Cranes in Ancient Greek Theatre – Josh Werrett, Assistant Classical Dramaturg

One aspect of the ancient Greek text which caused several issues during the conversion into a modern, radio adaptation was Aristophanes’ use of the crane. In our version, the use of technology and the pervasive theme of technomimesis are extremely important; in the original Clouds, the crane was an established piece of dramatic technology, which Aristophanes used in a fresh and controversial way – thus, finding a suitable representation of the crane was a vital part of our creative process.

Before discussing the use of the crane in the Clouds 2020 Incite production, I would like to briefly explore its use in the ancient dramatic and theatrical tradition. In the ancient world, it is likely that mechanical cranes were originally used for purely industrial means, lifting heavy cargo onto ships at the Greek docks (Ley (2015)). In a culture which appears to have been massively interested in the arts and the theatre, however, the Athenians began to use this technology in their dramatic productions. Owing to theatrical and archaeological evidence, and a fair amount of educated guesswork, much can be asserted about the practical and mechanical aspect of the crane’s workings:

1. It was situated by the right parodos.

2. It was largely hidden from the audience’s sight.

3. It operated above the skene.

4. The actors were carries to the roof in the middle of the skene.

5. The load was around 2500N.

6. The main element was a beam having planar motion about a pivot.

7. The mechanism could provide vertical, as well as planar, motion.

8. The operators (mechanopoioi) could control the load.

9. Wheels were used to control the functionality of the mechane.

10. The actors were supported by either a harness or a trapeze, which was itself hanging from the beam by at least two ropes. (Papadogiannis, Tsakoumaki, Chondros (2009): 5).

Several working, mechanical reconstructions of the crane have been attempted, with varying levels of successful verisimilitude. The exact mechanical workings of the crane are beyond the scope of this investigation and, in any case, is a question which is very much open to interpretation, but a few useful reconstructions of the mechane, namely, those of Bieber, Bulle and Wirsing, and Mastronarde, are elucidated in detail in Ashby (1999).

From a theatrical, rather than a mechanical, point of view, the crane has one key function: to provide a higher plane which facilitates the appearance of flight (most often for gods). This use of the god’s appearance, the deus ex machina (literally, god from the mechanical crane), is the most common use of the device: it is widely regarded that tragedians would write themselves into a corner with a complicated plot, with their only resolution being a god enter to clear things up (Euripides, in particular, appears to have used the deus ex machina frequently to resolve over-complicated plot lines, leading Aristophanes to mock his reliance on them in his Thesmophoriazusae, in which Euripides himself appears clinging to a crane (Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae 1098)).

Specifically within Aristophanes’ Clouds, it is interesting that the crane is used to support Socrates, a human, rather than a god. I would argue that this has two main effects: firstly, as will be explored later, it evokes the tragic theme of hubris, and it is comical that Socrates makes such an attempt at grandeur, attempting to be like a god, but fails spectacularly. Socrates attempts to show himself as similar to the gods, but he is a human performing pointless experiments under the guise of grandeur

(in the Clouds, Socrates is investigating the things in ‘mid-air’ (τα μετεωρα πραγματα) (Aristophanes, Clouds 229)). The pointless nature of his experimentation, his inferiority to the gods, and his general characterisation suggest a failure to achieve this grandeur.

While my exploration of the crane in the Clouds depicts the machinery as a tool for comedy, it is also worth considering that the crane is in fact overwhelmingly a piece of tragic technology. As suggested, any claim of equivalence between a mortal and the divine rouse the popular tragic motif of hubris – a concept by which humans consider themselves equivalent to or superior to the gods, and which ends in the punishment of the human for their arrogance. In the Clouds, Socrates, from his elevated position in the crane and following Socrates’ stereotypically arrogant characterisation, is said to look down on humans and gods alike (Aristophanes, Clouds 226). This example of human hubris gives a starkly tragic tone.

Attempts to balance the tragic and comic elements of the scene have led to an ultimate, controversial question: are the tragic elements of the crane purely peripheral to the comedic text, or do they have more intrinsic meaning? Revermann argues that the scene is overwhelmingly comedic, and that its apparent tragic elements are simply an allusion to the crane’s original role as a tragic tool – in other words, the use of the crane is so funny and so different to its use in tragedy that it is converted into a technology of the comic stage (Revermann (2006): 187). By contrast, Von Möllendorf argues that the unmistakeable case of hubris and the eventual downfall of Socrates’ institution mean that, in spite of the play’s comic nature, the scene and the machine define the tragic elements of Socrates’ character (Von Möllendorf (2017): 174). Overall, then, the crane is a tragic tool which sets Socrates up for his tragic demise in the destruction of the Thinkery.

One regrettable aspect of the study of ancient drama is that modern readers are at a complete loss as to the purely visual aspects of the theatre. Considerations of the visual aspects to which we have no access often come to nothing more than educational guesswork based on scanty literary and archaeological evidence. This need to focus absolutely on the non-visual aspects of ancient drama is also an obstacle faced when converting a text to a radio production.

The most obvious way of suggesting visual aspects over radio is to utilise the same methodology as written translations of plays often incorporate. Methodologically, the imperative in a written version of a play is to utilise written stage directions to suggest what the reader cannot experience visually. In a radio performance, then, it may well be the simplest solution to have the narrator simply state: “Socrates looks down from his elevated position”, “Socrates does X”, Socrates does Y”. This, however, is plainly a rather crass solution. Instead, the use of sound to portray the elements of height, mechanical movement, and mechanical technology may be more useful.

Our solution was to use mechanical noises such that it would portray the use of the crane, and such that it would evoke the same themes and ideas as the crane would have evoked in the original theatrical performance: namely, it was necessary for the noises to portray mechanical workings, but it was also necessary that it be funny and that it represent inadequacy in Sofia’s attempt at grandeur. The crashing, clunking, failing mechanical noises seemed to portray this perfectly. It is also interesting that the failing electrical and mechanical workings could be seen to foreshadow the eventual electrical downfall of the Clouds University, in the same way that the crane foreshadows the eventual downfall of the Thinkery.

Published by Kara Reilly

Kara Reilly is an author, editor, theatre historian, director, and dramaturg.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: