David Greig talks about writing Egyptians, a lost play by Aeschylus

22nd February 2023

Egyptians in rehearsals. Photo: Ollie King
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An edited transcript of a conversation with David Greig about writing his follow-up to The Suppliant Women, a labour of love re-concocting the second play in Aeschylus’s lost Danaid tetralogy. The resulting show Egyptians runs at the Gulbenkian, Canterbury 22-25 Feb

The project is a grande folie, it’s insane, it’s utterly impossible, foolish and therefore interesting. When we started to conceive of the idea of doing the other plays, we immediately felt there was two ways you could go, the sensible way, the insane way. The sensible way would have been to write a response, or “David Greig’s updated version”, to do something that in some way was rooted in our own authority. What we decided to do was attempt as best we possibly could to recreate the plays as we believe they might originally have been. And that is, by its nature, a lunatic task – how the hell are you going to do that?

There is only one word of the play Egyptians – Zagreus, the name of a son of Hades, god of the underworld, a kind of death figure. That’s one word, which comes out of a Byzantine dictionary.

There’s a short story by Borges called Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote in which [the protagonist] sets out to rewrite Don Quixote, not by copying it, but by living his life in such a way that he could not but end up by writing Don Quixote. There’s a brilliant line to the effect that “first he had to forget 17th, 18th and 19th centuries..” So…

We know it’s stupid. We know that – but that’s why it’s interesting, it’s only interesting if you commit 100 per cent, because then something interesting is going to happen. We set ourselves the task of committing to the idea that every choice we made would be in the direction of what we felt truly was recreating what might have been there originally.

I nourish the fantasy that if the script is ever dug out of the ground or found in a library that people will go ‘Oh my god, it really is the same’. Every decision is based on what we think the original was, not what themes are there and so on, entirely about recreation..

With that in mind, we spent six years, talking with academics, researching. We visited Egypt, Uganda, Greece, partly looking at various forms of traditional theatre-making and dance that we think might be connected. All the work we originally did on Suppliant Women using the aulos, and how to do choral work, is still there.

Sasha Milavic Davies, rehearses Egyptians. Pic: Nathan Eaton-Baudains

Sasha Milavic Davies, rehearses Egyptians. Photo: Nathan Eaton-Baudains

We’ve tried to advance some of that. We studied the myth, the gods. Dramaturgically we tried to shape the story from all the sources we have available to us. Five or six academics have worked closely with us on the project. We had to research Aeschylus to try and get into his head, different areas of Greek life, marriage, Egypt in Greek literature and myth.. and that took a lot. We did a lot of work with choruses, choruses in Edinburgh, Sweden and London, and that work was often about a collective writing. I tried to mimic Aeschylus, who would have been given a chorus for six months to make the play, he would have worked with them over that six months and I thought he might do some kind of communal composing with them. (“Right lads, here is the entrance, you’re praising Zeus…”)  I worked with choruses of young men to get energies and words and phraseology and feelings. Then there was a point where we had to start writing..

It’s like a very elaborate crossword puzzle or Sudoku. You start with what you know. You know the story of the Danaids. The key thing about that story, and we know what is in the first play, we know that they murder their husbands on their wedding night. We know that the Egyptians win their battle with the Argives. We also know that the second play is called the Egyptians – that must mean the chorus must be the sons of Aegyptus or an Egyptian army – that’s how Greek play titles work, they’re always named after the chorus.

So you know the rough arc of the plot. For various reasons dramaturgically we decided that the third play begins with the revelation of the murder. Greek plays generally begin at dawn because they’re done during daylight – there wasn’t artificial light so they tend not to be set at night. We’ve gone for three dawns. The ‘suppliant women’ arrive at dawn. In the second play, the Egyptian army have won a battle and after the battle they approach the city to gain entrance. We believe the third play begins with the dawn after the wedding night.

If that’s correct that means we have a play that begins at dawn after the battle and has to end with the chorus leaving to get married. Then you know about the structure. You always have a Parodos – the entry of the chorus. You always have an Exodos, the exit of the chorus.

Those are two odes you definitely know you’ve got. Then you have episodes in between which are the bits with the actors. You basically know that there is going to be a total of five odes and four episodes. Each ode is the chorus singing. They tend to sing to a god, on a theme, rather than advancing plot. And you’ve got your four episodes which have to do all the burden of carrying the plot. You know the plot has to take you from Argos being defeated in battle to these people going to marry the Danaiads.  In essence you just Sudoku it out.

