“How does clowning challenge social class/social status in The Frogs by Aristophanes?”
What is Practice as Research?
Practice as research is a form of original investigation which is undertaken in order to gain new knowledge, partly by means of practice and the outcomes of that practice. Estelle Barrett introduces practice as research as “extended understandings of the processes and methodologies of artistic research as the production of knowledge and assessing the potential impact of such research within the discipline and the broader cultural area.” (Barrett, 2007, p.1).
The reason that I am carrying out this research is because I want to see if The Frogs by Aristophanes makes a social comment on the differences between the social classes and how these different classes react to each other. I also want to see if that message, if any, can be relatable to the twenty-first century. I also particularly want to see if the participants in this research feel or think any differently to when they are perceived as a higher class character, to when they perceived as a lower class character. I will identify success if the participants do sense a change within themselves during the process. For example, if they feel more powerful or special when they are a higher class character or a lower class character.
During my research I will also be looking at if the participants own personal habitus affects the outcome. Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus is a concept that everyone’s own personal dispositions are influenced by their families and that they are also influenced by the social class in which they are brought up in which subsequently influences their daily interactions, “habitus represents the internalization of social forces such as the “class habitus” resulting from the relatively homogenous conditions of existence of a particular group.” (Chandler, 2013, p.471).
To carry out this research I will be running a series of workshops which will use clowning practices to show social class using an extract from The Frogs as my base. For my research I am going to be using clowning practices from the Funny School of Good Acting to see if this helps make this theme any clearer. On the Funny School of Good Acting’s website Christopher Bayes states that the “Clown is a rediscovery of self. The playful self. The ferocious self. The vulnerable self. The artist” (Bayes, n.d., para 8), therefore using this idea I am hoping that the participants taking part in my work shop will be able to open themselves up and become aware of the self, therefore sensing the change within themselves when they swap between the social classes. I also decided to use clowning to challenge social class because as Stephen Llano states the clown has “the ability to comment on society by being outside of social norms while also being located inside those norms” (Llano, 2007, p.195).
My workshops will range from using the participants body and physicality to using their voice, the workshops will also enable each participant to take on different characters and personas. They will each take on a higher class character and a lower class character. From these workshops I want to see if the actors participating in them see a difference within themselves or each other when they play a higher class character to when they play a lower class character.
In my first work shop I initially got my participants to walk around the space whilst thinking about the class system, in particular the h-igher class and the lower class. I then asked them to embody these class types using their body and voice in very exaggerated and over the top ways, keeping with the clowning aspect of the research. I did this to see if they would change their physique or voice to get into these characters. After a couple of minutes I gave them an extract from The Frogs script. The extract I decided to use was the scene where Dionysus and Xanthias are trying to convince Aeacus that one of them is Heracles and to let them through to the underworld. For the first run through I gave participant one the role of Dionysus, and told them to embody a higher class persona during the scene. I then gave participant two the role of Xanthias (who is Dionysus’ slave in the original play) and told them to embody a lower class persona. After the initial run through I then asked the participants to change their social class but keep their original character, thus meaning that Dionysus’ character took on a lower class persona and Xanthias was to take on a higher class persona and do the scene again. I did this to see if the participants felt a change within themselves.
Within the warm up I found that when I asked the participants to take the higher class persona they instantly made themselves taller and bigger physically. They did this by raising their heads, walking on tip toes and puffing out their chest. They also changed their own personal and regional accents so that they all began talking in Received Pronunciation and they also started talking in a higher pitch which is a stereotypical view of the British higher class. This was a stark contrast from when I asked them to take on a lower class persona. Instead of making themselves taller they instantly changed their physicality to make themselves smaller and one of the participants even started moving around the floor. They also changed their accent from Received Pronunciation to regional accents, the cockney accent from London was used in particular.
When I asked the participants to perform the scene the participant who played Dionysus embodied the physicality shown when I asked them to embody a higher class character, however this time they made their voice very low and resonant. This very resonant voice made Dionysus seem more powerful and more important that Xanthias in this scene. Within this scene the participant who was playing Xanthias made himself very low to ground and kept going up to Dionysus and looking up at him. This participant also changed his voice but made it very grotesque and unpleasant, this also made his portrayal of Xanthias as the lower class character very comedic. This portrayal of the character made it seem like Xanthias wasn’t as powerful or as special and Dionysus, it made Xanthias look weak.
When I asked the participants to swap social status types I noticed something very interesting. Although the participant playing Dionysus was now embodying a lower class persona (near the floor and not using Received Pronunciation) it still felt that they were the higher status character. This could have been due to the spacing on the stage, because the participant stayed in one position (lying on the floor) and didn’t move around it meant that they became the centre of attention and that the participant playing Xanthias had to move around Dionysus, making Dionysus the focus. Another element that made Dionysus seem more powerful was the voice that was used. The participant made Dionysus’ voice very slow and relaxed, this made Dionysus seem very nonchalant and blasé about the situation the two characters are in within this extract. This then gave him the power as it made him seem like he didn’t care because he was too important to care. During the feedback session this participant said that because of the voice she used she still felt more powerful as the lower status persona, she felt like this because the participant who was playing the higher status Xanthias put on a very posh high pitched voice. This made it very comedic due to his use of clowning, because of this comedic effect Xanthias lost his power and status. I found this interesting because before carrying out the work shop I thought that when Dionysus took on a lower class persona it would make him seem less powerful than Xanthias although he is meant to be Xanthias’ master in the play.
Reflecting and moving forward.
When reflecting on the workshop I discovered that the participants found it more entertaining playing the lower status persona than they did when they were playing the higher class persona. I found this very interesting as I felt that it showed that the participants were more willing to mock the lower classes, through their use of clowning, than they were with the higher classes. I feel that this comments on society in the twenty-first century as although there is a lot of lampooning of the higher class and people in power in general in the media, there is still a sense of resistance to ridicule a person in power. The participants in the work shop may have shown this due to their own personal habitus’, as they have felt that ridiculing a person in power was wrong because their family or social class may have stated that it was so through their daily interactions or interactions with the higher classes.
In order to move my research forward I would carry out some more workshops, looking at different elements of the performing body. In particular I would look at the movement and physicality of the body, this is due to one of my participants saying that he felt that he didn’t really notice a difference in his vocal quality because he didn’t change it from when he was a higher status character to when he was a lower status character. However he did notice an extreme change in his physicality when he swapped between the two social statuses. Additionally the participants mentioned that because of the nature of the script and the language that is used it hindered their exploration of vocal quality, they felt that they still had to perform in a certain way due to the complex dialogue. Therefore when carrying out another workshop I shall just focus on the physicality of the participants entirely and not use any script or dialogue at all, this will be so that the participants can feel the difference in themselves when they swap social status more clearly. This will hopefully then give me clearer evidence, aiding my research further.
Overall I feel that my workshop was a success, this is because my participants did feel a change within themselves when they performed different social classes, however this workshop did bring up some evidence that I wasn’t expecting. For example, that my participants didn’t really change their vocal quality when reading from the script and that they also still felt the lower status character had more power due to the topography and vocal quality that was used within their performance. This work shop was also a success due to the fact that it unveiled a comment on society’s struggle to fully mock the higher classes, this will enable me to build upon my research of challenging the social classes through clowning. I want to see if in the future the participants can fully mock higher class personas and have more fun in doing so or if there is still a limit to what or who they feel they can mock.
Aristophanes. (405 BC ). The Frogs. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7998/7998-h/7998-h.htm
Barrett, E., Bolt, B. (Eds.). (2007). Practice as research: approaches to creative arts enquiry. London: I. B. Tauris.
Bayes, C. (n.d) The Funny School of Good Acting. Retrieved from http://christopherbayes.com/school.php
Bret, C. (2013). The Subjectivity of Habitus. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 43(4), pp. 269-491
Llano, S. (2007). The Clown as Social Critic: Kerouac’s Vision. In D. Robb (Ed.), Clowns, Fools and Picaros: Popular Forms in Theatre, Fiction and Film (pp. 195-208). Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/portsmouth/detail.action?docID=10380109