Poor Beck, by Joanna Laurens, is a post-apocalyptic retelling of the Greek fable of Myrrha, which is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Joanna Laurens is an English playwright working for the Royal Shakespeare Company; her work is deeply influenced by both her position within the RSC and the post-colonial society in which she resides. Poor Beck is a true exploration of the boundaries of human existence and love in the most extreme of circumstances. It is a tale of pain and betrayal as well as the hope of humanity and survival. It is a tale of sight, both being able to see what has happened to the characters, and being unable and unwilling to see what is currently happening and what is still to come. In a time of politics and war it is difficult to see what truth is and what is fiction based upon what is told to us by political figures as the head of the population, which is a main theme within Poor Beck. Often times they are told things with proof, and an expert (Poor Beck the character) to support it, that ends up being the population’s ruin when it would be easy to use their common sense to see that these things aren’t going to come to pass, even if they want them to. It is often the want that blinds them from seeing the truth. It is important to emphasize the political themes within Poor Beck, in addition to the humanistic survival and sexual themes, and these can be emphasized by the addition and adaptation of the Greek chorus and the many functions its performance provides as well as the addition to live oboe as opposed to the Greek flute. The Greek chorus’ performance can create a link between the characters’ dialogue and the emotion and drama they are portraying in a way that is visually pleasing to the audience. They can also serve as a populous within the script, make certain spectacle/theatrical devices and effects possible, serve as a character within themselves, as well as serve as a metaphor for some of the primary characters. Instead of trying to recreate a traditional Greek chorus they should be adapted in such a way that it will be applicable to today’s audience, be able to be used in conjunction with current theatrical technology, as well as serve some of the functions of the traditional Greek chorus; this will enable the chorus to be able to grow and become its own unique entity fit for the contemporary stage.
“The most conspicuous element of Greek tragedy, the Chorus, was not a conscious invention of the Greek artistic genius. The Chorus was simply there from the beginning, whenever or wherever the beginning is placed, and it always had to be there, even though its presence might be something of a nuisance. At their best the poets made of it a superb dramatic instrument. With the accompaniment of music and dance, it made possible grand operatic effects that we can scarcely appreciate in reading and never reproduce exactly, since Greek music and choreography is lost. Beyond such effects, the poets made various uses of the Chorus, to relieve, amplify, intensify, or complicate their drama—and to mislead simple readers, who habitually look to it for the “moral” of the tragedy” (Muller, 41). Muller, has it exactly correct, the Poor Beck Chorus was used as a dramatic instrument that creates grand theatrical effects as well as intensifies certain scenes. `The Classical Greek pieces of theatre had certain theatrical devices that they used to attain the affects they wished; such as a Greek chorus. “The Chorus was the bond between the lyric and dramatic elements: having connection with the dramatic plot as the hero’s confidants, and taking part (through their Coryphæus or Leader) in the dialogue of the episodes, while the lyric parts they had wholly to themselves” (Moulton, 65-66). The chorus will still maintain the bond between the lyric and dramatic elements, but they will do so through modern dance (as illustrated in photograph A). For this reason the Greek chorus for Poor Beck was referred to as “the Poor Beck swim team;” for they are not an exact recreation of a Greek chorus, which would be impossible, but a modernized version of one without the use of verbal language, purely physical. This is not an unheard of philosophy for the use of a Greek Chorus: “The centre of all the dancing was the coryphaeus, the leader of the chorus; when two semi-choruses acted separately each had its leader. As was natural, choric dancing flourished mightily in the early days, and went down with lyrical performance in general. Thus Phrynichus congratulated himself on having devised ‘as many figures of the dance as are the billows on the sea under a dread night of storm’. Aeschylus too was a brilliant ballet-master” (Norwood, 78).
Poor Beck is an ideal script for the addition of a chorus for it is based on a Greek myth, is written with a lyrical quality, and does not have large changes in time or location. “Although the poets knew of no rules about the unities of time and place, they usually observed these unities if only because a chorus of townspeople could not readily be moved about; no single tragedy has a wide-ranging action or a protracted development in time” (Muller, 41).
