Neha Raman, Editor-in-Chief
From February 1st to 4th at Mainline Theatre, McGill graduate students Meghan Poplacean and Alex Martalogu put on a lively reimagining of Plato’s dialogue The Symposium. With their talented team of actors, made up of students both within and without the McGill Classical Studies department, they brought the ancient Athenian party to Montreal. Delivering humorous “encomia to love”, the attendees at a symposium thrown by tragedian Agathon trade eager speeches and witticisms in their battle to prove their intellectual dominance over their peers, and they do so to the great enjoyment of their riveted audience, both within and without the play itself.
I spoke with Alex, one of the directors of the play, about the work that went into their production. Alex is a second year M.A. student in ancient history. This is his second year being involved in the classics play, and his initial experience was one of the reasons he got involved again.
“Last year’s experience as an actor was absolutely fantastic and results were rewarding in the sense that I was able to not only reunite with my love for theatre, but also combine it with my other passion: ancient history.” Alex said, “It is an enormous pleasure to step away from the traditional studying/reading/writing and doing something creative instead.”
And indeed, the play took Plato’s original dialogue to new and exciting places through this creative process. Alex and his co-director Meghan both translated the play from the original Attic Greek and adapted it into a play format. Alex told me that one of the “terrifying” prospects of doing this was, “[having to] cut about 2/3 worth of text in order to have a script that would be about 80-90min long – trying to figure out how to cut text while nevertheless maintaining the essence of Plato’s message…”
That’s a concern with any adaptation, that it maintains the core messages of the original text. This original text is special, in that it takes place during one of the most fascinating rituals from antiquity—the symposium.
I spoke with Odysseas Androutsopoulos, who recently completed his M.A. in Classics at McGill. Although specializing in the Archaic age (from about 700 BCE to 480 BCE) Odysseas discussed the historical background of Plato’s Symposium, written in the Classical age (from about 510 BCE to 323 BCE). “The continuity of the tradition of the symposium proves a testament to their crucial role in Ancient Greek society, and perhaps its relevance today,” Odysseas said the symposium is often viewed as, “a microcosm of the polis.”
“Ideologically, perhaps the main crux of the symposium’s social importance is its function as a setting for the construction of male aristocratic identity. Many recent readings focus on this: the symposium, as an exclusive, ritualized place for aristocrats to interact has the function of creating a closed in-group,” Odysseas explained, “…the symposium provides a place for aristocrats to both revel and carry out politics. It is also the place for very significant aristocratic cultural expression, being the setting for the performance of much archaic poetry (which was sung and accompanied by music) as well as music and dance— these, as seen on pottery depictions, involved both male and female performers, despite the guests at symposia being almost exclusively male.”
The importance of the phenomenon of the symposium thus has implications for the very structure of Ancient Greek society. However, beyond its political aspects, symposia were also really crucial places for socialization. This idea was emphasized, I think, by the unique decision to double, and sometimes triple cast the roles in the play.
Alex explained the decision to do so, saying, “…our reason to double/triple cast some roles was twofold. Firstly, we had to accommodate a very large cast, which was an absolute pleasure and delight. Secondly, Plato’s Symposium is composed of a series of monologues, which is not always the most compelling way to put up a play. The material and language are very complex at times and therefore having two/three actors per role made the play more approachable, more dynamic and a more exciting experience for all.”
The experience was exciting, butt the engaging pace of the speeches didn’t detract from their classical quality. The eloquence of Plato is difficult to deny (no matter how hard one may try), and so even in translation, the speeches on love delivered with great skill by the actors were beautiful. Speeches like those of the doctor Eryximachus were funny, with his blustering personality. Humour also appropriately coloured the speeches of Aristophanes, the famous ancient comedian. These were contrasted by the darker comedic tone of Socrates and Diotima. The physicality involved helped in keeping the audience’s eyes focused on the actors, and never missing the message even within Plato’s particular wordplay. In a sense, members of the audience could leave the show feeling like they’d learned something. Perhaps, this was intentional.
Odysseas elaborated, “Crucial to the identity construction in the symposium is the concept of education. […] A key component of the social significance of the symposium as identity construction was the initiation of younger members into this in-group of aristocrats, and the transmission of aristocratic values.”
Another exciting part of the show was that some of the dialogue in the play hinted at the fluidity of sexuality. With open flirting between characters of the same gender being crucial to both the tone and structure of the dialogue, the actors had fun with the openness, and on the final night of performance, the audience was even treated to a kiss between Agathon and Socrates (unscripted!). The homoerotic tone comes from a practice from the ancient world known as paederasty. This was generally a teaching relationship between an older man and a younger man that could sometimes have an erotic component to it. Paederasty was a fairly standard expression of sexuality in Ancient Athenian society. Plato was no stranger to this, and in his dialogue, the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades is one that hints at this paederastic tradition.
Odysseas explains this phenomenon: “Paederasty, as a form of philia (love), seems to have been very strongly linked to [the aspect of education]. [For example,] Theognis [of Meletus], [an Archaic] poet of symposiastic wisdom-literature addressed [much wisdom at] his philos (friend) Cyrnus (the term is telling: Theognis never uses the later term “eromenos” (lover) to refer to the younger man but views their relationship largely in the same terms as he does his relationship with all his other aristocratic friends). Theognis was well known to Plato, as evidenced by his being quoted in several Platonic dialogues.”
Although a normal expression of sexuality in the Ancient world, paederasty does not exactly translate into a safe practice in a modern context because of its troubling intentional age difference. Thus, drawing from this earlier tradition of paederasty, though not overtly recreating or promoting it, the McGill Classics play smoothed the homoerotic overtones found in both Plato and his source material into a casual, queer-positive atmosphere befitting the 21st century, CE.
The play’s ability to be both a hilarious yet educational experience exemplified, I think, the merits of translating Plato onto the stage.
Alex elaborated on the precedent set to dramatize Plato’s works, “The Symposium itself is set in the aftermath of one of Athens’ most famous festivals involving theatrical performances: the Dionysia. Agathon’s tragedy had been declared the winner at the Dionysia and the group had spent the previous night celebrating the victory. One of the other characters in the Symposium, Aristophanes, came in second place on two occasions for his comedies and even won on one occasion and thus the tradition of theatre and its importance is evident from the cast itself. The reason why it is so important has been debated for centuries, but in my own humble opinion, I believe we must remember one thing: we all enjoy leisure time. Theatre allowed citizens to forget about their daily lives for just a few hours and enjoy some of the most popular myths, stories and reenactments of their time, written by the most famous playwrights. […] Theatre opens up the daily life, culture, and traditions of Classical Antiquity.”
As an audience member, I felt right at home, incredibly comfortable attending a party from the past with some of the most well-known figures in all of human history. This play, with its successful emphasis on witty humour (in some senses already embedded in the Platonic text) and the adorable flirting between characters (for which all the credit goes to the incredible cast), was an incredible, immersive experience. Odysseas also mentioned a point which I will echo, that little details like the availability of drinks during the production was very helpful in creating an atmosphere that truly felt like a party, in Odysseas’s words, “despite the endless layers between us and the party, [they made] the audience a “part” of the symposium rather than just onlookers in a dramatic adaptation. Who wouldn’t want to drink with Socrates?”