Towards the end of July, England was represented by two dozen assorted stalwarts of King’s College at the international festival of ancient drama. This festival, or “Delphiade,” held this year at Lyons, gives an opportunity for every nationality to contribute dramatic groups, mainly composed of students, to meet, to fraternise, and to entertain one another on the common ground of a Greek and Roman heritage. Plays are usually performed in the mother tongue of the performing group, and sometimes other ancient dramas than the Greek or Roman are bidden to the feast.
This year the programme included Aeschylus’ “Persae” by the Sorbonne group, “Le Chariot de Terre Cuite” (an Indian drama better known in England as the “Golden Toy”), by the Belgians, Euripides’ “Supplices” by the Italians, de Gryphius’ “Emile Papinian” by the Swiss from Zürich, and some Greek chanting and dancing by a troupe of damozels from Athens. These and other performances took place at night by flood-light in the old Roman open air theatre, of which the remains are substantial, the heat of the sun on the stone precluding the use of the theatre in the daytime.
These plays were for the most part tragedies, but on the tenth and last night of the festival a performance was given by the King’s College players in much lighter vein. It pleased the audience and was received with tumultuous applause. It was indeed something of a triumph. This contribution was the Provost’s English version of the “Cyclops,” with the musical score provided by Dr Mann for a Cambridge performance in 1923. Dr Mann was then organist of King’s College.
The Provost’s translation is extremely bright and gay, and under his production was really most amusing, whether one understood the words or not. It easily outshines, for instance, Shelley’s translation of the play, but then the latter was an Oxford man.
It was an interesting quirk of fate that caused Dr Mann to be called upon to write the original score at very short notice. He wrote it one morning, I gather, and it was copied the same afternoon by choral scholars, and learnt between then and the performance the following afternoon. Dr Mann was necessarily obliged to write easy melodic music with not too much part-writing or counterpoint, so that it might be speedily and properly memorised. The accompaniment was for a piano solo, but seems never to have been completely written out, since the good doctor himself was at the keyboard and made it up as he went along. The general impression of this score is that it is a mixture of those things dearest to the composer—Hymns Ancient and Modern, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Now these factors made the score extremely appropriate in Lyons. Firstly the mixture of hymns with musical comedy does in fact represent British musical taste and experience. Even our best music appeals to us because of these elements. And it was right, therefore, that a British venture should combine them. Secondly, we discovered in rehearsal that the theatre was so built that while speech was admirably reproduced, unison singing in particular was absolutely ravishing. Any harmonic complication sounded fussy and irrelevant. If a musicologist were seeking proof that the music of the ancients was largely comprised of unison melody, he needs no clearer indication than that afforded by the acoustics of their theatres. The most delicate nuances of expression became evident, and the minutest deviation of expression pitch or interval became interesting. Even the blending of voices was such that one could appreciate the individual timbres as well as enjoying the concerted effect.
We travelled out in one party with a basket of costumes which included horns and ivy, which we were sure would interest the French customs. It did not. The expedition was something like a choir outing, except that we were going via Paris. The Provost, evidently fearing that some of the dear boys might get themselves “lost” in the interval between arriving at the Gare St Lazare and leaving from the Gare de Lyons, arranged a corporate bus-ride to show us all to the sights of the great city. At any rate, the party arrived intact at Lyons about 6 a.m. the next day, and was met and conducted to quarters in a Lycée. For the rest of our stay we were the guests of the University of Lyons; no effort was spared to entertain us: afternoon trips were provided to places of interest or speculation; we coincided with a Tour de France; and to crown all were taken to a special “Cocktail d’Adieu” at a nearby Casino. The Provost added to the favourable impression that we hoped we were making by uttering a speech in French so brief and to the point, that it earned as much applause at its end as before it started.
As to the performance itself—from the modest size of the Provost’s drawing room where rehearsals had been held, it was something of a change to a stage some hundred and twenty feet wide and twenty feet deep, not to speak of a substantial “orchestra” area. But somehow we adapted ourselves, and those whom nature had endowed with amplitude were able to spread themselves freely.
Christopher Cory was a very convincing Cyclops, with Mr Donald Beves as a suitable Silenus, and Anthony Newell as Odysseus. Other parts were Satyrs (whose only claim to propriety was their wearing suntan on their bodies),—Sailors (Greek sailors, of course) and the Sheep. Alan Hancox played as the old ram, under whose belly Odysseus escaped to safety, while a number of more lightly built persons were cast as lambs.
When we started rehearsing in England, it seemed probable that all save the principals were taking part merely because they happened to have no prior engagement during the long vacation. When we arrived, we discovered that the Swiss party for one had been told by their professor to make a special point of seeing the British production since it would be the work of a group of experts not only expert in drama but in Greek drama. When we left we did not seem to have disillusioned anyone. Somehow one’s affection for the play as one got to know it better, the actual wearing of costumes, the suavity of the atmosphere in that part of France, together with a copious admixture of beaujolais with one’s meals,—all this perhaps served to turn one into an expert for the occasion.
I have no doubt that the expedition was an experience which none of the cast could help but enjoy, and that if occasion arose all would offer themselves for a second helping. Certainly all the cast have happy memories of Lyons and are deeply grateful for the unfailing kindness of their hosts.