There’s an enormous amount you can do from that basic “What do we know about Greek theatre?” Greeks love mirroring – they love strophe and antistrophe. Greek culture is all about balance between dialectics, so if you have a play that is a chorus of women and young women who don’t want to get married, followed by a chorus of boys who do want to get married, you’re starting to see where you might find similar strophes and antistrophes you might start to work with.

If character X wants this there has to be an obstacle to them getting it; then if character Y wants this.. again,.,. You have to do algebra. We did that for ages to try and get a plot that works. You’ve got the arrival of these boys who want to take these women home. We know in the end that they don’t because they get married in Greece. So why do they do that? Why don’t they just take them home, something has to happen. You have to create the thing that stops that – that needs to be a character who offers or proposes a different thing. You’ve got to go through that geometry until you get to that point.

Ramin Gray rehearses Egyptians. Photo: Ollie King

Ramin Gray rehearses Egyptians. Photo: Ollie King

Then there was a moment six months ago when I had to start writing. It’s a bit like Dionysus – it’s a leap in the dark. There’s a point at which you’ve got to embrace the unknown, and so for that I just dived in and wrote and saw what came out and that changed things a bit.

There was a lot of arguing back and forth, we would have interesting discussions – there’s only about 30 Greek plays extant. That’s only by the three big guys. So it seems to me that if we were ever to discover the Egyptians, our knowledge of Greek theatre would increase by a massive factor because there’s only one extant trilogy. When you think of it that way it’s inconceivable that Egyptians wouldn’t have contained something that would blow apart our idea of Greek theatre. That’s like a free pass in a strange way, we have to do something different..  It has to be flawed. [Director] Ramin [Gray] would sometimes say ‘It’s a bit ugly, it’s a bit inelegant’ – to some degree we know this work would not be a perfect play, we have to invent the flaws.

The other interesting element is that we’re not trying to produce a literal academic translation of Aeschylus’s play, we’re trying to imagine an original Greek play, imagine a literal translation and then imagine David Greig’s semi-faithful adaptation of said play.

We know from the first play there are some men who want to marry their cousins who run away. We know there are some women who refuse to have any men at all, least of all their cousins. That’s set up. The people of Argos have taken them in. Now Aeschylus is an educator as much as he is a playwright. The purpose of these plays has an educative function – they’re always educating round the theme of families and what is right, what is wrong. They love extremes. To never want to marry is too extreme but the other position – to be so determined to marry that you will cause war and mayhem – that’s extreme too.

I’ve created a woman who stands for a certain idea of Argos. She’s saying: ‘We have made a promise to Zeus, we will never back down from that promise’. That is too extreme. In the first play you’ve got a chorus of women, and two men, we thought it would be interesting to have a chorus of men and two women.

The one thing we know about all Greek theatre is that they created some brilliant women. So why on earth would his Danaids trilogy not have some hot patootie female characters? So that was quite fun. I created the characters – Iphianeira, mother of newly slain Argive king Pelasgus, and Aristodike, priestess of Hera. But the priestess of Hera really did exist. Argos was famous as being Hera’s special city. There was a Heraeum – a temple that the whole of Greece used, just outside Argos.

Pelasgus just means ‘mister pre-Greek’ – we think the trilogy is essentially a foundation myth for Greece. So the story ends with one of the boys and one of the girls getting married. They become the founding line of the kings and queens of Argos. Argos stands in for Greece, so essentially a founding myth of Greece is that it was founded by these Egyptian immigrants who got their lineage from Io and Zeus, so it’s a kind of circular journey to how Greece was founded. The Egyptians were two and a half thousand years old before the Greeks came along – as Greeks are to us, Egyptians are to them. For them to trace their lineage to Egypt is to give themselves a sophisticated nobility. They do also need it to tie up with Greece and the divine. By making the mortal Io and Zeus the philandering husband you get everything in one package – ‘we are related to this amazing culture in Egypt, we are descended from Zeus’.

I’ve made this second play a fight between Zeus and Hera – one of the things you get is she’s always trying to go round the world trying to kill the illegitimate offspring of Zeus, so here you’ve got a massive wave of Zeus’s illegitimate offspring landing in her favourite city – so she’s bound to be pissed off about that.