Along with the addition of a chorus, some of the portions of the fable not included in the original script should be included, such as Myrrha turning into a Myrrh tree, which is done with the use of the chorus, or swim team as the case may be (picture B shows the chorus wearing swim caps as they make the Myrrh tree; picture F shows the completed tree). Poor Beck could be more like its Classical Greek predecessors and, if staged that way, it is more effective than the way it is originally written.
To grasp the significance of the Greek chorus and their use as a metaphor for primary characters, a basic lineage of Greek mythology should be known of the primary characters Cinyras and Myrrha. Cinyras’s family tree is quite the extensive one, and in classic Greek Mythology none of his daughters are named Myrrha. “Herse and Hermes had Cephalus, whom Eos developed a passion for and kidnapped. They had sex in Syria, and she bore him a son Tithonus, who was father of Phaethon, Phaethon of Astynous, and Astynous of Sandocus. Sandocus left Syria for Cilicia, where he founded the polis of Celenderis, married Pharnace, the daughter of King Megassares of the Hyrians, and sired Cinyras. Cinyras took some people with him to Cyprus and founded Paphos there; he married Metharme, a child of King Pygmalion of Cyprus, and they had Oxyporus and Adonis, as well as daughters named Orsedice, Laogore, and Braesia. These girls, because of Aphrodite’s anger at them, slept with foreigners and ended up their lives in Egypt” (Apollodorus, 82). In Greek mythology, Myrrha was the daughter of Theias, the king of Assyria, and mother of Adonis by him. However in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book X, Myrrha is the daughter of Cinyras, king of Cyprus, and the mother of Adonis by him. The Chorus member who played the metaphorical character of Myrrha sometimes imitated her dialogue and even physical motion with dance, as pictured in picture C below.
That metaphorical character is established by her being the only member of the swim team to physically ever touch Myrrha (picture D), and in a sense leads the rest of the chorus, this metaphorical character is the closest thing the swim team has to a Coryphæus, she is also the only member of the chorus who does not die for she stays alive until Myrrha’s demise. However; after the chorus has died they no longer can be used to emphasize certain points or as part of the populous, but they can still be used for spectacle purposes, such as Myrrha’s suicide and transformation into a Myrrh tree. “The theater itself became a playhouse. … the dancing-place of a chorus that could contribute to the spectacle, but no longer represented the community” (Muller, 111).
Poor Beck has a very lyrical quality to it, almost Shakespearian, which would be partly due to the fact that Joanna Laurens is a writer for the Royal Shakespeare Company; it can also be attributed to the style the Greek people used to write their myths. “The Hellenic people, in short, are found to have perpetuated their history with marvelous fidelity through popular myth. Myth was the unwritten literature of an early people, whose instinctive language was poetry. It was at once their philosophy and their history. It enshrined their unconscious theories of life, their reflections upon things human and divine. It recorded all that they knew about their own past, about their cities and families, the geographical movements of their trives and the exploits of ancestors. Myth to the Greeks was not simply what we mean by legend. Aristotle observes that the poetics none the less a poet or maker though the incidents of his poem should chance to be actual events; for some actual events have that internal stamp of the probable or possible which makes them the subject-matter of poetry. Such were the “actual events” recorded in myth. They lay ready to the poet’s hand as an anonymous work, touched by the imagination of an artistic race, many of them hardly needing to be recast from the poetic mould in which they lay. Truth and fiction were here fused together, and the collective whole was heroic history. This was the idealizing medium through which the past became poetical; it afforded that imaginative remoteness which enabled the hearers to escape from present realities. It lifted them into a higher sphere of existence where the distractions of the present were forgotten in the thrilling stories of an age which, though distant, appealed to them by many associations” (Butcher, 344-345).
Myth and tragedy and politics entwined. Poor beck is a culmination of ideas and theatricality, it is a myth, a tragedy, and contains a political message, just as many of the Greek classics do as well. “It is true that myth is the raw material of tragic plot. But in prologues like that of the Eumenides, or those of Euripides generally, mythological discussion is expanded to an extent suggestive of scientific rather than dramatic interest. Again, the national character of tragic celebrations made politics a theme on which it was always possible to enlarge. The glorification of Athens is a visible motive in the Oedipus at Colonus and the Ion; and in Medea the mere mechanical necessity of finding some refuge for the murderess expands into the episode of Aegeus the Athenian, and the subsequent ode to Athens. Burning questions of the hour find their representation in Tragedy, such as the plea for the Court of Areopagus in the trilogy, and the bitter attack on Sparta in Andromache” (Moulton, 121-122).
