When a tree falls in the forest and there is no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Last Friday, April 24 at 8 p.m. EST on the dot, the entirety of Swarthmore came together for 30 minutes to participate in one of the most ambitious and thought provoking theater performances ever put on at the college — likely without knowing it.
Intentionally or unwittingly, everyone participated in the non-viewing of the theater department’s “Women of Trachis,” a compilation show put on in the Frear Theater over projectors and screens that depicts one of Sophocles’ lesser known plays. The catch of this performance was that there was no performance. Neither staff, actor, nor audience was inside the Frear Theater during the production. In advertisements, the producers encouraged people to not come to the performance. The event reversed normal theater format in a stunning but apt way, especially in the current era of quarantine. We will never know what these “Women of Trachis” said or saw in the play, until a documentary detailing the experience is put on film next semester to remove the curtain from such a layered production with students and staff working together on the final project.
The show was directed by Swarthmore alumnus Michał Zadara, a critically acclaimed theater director who is currently a visiting professor at the college. In addition, the show had an all star cast of Alex Kingsley ’20, Josephine Ross ’21, Nadezda Malaya ’22, and Cynthia Ruimin Shi ’23. Ziv Stern ’20 was the dramaturg, and the set was designed by Professor Matt Saunders and Jack McManus ’21.
Understanding some of the themes of the play itself contextualizes it in our current situation. The flyer for the production describes: “The Women of Trachis … is one of Sophocles’ least performed and most compelling plays. The play explores issues of power, depression, love, and violence. Greece’s most revered hero, Heracles, has destroyed a city and murdered its inhabitants in order to rape its King’s daughter. His wife, Deianeira, tries to win back his love with a potion that ends up killing him. The question is: to what extent was Deianeira’s action an accident, and to what extent did she find life with Heracles unbearable?”
The content of the play is primarily about what the titular women of Trachis see; the space that this non-viewing format creates, therefore, intensifies the mystery around the plot and the performance itself. Some may see the unusual non-viewing aspect of the play as counterintuitive, cast member Ross, however, finds it deeply compelling.
Ross said, “Creating a show that no one would see gave me a newfound purpose for the project — to construct the perfect tragedy … By forbidding anyone to see anything, we attempted to create the ultimate tragedy.”
Ross also believes that the non-viewing format of the play holds a powerful message about our current situation.
She also said, “The play is constructed in a way that forces the young people to continue life even after it feels unbearable …This project is not meant to poke fun at the fact that no one can see the show. Rather, our production exemplifies how we all should continue our lives in the face of adversity.”
The “Women of Trachis” certainly follows through on these themes and leaves a wonderful amount of space for theater goers to understand their own isolation and non-participation in these times. Ross also commented about loneliness specifically.
“This play is all about loneliness. The main characters are all alone — Deianeira (an abandoned housewife), Heracles (a hero with an inferiority complex), and Hyllus (a misunderstood teen who is left with no parents). The fact that we all created this piece alone and showed it to no one further exemplified the isolation that these characters (and we as theatre makers in the COVID-19 crisis) feel,” Ross wrote.
Professor Allen Kuharski, a producer of the show, in an interview described the uniqueness of the project outside of its headline traits. He said:
“The most misunderstood part of Greek tragedy in performance (and in meaning) is the chorus… The chorus is the title character in the the “Women of Trachis”, and when in January it fell out that our cast would be all female, our work on the text all began to make sense in new ways… These practices of ancient Greek theater introduce the possibility of a heightened theatricality that we spent the semester exploring in two different modes, one for live performance and one as a media installation piece with no audience. The central role of the chorus completely carried over into the version we have been able to complete since Spring Break.”
In some ways, the purely virtual representations enhance the meaning of the performance specifically because it is a performance without live actors. Kuharski went on to talk more about the process of creating the show itself.
“The work we completed in the second half of the semester was only possible thanks to the investment we made in the aborted live version for the first half of the semester. With this radical proposition for the work made by Zadara immediately after the Spring Break, we entered a realm of performance otherwise associated with ritual practices, where there are participants but no spectators. Greek tragic performance was also technically a category of ritual performance, so we touched a version of that through this decision,” Kuharski said.
As Kuharski understands it, every person who did not attend the show had become a participant in the pseudo-ritual performance in an enlightened combination of theater and social distancing.
Swarthmore’s “Women of Trachis” has additionally achieved some media attention from the Washington Post. Theater Critic Peter Marks comments on the power of the suspended play as a metaphor for the suspension of theater in general during the pandemic:
“A realization set in that the sadness of a production not fulfilling its mission had meaning, too. The fact that no one would see it became a rallying point for completing an otherwise fairly routine journey.”
He is right in saying that the idea of a play not seen is sombering but there is certainly power in the act of performance even without an audience.
To return to the initial question posed by this article, if a play is performed but there is no one there to see it, was it really put on? It is interesting to ask this question as we all move into a stage of collective action but also collective isolation. I can feel and believe that the “Women of Trachis” was formally put on without having seen it. Just because no one was there to witness it does not mean the work and effort that went into the production didn’t happen. The same could be said about all of the Swarthmore students and our collective community. We are all performing without an audience, but we should realize that we are connected past the isolation on a human level.
The “Women of Trachis” is a bold statement about the state of theater and how we can all participate without even doing anything. Friday the 24th, we were all connected in our lack of viewership, and beyond that we are still paradoxically connected by our shared isolation, which is binding us as tight as if we were all on stage together.
Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore College’s Department of Theater