The Sudoku only gets you so far, there comes a point where you need to go into Dionysus [mode], you need to go into a trance. It needs to go away from all that head stuff into a different place. The way I found of doing that was through rhythm. The Greeks originally wrote in rhythm. I found that rhythm is a bit like dancing, dancing with words. You lose yourself when you dance, if it’s any good. It’s a bit the same with writing. There comes a point when the words are just coming. The final play is 70 pages. I probably wrote 3-400 pages during this process. You lose yourself then look at what has been produced, and take the best.

Egyptians in final rehearsal in Canterbury. Pic: David Greig

Egyptians in final rehearsal in Canterbury. Photo: David Greig

I should credit the actors. We did loads of work, and not just the actors in the show at the moment. They do bring something – “What am I doing here?” – it’s like experimental archaeology. You try to build a boat like the Vikings did, you discover by building. “Oh that doesn’t work”.. because the actors can’t do it.

There’s something about the Greek idiom that allows you to be released. It isn’t quite parody or copying, you’re composing within the idiom. I did a lot of reading of Anglo-Saxon poetry too, it’s also from an iron age war culture, it uses alliteration more than it uses rhyme. Aeschylus invented words and smashed words together, and used a lot of alliteration. I was reading a lot of Anglo-Saxon to try and give me a bit of juice. A lot of the war stuff comes from the way Anglo-Saxons describe war.

I read as much about Aeschylus as I could, all his fragments, he’s a very mysterious fellow. It’s more about finding an inner Aeschylus. I don’t mean ‘playwright genius’. He was a man who was a citizen of his time, admired soldier, rich family, politically connected. He was performing a semi-religious function, also a craft function. He was celebrated and well-known.

The key thing – there was a point on Suppliant Women when we were arguing about a bit of translation. Ramin was going for literal meaning, I was going for audience understanding. Then Barnaby who is the maker of aoluses – and comes from a background of bagpiping – said “Aeschylus would have wanted to win”. He reminded us that the festival of Dionysus was a competition, a committee decided the best chorus and play. Statues were erected to the man who funded the winning chorus, and it was a great honour to be the winning playwright. When I came up with a line that feels right, a bit of me was going “Yeah, come on! Wait til they hear that!” A connection to the great man at that moment..

It’s a contested and anxious time about masculinity right now. What I love about it is that the Greeks aren’t about moralising – they’re about harmony. Not about ‘be true to yourself’. What is interesting is to write these men – expressing the feelings that young men have -unfettered. But I know that they’re going to get murdered. I know this play will end with a Greek notion of harmony.

And what we’ve known from the start is that when the play ends there is one boy who does not force himself on his bride and one girl who therefore does not murder her husband. They become the founders of Greece, the not-rapist and not-murderer. These crazy women and crazy men come over, one man is the sort of man who won’t force himself on an unwilling woman and one is a woman who can see that marriage is not a bad idea and won’t kill her husband…

To explore Bronze Age masculinity is interesting – the men in that audience absolutely would have fought in battle, close-up with spears and swords. Aeschylus had fought in battles, for the boys in the chorus this was part of their training to become men. They were going to go and fight in battles. There is no part of being a man at that time that doesn’t involve fighting and killing. We can’t be doing any of our contemporary [takes] about that. [That said], I kept thinking about Ukraine as the return of hand to hand combat in Europe. There’s an Andrew Tate masculinity which is a joke, really, endless boasting. Then there’s the masculinity of those fighting in Ukraine – albeit there are women contributing enormously. Suddenly, it’s an unusual moment where the warrior, the hero, is back on the agenda again. For the first time in a very long time, the warrior is back in the public discourse.

It is its own act it’s not just text, it’s about movement and music – we want it to be a great piece of theatre. It has to stand as part of a trilogy which we ultimately will do. I don’t know whether it can ever be more than itself, it’s so peculiar. I  wouldn’t encourage anyone else to do anything like it – it took six years of my life and it just about broke me, as well as Ramin, Sasha [Milavic Davies, choreographer] and John [Browne, a specialist in the aulos, the ancient Greek wind instrument that accompanied dramas over two thousand years ago]. What does it mean? It’s like a fake in a way  but at the same time we’ve poured our hearts and souls into it.

A panel discussion will follow the Sat 2pm performance. Chaired by Prof. David Wiles (Emeritus Professor of Drama at Exeter University), panel includes Egyptians Director Ramin Gray alongside experts in Greek drama from the University of Kent (Dr. Rosie Wyles and Dr. Angeliki Varakis) and from the University of Oxford (Prof. Oliver Taplin, also production dramaturg).

Book your tickets here.


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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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