One night during Akhenaton I left the lighting box to the crew and went down to the servery at the other end of the hall, where I had installed a telephone connected to the lighting box, so I could watch the show as seen by the audience, while still able to direct the lighting. The show was wonderful. The lighting exceeded my hopes. The music was grand. How clever we were. And what fun! “Listen my children. It is night. All the Two Lands of Egypt are wrapt in night.”
The next big total theatre piece at Linwood High School (after The Odyssey, Harold and William and Simplicissimus) was Akhnaton. The basic idea came from Rod Harries who had been studying comparative religion and was fascinated by this first attempt at monotheism in ancient Egypt—an attempt which failed miserably.
N.B. The modern accepted English spelling of the Pharaoh's name is Akhenaten. In 1972 we accepted the spelling used by Immanuel Velikovsky and others.
To this Linwood High School stage work Rod Harries wrote:
For many years I had had an interest in Ancient Egypt and one of the topics which had attracted my attention was the strange episode of the rise and fall of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, with the concomitant revolutions in art and religion. It seemed to me that these would make a suitable basis for a total theatre production of the kind for which Linwood HS was becoming known. It surely had all the required components: a young king comes to the throne; he overthrows the established polytheistic religion, replacing it by monotheism; he takes away the power of the old priesthood; he marries a young woman whose beauty still appeals to people today; contrary to tradition he and his family appear in public, and in art, as real people; he builds a new capital city; his lack of interest in warfare leads to the armies being defeated in battle; he becomes blind; the old priesthood and conservative forces combine to destroy him and his new city, and attempt to efface every trace of his rule.
When one studies Ancient Egypt one can hardly fail to be struck by the way that the Egyptians themselves depicted their history in art, particularly in tomb-paintings. What I hoped we could produce was a sort of bringing to life of such art.
It seemed to me that any attempt to create suitable dialogue was doomed to failure. On the other hand, there were in existence English translations of texts from the time of Akhenaten, in particular his so-called ‘Hymn to Aten’, which could supply the basis for choral movements. In lieu of dialogue I chose to have a disembodied voice, perhaps a goddess, intervene at times to comment.
Some historians have suggested that towards the end of his reign Akhenaten became blind, perhaps as a result of staring at the sun, the visible manifestation of The Aten. Certainly a number of the sculptures of Akhenaten which survived the wholesale destruction of such images after his death show him (and, often, his family) with arms upraised and faces turned to the sun. This suggested to me that a visible representation of the sun, which could be gradually brightened during the course of the play and abruptly darkened towards the end, should be a central part of the setting. The art of the period provided the solar disc with supporting serpents, and the lighting department provided amber medium to form the face of the disc, and behind it a large dimmable floodlight. This solar disc was placed atop a structure which suggested a pyramid, because, although the pyramid building age was remote from the time of Akhenaten, the pyramid immediately suggested Egypt to the audience. Moreover, the various levels of the pyramid were useful for the choreography.
After that it was all up to others. Costumes resembling as closely as possible those depicted in the artwork of the period; the set designed round my basic suggestions of solar disc and pyramid; and, of course, above all the music.
Once again I tried to involve some pupils in the writing of the music and once again it proved to be even more time consuming than if I'd done it myself.
I remember, for example, visiting the School Certificate Music class, which had been studying (among other works) the finale of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite". I suggested, that the music for sailing up the Nile to the site of the new city of Thebes could be built similarly: a simple 5 note melody capable of constant repetition, but with different instrumentation. In the end I accepted one such piece by a pupil but had to write the score and parts myself.
Although the end result was very good it was probably less good than its three predecessors, and perhaps for this reason the following year there was no such total-theatre undertaking—instead I started working on the comic opera The Fisherman and his Wife.