December 26, 2003

Optanda I: DVDs of Ancient Plays

Performances of ancient plays are rare enough, though I did see an amusing production of Euripides' Orestes in upstate New York last summer. Even rarer are those that make any attempt at authenticity, whether in costumes, sets, choreography, or (above all) language. There are surely at least several thousand people in the world who would like to see a Latin Plautus or Seneca, or an Attic Sophocles or Aristophanes,(1) and know the languages well enough to appreciate them without subtitles.(2) Of course, most of us will never have the pleasure, since classicists are scattered thinly around half the world (and even more thinly around the other half). Even if we do, chances of seeing any particular ancient play in one's lifetime are very slim.

Until recently, filming an amateur or university production of any play was difficult and expensive, and distributing the film to anyone except participants nearly impossible.(3) However, that has changed in the last few years. This is from Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit, last May:

I've . . . become very interested in video. With my DVD burner fixed (well, replaced), I put together a music-video DVD of my brother's band. I edited some footage I had from his outdoor concert at "Volapalooza" into a passable music video and made a fancy DVD whose menu page featured a cool photo of the band (taken from their webpage) and an animated menu where the buttons showed short loops of video. It was surprisingly easy, and the results look great. I'm very happy with the Sonic Foundry Vegas Video 4 / DVD Architect bundle. Both programs work well, don't crash, and are easy and pretty intuitive to use. Plus, with the academic discount the bundle was only about $250, which is pretty cool since it lets you do things that would have required $250,000 worth of equipment not long ago.

Of course, Reynolds must have already owned a high-quality digital video camera and a computer with read/write DVD capability: the $250 was just for the editing software.

Whoever is the first to put on a competent production of an ancient play, film it, slap it on a DVD, and sell it on the web would earn the gratitude of all classicists, and most likely at least a few hundred dollars or Euros over and above expenses.(4) I would pay at least $20 for a well-reviewed DVD of a moderately 'authentic' production of any ancient play, sight unseen. Yes, even the Rhesus or Trinummus or Hercules Oetaeus. I would pay quite a bit more than that for a really excellent performance of a favorite play.(5)


  1. Has anyone ever done a Greek play with pitch accents? If so, was the experience pleasant or painful?
  2. Years ago, I saw Machiavelli's Mandragola at the University of Chicago. The play was given in English, but one dirty joke was left in the original medical Latin. In an audience of 50-100, I only heard one other person laugh.
  3. I've heard that there's a videotape of a German production of Seneca's Troades floating around, but I've never seen it. Apparently, you have to know one of the participants to get hold of a copy. I've also heard that the tapes are not very high quality. That's one more thing that favors DVDs: they don't seem to lose anything in copying.
  4. DVD-production expenses, I mean. Sales would be unlikely to cover the cost of costumes and sets, much less compensate the actors for time spent rehearsing and performing. But they would pay for a raucous party or two, or the cost of the software.
  5. I don't understand why the complete plays of Shakespeare are not available on DVD. There is a market for the complete works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven on CD, even though some of these sets are well over 100 CDs and $1000, and stuffed with juvenilia and ephemera. I would have thought that the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the Folger Shakespeare Library, to look no further, would already have complete Shakespeares on film, and that they would be able to make money selling DVD selections and complete sets. The college and high school market alone would surely be enough to turn a profit, and plenty of individuals (me, for one) would also be interested. Perhaps they are worried that DVD sales would cut into the market for live-production tickets.
Posted by Michael Hendry at December 26, 2003 11:56 PM