This swim team will evolve more and more as the process goes on, as it will for any production, and while originally added to incorporate Greek theatrical devices, it will go beyond that and become its own unique entity. “It was in fact a mimetic display, giving by the rhythmic manipulation of all the limbs an imitation of the emotions expressed, or the events described, by the song. The whole company, more over, went through certain evolutions over the surface of the orchestra” (Norwood, 78). The swim team used modern dance to create some spectacle for the audience during certain scenes, an actor or actors would be performing their dialogue while the swim team danced to it enhancing the meaning of what was being verbalized. They did this in such a way that it was understood that they were not members of the community during their dances. “During the best period of the chorus its mimetic dancing must have been a wonderful spectacle. We hear of highly-skilled performers who could reproduce action so that the audience followed every detail. They seem to have “accompanied” some portions of the episodes in this manner” (Norwood, 79). Just as the swim team was able to portray not being part of the community, they are also able to convey being a part of the community as citizens. When political speeches are being made within Poor Beck the swim team listens as the people to whom he is talking, as well as believe the speeches, which eventually lead to their demise. (Picture E)
“The chorus had other duties during the episodes. As a body they normally showed themselves interested in spectators. … Not infrequently they do more, taking an actual share in events” (Norwood, 79). It could be argued that the Greek Chorus should not be tampered with and adapted; however without changing the nature of the chorus, it would surely become obsolete over time. “The Chorus had been threatened with extinction more than once, but its inherent vitality found a new use for it again and again” (Kitto, 215). Within this vitality the swim team is able to become a primary character within itself due to the amount of scenes that they are required for as well as the amount of plot that they portray through their dance alone. “Thus we watch the dramatic movement through two mediums, in the action and in the minds of the chorus; and the chorus, being woven into the very fabric of the drama in this way. … The technical history of Greek Tragedy is largely an account of the efforts to make the Chorus an integral part of a continually changing system” (Kitto, 55).
“We infer a chorus which, though not an actor like the chorus of the Supplices, is yet essentially dramatic, expressing in its long movements the urgency of some tragic situation, and bringing to bear on the actor some moral or spiritual force. The normal chorus then, as later, was surely a group of citizens, senators, captives or the like representing in its passionate formalism a big collective idea or emotion – the city, the vanquished, the wronged; a body surpassing the individual stature, but not a mere abstraction deprived of all personality. Even if less fully characterized than the Suppliants. It was probably more fully characterized than later choruses; for of the two forces which clashed in the drama, one necessarily proceeded from them. There was no room for the ‘idealized spectator’” (Kitto, 27). The swim team was able to express the urgency of tragic situations throughout the production, as well as portray a collective idea or emotion in addition to creating a fully developed character. While they were a spectator for the speeches at some point, they were more performers than spectators. “The chorus is not always the ‘ideal spectator’ … usually it is a chorus of average folk, bespeaking a conservative, prudential, often timid ‘citizen ethic’ that sets off the heroic ethic of the preotagonist” (Muller, 74). While it is clear that the swim team did not take the conservative and timid stance, they were not always the ideal spectator. “The Chorus are able to harmonise their double functions by their peculiar position as ‘ideal spectators.’ This happy description is true only if it be understood in the fullest sense: the Chorus are spectators in the drama, and they are spectators of the drama” (Moulton, 66). Nothing could be closer for the truth for the swim team, they were, in fact, spectators inside of the drama, as illustrated before in picture E, as well as being spectators of the drama who took what they saw and danced to. “As spectators in the drama, the Chorus serves the purpose of the crowds which Shakespeare and other dramatists sometimes introduce into their plays to supplement individual personages. Again, two institutions of the modern stage, the soliloquy and the confidant-channels by which a poet can convey matter to his audience more directly than by acted representation- were unnecessary in the Greek Drama, where a hero had always recognized body to confidential friends to whom he could unfold his train of meditations more naturally than in a soliloquy. … But the Chorus are also spectators of the drama; they are made, in a peculiar manner, to stand for the public present in the theatre. The very impression which the dramatist wishes to leave in the minds of his hearers he outwardly embodies in the words and action of the Chorus” (Moulton, 66-67).
