysus into thinking they see a lion cub – tear him to pieces and Agave returns to the city triumphant, bearing the head of her very own son aloft. Slowly she recovers her senses and realises the tragedy that has befallen her and her family.

No recording exists for this programme – directed by Jeremy Johnstone and produced by Victor Poole – but from a document in the production file at the BBC Written Archives Centre we learn that the programme was shot in the Riverside 1 studio which was dressed simply by designer Charles Lawrence with kitchen tables, chairs and ashtrays.

The programme opened with an intentional out-of-focus shot and ‘sounds of heavy breathing, etc.’: ‘the camera focuses up on CS head and shoulders of a girl, followed by overhead shot showing the same girl writhing on the ground and shots of women in various states of frenzy’ (‘Programme Recording Form’, 28 May 1970, in BBC WAC T57/603/1; this file is the source for all documents cited). A voice-over then informs the viewer that:

These actors are rehearsing a scene from […] a play about mass hysteria and the disintegration of ordered society. It presents the actor with many technical problems – requiring a great range of expression in speech and movement, a total lack of inhibitions and, above all, a surrender to the world of emotions and imagination. (‘In Rehearsal – Programme 2: The Bacchae. Commentary on Tape’)

The presenter Hugh Morrison, who taught acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and other leading drama schools and whose book Acting Skills (pictured above) was most recently reprinted by Methuen in 2003, then rehearses a group of actors in a couple of scenes from the play (in the translation of Philip Vellacott) which are focused around the behaviour of the four-woman strong Chorus of Theban women and the speech by the Messenger which relates the unhappy fate of Pentheus on the mountain. Having described the Theban women who are in thrall to Dionysus as ‘orgiastic’ and in ‘hallucinatory states’, Morrison goes on to ask ‘Why Greek drama in 1969?’ (these, and later quotations, are taken from the typescript ‘In Rehearsal – Programme 2: The Bacchae. Running Order’). Certainly, issues surrounding ‘the disintegration of ordered society’, noted above as one of the themes Morrison found particularly resonant in this play, were very much concerns of the sixties.

More pointedly, at some decades remove, we may ask ‘Why Bacchae in 1969?’. The answer to this question may well lie in the recent ground-breaking production of the play, entitled Dionysus in 69, which was staged by Richard Schechner and his Performance Group in New York just the year before. This famous theatre production responded fully to the new sexual freedoms of the late sixties: it featured what was even then considered to be a shocking level of nudity and sexual engagement with the audience. (See the comparatively modest still, adjacent, showing the birthing ritual of Dionysus.)

I would argue that this landmark version of Bacchae had a transformative effect not only on performative engagements with Greek drama on the stage (as has been well argued by others) but also on BBC Television productions of the plays. Certainly, it seems to have had some impact on the focus of this In Rehearsal programme.

Another good example from around this time arises in the 1972 BBC Television production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, transmitted under the title King Oedipus. The chorus was divided into a group of political advisors and a group who performed sung and danced sequences. One of these latter sequences takes the form of what can only be described as a 1970s Bacchic disco frenzy – or, orgy, even.

As illustrated here with a series of stills from this scene, soldiers danced their cares away, gradually removing items of clothing until some are naked, save for their pants, and couples moved from dancing to sexual embrace. (See my post on that production here.) This exciting reinterpretation of the third choral ode in Sophocles’ play comes as something of a surprise within the wider aesthetics of the production, and although it does take its cue from the choral ode (with the music drawing its lyrics from the choral ode, for example), it seems unlikely that it could have been conceived in this way without the stimulus of Dionysus in 69.

And so, in this context, it is interesting that In Rehearsal should not only pick Bacchae for one of its studies, but also that it should focus its interpretation of the play on the ‘orgiastic’ and ‘hallucinatory’ women of the Chorus, opening the programme with the ‘heavy breathing’ of a girl whose head and shoulders are shown in close-up ‘followed by overhead shot showing the same girl writhing on the ground and shots of women in various states of frenzy’.

But this is a small point, made simply as yet another illustration of the relationship between the production of plays on television and their contemporary life in performance on the stage. This further educational programme, and indeed series, was directed at amateur actors, and Morrison goes round the group of women who have been rehearsing the Chorus scene, discussing with them how ‘breath / pitch / volume / inflection’ are used technically to recreate emotional states. The Chorus scene is rehearsed again, before the programme moves on to an examination of how to portray the Messenger Speech – a particularly good exercise for an actor.

At the end of the programme Morrison stresses the need, as he perceives it, for actors in Greek drama to make eloquent use of their physicality and a wide range of vocal expression: above all, he encourages actors to ‘think beyond realism’. Notes in the production file testify that the Morrison’s method for Greek tragedy was to advocate:

acting with little characterisation: the reality is in the use of emotion, the life of the characters rather than their personality and circumstances. The graphic language of movement and the body. Repose, and the use of energy. Choral speaking as a dramatic tool – like humanity, many minds and bodies with a single unifying purpose (‘In Rehearsal: Programme 2’; emphasis in the original).


2 thoughts on “In Rehearsal: The Bacchae (BBC, 1969)

  1. This was an excellent series by the BBC. I remember it well as I was one of the actors chosen to be in the series and to act under Hugh Morrison’s direction in various productions including Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ and others.

    Posted by Michael Theodorou | 26 April 2014, 2:32 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
%d bloggers like this: