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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater

Trudy N. Wheeler
Department of Theatre Arts
University of Louisville

Helen, As Beautiful, Witty and Feisty Today as She was Then

In his introduction of his text for Helen, Robert Emmet Meagher states "... Euripides' humor must be made to play humorously today. A pun, for instance, must be translated with a pun, not merely explained with a footnote indicating the existence of a pun in the original Greek. So too, savagery must remain savage, irony ironical, vulgarity vulgar, and so on. A literal translation is not one that renders the Greek word for word, but one that creates a play that will play to its audience as closely as possible to the way in which Euripides' original played to its audience."

This theory supported my concept of my direction of the play Helen. How to make the ancient play appeal to the modern audience? How to excite my actors and designers into creating a play true to the text and "hook" the audience at the same time?

The following production concepts are what I used. We know they worked: the show had a successful run. Others can take these ideas and use them for springboards for ideas of their own, in the classroom, design room or rehearsal hall.


First and foremost, as soon as the audience walked into the theatre they had to know that they were seeing a comedy. They had to feel that they were in for a good time. The problem was how to stay true to the text, feel like you are in Egypt, where the play takes place, and have a fun atmosphere.
1. The palace doors were supported by pillars — all palaces have pillars, don't they? But these were made out of mannequins, nearly nude, to get the erotic feel of the setting.

2. The phallus symbol was used throughout the set. Examples: A palm tree with two small sand dunes at its base, representing a penis and "balls" but also a usable piece of scenery, for sitting, leaning or standing on. The tomb entrance where Helen claims sanctuary from Theoklymenos has two phallic symbols on either side. Notches can be seen by the audience: Helen has put those there, not marking off her conquests but rather marking off the days until she can return to Greece. It is subtle, but it is these undertones that help get across the sensual undertones of the script.

3. A well was placed in the center of the stage. Water is sensual! Thus the Chorus could dance around the well, Menelaos could cool his body with water from the well, and Menelaos and Helen could be shown stretching over the well in compromising positions — a useful comic effect.


The beauty of Helen and sensual desires had to play a part in the costuming. Working with the costume designer we came up with mixing the Greek, Egyptian and the fashion line of the 1920s to get the desired appeal. By pulling in the 20s concept many of the costumes took on a feel that the modern audience could relate to. Then the stark lines of the Egyptian in contrast led to a sense of comedy.
1. Note the beautifully draped costume Helen wears in the opening of the play. Contrast that with her mourning costume, which could not be a true drab mourning ensemble — Helen is, after all, the most beautiful woman in the world. Note that even though she has cut her beautiful hair, it is still very fashionable: she looks divine no matter how bad the situation.

2. The chorus members also look sensual. This was to give them the visual appeal they deserved: they have been with Helen for so long that some of her beauty tricks were bound to be passed on to them. In our production the chorus did a lot of dancing. The loose flowing costumes added to that beautiful sensual picture.

3. Theoklymenos is dreaded by all but as you read the text he is not really mean. He just WANTS HELEN. How to make him unattractive to her was the problem here. After all he is a rich king and her husband is far away — why not "do-it" with him, have a little fun, etc. We used the Egyptian costuming to its fullest. The bold colors of a King, and the ancient lines of their costumes. He was a real contrast to the muscular, scantily clad Menelaos (in his first appearance). What an oddity. What woman in her rightful mind would be attracted to him?

4. Theonoe, the all-seeing. She did need to look a bit odd to us, to coax us into believing she could "see" all. EYES, EYES, EYES were a must. They appear on her headdress, her belt and in the bold floral print of her dress. Her presence on stage was felt by all and when the incense carried by her attendants drifted onto the stage it added to her mystery even before she was seen by the audience.


Many of the songs by the chorus are long. To a modern audience they may seem tiresome. I went through each song and got a sense its mood, not so much for what the chorus were saying, but how Helen or the audience were to interpret their words. If the dialogue could be cut without hurting the forward action of the play, I did. The missing dialogue was replaced with a short dance.
1. A lamenting dance with the chorus all wearing short black flowing veils replaced their long song about Helen's burdens and her misery and Troy's mournful destiny (pg. 77-79 of the Meagher translation). In reality this long song needed to be there for Helen to change costumes. The lamenting dance set to a "dirge" piece of music got the point across.

2. The opening of the play was set with an "awakening" dance that Helen and the chorus joined in together. This set the mood that these women had been together for some time by the rituals they performed. This replaced no dialogue but set the feel for sensuality, camaraderie and connection of these women.

3. On pages 92-94 of the Meagher translation there is another long song by the chorus. Once again, technically, there is a costume change. This time it is Menelaos. The speech they deliver does not push the action forward but it is a speech that ends on an upbeat note and Helen is excited as she enters, "Friends, everything is going our way in the palace..." Thus the song is replaced with a joyous upbeat dance of celebration to set the mood for her entrance.

MORE DANCING THE TANGO, and oh, how it can work for Helen!

After Helen and Menelaos have acknowledged each other as true husband and wife and embrace, there needs to be more touching and holding, bridging the gap of 10 long years apart. Thus beginning on page 45 with Helen's line:
I feel my excitement even in the strands of my hair,
and there is no holding back my tears.
I am so Happy!
O my husband, my sweet, I cling to you.
she runs to him and throws her leg near his waist, he caresses her as he replies: "Sweetest of all sights to my eyes..." and they begin a slow tango that is over-acted and allows them to look into each others eyes and caress each other as they have longed to do for these past ten years. The tango continues until page 47 when Menelaos breaks the romance of the moment and asks Helen to tell " were you spirited from my house that day?" Helen does not want to relive the "bitter beginning" and the tango ends. Thus approximately two pages of sappy dialogue about their happy reunion is livened up with the fun and sensual tango.


In the melodramas of days gone by the acting was heightened and often the actors turned out to the audience and used what is called an aside. In my direction of Helen the actors used the same techniques. These were used when the characters needed to explain something to the audience or when they wanted to reveal their true feelings about another character. We used the text as it was written, and applied the technique as a means for pulling the audience into the play.

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