SPARTA — If you've happened to wander in the courtyard during ninth period the past few weeks, you may have seen and heard a strange sight: freshmen speaking seemingly in tongues under the guidance of Mr. Stanzione. But be not afraid: it's only a Greek play.
This year, Mr. Stanzione and Dr. Bond created a new class for invited freshmen, the Cum Laude Seminar, in which they have engaged with the students in "The Great Conversation," listening to and dialoging with the great thinkers of the Western tradition, beginning with Plato.
To conclude the course, the students are presenting Aeschylus' “Agamemnon” on June 10 at 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. Admission is free, but patrons should bring a lawn chair or picnic blanket.
Unlike most classes at Pope John, the teachers do not lecture; they merely lead class with a question, such as, "Why does Socrates, who famously repeats that he knows nothing, explicitly admit to knowing something twice in this dialogue?" Students then use the text to engage with and actually speak and listen to each other.
The theme of the freshman course has been Truth; in their sophomore year, the focus will be Goodness. It is an interdisciplinary course touching on epistemology, mathematics, natural science, linguistics, moral and political philosophy, theology, and, yes, drama.
While in college at The Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Stanzione studied, in addition to linguistics and classical languages, theater. His thesis project was directing, producing, and starring in a 90-minute one-man play about stage legend John Barrymore. He has remained active in local and regional theater since.
"Initially, we were simply going to read a Greek play as one of the Great Books, in coordination with our unit on right rule; we had recently read St. Thomas' On Kingship with the students," Stanzione said. "But Dr. Bond knew of my background in theater and suggested we put one up instead. Given the course themes, the “Agamemnon” seemed a natural choice. The production has been a challenge, certainly, but a welcome one, as many of these students, for all their hard work and intelligence, have no theatrical background, so I've had to teach the art of the stage to them before building their specific characters."
“Agamemnon” was first produced for the Dionysian Festival in Athens in 458 B.C., as the first part of a trilogy, as all tragedies were presented at the festivals, with its writer-director Aeschylus probably assuming the protagonist role as well. The play takes place at the end of the Trojan War, when the Greek leader Agamemnon (Jack DeAngelis)'s wife (Katrina Veal) plots to murder him on his return home in vengeance for his killing of their daughter Iphigenia 10 years prior.
"It's a beautiful play about divinity working through humankind to make us better," Stanzione said. "In Aeschylus' account, the goddess Artemis, who hates war, demands that its first victim be the aggressing general's daughter in a sort of Abrahamic test, but he, being of lower character than Abraham, boldly calls her bluff and rains down years of pain and violence on his country and family. In the final part of the trilogy, the gods lead mankind from unfettered justice to a justice tempered with mercy, and from private revenge to a system of law. No wonder the Church Fathers saw writers like Aeschylus as 'virtuous pagans.'"