“In these three plays the Chorus takes as natural and apparently inevitable a place as it had in the oldest of Greek Tragedy, the representative or the symbol of suffering humanity” (Kitto, 265). This quote by Kitto also pertains to Poor Beck, for it takes place in tunnels underground after a nuclear holocaust, the chorus must take the place of the remainder of humanity and the suffering that they must feel, much of their suffering was seen through their dance, and their dance was both an expression of the action going on on-stage, but also an expression of the music being played. One of the key members of the swim team was the featured musician, an oboe player. “Each dithyrambic chorus, consisting of fifty singers and dancers, represented one of the ten tribes of the Athenian people. … The singers and dancers were trained with rigorous care, either by the poet himself or by a teacher hired for the purpose. The flute player, a highly skilled musician, presumably composed the music” (Lawler, 80). While the swim team had numbers ranging anywhere from one to seven depending on the scene, they were still rehearsed with a choreographer, and while the Greeks used a flute player, Poor Beck used an oboe. Instead of having the oboe player compose her own music she played Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, which is a solo Oboe piece composed by English composer Benjamin Britton. This piece was chosen for it was composed after the same book as Poor Beck itself. In this way the audience can capture the emotion of everything around them, and express it, which in turn should be the same emotion the audience is feeling. When this happens the audience is able to make a connection with the swim team, and almost expect them to intensify the emotions that they are feeling. “The Chorus reflect the audience in the way they are made to meet successive incidents of the drama with just the changes of feeling which the play is intended to produce in the spectators themselves. … The peculiar excitement an audience naturally feel in face of a crisis they must witness while they may not interfere is magnified in the chorus. … We sometimes speak of ‘transporting our minds’ to a distant scene: the operation was literally accomplished in a Greek tragedy, where the Chorus were ambassadors from the audience projected into the midst of the story, identifying themselves with the incidents represented without ceasing to be identified with the public witnessing the play” (Moulton, 68-69).
It is important to emphasize many themes within Poor Beck, humanistic survival, sexual themes as well as political, and these can be emphasized by the addition and adaptation of the Greek chorus into that of the swim team. The spectacle they are able to create, the music that they dance to, the characters they portray, the history they come from, their performance in general, and the change from being citizens to metaphors to intensifiers always comes through. The swim team’s performance created a link between the characters’ dialogue and the emotion and drama they portrayed in a way that is both visually pleasing to the audience as well as something they can relate and connect to. The swim team entails many aspects of the traditional Greek Chorus, however; they were adapted to be applicable to a modern audience, be able to be used in conjunction with current theatrical technology. They grew so much over the process of Poor Beck that it seems as though they knew what they were to become throughout their whole evolution, so now the Greek Chorus that is the swim team, were able to successfully pull off a very challenging character. It is almost as if they took on the life of the tree they created and each one of them were different aspects of the chorus, or the branches.
Apollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Keith Aldrich. C/P
Butcher, S.H. Some Aspects of the Greek Genius. Macmillan and Co. London. 1891.
Joanna Laurens. Poor Beck. Oberon Modern Plays. London. 2004.
Kitto, H.D.F. Greek Tragedy. Methuen and Co. London. 1939.
Lawler, Lillian B., The Dance in Ancient Greece. Wesleyan University Press.
Moulton, R.G., The Ancient Classical Drama. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1890.
Muller, Herbert J., The Spirit of Tragedy. Washington Square Press. New York. 1965.
Norwood, Gilbert, Greek Tragedy. Hill and Wang. New York. 1960.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, David Raeburn. Penguin Books. 2004.
All photographs have been approved for use and were taken by Brian Cassidy from the student production of Poor Beck at Millikin University, directed by Shaunessy Quinn.