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From the Green Room: On the Naming of the Greeks

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Throughline Theatre Company opens its inaugural season in Southwestern Pennsylvania in June with a production of Aristophanes' feminist anti-war satire Lysistrata. It is a play in which the women of Greece led by Lysistrata agree to refuse to have sex with their husbands and lovers until the men agree to put an end to their warring. 

This hilarious play indulges in everything from sexual innuendo to bawdy vulgarity, comic wordplay to outright slapstick. It is a play that has been, especially with the focus on woman's studies in education, a staple of the dramatic canon for well over a half a century. There is rarely an anthology of world drama that does not include it. What Oedipus is to Greek tragedy, Lysistrata is to Greek comedy.

Still, despite its popularity, this play, like many of the masterpieces of ancient drama, poses some problems for modern production, not the least of which is the number of antiquated allusions that run through the text. More often than not neither the actors nor the audience have the slightest notion of the meaning or the significance of some obscure reference, indeed sometimes even some references not so obscure. An actor may not only be ignorant of some Greek hero or some minor Greek God (or major for that matter), some Charon or Artemis, some Greek city or landmark alluded to in the text, an actor may not even be aware of how that hero's name or that God's name or that city state's name should be pronounced.

This point was brought home with some force at the Throughline Theatre's read through for the play the other night. Actor after actor stumbled over names of people and places they hadn't the slightest knowledge of, even, in some cases, the names of the very characters they were to be playing. Cleonice, for example: Is the second 'c' in her name hard or soft? Some editions of the play use a 'k' instead of a 'c' according to the director and the dramaturg, so the hard 'k' was elected. Perhaps, but I'm not so sure. Myrrhine and Cinesias were other character names that raised questions.

But this was only the beginning. As we started going through the text, problems began in the very first speech where Lysistrata speaks of a feast of Genetyllis. Google Genetyllis and it turns out it doubles as both a surname for Aphrodite or as a divinity in her own right. This would of course help the actors who need to understand what they're saying. But it wouldn't do much for audience members, who don't have access to their computers. Those with iPhones on the other hand. . . . Still it doesn't help much with the pronunciation. Think about all those names: Acharnae, Theagenes, Anagyra, Amorgos, Pherecrates, Hippias, Corybantes, Paphian,and on, and on? Many of us at the read through even had trouble with some of the more common names: Thermopylae, Priapus, Boeotia, to name just a few.

My own practice when faced with a name that means nothing to me and which I have no idea how to pronounce is to proceed full speed ahead, spit it out with confidence, as though I am absolutely certain of what I am saying. First of all you may well get the pronunciation right. That's always a possibility. And if you don't, what is the chance that anyone in the audience will know you're wrong. What are the odds of a Greek classicist sitting in the house? Even if one there happens to be, it is not likely that he will rise in his seat to denounce you. It's a chance I'm willing to take. There is something to be said for aggressive ignorance.

A coincidental occurrence buoys me in my willingness to push ahead in spite of my lack of knowledge. The other night I was watching a DVD of a BBC production of George Bernard Shaw's play, The Apple Cart. Although the play is set in contemporary England, one of the female cabinet ministers happens to be named Lysistrata. The British, it seems, pronounce the name quite differently from the Americans. For them the accent is placed on the second syllable rather than the third. Which is correct? In the great scheme of things, does it really matter? If we can disagree about the most recognizable name in the play, why quibble about Cynalopex?

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About Jack Goodstein